by Paul Scott, Producer, "The Living Edens: Tasmania, Land of the Devils"
Tasmania is the one part of Australia that is truly seasonal. Summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In autumn, deciduous leaves transform from flame red to golden brown before falling. In winter, it snows, and in spring, flowers adorn the
At least, that's how it's supposed to be!
As producer of "The Living Edens: Tasmania, Land of the Devils," I expected it would be a challenge to capture on film the majesty of the four seasons -- especially as I wanted to illustrate the changes in rainforest, alpine and marine environments. But what I didn't anticipate was that the seasons would be so out of whack. The year we filmed, spring flowers blossomed in summer, leaves fell in winter, and it snowed more in late summer than it did all winter! It's easy to blame El Nino or global warming.
There is a match dissolve shot 30 seconds into the film that shows a mountainous landscape as it transforms through the four seasons. Logic suggested we would need to visit this location once each season. However, this shot was only achieved after seven visits because it rarely snowed. Even when it did snow, the snow would melt before we arrived.
It was good that we scheduled seven filming trips over the year to capture the different mood of the landscapes and the plight of the animals. The first trip was in winter, but it just didn't get cold enough to snow. We recorded spring, summer and autumn successfully enough, although not at the anticipated times. The last trip was scheduled again for mid-winter, and by then, I desperately needed snow.
Praying for Snow
There's a saying in Tasmania -- if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes, and it will change. Unfortunately, it doesn't usually turn into what you want.
Time and money were running out, and still no snow. Some days, the temperature would reach below zero, but we experienced blue skies due to a high-pressure system. There wasn't a cloud in sight, let alone snow. Looking back, it was strange how I was praying for clouds and lousy weather, but that's what I was doing!
Eventually, the snow fell, and we were able to film both the forest and alpine plain animals experiencing winter. But now I had a problem. To get Tasmania's highest mountain range in snow, I needed an unlikely set of conditions to coincide. On top of that, I only had the budget for a few more days filming.
First, I needed enough snow to decorate a mountain chain. Then I hoped the clouds would clear, leaving blue skies, so I could film the snow-capped views in great light. However, I also wanted there to be no wind -- highly unlikely given that Tasmania is in the path of the roaring forties. Because Tasmania's mountains are inaccessible, the only way to get there is by helicopter. I knew we couldn't fly at altitude in high winds!
Would you believe it, my prayers were answered! The next two nights, it snowed constantly. On the third day, winds were light, and there was not a cloud in the sky.
But we had to move fast. The weather forecast a southerly change with high winds coming. Cameraman Michael Dillon and I hopped in the chopper and headed straight for the snow-capped peaks. As if from a bird's point of view, we filmed the mountains with our front-mounted remote control camera. We captured some delightful aerial shots by zigzagging between the peaks and flying as low as only 20 feet above the mountaintops. With the first part of the mission accomplished, we set down on walled mountain to film panorama shots.
Michael and I got out and unloaded the gear. The 360-degree views were breathtaking. Although we were at nearly 6,000 feet above sea level, it wasn't particularly cold, and there was surprisingly little wind. I could see for miles around, yet knew no other people were out there. On this mountain, our footprints in the snow would be the only legacy of human visitation that winter.
But once again, we had a time problem. I could see the frontal clouds coming in from the south. Kevin Philips, our pilot, was getting nervous. He warned me that if we left it too late, we would have to abandon the helicopter and walk down. A day's hike with no food wasn't part of the plan!
While Kevin chain-smoked, Michael and I set up the motion control unit for a time-lapse shot. I took still photographs, and Michael filmed scenery with the second camera. I was thankful that we managed to achieve two great hours of filming before the winds got up and we were forced to leave. Strangely, the clouds just hovered in the south and left us in
peace! There must be a God after all.
However, our battle with the elements wasn't just confined to helicopters, but boats also.
Rough Seas and High Swells
Forty miles due south of Tasmania lies the tiny uninhabited Island of Pedra Branca, a bird rookery with 5,000 gannets and 1,000 shy albatross. Only a handful of scientists and one film crew have ever set foot on this rock. The reason? The only way there is a four-hour boat ride in rough seas that can swell to 20 feet even in good weather!
I was warned that our day trip would be no walk in the park. Nigel Brothers, one of the biologists we were meeting, had informed me that the year before, he was stuck on the Island for 10 days due to bad seas. Nick Mooney, a Tasmanian National Park official, spoke of the perils of getting on and off the boat, and predicted that one of our film crew was likely to end up in the ocean.
It was a sunny March day that we traveled to the island on a fishing boat captained by Neil Smith. With 40 years experience navigating the seas surrounding Tasmania, Neil got us there safely. Getting onto the island would prove a harder task.
For safety reasons, Neil's fishing boat could only get to within 200 feet of the island. From there, we were on to a little rowing boat. Cameraman Peter Coleman was the first on the island, followed shortly afterwards by marine cinematographer Mick Barron. Luckily, Nick and Nigel, who had arrived the day before, helped us set up ropes to winch our gear to shore -- no easy task.
I sat in the rowing boat surrounded by gear while Neil rowed frantically to combat the six-foot swells. As we approached the wave-pounded rocks, I noticed that the bull kelp was as high as 20 feet above the waterline. This meant that the waves must regularly have met that height to keep the seaweed alive! The only safe place to get ashore was a tiny ledge that was lashed by waves.
With oars in hand, Neil timed his approach to coincide with the smaller waves. Once we reached the ledge, it was my turn to jump. My heart was pounding. With expert timing, Neil got close enough for me to leap. I practically hugged Nigel when he caught me and put me ashore!
We had a terrific filming day, despite the stench of guano and the deafening cacophony that only 6,000 birds can produce. The gannets and shy albatross did everything they were supposed to, except that some had this habit of throwing up all over us once we ventured close enough. Crossing some of the three-foot ledges was tricky given we all had heavy backpacks, and the sheer drop below was 150 feet! The gannets had made this territory their own, and would peck at our ankles as we passed.
With the sun getting low, it was time for us to pack up and get down to sea level. This took two hours. In that time, the winds had picked up, and the swells were growing. It was now six at night, and we had a four-hour boat ride and one-hour drive ahead of us. Even worse, we still had to brave the rowing boat and the ever-increasing waves.
As I was to be the first off the island, Nigel informed me of the safety procedure. I was to put on my life jacket and hurry down the rope to the ledge about 30 feet below. This ledge was totally exposed to the waves, which Nigel warned were large enough to go over my head and strong enough to rip me right off the rocks. He would give me one of three instructions. One was to jump in the boat. Two was to scamper back up the rope real quick before being hit by a large wave. Three was to jump in the sea because the wave was so massive I wouldn't make it up in time!
From his higher vantage position, Nigel was the only one who could see the waves heading towards us. His task was to guide Neil's rowing boat close enough to me so I could jump in, but at the same time, gauge the size of the oncoming waves.
The dreaded moment arrived. Nigel said, "Go!" and I scampered down to the ledge. The sea lashed at my feet and waves came up to my knees, but that wasn't my main concern. As Neil's rowing boat got closer, I realized just how much he was being thrashed about by the swells. How the hell was I supposed the jump in a moving target? Then I heard Nigel scream, "Jump!" What was probably three seconds felt like minutes -- I was so frightened I could taste my own adrenaline. I was just about to jump when Nigel screamed, "Hold on!" I had hesitated too long. The moment had gone.
It was then that I witnessed one of the most frightening sights of my whole life. I had accepted that the rowing boat would be moved from side to side, but I hadn't considered altitude! At the precise moment Nigel said jump, the boat was 2 feet below me. A few seconds later it was 15 feet below me. If I had jumped, then I would have been badly injured!
I must confess that by now, I was terrified. At one point, while waiting for my second chance, I swear the boat was 20 feet below me! It was like looking down from the top of an apartment block. Even in my worst nightmares, I had no idea the sea could do that. Still, I had to take stock of myself.
I heard Nigel yell, "Get ready!" I could see the boat coming closer. I concentrated as hard as I could. Nigel screamed, "Jump!" I could see the boat rising towards me and I knew it was now or never. I leaped further than I thought I could and landed right in the middle of the boat. Instinct told me to slip quickly to my bum to buffer the impact. I heard the guys clap, but my elation was short lived. We still had an awesome task ahead.
It was my job to transport most of the gear back to the main boat. So by using ropes, case after case was winched down to me. When the rowing boat was full, Neil took me back to the big boat. I was now amidst sea swells the likes of which I had never seen. At times, the boat dipped so low I couldn't even see the island! I thanked God that Neil's negotiation of the swells was nothing short of heroic.
From the main boat, I watched Neil bring back Mick and Peter one at a time. It was dark now, and we were all exhausted, but safe. As we steamed off towards Tasmania, Nick and Nigel flashed their lights goodbye. Being hardened field biologists, they were to stay several more days.
Although the return boat trip was rough and we all had to contend with seasickness, I was delighted with the day's achievements. I reflected on the dangers we had all faced and the fact that if we had stayed the night, chances are we would have been stuck there for many days.
We all slept well that night. Strangely enough, I dreamed about birds. Thousands of them, making one hell of a racket!