Behind the Scenes: The Great Whales/Sharks
by Mark Conlin, cinematographer

      I was new. It was the summer of 1988, and I had just started working for Howard Hall Productions and was quite star struck. We were hearing reports from fishermen that a large number of "really big" whales were being seen off of San Diego. The descriptions sounded like blue whales, but the odds of that were slim. But since the stories kept flooding in, we were on board, loaded and motoring towards the Los Coronados Islands in less than 24 hours.

      I had not spent much time on the open ocean, but it was easy to tell something was different. As opposed to the usual vast expanses of empty blue water, the ocean was alive. All the animals we passed seemed to be on alert, either as predators or prey. Large schools of anchovies at the surface were being feasted on from above by pelicans and sea gulls, and from below by Pacific mackerel. Flying fish, yellowtail jacks and the strange Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, passed quickly under our boat. Blue sharks were everywhere, as they finned just below the surface. All this activity was caused by the presence of a small red shrimp, Euphausia superba, or krill, as it is more commonly known. The ocean had turned blood red in huge patches 100 feet across. The krill were being herded conveniently into tight balls by the action of thousands of small anchovies. Blue sharks materialized from all directions to gorge themselves on a free shrimp lunch. Howard and Bob Cranston had been diving with blue sharks for years and knew this type of feeding behavior had never been documented before on film. Howard was his usual calm and professional self, and Bob expertly motored our dive boat around the patches of krill. I expertly ran around the boat yelling and pointing.

      Bob shut down the boat's engines and we drifted. We only needed to see one huge whale with a small dorsal fin and an immense blow to know they were blue whales. The dilemma was, do you stop and film great shark behavior or try for an uncertain chance at blue whales? The unwritten rule in underwater filmmaking is "Get it while it's hot." Wait until tomorrow, and chances are there will not be a shark or whale in sight.

      I went below, loaded the camera, and met Howard on the dive step of our boat, the Betsy M. The king of understatement said, "Try not to let any sharks bite me on the back of the head." A reasonable request, but all I could think about at the time was, "Who is going to keep the sharks from biting the back of my head?" Before I had time to get that question out Howard said, "Let's go," and jumped into about 3,000 feet of water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.


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