Monday, March 26, 2012
Monday, January 30, 2012
A couple years ago I met Jorge Loria, owner of Phantom Divers in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. He told me about an amazing dive he had been doing with Bull sharks, and I really wanted to do a Blue World segment about it. Bull sharks look like your basic reef shark, but they grow considerably larger, and are often considered quite a bit more feisty. Bull sharks enjoy a rather bad reputation as the shark involved in the most documented attacks on people, but this is probably more because of where they live (shallow water near people) than their demeanor. I wanted to find out what these sharks are like in the wild.
Since Jorge doesn’t want to freak out beach-goers by feeding sharks too close to the shore, he does his shark feed plenty far from the beach in 80 feet of water. It’s a little deeper than ideal for shark diving as it limits the bottom time, and put restraints on the quality of light. As a result, we used 32% nitrox to extend bottom times. Even then, we were only getting about 30 minutes on the bottom. We often found that the sharks were just getting adventurous by the time we left. Jorge said that in November and December there are a lot more sharks, and the feeding can get very exciting, almost to the point of having too many sharks. But in January, the really big (presumably pregnant) sharks vanish. He is pretty sure they go to have their pups in shallow water someplace. He and Mauricio are going to put sonic tags on them soon to see if they can figure out where they are going. They are already putting receivers to track the tags in various places where Bull sharks are thought to be pupping. Curiously, all the Bull sharks that show up in Playa del Carmen are female. We didn’t see a single male. Very interesting!
In the afternoon we headed out again for my second try at hand feeding. To hedge our bets a little, we sent Charlie down 15 minutes before us to chum in advance. He sent up a float a few minutes later to tell us the sharks were ready. When we got down there, Charlie had the sharks in a flurry of activity. I swam right up to him and took over feeding. I had a really huge female taking fish after fish from my hand! And even though I had fed plenty of sharks before, I was glad to have the chain mail on—just in case!
Once we had enough shots of me feeding the sharks, it was time to let Mauricio have a go at taking a tissue sample. I grabbed my video camera from Christine to film it along with Cameraman Tim. The big female that was monopolizing the feeding had already been sampled a few weeks ago, so Mauricio was waiting for one of the smaller ones to come within range. Because the skin on the Bull shark is so tough, Mauricio has to be within 3 feet of the shark for the speargun to carry enough force to take the sample. We didn’t think it was going to happen, but towards the very end of the dive, the right shark came in close. Cameraman Tim and I were both in position and filmed Mauricio taking a perfect tissue sample. Mauricio even had a GoPro camera mounted on his speargun as a “gun camera” so we have three angles on it.
On the third day, I planned to just shoot some B-roll of swimming sharks. The morning was again a little frustrating. This time we had almost no sharks in range the whole dive and we got pretty much nothing. I left the last dive as my only opportunity to shoot a few stills. Christine volunteered to shoot some B-roll of shark cutaways so I could take my still camera in the water for one dive before heading home. We got lucky with pretty good shark action on the last dive and even though I didn’t produce anything utterly spectacular with the still camera, I got a few pictures to share.
After only three days of shooting, we packed our bags to come home. I wish we could have stayed a few more days, but we had to get home. It was a short trip, but we nailed a fabulous segment. I can’t wait to start editing!
We would like to thank Phantom Divers for hosting us, The Riviera Maya Tourism Board for their invaluable assistance and the Blue Parrot 5th Ave hotel. This was my fifth trip to Playa del Carmen for various underwater exploits and I’m sure I’ll be back again!
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
(Click on an image to enlarge)
We have just returned from the Maldives, having shot another awesome segment for season 4. But it wasn’t the easiest segment we ever shot. It all started a couple years ago when Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives became the newest “must see” destination with the discovery of dozens of manta rays feeding in an area about the size of a football field. Because this is a fairly remote spot, the best way to visit Hanifaru Bay is by live-aboard boat. So I chartered the 20-passenger Maldives Aggressor for a trip booked around the strongest tides in September, the time at which several experts agreed that the manta action should happen.
Since Jonathan Bird's Blue World doesn’t have the budget to charter an entire boat like this ourselves, we sold the rest of the spots to diving friends who wanted to join the expedition. So Julia Cichowski (acting as both camerawoman and field producer) and I set out with 18 friends on a journey to the other end of the world. My good friend Carl Bodenstein would help out with additional underwater camera work. He has since demanded to be known as “Cameraman Carl” which has a nice ring to it. (We call him “Caaaaaaaaaarl” in our best Boston accents.)
Our flight took us from Boston to Washington DC to Doha (Qatar) and finally to Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Getting there takes a long time—over 24 hours with layovers. Once we landed in the Maldives, we boarded the Aggressor, a 115-foot vessel with ten double cabins. I roomed with my good buddy Bill Scully. We set sail in the evening for the 6 hour run up to Hanifaru Bay.
The next morning we had a look in the bay, which isn’t really a bay, but a sandy area surrounded by reefs that don’t quite touch the surface. When the tides are right, the wind is right, and a dozen other factors that we don’t really understand are right, this "lagoon" is full of plankton and it attracts dozens of manta rays to feed in a frenzy! Unfortunately, the conditions are good for mantas when there is a lot of plankton for them to eat—hence we did not expect very good visibility. In fact, at this time of the year, the Maldives are in a wet season, where it rains every day, the water is full of particles, and it’s often windy and rough. So imagine our surprise when we reached Hanifaru Bay only to discover crystal clear water, flat calm conditions, and beautiful sunny weather!
And of course there were no mantas whatsoever.
I can’t recall any other time in my life where I arrived at a tropical dive destination with perfect diving conditions, only to wish that they were much worse. There’s something wrong with that. But that’s what we needed.
We headed north for a couple days of diving at another atoll with better reefs, while we waited for the stronger tides to come, hoping that they would bring with them the plankton we needed. I had predicted, based on tides, that the best day for mantas would be Sept 25. We had a few days until then, and hoped that my calculations were right. Soon, on the 23rd, we got word from one of the manta researchers that a few mantas had started showing up, so we headed back down to Hanifaru and scoped the area. We did some dives, saw one or two mantas at a cleaning station, but nothing going on in Hanifaru Bay. (As you might recall, we did a segment on mantas at cleaning stations in Yap back in season 2, so that was not an option for a Blue World segment).
Finally, the mantas showed up…and you won’t believe it—it happened on the 25th, the exact day I had predicted. (I’m pretty sure this was a coincidence!) We got into the water with at least 50 mantas, all swimming back and forth, up and down in the water column, with their mouths wide open, scooping plankton from the water. In spite of having divers and snorkelers everywhere, the mantas didn’t seem to mind us at all.
Because we had a ten day charter and most of the dive boats work in 7-day increments, we were lucky to be alone in the bay because the other live-aboards were back down in Malé dropping off and picking up guests. We had two days with Hanifaru Bay almost to ourselves, except for a few snorkelers from a nearby luxury resort. And we had mantas! Manta after manta swam in front of my lens for two days. We had so many mantas that I was able to spend a few hours in the water with my still camera as well. The plankton made the photography challenging, but I got some good pictures. (Getting the chance to use my still camera always makes me happy!)
The next day, it was time to head back to port. Since we had most of a full day to hang around Malé before our flights home, we decided to charter a seaplane to fly around and shoot some aerials. The Maldives are absolutely beautiful from the air! The aerials will contribute well to the segment.
If you want to see more pictures from the expedition, they will be posted on a thread in uwphotochat (pictures start on page 8).
Monday, August 15, 2011
I have been diving for almost 25 years now, so it’s rare for a dive trip to completely change my perceptions of the sport. But this past week on Bonaire, two different events did just that. (Click any image to enlarge)
Our film crew for this expedition consisted of me, Mia Peluso (production manager), Tim Howe (normally one of our editors but this time getting his first shot at being the topside cinematographer) and Pierre Séguin (underwater cinematographer). Pierre flew in from Miami while the rest of us came from Boston. We arrived at the invitation of Buddy Dive, and the Tourism Corporation Bonaire to film and participate in two extraordinary events hosted every year on Bonaire.
The first event is a freediving event sponsored by Buddy Dive, featuring the world-renown freediver Karol Meyer. Karol is a Brazilian freediving legend who has set more records than you can imagine. She teaches freediving seminars, a freediving certification class, and gives instruction to her students in the open water. My goal was to take her class and become a dolphin—or at least improve my pitiful freediving skills.
The other event is for the 6th Bonaire-Be A Diver-Wounded Warrior Scuba Certification trip, held at Captain Don’s Habitat and co-sponsored by Captain Don's Habitat, Adams Unlimited public relations company and the Tourism Corporation Bonaire. My plan is to go diving with the warriors!
Our crew arrived and spent the first afternoon getting our gear put together and our schedule finalized. The next morning before I even met Karol Meyer, our first shoot was at 7 AM to film her world record attempt. Last year she set a record for static apnea (holding your breath while laying motionless, face-down in the water) at 18:32. Yes, that’s 18 and a half minutes on one breath! It was very interesting to watch the breathing and relaxation techniques. We had to film from a distance because the distraction of a film crew would throw off her concentration. After an hour prepping and almost 14 minutes of apnea, she decided to quit because she wasn’t feeling well. Things have to be perfect to break a record like that and today wasn’t the day. But still—14 minutes!
Later we went over to Captain Don’s to meet some of the Wounded Warriors and plan our shooting schedule. Then we did a couple dives at Buddy Dive just to get our gear all checked out and ready. I was trying out my new incredibly powerful Atlantis LED video lights—which are amazingly bright!
The next day we dove with the Wounded Warriors and met a bunch of nice guys and gals who were injured in the line of duty. All had recently learned to scuba dive and were on their first tropical dive trip with one of their family members. And they were all excellent divers! We dove a nice reef over at Klein Bonaire and spent some time getting to know them.
The next morning it was time for me to attend the first part of the freediving class with Karol. In the classroom at Buddy Dive, I met 5 other students, all much younger than I, and we learned how to breathe for freediving, a few relaxation techniques, and a few tricks of the trade for getting a good gulp of air before a dive. We also learned about shallow water blackout, rescue techniques and other important safety stuff. I thought I knew a lot about breathing since I have been doing it since I was born. However, as it turns out I have been doing it wrong!
After a few hours in the classroom we headed to the pool where we would perfect our apnea skills and rescue techniques. After practicing the rescue techniques for a while, we started working on static apnea. My record for this was 2:15 before the class. With an hour of practice in the pool, I got to just a smidge under 3 minutes! Amazing what a little professional coaching can do. I’m a regular guy—imagine my surprise to find out that I can hold my breath for 3 minutes! At that point I decided I was going to take the whole course no matter what. I didn’t want to miss any of Karol’s class!
After lunch we hit the ocean and practiced swimming down a rope hanging from a float that went into the blue abyss. Karol taught us to kick like a freediver, swim like a freediver and clear our ears frequently. On my deepest dive I easily hit 56 feet on a single breath. Not the best in the class, but far from the worst. Already I was feeling like a freediver!
The following morning we went diving with the Wounded Warriors to the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. You would never know that these folks just learned to dive. They had very good buoyancy control and looked comfortable in the water. The wreck is in good shape and we all enjoyed swimming around and through it like kids on a jungle gym!
After lunch it was time for my private lesson with Karol (having your own TV show has advantages). We went out off the dock at Buddy Dive for some training. Karol wore her monofin and she looked like a mermaid. Mermaids probably can’t dive as well as she. Karol is amazingly graceful in the water and she can stay down a long time, swimming around, exploring and zooming back and forth in her monofin. Wait until you see the video. This lady can dive! By comparison, I look like a fish out of water, flopping around trying to be graceful! I did have my super cool ultra-top secret Force Fin prototype free diving fins that Bob Evans gave me. He engraved my name on them so that “If they turn up on eBay, I’ll know who to blame!” Don’t worry Bob, they are safe with me!
My private lesson with Karol yielded results. My bottom times improved. We didn’t work on getting greater depth, but better relaxation and more time underwater on a single breath. Just being in the water with her is inspiring. Having her next to me on the bottom, watching and smiling, gave me confidence and control. We also used the opportunity for Pierre to get some good underwater shots of Karol, and for Tim to get some good shots from dry land of Karol and I training together. We stayed close to shore for those shots.
Later in the afternoon it was time for the last part of the class. The rest of the students showed up and we headed over to Klein Bonaire. We paired up with buddies and alternated doing dives. Karol swam among us, watching and giving tips. I couldn’t believe how good all the students were getting so quickly. I was soon diving over 60 feet deep without even feeling like I was pushing too hard. Karol’s husband was scuba diving below us, shooting video of the students, and we all took turns diving down to him and making faces into his lens. I was really starting to feel like a marine animal myself. Karol came over and told me I need to change my name to Jonathan Fish—quite a compliment from her. I am really starting to love freediving.
At the end of the class we had to hurry back to our rooms and change clothes because our crew had been invited to join the Wounded Warriors at a reception/cocktail party at the Governor’s house. Every year they have a motorcade over to the Governor’s house, taking a long route through town, nice and slow, where people can honor the Warriors. The motorcade is always led by Jack Chalk from Captain Don’s Habitat, flying the American flag on his bike, and a bunch of local motorcycle club members. At Captain Don’s, Jack Chalk and Anne-Marie Vermeer own a company that gives guided motorcycle tours of Bonaire, and they always take part in the motorcade. This year, Anne-Marie, knowing that I ride, invited me to take part. She presented me with a Blue (of course!) Harley Davidson Dyna to ride with the group. It was an honor to be invited, but a chance to ride a Harley on Bonaire?? How cool is that!!?
We rode through town, then up north towards the Governor’s house. Inside, the Warriors were greeted by friendly faces, people wanting to meet them and shake hands. We went out back by the pool to enjoy a gorgeous sunset. I met the Governor Glenn Thodé and his delightful wife. By now I’m hoping they have watched Blue World (we gave them a DVD) and turned into fans of the show! (More pictures of that event can be seen here).
Later that night, we went to dinner with the Warriors and ended up at the bar at Captain Don’s where one particular Warrior, (you know who you are….no names please!) started with the Kamikaze shots. I don’t remember much after that. ;-) But it was fun!
Thursday morning we had to bid farewell to Pierre as he needed to get home and turn around for a shoot next week in France. Without our second underwater cameraman, the underwater shooting was finished for the week. Ann-Marie invited me to go motorcycle riding with her again and I can never turn that down. But since Mia and Tm don’t ride, they borrowed Ann-Marie’s car and drove along behind us. We took a nice ride up to the town of Rincon to have lunch at a great local restaurant. Tim and I wanted to try some local food. We ordered the iguana soup and were shocked to find whole claws in the soup, which kind of grossed me out. But it made for some funny pictures. Tim got to have his goat stew (he had been talking about trying it all week) and I stuck with the beef stew.
We spent the rest of the day shooting interviews with Warriors. I know what you are thinking…Blue World rarely does interview-style segments and its sort of outside the usual formula of our segments. Well guess what…it’s my show and I can do anything I want. :-) I like these folks and I’m doing a segment on them. I want you to hear what they have to say about diving, about life and about the enduring spirit. You are going to love it. They are America’s finest.
Friday consisted of more interviews and lots of topside shots. Then we attended the “Taste of Bonaire” festival downtown. The film crew and the warriors ended up back at the Captain Don’s bar afterwards and between Jack Chalk and my new military friends buying rounds, it was a fun night. I feel so honored to have met this year’s wounded warriors. They are a great bunch of people with big hearts and positive attitudes dealing with some very serious injuries. I am humbled by them all and hope we will keep in touch over the years.
Monday, May 16, 2011
This weekend was a whirlwind for the Blue World team! A few months ago we found out that we were nominated for six New England Emmy Awards. Saturday night was the moment of truth--to find out if we won anything! Six nominations is quite an honor all on its own, but taking home an Emmy award is an incredible thrill!
Sunday, May 1, 2011
It is with mixed feelings that I report Cameraman Tim and I have just finished the final shoot of season 3 of Jonathan Bird's Blue World. On the one hand, I'm excited that we have finally finished and we will soon be releasing the episodes to public television, international television and the web. But on the other hand, it's a little depressing to be finished. After all, we had a lot of fun doing it! We have been in production for about 18 months on what will be 24 more segments (9 half-hour programs). The finished programs are scheduled for delivery to the closed-captioning service in June.
Thursday, April 7, 2011
It all started nearly a year ago when 13 year old Jake Whitlock sent Jonathan Bird's Blue World a paper he had written for English class. He wrote about a dream to go diving with Jonathan Bird. We decided to get Jake certified and make his dream come true! (Read about our surprise film crew visit at Jake's house in this previous blog post).
After surprising him at his front door with a camera crew, he started his certification in Massachusetts where he lives. But for the final part of his exciting journey, we wanted to take Jake someplace amazing to complete his final checkout dives and go diving with Jonathan. Where? Grand Cayman of course! The Cayman Islands are a world-renown diving destination with warm, clear water, great reefs, coral, walls, shipwrecks and Stingray City! We contacted the Cayman Tourism Authority and they thought it was a great idea. They put us in contact with Sunset House—the perfect place to stay. Sunset House has been focused specifically on divers for 50 years!
So we let Jake (and his parents!) in on the secret. Last week we boarded a flight in Boston. Even with a huge delay due to a late season snow storm, we made it to Grand Cayman with our gear. But before we drove over to Sunset House, we made a stop at Divers Supply. What Jake found there was a special surprise. Thanks to the generosity of Sub Gear, Divers Supply and Sunset House, Jake was outfitted with a brand new set of Sub Gear diving equipment! How lucky can this kid get? Can it get any better? Yes!
Next, we headed over to Sunset House and checked into our rooms. Within an hour, Jake and his instructor Kathryn Apse were in the pool, reviewing skills (since his first two checkout dives were in the fall up in Massachusetts). While we were doing that, Channel 27 (Cayman News) came over to interview Jake. WATCH THE SEGMENT.
The next morning, after a wonderful Sunset House breakfast, Jake and Kat hit the water right off the dock to get in another check out dive. They intended to do both of them quickly and get them over with, but a curious sea turtle extended the dive to almost an hour, and Jake started getting cold, so the second checkout was scheduled for later in the morning off the boat.
After an early lunch, we hit the Sunset Divers boat and headed out to a nice wall where Jake did his final checkout dive with Jonathan instructing him on the proper method of blowing bubble rings and sneaking up on garden eels. The second dive at Eden Rock was spent swimming through the coral tunnels.
That evening, back at Sunset House, Jake was presented with his own certification card! He had become a real scuba diver! But the fun had only just begun, because Jonathan had another surprise: a brand new pair of Force Fin Pro diving fins for Jake--the same ones Jonathan wears. These were donated by Force Fin and also personally signed by Bob Evans, the designer of the Force Fin. Now Jake had truly joined the team!
Sunday morning was a typical beautiful Cayman day—warm and sunny with poofy white clouds. We left the dock with Sunset Divers right after breakfast on the boat and headed to Grand Cayman’s newest wreck, the USS Kittiwake. And what a wreck! Sitting on the sand upright in only 60 feet, it’s a jungle gym for grown-ups! Already the wreck has a huge school of jacks and two Goliath Grouper residents. Jake and I swam through and around the wreck while Cameraman Tim filmed everything. We had intended on doing only one dive on the wreck, but it was too much fun. So we did a second dive too. On the second dive, a huge school of reef squid had moved in and surrounded the upper structures, so we spent some time filming them too.
After lunch, we piled into a van and our Sunset Divers crew drove us across the island to the marina up in north sound where they keep another dive boat for Stingray City. Twenty minutes later we were splashing into the 10 foot deep water while curious stingrays came over, looking for a handout. Divemaster Andy had given us a lesson in the proper way to feed the stingrays without getting a hickey. As soon as we hit the water, Jake eagerly accepted some bait and started feeding like a pro. He quickly became the most popular guy on the sea floor with 5 stingrays taking turns eating from his hands. And yeah, we got it all on camera. This is going to be a fun segment. Congratulations on your new c-card Jake and welcome to the world of scuba diving!