Filmmaker Andrew has a whale of a tale to tell ... Print E-mail
Friday, 18 May 2007 00:00

Filmmaker Andrew has a whale of a tale to tell ...

by TRICIA WALTERS , Royal Gazette, 18 May 2007

TWO months into his three-year Humpback Whale Project and a local filmmaker and author is only now realising the scale of the adventure he has embarked upon. After the first seven weeks Andrew Stevenson had only managed to capture a minute and a half of useable footage.The situation seemed bleak, but during the eighth week his luck changed when he captured 45 minutes of fantastic underwater footage and about two hours of surface footage near Challenger Banks.


Mr. Stevenson, who also directed and produced the award-winning documentary, Paving Shangri-La says he was more frustrated than upset about the slow start to his 50-minute documentary.


“That’s why I gave myself three years to do it,” he explains. “You are filming wild animals in a challenging environment and anyone who has been out there with me, including the volunteers, will tell you you have to work really hard to find the whales.”


And if you thought filming underwater was a challenge, Mr. Stevenson jokingly adds: “It’s relatively easy to take photographs from a boat, but to get good video is much more challenging because it’s not just a fraction of a second frozen for eternity, it’s several minutes of movement and if the boat moves even slightly, watching the video is going to make the best of us seasick!”


It’s been a learning experience for the author who is convinced that these gentle giants spend their winter months around the island and is determined to prove it.


It was thought that the Atlantic humpback whales simply passed by Bermuda on their way to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean, but through research and speaking to local fishermen, Mr. Stevenson is convinced otherwise.


He explains that the theory is that sexually immature whales would spend their winter months here instead of migrating south, which makes sense since there is very little chance of them breeding and Bermuda’s waters are teeming with food.


“There is an indication that this might be happening again now, that we might have whales wintering here, and I hope to prove this. If we can get fluke shots throughout the winter, we will have a pretty good idea that they in fact never went down south,” he explains.


As for the question of food. Mr. Stevenson’s theory that the island’s waters were a virtual buffet for whales raised a few eyebrows last month.


Local fishermen, whom he says have proved invaluable to the project, told him they had seen whales feeding, especially around a full moon when krill (a whales main source of food) tend to surface.


Early in April Mr. Stevenson and his team of volunteers were heading out from Devonshire Bay when they came across a pod of whales making their way towards Somerset.


“There was no hope of getting in the water with them ... they were on mission!” he recalls with a chuckle.


He says they managed to keep up with the whales by pushing five to six knots and only slowed down when they reached Sally Tucker’s near Somerset.


It was here that he noticed a distinctive ripple line in the water, accompanied by foam. Using a special funnel and collection device given to him by the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences (BIOS), Mr. Stevenson took a sample.


His theory was later confirmed by the institute - there was krill in the water. In fact the sample was teeming with decapods, fish eggs and newly hatched fish.


When it comes to theories about the whales, Mr. Stevenson is determined to set the record straight, including the theory that Challenger Banks is simply a “navigational point” for the whales.


The filmmaker spent an entire day swimming with the whales at this landmark about 12 to 15 miles from land, and returned numerous times to find whales feeding in the area and in no hurry to leave.


It was also at Challenger Banks that he got into the water with a humpback whale for the first time.


“And that was absolutely brilliant and I thought, this isn’t going to be as hard as I first thought,” he recalls with a laugh.


The experience was so moving that he did not sleep at all that first night: “It was an intense emotional experience being in the water with a 40 foot, 35-ton whale that was as gentle as could be. I kept wondering what the whale was thinking. He was so close to me that his whole body was distorted by the lens.”


Mr. Stevenson spent about two hours in the water with the whale which came up numerous times to steal a glance of the strange creature with the 45-pound camera strapped to its arm. The whale also turned over numerous times, rolling over and over in the water, exposing its enormous belly to Mr. Stevenson and swimming less than two feet underneath him.


“I feel so privileged to have had this experience,” he explains. “It was like meeting God, but not getting the message. I wish I knew what he (the whale) was thinking. It was like meeting a more intelligent being and not being able to understand, not being able to get the message.”


However, in the back of his mind he is always aware of the risk he is taking by being in the water with what is essentially a wild animal and noticed early on that the further he moved away from the 22-foot boat, the more boisterous the whales seemed to become.


At one point two males thrashed about wildly in the water and he admits this was one of the few times he was truly scared.


Mr. Stevenson’s work so far has attracted quite a bit of attention from abroad and he has been approached by renowned National Geographic photographer, Flip Nicklin to accompany him on a trip to Alaska and Hawaii.


“They want to learn more about the Bermuda humpback whales because this is a big unknown. Bermuda is one of the only locations where you can observe the animals en route, so that makes us unique,” he says.


“Two months ago I didn’t know a thing about whales, but now with all these people showering me with documents and information. It’s great. I can see they really want to see stuff coming out of Bermuda.”


The final product will be a 50 minute documentary for local schools, libraries and the public and will highlight the importance of Bermuda’s marine environment, specifically the humpback whales who have played a big part in Bermuda’s history and culture of whaling.


Mr. Stevenson also hopes to get children involved in the ongoing process by staying in contact with him, the way NASA astronauts stay in touch with school children in the US: “I want them to see how it (the documentary) starts and how it goes along, and the children can call me when I’m out there. I want to give them a sense of ownership and participation in the project.”


With a sigh he admits that he is sometimes in two minds about the film because he does not want the public to think they can simply go swimming with whales.


“I don’t want to encourage people to throw themselves at whales. They are wild animals and they weight 35 tons. One flick of a tail and I could be dead!” he warns.


As for keeping track of the endangered humpback whales and proving his theory about these giant mammals spending the winter around Bermuda, Mr. Stevenson encourages fishing clubs and individuals to call him if they spot whales and to send fluke shots to his email, This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or call him 77-SPOUT (777-7688).

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