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Swimming with the sharks: Imax crew got up-close and personal off the coast of Costa Rica

Friday, June 22, 2001

By Adrian McCoy Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The result of 400 million years of evolution is a complex creature that is much, much more than a set of jaws.

A new Omnimax film opening tomorrow at Carnegie Science Center stars a cast of hundreds of hammerhead, silky, and white- and black-tip sharks. "Island of the Sharks" was filmed in the waters off Cocos Island -- 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica. The area has one of the highest concentrations of sharks on the planet, because of its rich and varied marine life, which attracts the predators for feeding.

Although the several species of sharks in the film display a healthy appetite, they aren't man-eaters. Still, the producers took precautions, hiring professional divers, not cameramen, as the underwater crew, says "Island of the Sharks" director Howard Hall.

In filming sharks, Hall says, he's learned a few things. "Each species has its own idiosyncrasies and personalities. Some are harder to get close to than others. Some are more dangerous than others.

"The hammerhead sharks at Cocos are probably the most spectacular sharks you see there. They occur in schools of over a hundred at a time. They're big and fearsome-looking, but they're very difficult to get close to. There's virtually no chance that a diver is going to be bitten by one. They just do not show any interest in humans whatsoever."

The shy hammerheads were spooked by the noisy Imax camera. "Every time you'd turn the camera on, the whole school of sharks would just turn and go the other way."

More on sharks:

Sharks are in much greater danger than we are

Shark facts


A standard Imax camera was customized for "Sharks" with underwater housing, viewing and lighting systems. Filming in Imax is always a challenge, but underwater, it presents unique difficulties. The camera can film for only three minutes at a time, requiring constant trips to the surface to reload. The heavy 250-pound camera is difficult to move and swim with.

But the difficulties in shooting in the large format pay off in the final product, the director says. "What natural history films do, beyond educating people about what is in our natural world, is give people a sense of what it's like to be someplace they would never otherwise visit. The big screen gives a much better sense of what the environment is like than watching a film like this on television. There's an incredible amount of information in each one of those images."

There are many memorable sequences in "Island of the Sharks": a school of hundreds of hammerheads swimming above, like a large flock of birds; sea lions and striped marlins herding a terrified school of fish into a ball; silky and black-tip sharks attacking a massive, swirling school of jacks, returning until all that's left is a rain of silver fish scales sinking to the ocean below.

  'Pay them a healthy respect'

Carnegie Science Center director Seddon Bennington has had his own up-close encounters with sharks. "Fortunately, none that were terribly interested in me," he says.

Bennington, who has a Ph.D. in marine zoology, has spent a lot of time scuba diving and snorkeling in the waters of Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

He's encountered several species, including whale sharks and sand sharks.

"There's something quite thrilling about sharing water space with a shark if you know they're not dangerous. The way they sort of keep an eye on you is quite special."

Bennington hopes that people who see "Island of the Sharks" will come away from the film with "a deeper understanding of sharks and a more balanced perspective. On the other hand, they need to pay them a healthy respect, too."

-- Adrian McCoy


It's one of the director's favorite shots, in part because of its drama and power, and in part because it's something that doesn't happen all the time. "The first time I saw that occurring, I had an Imax camera in my hand and was filming. It's something we knew about and we hoped to film, and we got very, very lucky."

The silky and black-tip sharks in the sequence also are not a threat to humans. "These are very fast sharks, not especially large. Normally they wouldn't be any real danger to divers. But when that bait behavior is occurring, it's very dangerous [to film]. It's sometimes very difficult to escape the school. The shark would never bite you on purpose. But if you were inside that school, it's very possible a shark would bite you by mistake. That was a main concern." Hall is proud that in over 1900 hours of diving time, there were no accidents or injuries.

Although the sharks are the headliners here, the film also features many other supporting characters in the underwater and island environment: sea stars, eagle and manta rays, jellyfish, hermit crabs, sea lions, terns. The interactions of this diverse community underline the web of life and a cooperative society that sustains itself in the oceans. It's not simply eat-or-be eaten. One sequence shows yellow barber fish, who perform a valuable grooming service, eating parasites from other fish.

Hall and his crew were filming during a major El Nino event, which warmed the waters and drove many of the large predators north in search of cooler pastures. The changes wrought on the ecosystem by El Nino became part of the film's story line.

Although Cocos Island is a national park and therefore a protected area, another predator much more dangerous than the sharks -- fishing boats -- is documented lying in wait for prey offshore. Safe havens for marine life are vanishing rapidly, and that's part of what drives Hall to specialize in making natural history films. "One of the reasons I do it is in hopes of creating a sense of value for marine life. People might not want to protect something they don't know or don't understand."

As a frequent traveler on oceans around the world making documentaries, he has been a first-hand witness to the adverse impact humans have had on marine life through over-fishing. "There is no place on the planet where it's not a problem. Marine environments are being impacted literally everywhere. Over-fishing is happening in every body of water on the planet. Marine life populations are almost uniformly in decline everywhere. I know that sounds extreme, but I have not seen any place that is as richly populated with marine life today as it was 10 years ago."

Hall recently finished field production on his next Imax film project -- "Coral Reef Adventure" -- which was filmed in the tropical Pacific and will be released next March.

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