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Underwater world: Filming New Zealand's soap opera at sea

Topside cameraman Alex Hubert on the back deck of the crew’s ship.

In late October, the second series of the phenomenally successful Our Big Blue Backyard started screening on TVNZ. Mike White joined the divers and cameramen in Fiordland as they filmed an episode of a show that gets up close with our extraordinary underwater world.

They were miles from land, miles from anywhere. Completely in the dark, immersed in the Pacific Ocean. Divers Kina Scollay and Ross Funnell had slipped into the sea off the Kermadec Islands after the sun disappeared, hoping to film the underwater world at night. Two of New Zealand’s most experienced divers, they had worked together for years but, in the dark, had a communications system that allowed them to talk to each other.

And then they heard it. Whale song, coming from nearby humpbacks, coming through their radio earpieces, seemingly on the same frequency. That eerie, echo-ing, wailing trail of sound. Scollay and Funnell floated there, listening, unable to see the whales in the gloom, but engrossed by the experience.

“It was otherworldly,” remembers Scollay. “Because you’re already in an alien environment with these giant gropers and crazy-looking tropical fish and it’s a surreal place to be anyway. And then you’ve got this whale song being amplified and piped through your comms the whole time – you were expecting a whale to come blasting out of the night at any moment. I can’t do it justice to describe it – but, without sounding too cheesy, it was pretty beautiful.”

At the time Scollay thought, if we can hear them, are they listening to us?

He lay back and drifted, surrounded by extraordinary sounds in an ocean of ink.

Scollay and Funnell filming scorpion fish, White Island.

And now here he was in the dark again, but this time it was during the day and this time they were in the far reaches of Fiordland. The rainfall that pours from the mountains here creates a layer of fresh water over the salt water, and where they mix an oily convergence blocks most of the light from above. So slip beneath the surface and things go black quickly – so dark that divers lose sight of each other when only a few metres apart and rely on their torches to stay in contact. It’s a unique and sparsely explored environment, plunging to 450m, with species usually found far deeper being easily observed by divers. For three weeks in December 2015, Scollay and his team from Dunedin’s NHNZ (formerly Natural History New Zealand) dived sites throughout Doubtful and Dusky sounds while filming the second series of Our Big Blue Backyard.

In 2014, the first series looked at our marine reserves, shining a light on the underwater world off our coastline. It was so popular – each episode attracting more than half a million viewers – TVNZ commissioned another series. This time, film crews visited six more remote destinations, from the Kermadecs 1000km northeast of New Zealand to the subantarctic Auckland Islands.

Scollay prepares to film the underwater life near a waterfall in Doubtful Sound

Executive producer Judith Curran says nobody expected a programme about fish, with a few shots of birds, to be so popular. “And when it was handed to me at a very early stage, I’ll admit to a sinking feeling and a certain sense of, ‘Oh god, what am I going to do with this?’”

Curran realised she needed captivating stories to carry each episode, with strong characters interacting in their neighbourhoods. Who knew cod could be charismatic? But they and other creatures became the stars of each episode.

“It was essentially taking a classic soap-opera structure and just putting it underwater. I described the first series as Coronation Street underwater.”

That series is being used as a resource in schools and has been sold to more than 30 countries, and Curran says it proves there’s still a huge appetite for wildlife shows, even in an age of virtual reality.

After carefully selecting the locations and the camera crews who’d work on the project, it took nine months to film the second series. On site, divers worked day and night to make the most of the time and capture the different events that occurred; some had never been seen before. Curran says each time the crew returned with hundreds of hours of remarkable footage, which had to be winnowed down to just 45 minutes of TV. 

“And believe me, we agonised over each of those minutes.”

It was just before dinner on the crew’s first evening in Doubtful Sound when the dolphins appeared. The skipper of the Department of Conservation boat Southern Winds, Dallas McHardy, spotted the bottlenoses up ahead and mealtime was immediately delayed. Scollay put his drone up, flew it to where the dolphins were feeding and tracked them as they moved into the Sound. With him were underwater cameramen Brady Doak (son of legendary diver and naturalist Wade Doak), Ross Funnell and Steve Hudson, topside cameraman Alex Hubert, DoC ranger and diver Richard Kinsey, and assistant Braydon Moloney, who all quickly gathered on the back deck to track and film the dolphins.

“You absolutely learnt something every day. Or perhaps, you could say, you got taught a lesson every other day.”

The aerial shots were stunning – milky forms flexing just beneath the surface with an occasional free spirit leaping and crashing back amidst the pod. It was difficult to pull away and by the time Scollay was finished, the drone’s battery was so low it could only hover, so the boat had to be rapidly reversed to catch it before it plummeted into the sea.

Drones have revolutionised wildlife documentary making and provided incredible panoramas for the new series. No longer do you need expensive helicopters to film from: just a small, high-quality camera sitting under four tiny propellers that can be controlled up to 2km away. “I feel it really puts people in the place more than you can do with any other type of photography,” says Scollay. “It gives you the spectacle – this is where I am.”

On board, the team had a mountain of cameras and laptops and chargers and gadgets and they pushed their equipment hard – sometimes too hard. During the Fiordland shoot, one of Scollay’s drones malfunctioned, fell out of the sky, and crashed into the ocean. Three hours later, Hubert’s drone clipped a tree and also ended up under-water and ruined.

At one stage, I looked round and Ross was fending off a shark with a light in one hand and shark stick in the other, and I’m pushing another one off with my camera

 “I lost one in the Chathams too,” recalls Scollay. “In the middle of the worst gorse and blackberry scrub you’ve ever seen in your life. Acres and acres and acres of it. I knew it was in there and with the heroic effort of a few of the local boys and myself grovelling through the blackberry, we found it, recovered it – it was fine.

“We’re taking stuff to places where you shouldn’t probably take sensitive electronic equipment. And we’re flying in conditions where you just shouldn’t fly them, but you have to get up there and do it to get the shot.”

It was one of the many things that were always threatening to go wrong while working in remote, challenging locations, but worse was to come when one of the team’s underwater cameras leaked.

“It’s not a leak,” observed Brady Doak as he opened the camera’s housing and water trickled out, “it’s a flood.” Everyone crowded around, mystified as to what had gone wrong, given the meticulous care given to their cameras. Scollay dipped his finger in the water pooled in the camera housing and tasted it. It wasn’t salty, meaning the camera had somehow been knocked and leaked while being rinsed after the dive.
“It’s bad,” murmured Doak. “But not as bad as it could be.”

If saltwater had got into the camera, it would instantly start corroding its electrics; the fact it was fresh water gave them a chance of saving it. The ship’s dining table became a CSI scene as Scollay tested everything – O-rings, switches, wiring – and the crew tried to locate the problem. In his extensive career filming underwater, Scollay had never had a camera flood, and he was deeply frustrated it had happened. “Essentially, it’s toast,” he said, shaking his head. “It won’t be going back in the water on this shoot. It’s just one of those things. Shit happens.”Too far from help, it meant they were now down to one main underwater camera.

But they got lucky. After several days drying in the ship’s engine room and extensive pressure testing, the camera was deemed safe to return to action and was used throughout the rest of the series.

Scollay set incredibly high standards. The series is a “blue chip” nature documentary, so no shot could show any human intrusion – no people, no boats, not even a buoy. He was relentlessly focused, constantly encouraging the rest of the crew, enthusing over the footage they’d got but always thinking of ways to surpass it. It was one thing to film pretty stuff – the corals, sponges and fish – but they also had to capture the behaviour that occurred within these environments. So the team would shoot at night, leave cameras on the seabed to film exquisite species, put Hubert ashore for a day to take moody time-lapses.

Nature is never predictable. If you relied on it to appear on cue, you’d end up with a documentary full of disappointments. Sometimes 90 per cent of a documentary takes place in 10 per cent of the time.

“We’ve got to be opportunistic,” Scollay reminded the crew. “If we see something, we shoot it.”

And the weather always had a say, squalls tearing through narrow passages, ripping at the sea, rain stippling the surface into silver pinheads. Waves raced each other down the fiords, and waterfalls cut a blaze down cliff faces.

Kina Scollay launches a drone while Alex Hubert films.

Scollay grew up on the West Coast, living by the sea and snorkelling in the rivers that run into it. At 19, he dropped out of university and became a commercial diver in the Chatham Islands, gradually becoming involved in underwater documentaries. He worked on all the Hobbit movies and a number of Discovery Channel documentaries, and became an expert in shark behaviour. Half his life has been spent underwater, he reckons, and his ease in that environment meant his progression to becoming a cameraman was a natural one.

But getting the best shots is incredibly tough underwater. It can all be ruined by a fraction of focus or framing, or the tug of a current, or a drift in your buoyancy, or a rogue shadow creeping into the scene. And then sometimes what you’d hoped to film just doesn’t show up. One morning in Doubtful Sound, the crew scanned the shoreline for penguins but found only seagulls. “A different species of penguin,” offered Ross Funnell.

“Little bit of make-up and we’re away,” joked Scollay.

Eventually, they spied a penguin and watched him for 10 minutes gingerly make his way along the rocks, hop to the water’s edge, and flop in. “Must be a bugger to have no hands,” said Scollay, smiling.

Not all their animal encounters were so benign. While filming sevengill sharks in Fiordland, Scollay and Funnell found themselves against a cliff in deep, dark water, with sharks coming at them from all directions.

“These were big animals and they were all over us. We pushed it as long as we could, but it just got to the point where it was getting completely uncontrollable and we had to get out before someone was bitten. At one stage, I looked round and Ross was fending off one with a light in one hand and shark stick in the other, and I’m pushing another one off with my camera and we were just backs to the wall, getting out of there. We got back on the boat and were like, ‘Phew, that was pretty full on.’”

But perhaps the most extraordinary experience Scollay had was in the Auckland Islands, filming spider crabs that congregate there. “The biggest ones are just massive, the size of a dinner plate, with big claws. They’re really freaky-looking critters and they were all over the bottom, fighting and jumping on each other and just going nuts.

“When you’re filming, you get absolutely obsessed with what you’re trying to achieve. I was lying on the bottom, filming this incredible sequence and I suddenly realised I was feeling something all over me. And I look at my arm and there’s crabs climbing up the camera and up my arms and going ‘Rarr, rarr, rarr, rarr,’ grabbing at me. I became aware of what was going on and these things just climbing over me in this stirred-up, cloudy, half-dark, apocalyptic scene. It was like a spider-crab orgy.

“That’s the thing we’re trying to do – show people stuff that most people will never see in real life. We’re trying to put another world on people’s screens and take them into it.”

Even for Scollay and his exceptionally experienced dive team, there were innumerable moments that completely amazed and stunned them.

“You absolutely learnt something every day. Or perhaps, you could say, you got taught a lesson every other day.”

This article was first published in the November 2016 edition of North & South.