Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Maldives Expedition!

(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

The Blue World Team heads to Bonaire!

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 that morning we got to meet Karol and discuss the class. It was unclear if I would be able to adjust my schedule to make all the parts of her two-day class but we figured out which parts were the most important to attend and film.

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

Blue World takes home three Emmys!

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!

By the end of the awards ceremony we had taken not just one Emmy, but three! The first was in the Best Segment category, for a segment about lobsters that was filmed in Maine. (You can watch it on-line here.) Next we won for Best Children/Youth Program with our Antarctica episode! (Part 1 is on-line here. Part 2 will be posted next month.) The interesting part of winning these two awards is that one is a general audience (adult oriented) award, and the other is a children/youth category. By winning in both, it just goes to show what our fans already know: this is a program for all ages. Anyone that is fascinated by the underwater world likes Jonathan Bird's Blue World.

At the very end of the evening was the announcement of the nominees for Best On-camera Talent/Host and I was nominated. I was up against some very well-known and talented hosts and I was pretty sure I had no chance. My heart was pounding as they opened the envelope...and read my name! Our whole team jumped up and screamed! I won it! For a guy that has spent 20 years behind the camera, imagine my surprise to get an award for a role in front of the camera!

That was the third Emmy of the evening for Blue World. We had a great time after the event was over--taking pictures. Between all the team members, we had an unbelievable 18 Emmy Award statues to take home. They barely fit in the car! And of course the next day we had a celebratory party. Today is just another day at work...but the work is finishing off the editing for season 3--our best yet. Look out Emmy Awards next year!


Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Final Shoot of Season 3!

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.

Anyway, the final shoot was a half day at Sea World in San Diego, following up on a stranded pilot whale named Sully. We first met Sully on Curaçao at the very beginning of our season 3 shooting in October, 2009. He had recently stranded on a beach there. After George Keiffer and his team of marine mammal specialists at the Curaçao Sea Aquarium nursed him back to health, they tried releasing him into a pod of pilot whales, but he wouldn't go! He followed the boat back to the aquarium, and set a new speed record! After multiple attempts to re-introduce Sully into the wild failed, they gave up and started looking for a permanent home for him. They just didn't have the space in Curaçao at the Sea Aquarium.

Sea World in San Diego volunteered to take the 1,000 pound whale. So they flew him to San Diego! There, after doing hearing tests, they discovered what was wrong with Sully--he couldn't hear very well. As a result, he could not catch his own food using echolocation. That was why he was starving and stranded, and that was why he wouldn't go back to the wild. Sully would die if released, and he knew it. So Sea World offered Sully a second chance at life.

We spent the morning with Booker Crenshaw (one of Sea World's PR reps) and Sully's trainers at Sea World, learning how they feed him, play with him, train him and rub him down. He has grown by several hundred pounds since he arrived at Sea World, and has become quite used to people. I actually think he is a ham on camera. He seems to enjoy sticking his head out of the water and looking at the camera. Once Sully gets to a certain level of training, he will be introduced to the other two pilot whales at Sea World. And they are females, so who knows, maybe in a few years there will be some little baby Sullys swimming around!


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jake completes his training on Grand Cayman!

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!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blue World filming at the Mystic Aquarium!

It all started a little over a year ago when Cameraman Pierre and I were filming in the Galapagos. We got some amazing footage of sea lions playing, hunting and even barking underwater into my camera. We thought a segment about sea lions would be interesting, but the footage from the Galapagos wasn't enough. It was neat, but didn't tell a story. We thought maybe we should visit a big aquarium that trains sea lions to learn more about how smart they are and how they can be trained. But where? Fate had plans for us. At an educational ocean conference a few months later, we bumped into some biologists from the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, only 2 hours from my house! We asked if we could visit and learn a little about sea lions. They checked with the PR department for us. "Sure, come on down!" was the response.

So yesterday, after months of trying to get several schedules to line up (mine, Cameraman Tim, and several of the trainers at the aquarium) it all finally worked out. We got up early and drove down to Mystic. Soon we were met by Erin Merz from the public relations department. She had tirelessly put the whole thing together for us. Soon our motley film crew was introduced to four lovely sea lion trainers who took several hours of their time to walk us through a day in the life of working with sea lions.

They started with food prep. I spent half an hour washing, inspecting, and sorting fish for the sea lions to eat. They are fed six times a day so food prep is a large part of maintaining their 6 California sea lions.

Next I donned some big rubber boots over my sneakers and went out to meet the sea lions. Over the course of several hours I learned how they train the animals with positive reinforcement and even got the chance to learn and use a few hand signals myself. (The more experienced animals in the aquarium know over 100 hand signals! That's smart!) I also learned that all their sea lions are either rehabilitated animals that were stranded and which cannot be released to the wild, or animals that were born and raised in captivity. They are like swimming puppy dogs--eager to play and interact with each other and their trainers. They seem to love to show off and goof around. And they eat a lot of fish in the process.

Of course all that fish eventually comes out the other end! So I got to experience the not-so-glamorous part of being a sea lion trainer--cleaning sea lion poop. Ick.

Later in the day we filmed one of their daily sea lion shows with a big crowd watching. It was interesting to see how the trainers run a show so flawlessly with the sea lions doing all their tricks and flips all cued by subtle hand signals that the audience doesn't even notice. But I had an appreciation for how long it takes to teach the sea lions all those signals. Even though they are very smart, 100 hand signals is a lot! I'm not sure how long it would take me to learn that many!

This will be an amazing segment in season 3, combining what I learned about sea lions at the Mystic aquarium with what I observed in the wild. We can't wait to get started editing this segment!

We would like to extend our gracious thanks to the Mystic Aquarium, and in particular Erin Merz, and sea lion trainers Deborah Pazzaglia, Jen Reo, Kristen Patti, and Julie Formanski for a great day!


Friday, February 25, 2011

Back from the Silver banks!

The Blue World crew has just returned from the Silver Banks where we filmed Humpback whales for the third season! We chartered the Turks & Caicos Aggressor for a week and spent all week trying to sneak up close to whales. The female Humpbacks in the north Atlantic migrate down to the Caribbean in the winter to have their calves in the warm, calm waters. The males follow along, hoping to mate with the females.

One of the largest gatherings of Humpbacks occurs in the Silver banks, a shallow area about 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic. It is protected by fringing reefs and coral heads, creating an isolated area, far from land. Although there is nothing to eat for the whales, they have calm, warm, clear water where they can give birth to their calves.

As the calves get a little older, they get rambunctious, eager to explore and have fun. Their mothers want to protect them, but at the same time, need to allow them to swim around a little. To film them, we get in the water near the whales very slowly and quietly, and wait for them to come over and give us a look. Sometimes they are too scared and skittish. But sometimes, the curiosity of the calf overcomes its apprehension, and the calf swims over to us, under the watchful eye of mom. These experiences can only be described as magical. The animals are magnificent, tremendously huge, and extremely gentle around us, always moving with care.

Although the first couple of days were slow with the whale action, it really picked up later in the week. Pierre and I were able to film mothers and calves, as well as sleeping whales, and even a “Valentine” which is a female and a male engaged in pre-mating rituals. We got so much footage that I felt comfortable taking my still camera into the water a couple times and managed to get some very cool images! (Anytime I get to shoot some stills on a trip, it’s a good trip!)

This is going to be one of the best segments in season 3 and I can hardly wait to get started editing it when I get back!