Note: This is the story of our IMAX film crew's last day at Cocos
Island after completing the IMAX® feature, "Island of
It was late evening when the Undersea Hunter began its 30-hour crawl toward the coast of Costa Rica. Several members of my film crew joined Michele and me as we sat in the skiff (now stowed on the upper deck) and watched Cocos Island slowly fall astern. To the west, a damp sunset struggled against rain clouds to offer a few moments of crimson color before dissolving against gray shadows. It was a poignant moment for us all. After five expeditions of twenty-seven days each to Cocos (a total of 130 days at sea) we were leaving the Island for the last time.
Since the middle of January 1998 we had amassed some impressive diving statistics in the waters near this tiny island. Between the seven members of our underwater film crew, we had logged 1,926 dives. Those of us diving rebreathers had logged more than 325 underwater hours each. Michele Hall, our producer, had logged 212 hours diving open circuit nitrox. It had been the adventure of a lifetime and now it was coming to a close.
The result of all this time underwater will be a forty-minute IMAX® natural history film about the marine life of Cocos Island. Our goal had been to make a film that captures the exotic behaviors of the marine life in these waters using the 70mm Imax camera system. We had expected some difficulties. The underwater Imax system weighs 250 pounds and is so cumbersome that a cameraman carrying it may swim as hard as he can and still be left eating the dust raised by a hermit crab walking on the sand below. Once the cameraman gets in position to take a shot, the slightest surge or current will usually bowl him across the reef with as much grace as a train wreck. And should the cameraman get control long enough to capture a shot, he can take little comfort in the fact that the camera holds only three minutes of film and will cost the production $3,000 to expose, process, and print. These inconveniences are exacerbated by the chainsaw-like sound the camera produces and which usually succeeds in scaring the hell out of every living thing that swims or crawls within a two-mile radius.
Of course, we were well aware of the various inconveniences associated with filming in the IMAX® format. What we hadn't predicted was the weather we would be subjected to during our five expeditions to Cocos. The great El Nino of 1998 created spectacularly unfavorable conditions for filming large migratory marine life at Cocos Island. Most of the large species simply left the Island for cooler climes. When the El Nino finally dissipated, the warm clear waters were almost immediately followed by abnormally cold and murky water. Its evil sister, the La Nina phenomenon, had replaced the El Nino. For months we had been wishing for cooler water. Then suddenly, our thickest suits were inadequate. And then it began to rain. It rained like the entire Milky Way galaxy was melting above us. Then it rained some more.
The good news was that the great predators returned to Cocos in time for us to capture them on film. Hammerhead sharks once again filled the waters over the Alcyone seamount. Mantas glided gracefully past Dirty Rock. And marbled stingrays gathered for courtship in the pass between Manualita and Cocos.
Marbled ray courtship had been in my original script back in January. But as the months wore on, I decided our chances of seeing this phenomenon, let alone filming it, were becoming negligible. So I deleted them from the script. Then during the last week of our final expedition to Cocos, marbled stingrays began gathering in the pass between Manualita and Cocos. Courtship had begun. In one day we would capture one of the most spectacular sequences for our film.
The day began before breakfast when Michele, Mark Conlin, and Peter Kragh returned from a dawn scouting dive to report marbled rays gathering in the pass at the southern tip of Manualita (a large islet on the northern side of Cocos). Conlin was beside himself with excitement. "It's happening!" he cried from the skiff as I looked on from the Undersea Hunter's deck while warming my hands on a hot mug of tea. "It's happening now and we gotta go right now!"
Twenty minutes later the camera was ready and the crew loaded into the skiffs, most without breakfast. At 7:30 am Bob Cranston, Mark Thurlow and I descended into the pass guided by Michele and Peter. Drifting with the strong current, we passed over a large boulder to discover a cloud of huge marbled stingrays milling about on the other side. Over a hundred of the three to four-foot diameter rays were hovering in the current in the center of the pass. As I descended lower, I noticed a pile of rays in a cave at the base of the boulder, which lay adjacent to the current pass. It was a behavior I had seen once before while filming an episode of Secrets of the Ocean Realm. I knew that all of the rays would be males, very sexually excited males. All except one, that is. Buried in the cave at the base of the boulder would be one extremely large, somewhat disgusted female.
I keyed the microphone on my OTS communication
system and called the camera support boat. "Surface copy,
send the camera," I
squawked sounding like a cross between Daffy Duck and Porky
" Surface copies," returned Mark Conlin from the surface. "Lance is on the way with the camera." A few moments later I saw Lance Milbrand kicking like a madman toward the bottom pushing the bulky camera ahead of him. The camera boat had dropped him a hundred yards upstream of our location. The goal was to get the camera down to us before the current swept him passed the spot. This was no easy trick. But Lance had perfected his technique over the course of literally hundreds of similar dives. By this last expedition, it was a no-brainer.
I nestled down behind the twenty-foot high boulder where I and the squadron of rays were protected from the current. Near the top of the boulder Lance was met by Cranston and Thurlow who mounted our powerful movie lights and turned on the camera power. Then Cranston swam the camera down to where I had wedged myself in place between two rocks.
Holding the massive IMAX® camera steady was a major problem. The slightest surge or current would simply sweep the camera away dragging its hapless operator in tow. There were three ways of dealing with this problem. One was to work in areas where there was no current and no surge, conditions seldom found at Cocos. Or one could mount the camera on our seventy-five-pound tripod and supplement that weight with three twenty-pound lead weights. Or the cameraman could wedge his butt between two rocks and fight the surge and current with brute strength. I had chosen to wedge my butt between two rocks. After comfortably wedging myself in place, I reached up as Cranston passed me the camera.
Looking at the 5-inch video monitor that served as the IMAX® camera's viewfinder, I saw a spectacular sight. Marbled rays filled the frame gliding into view from all directions. The 2,000-watt movie light system illuminated their white bellies as they passed overhead contrasting beautifully with the dark blue water. I had asked the camera support crew to mount the 30mm lens on the camera. This lens produces an almost impossibly wide field of view. Corner to corner, the 30mm lens covers exactly 180 degrees. With literally dozens of marbled rays passing within a few feet of the camera, some actually brushing against the dome port, the image captured by the viewfinder was breathtaking. I set my focus, adjusted my aperture, and turned on the camera.
Normally, it takes us about an hour and a half to shoot one roll of IMAX® film. The lengthy bottom times required for shooting a three-minute load are the result of inherent difficulties in handling the bulky camera and the inability of either Bob Cranston or me to shoot $3,000 dollars worth of film casually. But at times we seemed to actually race through film. Thirty minutes after dropping over that boulder to find the courting marbled rays I was out of film. I called the surface on my Buddy Phone. "Surface copy. Retrieve the camera and give me a fast reload." I said. A moment later Conlin responded with an acknowledgment and two minutes later he called down again to say that Lance was on his way to retrieve the camera.
The female marbled ray was still lying where we had found her in the cave at a depth of 85 feet. While the camera was being reloaded, those of us diving rebreathers moved up into shallower water to wait. Meanwhile, Michele and Peter descended to shoot still photos and video respectively.
During the following two hours, I would shoot three more rolls of 70mm film as the rays continued to gather around the opening of the cave. I kept returning to my original spot where I wedged my butt between the two rocks. The image was so good from that vantage point that I just couldn't help shooting another take. Cranston kept shaking his head. He seemed greatly amused that I was dramatically over-shooting the scene. But it looked so good that I just couldn't help myself.
We had been down almost
three hours when I sent the camera up to be loaded with roll number
five. Cranston, Thurlow and I waited
at the top of the boulder while Undersea Hunter co-owner,
Avi Klapfer, crouched at the opening of the cave and blazed away with his still
camera. Suddenly, there was movement in the cave. Sand
out of the cave opening as a dozen male marbled rays lifted
off the bottom and took flight. "Surface copy," I cried through
my Buddy Phone. "Lock and load guys. The female is
on the move down here."
" Surface here," Conlin replied. "Lance is on the way with the camera." I looked up to see Lance fining his way down as fast as he could. Just in time. Then looking down I saw an enormous marbled ray emerge from the cave. It was the female. At more than six feet in diameter she dwarfed the males that hovered about her. She paused at the base of the boulder then moved into the pass. By the time I looked up for the camera, Cranston, Thurlow and Lance had it powered up and the lights mounted. I grabbed the bulky camera housing and set off in pursuit of the female marbled ray.
We swam as hard as we could. Cranston and I towed the camera by the handles on either side while Thurlow pushed from behind and dragged the light cables. The three of us huffed and puffed through our rebreather hoses like marathon runners. After twenty days of diving, we were all in terrific physical shape. But each of us was acutely aware that it is quite possible to over-breath our Mark 155 rebreathers. I was determined to give up the chase as soon as I felt the slightest bit strange. I hoped Cranston and Thurlow were thinking the same thing.
With all the effort we were expending, you'd think we would be moving through the water like Navy Seals. Not so. We crept over the bottom at a sail's pace. You can only swim two speeds with the IMAX® system: very slowly and extremely, pathetically slowly. We were moving at top speed, which is to say we were moving very slowly. The only good news was that the female marbled ray was also moving very slowly. Still, we couldn't catch her. Our only hope was that she might double back. After a half-hour of hard swimming, she did just that. I turned the camera away from her and triggered the run switch. Then I pointed the camera down as she passed beneath me with a hundred anxious males trailing behind. As the camera roared, capturing the image, I couldn't help being reminded of a line written by Milton Love for Secrets of the Ocean Realm. "In nature, when there's a chance to get lucky, hope springs eternal."
My film crew enjoyed brunch at 2:30 that afternoon after the female and her admirers finally outdistanced us, or exhausted us, or actually both. Surprisingly, she returned to the same cave during the night, which allowed us to repeat the exercise the following day. In the end we had exposed 10 rolls of film on marbled ray courtship. In the months ahead, this thirty minutes would be edited down to create a sequence that would last about 2 minutes on the giant eight-story-high IMAX® screen. This was the last such sequence we would capture for Island of the Sharks and I was finally confident that we had a great film in the can.
The Undersea Hunter moved slowly to the northeast taking us away from the Island for the last time. As the sunset faded in the west, a dark thundercloud drifted north from Cerro Yglesias, the highest peak on Cocos, and drew a gray curtain over Isle Manualita where we had been anchored two hours ago. It was our final view of the island before darkness and distance obscured it for good. It was raining at Cocos.