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Big Screen Surfing

Wait until you see these IMAX 3D images of Kelly Slater and Raimana van Bastolaer surfing out of the tube at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o – arguably the wildest, most dangerous, most perfect surf wave on the planet – projected eighty feet high on a giant screen near you (coming, February 2010). In Moorea and Tahiti I had a peek at some of the rushes dumped onto a fifteen-inch computer screen and literally had to step back from even that small screen, overwhelmed by the real feel of Raimana – Tahiti’s godfather of surfing – jumping to his feet on the board, peeking back over this shoulder to judge the whereabouts of a monstrous roller heading towards him, the splash of the clear-blue South Pacific washing over the lens and the grim/exultant look on his face as he realizes he’s successfully up and not going to get washing-machined by a fifty-foot wave. Look for my story about the ‘making of’ surfing’s first IMAX 3D film – Ultimate Wave Tahiti – in December’s National Geographic Adventure and I imagine for a trailer soon at the Stephen Low Company’s website.

Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Surfing in 3D

“That may be the greatest shot I’ve ever made!” says an exuberant Stephen Low as he clambers onto the Zodiac, followed closely by his 145-pound IMAX 3D camera in its gold-tinted waterproof housing. We are bobbing in mild seas just off Moorea, the island I nominate as the most beautiful in French Polynesia, spending a long, glorious day whale watching.

Breaching humpback off Moorea

Breaching humpback off Moorea

It’s a bold pronouncement for Low, one of the best of a very small handful of prolific IMAX producers in the world – his Montreal-based company is currently juggling a half-dozen giant screen projects at once – since he’s taken his big camera to 16,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, into the cockpits of F-15s and Indy cars, around the Titanic and … just last week … inside the break of Tahiti’s famed and feared Teahupo’o surf wave.

Today’s shot? “You’ll have to ask Will (his assistant camera operator), I was so focused on looking through the lens I can’t even really tell you exactly what happened. I just know it was great.”

Will Allen watched the scene unfold from just below the surface: “A pair of big humpback’s were swimming side by side on the sandy bottom when one rolled over and looked straight up at us. Almost in slow motion the male – at least I think it was the male – broke away and started floating straight up at us before flicking it’s tail ten feet from the camera and swimming off. They were definitely performing for us.”

We spent the day watching first a trio then a quintet of big humpbacks feeding and fighting, breaching then resting, just outside the coral reef. I’ve been out on this reef edge many times before, in boats ranging from kayaks and outriggers to Zodiacs and mahi-mahi boats; the view back at Moorea’s jagged green mountains is always beautiful, staggering, especially from sea level.

Whenever the whales glide beneath and linger, over the edge of the boat go the $1.5 million camera, Allen and Low. (The film stock is eight times the size of film used to shoot a big feature film and one magazine lasts just five minutes; changing film is a pain,, especially on the water. Since this is film not video, it takes more than a week for Low and company to view what they’ve been filming, since it is shipped home to Montreal, processed and returned on DVD or by Internet.) At one point the whales start jousting beneath the surface, just beneath Low, which though he stays steady with the camera makes him ponder what would be the result if their playful and not so playful fighting caught him with a tail slap, or if the big guys were to blast to the surface directly through he and Will ….

Will Allen and Stephen Low, scouting

Will Allen and Stephen Low, scouting

Which leads to a long, seaborne discussion of whether or not the whales stick around knowing we are watching … or if they are just doing their thing, irregardless of whether we are there or not. Low insists they are not so different from pet dogs. “They are watching us, observing us, responding to us … no question.”

As the support boat parallels the reef, captained by Michael Poole, an American marine biologist and whale expert whose lived in Polynesia the past twenty-two years, Low tells a true horror story about an inexperienced group that chartered a sailboat, went far out to sea and all jumped overboard for a swim … without realizing they’d not lowered a ladder nor thrown out a safety line. “None of them could get back onto the boat and all drowned,” shaking his head at the image of the poor souls, unable to climb up to safety.

Low and crew have been filming in Tahiti for a month, making what the first dedicated IMAX surf movie, in 3D. With the main surfing and stand-up paddle board action in the can – starring surf king Kelly Slater and local Tahitian surf hero Raimana van Bastolaer – they are hanging on, gathering as much B-roll as possible, which includes humpbacks, drift dives, schools of sharks and plenty of aerias. The film – Ultimate Wave Tahiti – is due out in February, on two hundred giant screens around the world. If it runs a similar course as previous Low IMAX films, it will ultimately be seen by several hundred million people, numbers that have lured a trio of high-end sponsors, Suzuki, Quicksilver and Tahiti Tourism, to pay for the filming.

Ultimate Wave is Low’s 14th IMAX film; it will require a long, successful run to top his best-selling film to-date – Beavers – an up-close look at a family of beavers shot near Banff. It is Canada’s biggest-grossing film ever. “The great story about Beavers,” says Low, dried off and in the bar at Moorea’s Pearl Resort, “is that in a weird way it started as a film about nuclear power in Japan … a film I did not want to make. I told the nuclear plant people that what they really needed was a film about beavers, which they politely declined. A few months later I get a call from them saying, ‘Actually, we do want to help you make a film about beavers,’ and wired me $5 million.”

The Gemini 3D camera, in its housing, lowered into the South Pacific

The Gemini 3D camera, in its housing, lowered into the South Pacific

Son of documentary filmmaker and early IMAX explorer Colin Low, Stephen insists the surfing movie is taking him back to his roots. “Growing up I was convinced I was an aquanaut. I would make them stop the family car so that I could run into the lake.” His favorite movie growing up was Journey to the Center of the Earth and his first jobs in the industry were as an underwater cameraman. His first Hollywood job – on location in Newfoundland – was as Bo Derek’s Zodiac drive in “Orca, Killer Whale.”

The trickiest in-the-surf shots captured last week at Teahupo’o were mostly shot by veteran surf cameramen but Low reserved the rest of the underwater shooting for himself. “That’s the part of the job I still really love,” says the 58-year-old. “The rest – traveling, managing, working with sponsors – is just work.”

Note the green flippers, set off against the 5-ton humpback

Note the green flippers, set off against the 5-ton humpback

Obama Calls For Limits on Antarctic Tourism

Even as more of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica threatens to crumble, in part due to warming temperatures, man’s influence on the continent is being heavily debated during these next two weeks in Baltimore. Timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that governs the continent, more than 400 officials and observers from around the world have gathered to ponder its future.

A seemingly bold, initial proposal was delivered by the Obama Administration at the onset of the meeting, via the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which wants to amend the treaty and impose mandatory limits on the size of cruise ships sailing there and the number of passengers they bring ashore.

Today, there are neither limits on how big a ship can sail to Antarctica, nor how many passengers it can carry. There are voluntary rules on how many people can land onshore at anyone time, which limits landings to the smaller ships – rather than the Princess Star, which carries more than three thousand passengers down to photograph icebergs from the comfort of its Jacuzzis. The Obama proposal encourages written changes to the treaty in order to “ensure that tourism is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

Amending the Antarctic treaty is difficult, in part because it requires the unanimous agreement of all 47 signatory countries. The new U.S. proposal contains no specific enforcement mechanism or penalties for limiting tourist operations. But it would require signatories to the pact to ensure that Antarctic tour operators bar ships with more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restrict landings to one vessel at a time per site and limit passengers on shore to 100 at a time. These numbers match the current voluntary limits, but go a step further by asking they become the official language of the treaty.

The number of tourists visiting the continent continues to boom; more ships and more people means more potential for calamity – in the past two seasons I’ve watched one ship sink, two more run aground. And there are other, unreported accidents each season. In 1992-93, 6,700 tourists visited … this past year more than 45,000. It’s clear that something needs to be done to limit or at least legally monitor the boom. I’m surprised such a specific proposal came from the U.S. … But I like it.

I was privileged last week to be invited to participate in the opening seminar of the brand new Institute at the Golden Gate, Turning the Tide. Envisioned as a west coast forum for conversation and action with an emphasis on global, national and local environmental issues and more if the opening affair, set at the elegant Cavallo Lodge, is an example of what’s to come we should be seeing intriguing reports and counsel issuing from the institute for many years to come. Pulitzer prize winners and Nobel laureates mingled with some of the country’s most noted food and health experts, big-picture global forecasters and businessmen who’ve proved you can make a buck being very green. Perhaps the most salient comment, in a jam-packed two-days of serious talk about our environment that could grind down even the most optimistic, came from guru-physician-Summer-of-Love-survivor Dr. Larry Brilliant, who confided he’d recently hung out on a U.N. panel with a bunch of big time thinkers and the result of their conversation was that if the planet is to be saved it will require an entire change in “human consciousness.” That’s all? I liked Dr. Stephen Schneider’s analogy – he is one of the planet’s preeminent global warming experts – that perhaps climate change and other environmental woes now need to be managed, like a serious cancer, rather than cured.

For the first time France has agreed to compensate victims of its nuclear testing in French Polynesia, which went on from roughly 1966 to 1996. For years courts have heard challenges from some of the 150,000 who witnessed the tests but until now it has stalled on either any responsibility, far less payback for those who say they are suffering from leukemia and thyroid cancer as a result.

Victims and their lawyers say though that the $13.5 million set aside for settlements is chicken feed. Roland Oldham, the president of the French Polynesian nuclear test veterans’ group, Mururoa o Tatou, told Radio New Zealand the deal is a bad joke.

“They announce a few million like that, just like we should be very happy, we should drop on our knees and say thank you to the French Government. But that’s not the case at all, because it’s peanuts, it really is peanuts when you compare how the French government spends a lot of money on defense.”

Oldham says the French plan is not good for the victims and says there needs to be a health structure to help them, and the environmental impact should not be ignored.

The Tuamotus, the remote French Polynesian chain where the testing took place, is one of my favorite parts of the world. We rode a cargo boat all around the area in 2002, but like everyone were disallowed from visiting the pair of islands where the testing had taken place. For more than fifty years France went to extremes to protect its nuclear-testing secrecy; the testing began in Algeria and continued in French Polynesia until 1996, when international protests convinced then President Chirac to end them. In 1985, France sent undercover agents to New Zealand to sink the Rainbow Warrior, a vessel from the Greenpeace environmental group, to prevent it from disrupting nuclear tests.

French authorities have reportedly agreed to publish archives explaining how nuclear tests were conducted. The moves followed many court cases in which testing personnel and residents living near nuclear test sites complained of cancer. If that happens – if they actually publish an honest report – it will make for very interesting reading.