RDF Media/National Geographic – Facing Jaws

June 2003 saw Scubazoo shooting ‘Facing Jaws’ a co-production with RDF International in UK on behalf of National Geographic.

Facing Jaws involved all 3 company directors in South Africa for 5 weeks, filming the epic natural underwater phenomenon – the Sardine Run. Scubazoo Founder and CEO Simon Christopher and underwater cameramen Jason Isley and Simon Enderby met up with Jenny Jones (Director) to film British underwater photographer, Tony White as he embarked on his quest to enter the water once again after being bitten by a shark in a feeding frenzy the previous year.

After a tense waiting game over the course of the five week shoot the team hit gold. Jason and Simon’s underwater footage of humpback whales and sardine bait balls with sharks, hundreds of diving gannets, seals and dolphins, all screaming right past their cameras, is without doubt some of the most dramatic of the Sardine Run ever filmed!

Take a look below at some of the personal accounts of the team:

Simon Christopher – Associate Producer, Facing Jaws

Though we’d worked in many places around the world, filming the epic underwater spectacle of the Sardine Run in South Africa had always been right at the top of our wish list, and with Tony’s remarkable story, along came our opportunity. Before we knew it, we had a three and a half week shoot doing exactly that, for our very own co-production with RDF International, ‘Facing Jaws’!

Our base for the shoot was Mkambati Lodge, situated on the stunning wild coast of the Mkambati Game Reserve, south of Durban. The Lodge was packed full with interesting individuals – leading scientists and top cameramen from every corner of the globe. Each had their own goals – whether to observe and learn something of the biology of the Sardine Run, or  film or photograph this spectacle, everyone’s mind was completely focused on these very ordinary little fish.

Just a few days after arriving, and apparently out of nowhere, everyone was taken by surprise when a freak bait ball was spotted. From the accounts of the few lucky witnesses, this was by far the biggest bait ball that anyone had ever seen. Unluckily, even though we were only a few miles away, we never got to see it. This was of course incredibly frustrating, and the absence of sardines over the next two weeks only made this first missed opportunity even more painful. It seemed that nature was not going to play ball this year.

Despite the sardine’s no show, the mood at the Lodge throughout the long wait was upbeat, with the mélange of characters keeping morale high. Days spent bobbing up and down on the ocean were punctuated by brief moments of excitement, with humpback whales migrating north and pods of dolphins waiting for the sardines to arrive. Witnessing these awesome 40-ton leviathans breaching clear of the water was definitely one of the highlights of the trip . Despite being confined to the boat, I could not resist the temptation to get into the water to snorkel with these giants as they swam besides us – now that was definitely what I’d call a ‘religious experience!’

With only a few days left to the end of the shoot, we were getting desperate; we’d filmed Tony with whales, dolphins and a few sharks but we still had no ending to our story. I’ll never forget those telephone calls made from ‘Cell Phone City’ to Matthew Frank, executive producer of RDF International, explaining the rather dire situation at Mkambati Lodge. We had to try and predict the likelihood of our seeing at least some kind of action if the crew were to stay on. All we needed was to film Tony with some bait balls for a few minutes and our story would be complete. Thankfully the extension was approved but we did have a deadline – if we had no sardines by then, we were to come home regardless.

Back at the Lodge, there was much speculation – should people stay and hold out for the ‘sards’ to come to us or were the scientists right, and the water temperature was just too high? The alternatives were to head south and pursue the somewhat sketchy reports of bait ball sightings in Coffee Bay or pack up and leave for the UK. The final decision was made – south it was – if the sardines weren’t going to come to us, we’d go and find them! Our final filming destination was a stunning location close to the beautiful landmark known as ‘Hole in the Wall’. By the time we’d settled in and Kevin had arrived with his boat, we had just three filming days left. It then seemed that our luck really had run out – we had two days of bad weather during which the boat could not go out at all! And so it was down to the very last day, with everything hinging on our remaining few hours in South Africa. The crew’s mood on that final night could only be described as a little tense…

Our keen 5.30am start was greeted with a stunning crystal-blue sky – today would be the day, it just had to be! With the microlight spotter plane up in the air, it was back to the familiar waiting game, bobbing up and down on the ocean once again… nothing for well over an hour. Then at eleven o’clock, a massive spurt of adrenalin shot through our bodies when the microlight pilot excitedly announced he’d seen gannets diving, lots of them! We sped off towards the site and sure enough, we could see hundreds of birds circling on the horizon. After more than four weeks waiting, the excitement on the boat was incredible – this was the moment we’d all been waiting for.

As we approached, we watched this awesome natural spectacle unfold before our very eyes. The sea was simply boiling with life! Everywhere I looked, there was some kind of frantic activity. Loud bursts of humid air announced dolphins surfacing just metres from our boat, quickly followed by the clammer of hundreds of gannets diving in formation into the sea. It was quite simply remarkable, even better than I’d ever imagined! I will never forget the sights of that incredible final day and yet I suspect it will be the sounds and smells that will remain with me the longest – the deafening noise of volleys of gannets diving like bullets into the sea and the pungent smell of sardine oil, slicked across the surface as hundreds of thousands of these little fish were consumed directly beneath our boat! Strangely, I felt quite out of place, so insignificant bobbing up and down in the centre of this wild spectacle. However the activity continued relentlessly, undisturbed by our presence – this was Nature at its very best!

We now had the fairy tale ending we’d been waiting for. Jason and Simon filmed the action underwater continuously for almost 4 hrs and even though the visibility wasn’t the best, by the ecstatic grins on their faces every time they surfaced, I knew we were going to be OK. Our film was now going to be everything we’d hoped for, and more…

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