Filming the humpback heat run

In October 2008, after months of pre-production, planning and logistics, Jason Isley and Roger Munns arrived in the kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. The sheltered bays and inlets of Vava’u are perfect for female humpack whales to give birth and wean their young until they are ready to begin the long journey down to the Antarctic. The Scubazoo underwater cameramen were in Tonga to film something entirely different however. They were hoping to capture the undisputed heavyweight champioship of fights in the animal kingdom – The Heat Run. Fresh from a several thousand mile journey from their summer Antarctic feeding grounds, multiple 50 tonne male humpback whales would battle it out to become the primary escort and likely mate of one lucky female whale.

The crew consisted of Jason Isley (safety diver and photographer), Nick Guy (topside cameraman), Simon Blakeney (Assistant Producer) and Roger Munns (underwater cameraman). Handling the boat and on-land logistics was former fireman Al Coldrick of Dolphin Pacific Diving. In order to show the action from all angles the team used a helicopter fitted with a Cineflex camera.

“We had a twenty one day window” said underwater cameraman Roger Munns “which sounds like a long time, but for a shoot of this nature it’s really a tight time frame”. Fully grown adult humpback whales can be between 12-14m long and weigh in excess of 50 tonnes but finding one in the vast expanse of the South Pacific was tough. The crew relied on spotting blows at the surface which needed calm and clear conditions that weren’t always on the menu. “We probably had 4 or 5 days during the shoot when conditions were simply so bad that we had no chance of spotting whales” recalls Munns “but of course we kept going out and looking. The clock was ticking…. loudly!”. To maximise their chances of spotting a heat run the boat skipper would co-ordinate with other whale watching boats in the area. Finally on the 17th day the crew got a call from another skipper that a heat run was forming.

You can plan a shoot as much as possible to take out the element of chance but sometimes you just need a break. “It was incredibly fortunate as the helicopter had just arrived from Fiji the day before” explained Munns “when we called in the location they were still mounting the cineflex so we filmed the underwater segments for a couple of hours until they arrived”. During a heat run male whales race after a single female using all the weapons at their disposal to get to the front of the chasing pack. They barge into one another, breach onto other whales and even blow bubbles in the face of a following whale to disorientate them. “Imagine 10 guys on a nightclub dancefloor with only one girl” joked Munns “Except that the amorous suitors are about 500 times the weight of your average dancefloor romeo!”

Using a ‘leapfrog’ technique, the boat would get ahead of the whales and position Munns and Isley directly in front of the pack. All this testosterone meant that the crew had to be very careful in the water. Due to the sensitive nature of these huge mammals the underwater camera team had to forgo using scuba apparatus and freedive down on a single breath of air. Once down under the surface Munns would wait for the whales to appear out of the blue and surge past him. An interesting experience and one not for the faint hearted “Imagine jumping out onto a five lane highway with 10 trucks hurtling towards you” said Munns “While they have no intention of running into you, you just have to hope they are not too busy chasing tail to notice you in the water”

Once the helicopter arrived on the scene the boat’s role changed to that of spotter, ensuring the chopper stayed with the whales while keeping out of shot at the same time. Finally, miles offshore, and with the light fading, the last man standing swam off into the sunset with his lady. Where they mate no-one knows.

“It was an amazing experience for me and the whole crew” said Munns “Filming on landmark series such as LIFE for BBC and Dsciovery Channel is a dream for any cameraman and all of us at Scubazoo are very proud to be involved”

Find out more facts on Humpback Whales (Megaptera Noveangliae)

Find out more about LIFE on the Discovery Channel

More PR for LIFE:

Wall st Journal article
Asylum feature
Today show interview
Time for Kids

USA Today article

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