A day with the dolphins

We were all sitting at the table, sharing food and stories. Fried anchovies, calamari and clams, all fresh from the morning. Each of us telling his Nature stories. Glasses of cold beer, sunset over the gulf, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables. I was having dinner with a production team filming for the next Life series on BBC. Tomorrow, we would spend the day on the water, filming the dusky dolphins. The team had been here for almost 3 weeks now and was leaving soon. One of their crew had left a couple of days ago. One man short, they were looking for an extra pair of eyes. When I offered mine, they gladly accepted.

It was 7am when they engines started and propelled us away from the beach. Under a magnificent sky, the morning air tighten up our faces, our collars zipped up, we drank our coffee and shared a bag of croissants. Although it might sound glamourous, documentaries like this one take years of patience and filming. Certain sequences captured after months and months of waiting, chasing, and hoping. Some, simply never happen when the cameras are rolling. Jonathan Smith and Tom Fritz had been filming the duskies for weeks now, hoping to catch the scene they had come to capture. They had filmed them feeding on small bait ball, filmed them with sea lions, filmed them jumping around, but they had not filmed them feeding on a big ball of anchovies. One day, they found a huge ball, twice the size of the boat, but no dolphins around, no dolphins feeding.

Each day is the same, no matter the weather. By sunrise, you are on the water, and you are not coming back before darkness. One member of the team in on land or in the air, on the look out. You spend so much time looking through binoculars, you start to see things. You spend so much time putting your wet suit on and off, it starts to look more like a fashion rehearsal. As days go by, you invent more and more lucky charms. Perhaps we need to do the dolphin dance tomorrow, with Hawaiian skirts this time! Jokingly, my arrival is seen as a possible sign of good luck, giving me now the responsibility of turning faith around, before I become a sign of bad luck!  The day is superb. The conditions are perfect. If only, just for one moment, this could be “The Day”.

The water had been zipping by for an hour when we spotted a group of dolphins. We were not the only one who had. Flocks of storm-petrels and seagulls were rushing toward them.  Like bees on honey, birds will find dolphins feeding, and in minutes, any flying creatures within miles will be seen flying in the same direction, hoping to take advantage of a free easy meal. I admit it is quite a scene. On each side of the boat, hordes of birds, flying at the same speed as we do. Their squeaking echoing all around. The adrenaline kicks in. The engines are roaring. Thoughts of this being the big one crosses all our mind. Cameras are prepared. Wet suits are put on. Every one is on the stand by. Already, hundreds of birds are at the scene. The frenzy is everywhere. Just as we arrive, as if on cue, the anchovies have all been eaten, and the whole bonanza starts all over again at another location. We put the cameras away, take off the wet suits, and follow the birds to the next spot. This dance goes on all day long, over and over, until the sun sets, 12 hours after our departure.

At one point, I ask if the event has actually been seen or captured on film. I start to have doubts, that perhaps we are chasing something that will never happen. Jonathan laughs. He tells me that it has once for an Imax movie – it took 52 days to finally get it. He also tells me that when it happens, when the big bait ball happens and the dolphins are feeding on it, it lasts for an hour.

I ask Jonathan and Tom some questions. I am curious to know about their background and their motivation. Why they do what they do. Why they spend 3 weeks, 12 hours a day, on the water, waiting for something and still find the energy to laugh and smile as if this was the first day on the job. Are they making a good living? Or working for Nature documentaries means living on bread and butter. Some of their answers surprise me, others don’t.

“You feel that you are part of something bigger. It is a rush. The unexpected, the surprise, the discovery. When the magic happens, there is nothing in the world that matches it, except perhaps the birth of your child.  This is life in its pure form. There is a sense of connection that is hard to explain. As if for one moment, before your eyes, all life, all Universes were connected to this one point in time and space. Including you.” Tom talks about the time he filmed the Bowhead Whales in the Arctic, to be in the presence of such giants, perhaps older than 100 years. He can’t find the words to express what it was like. His eyes are locked somewhere on the horizon. His memories stay secret, unable to find a worthy way to convey them. Jonathan tells me the story  when he filmed the leopard seals in Antarctica. Those apex predators, perfect hunting creatures, would bring penguins to them, like children wanting to share their toys. They would open their mouth, 160 degrees wide at the camera, showing their teeth one inch long.

Although their motivation is beyond financial, surprisingly enough, the nature documentary industry pays well today. A lot more than in the past and a lot more than other similar industries. Success like the Blue Planet series have proved their value. Planet Earth became the most watched show on Discovery channel.

We talked about today’s documentaries versus the early days of Cousteau and Attenborough. About Institutions like BBC that has succeeded over the years to commission and publish educational material of great quality. Jonathan mentions how important the mission statement is. Per instance, BBC’s mission is to “Inform, Educate and Entertain. It aims at sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence”. Notice that entertain is last, not first. Which is actually the opposite of most others in the industry.

As with everybody I meet who works with Nature, family plays an important role. They support financially or simply nurture the passion seen in their child, telling him or her, that what is important, is to do something they love, whatever it is – music, painting, art, traveling or working with animal . Children don’t have the wisdom, the foresight to see the bigger picture and it is to the parents to recognize what that passion is and guide it, support it.

One day, Tom rented a boat and took his family out for a little expedition on the waters of Florida. At some point, his son pulled his father’s shirt and innocently asked him if they were in the Wild. Amused by the question, Tom looked around, then look at his child and said yes. His answer could have been that little green creatures did live on Mars, the result was the same. The little boy had just stepped into a fantasy world. The mangroves, the water, the birds, the fish, all suddenly became subjects of fascination. In his head, the little boy was seeing for the first time what his father saw every time he went to work. Tom was mesmerized at the joy on his son’s face, simply by being in the Wild. Beside connecting with Nature, moments like these are priceless. There are no bigger rewards than to see your child’s happiness from sharing what you do for living.

We didn’t capture the golden sequence that day. As we ride back, I don’t feel any frustration, or disappointment from anyone on the boat. Of course Jonathan and Tom anxiously dream about it, but at the end of the day, to be in the water with the dolphins, to have them swim around, to have them look at you and squeak, it is hard not to be content.

That evening, as we are all sitting at the table, sharing an exquisite asado, glasses of cold beer, fresh timber burning in the fireplace, our joy and laughs spreading over other tables, no one would trade this moment. Jonathan announces that he will be going to Tobago after, to film flying fish spawning, something he has been waiting for 2 years. We can’t help but feel a bit jealous, but we still raise our glass to him and for a moment, as we look at each other, we feel bonded, united by our love for Nature.

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