Sunday, June 26, 2011

Filmmaker's Journal: when mother nature says no, you can't film here

This past weekend, my dive buddy, still photographer Bidd Riker, and I tried once again to dive on the wreck of the "ACE" off the coast of San Clemente, California. I say tried once again, because this was to be our 4th attempt at trying to reach the ship. Three previous attempts were met with poor visibility to the extant that it made for unsafe dive conditions. We were past the "third time is the charm" mental attitude and were now bordering on the "we better find this bloody #@!!% thing" philosophy.

The "ACE" is a 58-foot fishing boat - a drum seiner, to be exact - that sank in the fall of 2006 during rough seas with a full load of sardines and mackerel. With a measure of air trapped in its holds, the ACE drifted a bit across San Clemente's sandy bottom before finally settling down on its port (left) side at a depth of 114 feet. That drifting made it hard to locate for officials and salvagers, and so it remained out of sight until a year ago when a local dive boat charter set about to find the ACE based on rumors and speculation provided by local fishermen.

On this fourth attempt, Budd and I once again found visibility to be very poor at around 5-foot - not dangerous diving but certainly not what you're hoping for when shooting video and hoping to capture images that show the size and overall condition of the wreck. The ship is nearly covered from bow to stern with white metridium anemones which are startling for their bright white color against the backdrop of rusting steel and dark water. In addition, the ship is littered with sculpin, a type of scorpionfish, that prefer resting on the bottom quietly waiting for small fish to pass by and inadvertently become today's meal.

Wrecks of just about any size are fascinating subjects to film. Their appeal works on several different levels: they are something out of place (its supposed to be floating on the surface, not resting here in the murky depths); man-made objects are a testament to our folly either to the ravages of war, as with the South Pacific wrecks from World War II, or to underestimating the power of nature; and they can be marvelous artificial reefs that attract a wide variety of marine life.

However, on this occasion, there were to be no sweeping panoramic shots of the ACE - not when you can only see a few feet in front of your face. And that points out one of the challenges faced by nature photographers and filmmakers. You may have phenomenal skills and all the equipment in the world at your disposal, but you are still a slave to the devilish whims of mother nature. Many times, the footage you see on television or in the theater, or the images you see in books, are the result of many, many repeated attempts. And the more unusual the subject matter, whether it be a particular animal or a certain animal behavior (or simply a capsized fishing boat), the more challenging it can become to find just the right conditions that will enable you to get what you had hoped for.

But when the dice roll in your favor, you can come away with some startling imagery. And this can raise another issue: are we doing the oceans a favor when we show it in all of its visual glory, when we show the best of the best of our photographs of video? Or are we presenting the general populace with a false impression of the actual health of the oceans? When I have had the opportunity to speak with renown underwater photographer David Doubilet, he often asks this same question. Can we effectively talk about, say, fragile coral reefs that are in decline when every book on the subject is full of glorious and stunning images of vibrant fish and reef communities? One would hope that the viewing audience would appreciate the diversity and color of underwater life as seen in photographs and film and, by extension, want to preserve it. But it's a thought that gnaws away in the back of the minds of some of the great craftsmen who so beautifully chronicle the world's marine ecosystems.

For Budd and me, such heady questions needed no pondering this weekend. Skunked again by mother nature and its millions of sand particles, plankton, and animal larvae that can make for a thick soup of poor visibility, we decided we would try again in the fall when changing temperatures and currents can make for a few more days of acceptable conditions.

Of course, we're bound to hear how great it was the very next day. "Oh, you should have been there. . ." Shoulda, coulda, woulda - words to live by for the underwater filmmaker.

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