In a bid to rid the stigma of the word “conservation” in the widespread media, Scubazoo are trying to change the unfortunate public perception of conservationists as boring old baggy shirt tree-huggers, to properly catch the world’s attention on pressing issues that our environment faces. Behold, “funservation”, a newfound movement that combines both education and entertainment to promote conservation for all to understand. After all, why can’t conservation be fun? Pouncing on turtles to tag and evaluate for scientific research, or filming seahorses shoot out their young to boost awareness – conservation isn’t all beach litter cleanups and scrubbing oily clams with toothbrushes. Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski, Scubazoo’s in-house presenter guides us through how he and his team are changing the face of conservation, and tells his own story with some advice on becoming an underwater presenter:

How did you get involved in presenting marine conservation issues?

I spent six years travelling around Africa, working as an underwater/conservation photographer, filmmaker and travel writer, doing small bits of presenting on the side. In 2013 I presented a film for Epic TV which looked at my attempts to take magazine cover shots of the Sardine Run and subsequent mission to take the ultimate “shark selfie”. The films received a huge amount of press. Following this, I met with Simon Christopher at Scubazoo who’d seen these films and my showreel. We got on like a house on fire and he asked whether I’d like to join Scubazoo in Borneo as their in-house presenter. I jumped at the chance and over the last year have produced and presented a show called “Borneo from Below”. This weekly online series looks at the diving, wildlife and people around Borneo, plus investigates important environmental issues.

Bertie with camera equipment on Mabul Island, Borneo © Christian Loader, Scubazoo

Bertie with camera equipment on Mabul Island, Borneo © Christian Loader, Scubazoo

Why did you become an underwater presenter?

Kind of out of accident. Through my work – whether it’s photography, film, journalism, or being in front of the camera – my aim is to get important subjects out in the public domain. I don’t really care how it’s done! I am passionate about marine conservation, though understand conservation is often a dirty word in the media: people simply don’t want to be bombarded with negativity. However, I do believe we can get these issues out there but do it in an entertaining way that doesn’t cause people to switch off. I call it “funservation”…

What do you hope to achieve through your work?

It’s very easy preaching to the converted: Don’t litter! Don’t eat shark fin soup! Stop eating so much fish! All of us in the industry know this. But what about your average Joe? How do we get our message out to the general public? This is the challenge. By making our films fun, accessible (and just a little bit silly at times), I hope to engage those who would otherwise be ignorant of the sorts of environmental issues we cover.

What is the most memorable moment you had when presenting?

I’ve just started presenting a new series called “Borneo Wildlife Warriors”, which looks at the work of Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit. I was helping release 20 confiscated pangolins back into the jungle recently, when a curious orang-utan and her baby came to check out what was happening. I was there having a face off with her, in the deepest Borneo jungle, whilst holding the world’s most trafficked animal in either hand. It was a surreal moment. Over recent weeks I’ve also darted herds of elephants in the middle of the night in the palm oil plantations, helped operate on a sun bear, stuck my finger up a croc’s backside to look for its penis, and more…

Underwater, my experience of “turtle wrangling” with world-leading turtle expert Dr Nick Pilcher was full on. This involves throwing yourself off a speeding boat, landing on top of a turtle and wrestling it on-board so scientific data can be gathered. The original “shark selfie” project was perhaps the most intense project though: A lady threw sardines at my head so I could try and take an image of a shark feeding over my shoulder. Think 50 excitable blacktips munching around your face!

In “Borneo From Below – Turtle Rodeo”, Bertie meets Dr Nick Pilcher, a world-leading turtle expert who uses a technique known as “turtle wrangling” to catch and evaluate turtles. Source: Scubazoo

What is the average day for an underwater presenter?

Many people stress they like their job as “no two days are the same”. In the case of an underwater presenter, that’s definitely the case! Shoot days are often long and tiring and mainly involve early mornings to get the best light. Thankfully our director/cameraman, Will, cracks the whip as I’m not a fan of pre-8am! I might start by reading over my lines and the shoot script over breakfast, before initial PTCs (pieces to camera) prior to a dive. Then it’s a case of ticking off shots on the shot list and getting the right reactions at the end of the dive, before wrapping up the day with some final PTCs and then going back and reviewing footage.

What difficulties do you face?

The main difficulty is presenting underwater! Without the right comms, this is impossible, so must be done in voice over. We did start using an underwater comms system towards the end of “Borneo from Below” season one. This means that I can present and talk in front of marine life. I hate the setup, as it means you burn through air. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable and makes me sweat (and occasionally throw my presenter toys out of my trailer). At times it’s fun living up to the prima donna presenter stereotype!

In “Borneo From Below – Galloping Extinction: The Last Stand of the Seahorse”, Bertie takes a look at these special little characters and some of the threats that they face. Source: Scubazoo

What is the most extraordinary marine creature you have ever come across?

Jumping in with feeding killer whales and bull sharks in Mozambique will always take some beating. It was so unexpected and so rare, and frankly, the greatest buzz of my entire life.

How did “Borneo From Below” come about?

After spending the best part of 20 years shooting blue chip documentaries for the likes of the BBC and National Geographic, Scubazoo are taking the leap into digital platforms. We are in the process of launching SZtv, which will showcase all of our online series (and we’ve got some really exciting ones in the pipeline). “Borneo from Below” was our first online series and came about because there are so many fascinating stories happening around Borneo which need more exposure. So many, in fact, that we’ve just started production on our second series – so stay posted!

Where next for “Borneo From Below”?

Series two will cover stories such as the oil rigs of Brunei, Pulau Tiga’s “snake island”, diving with hammerheads in Layang La
yang, paddle-boarding a crocodile-infested tidal bore in the jungle, the whale sharks and mantas rays of Sangalaki, and much, much more. After this, the aim is to take the “From Below” brand to other countries around Asia. Now we just need to find sponsors!

What do you think are the most important issues facing the oceans?

There are so many. Our oceans are in a mess: rising, polluted and catastrophically overfished. Plastic pollution really grinds my gears. The amount of plastic we get through is utterly terrifying – and most of it is completely unnecessary. We package plastic within plastic, within plastic. Crisp packets are oversized and stuffed with air to make it look like we’re buying more product. It’s cynical stuff from corporations and they should be held accountable. However, as consumers, we also need to not be so damn lazy and must “reduce, reuse and recycle”.

In “Borneo From Below – Death By Plastic: 4KG in a Pilot Whale!”, Bertie investigates the impact that plastic is having on our underwater world. Source: Scubazoo

What attributes should an underwater presenter have?

First off, you need to be comfortable when a camera is thrust in your face. If you’re the sort who says “get that away”, this is the wrong career path! Being a show-off helps, as does liking the limelight. I used to enjoy being on show, but now after a shoot I will go home and cry and punch myself in the face repeatedly*. You also need to be passionate about your discipline, willing to work long hours, able to produce under pressure, have a way with words, and preferably look more like a mandarinfish than a hairy frogfish!

*not always true!

Have you any advice for aspiring underwater presenters, or Nature presenters in general?

This is a very, very difficult career path to follow, particularly as there are so few job opportunities. However, if you absolutely insist on it, first off get to know your subjects – and that involves thousands of hours hard graft. A degree in marine biology or zoology is a big help, but I don’t have either. Secondly, develop a style: Are you the funny guy, the natural history Attenborough type, the cute surfer chick? Get your buddy to help make some films that you present, which should be well researched and a little different to what’s out there. And then once you’re happy with the result, show to friends and family for honest feedback. If you’re crap, think about another career. If not, try sending them out to presenting/wildlife production agencies. It’s a very niche profession, but if people are out there doing it then why can’t you?

The hard-hitting trailer for “Borneo Wildlife Warriors” being launched this coming July! Source: Scubazoo

Please note that the Borneo From Below Facebook page has now changed to SZtv