Natural history filmmaking is more than just a job. It defines your goals, characterises your ambitions, becomes your way of life. I’m often asked how I got into this business. It’s a career no one (especially me!) would have imagined, much less predicted, for my future.
I grew up a city girl, born to city folks. My idea of an outdoor adventure was a Sunday walk in a city park or sunbathing at a hotel swimming pool. As a child, we didn’t visit national parks and only once did I travel outside the continental US, on a short trip to the Bahamas.
Being a registered nurse was the only job I ever wanted. While in nursing school, I’d have laughed at the suggestion that I would have a second career 20 years later as an underwater filmmaker; I would have found the idea terrifying.
A few years after college graduation and a move from Kansas City, Missouri to San Diego, California, I began dating a doctor whose favourite pastime was scuba diving. That provided me with the motivation to take up the sport, a daring act to me at the time, and in May 1975 I became a certified diver.
A LIFE-LONG LOVE AFFAIR
I soon found myself literally immersed in the Pacific Ocean and enthralled with the new world I’d discovered in the sea. I’d fallen in love. First with the ocean and its inhabitants, and later with my instructor, Howard Hall. I’m sure my parents were horrified upon discovering my romantic attentions had drifted away from a doctor and future plastic surgeon, and toward a diving instructor! Eventually Howard became my wildlife guide.
When we first met, Howard was working full time at a dive shop and teaching diving, but he knew he wanted something more. His search for a career in diving prompted him to leave behind spearfishing and take up underwater photography. He began using his spearfishing skills to pursue fish, whales, and other sea creatures for photographic opportunities. His affinity for observing and understanding wildlife behaviour paid off as he began capturing unusual photographs. By 1976 he’d developed a reputation for photographing sharks, which led to being hired as “shark adviser” on the feature film The Deep. This assignment gave him enough financial capital to build an underwater movie camera. Soon he was making a modest living marketing his still photos. Having acquired underwater cameraman’s skills, by 1978 he progressed to doing assignment work, gave up scuba instruction, and “Have Camera, Will Travel” became his slogan.
I went on my first underwater filming expedition with Howard in August 1980. He was producing his first film about the hammerhead sharks that (used to) school in great numbers over the Marisla Seamount in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California. Underwater cameraman Stan Waterman and author Peter Benchley were along as hosts for the show. During this expedition I had an experience that changed my life forever.
RAY OF CHANGE
Returning from a dive, I saw an enormous Pacific manta ray soaring over the seamount, its wings spanning more than five metres tip to tip, with fishing net wrapped around one of its cephalic fins. I watched the manta begin to fly by, then turn in my direction and stall beneath me. I couldn’t believe it, but there was no mistaking the ray’s intent. I settled down on its back and succeeded in removing the embedded fishing net.
Whether this behemoth thought me Androcles or what, I’ll never know. But it then took me for the “ride” of my life.