Whale War! 6 Humpbacks, 20 MPH, 1 Insane Free Diver Filming It All

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The mission of Life, the ongoing 11-part mini-series now airing on the Discovery Channel, seems to be: Capture nature at its most extreme.

Hopping between species and habitats, molding 130 short tales into a mosaic of survival and endurance, last weekend’s episodes – the overarching premiere and Reptiles – offered a vivid preview of what’s to come. This Sunday, the series focuses on Mammals (8 p.m.) and Fish (9 p.m.), spotlighting during the former a virtuoso sequence of nature photography that, for the first time, captures on film a “Humpback Whale Heat Run” – from beginning to end. The Heat Run is a mating ritual among Humpbacks that can last for hours, as half a dozen males – or more – battle each other for the affections a female who intentionally swims beyond their grasp. Teasing these 40-ton males along, the potential suitors bellow underwater warnings to one another, then start dueling in high-speed scuffles that can often injure – or even kill – the weaker suitors. (More at Techland: Planet Earth II – The High-Def Thrills of Life)

To capture this battle, Life producers strategized a three-pronged attack. Cameras were rolling on board both a boat and a helicopter, but to capture underwater photography, one intrepid soul had to dive down ahead of these battling whales and wait for them to pass overhead – all the while hoping that the brawl would not accidentally collide with him. That fearless free diver was Roger Munns, a veteran nature videographer who risked life and limb to catch the Humpbacks in action. When I heard about the Heat Run, and Munn’s daredevil style, I begged Discovery to give me five minutes with him. You won’t believe how crazy this guy is:

This couldn’t have been an easy animal event to even locate. You have the wide-open ocean, and you need to find a pod of whales just at the right time, as the heat run is beginning. How did you track them down?

The biggest drama right after you catch something like this is that you rush back and start watching your footage, and pray that it all came out as well as you thought it did. So you kind of hold your breath right up until you’re watching it back on land. Finding the animals is only half the battle. In our case, we were having a very hard time finding anything and it was 17 days through a 21-day shoot. It was getting towards the end, and all we had up to that point was some good interactions between a mother and her calf, but nothing close to the big action we were looking for. Then the 17th day coincided with the arrival of the helicopter, which we had booked for five days, and it was almost perfect timing. That day we went out, and there they were. It was big sense of relief and excitement, but then we got down to work pretty quickly.

So you head out and there are six whales, starting to go to war with one another. How do you train yourself for a moment like this?

I started diving 10 years ago, just recreationally in Australia, and then I decided to become a dive master, where you’d start leading tourists down on dives and it was through this that I started to take photos and videos of people diving at this amazing dive site in Borneo. And then over the course of some 3,000 dives I started doing more and more TV and broadcast work, taking wildlife photography for this Dutch tv show.

Any memorable early shoots?

I remember shooting the Mola Mola, this giant one-ton ocean sunfish that looks like a giant disc and is completely thin. And there’s a lot to focus on, when you’re shooting something like this. You don’t want to corner the animal, and yet you’re dealing in these conditions where there’s less than 30 meters of visibility and you need to get as close to the subject as possible because you have this nice wide lens and if you’re too far away the picture quality starts to fall apart. I remember diving with sharks, and with Great Whites, and they get such a bad wrap. I think sharks just need a good PR rep, because they are talked about as these horrendous cold-blooded killers but to my eyes they are just graceful and beautiful and very cautious in the way they approach you. (More at Techland: Toy Story 3 – See Our New Toys Gallery)

Had you ever filmed a heat run before?

No. I had seen one once in the background, as I was filming footage of a mother with her calf for a production. But the director I was working with was concerned about safety so we didn’t shoot it.

Why concerned? Is it particularly dangerous?

Well, one bang from a whale’s peck [pectoral fin] or fluke can knock you out and cause you a lot of problems when you’re underwater.  The other part of it is that in a heat run whales are moving 15-20 miles per hour, so there’s almost no way to keep up with them. Humans can swim maybe 2 or 3 miles per hour, so it’s not even close. So if something goes wrong, it will go wrong way too fast.

How do you choreograph shooting something like this then, that’s moving at those speeds?

We’d find a way to keep leapfrogging them. We’d be moving on the surface of the water, looking for their dorsal fins or flukes as they come up, and then you’d try to plot a line from where this whole group was to where they would be. It’s a lot of educated guesses. Noises can spook them, so you’d race ahead, shut off your engine, I’d get in the water, and if it looked like we were in the right place I’d dive down and wait for them to come into my field of vision. We also had a safety diver who would point me in the right direction, if they started to drift.

How long would this take?

Moving to the next stop might take 15 minutes in total, and you’re doing it all probably for a 20-second shot each time because you can’t see them until they’re pretty much right on top of you. Then you try to get close enough to get a shot that really works, while also keeping your distance. It’s tricky. Some of these heats begin and stop very quickly, but then there are others where it’s like being a nightclub at 2 in the morning and there are 10 guys and one female, and it can become a pretty big thing.

This has to get a little dangerous, as you’re floating there, waiting for a half-dozen whales to barrel at you at 20 miles per hour.

Oh yeah, we followed them for three hours, and your adrenaline really starts going. They start breaching on top of one another, which can be very dangerous, and your biggest concern becomes whether one might hit you or start to dive right on top of you.

Were there any close calls?

Well there was one dive where I had been down there for 30-40 seconds before I really saw them, and then around 2 minutes into the dive my lungs started talking to me that I really needed to start surfacing, but when I looked up, there was one whale that was a straggler and he was coming down right towards me. So I had to bide my time…

Wait, wait:  You didn’t have any dividing equipment!

Yeah, the scuba equipment and the bubbles freak them out. So these are all free dives.

That’s totally insane.

Yeah, maybe, but we train so that we have endurance and I think when you see the footage, it sort of speaks for itself. We put you there, and yes that takes a lot of time and yes it’s a little dangerous.

You can see Munn’s footage for yourself on Sunday night.

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