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Just another snapshot from the office: Lance Milbrand preparing to head
'downstairs.' Just another snapshot from the office: Lance Milbrand preparing to head "downstairs."
Hammerheads Sighted
by Peter Tyson
October 1, 1998

Many people deplore the 9-to-5 routine, but I have no complaints. Take today, for example, an average day at the office for Howard Hall Productions. It was busy, with my ears ringing off the hook and one meeting after the next; there was even an unscheduled off-site meeting with some VIPs. But I didn't mind. As they say, somebody's got to do it. Here's how it went:

7 a.m.
Power breakfast with our department's top executives Howard and Michele Hall and middle managers Cranston, Thurlow, Conlin, Milbrand, and Holdson. I, the lowest man on the totem pole, tuck into my omelette and toast and try to keep my mouth shut.

8:30 a.m.
We load into the company pangas and race downtown to Bajo Alcyone, also known as Cousteau's Seamount. A pod of dolphins tries to keep up with our drivers, Pepe and Reiner, but can't manage it and drop back out of sight. As soon as we leave Chatham Bay, three-foot seas with snarling whitecaps force us to slow to a crawl. I feel a tad "carsick" but don't let on.

Juvenile leatherbass Many small fish, such as this juvenile leatherbass, find protection within the sea urchin's spines.

9 a.m.
We park at Bajo Alcyone, dropping our anchor onto the seamount, which rises to within 80 feet of the surface about a mile off the south side of Cocos Island. Decked out in the latest Navy rebreathers, Howard Hall and his two lieutenants, Cranston and Thurlow, head off to a high-level meeting downstairs. Since they're meeting some real sharks, I'm asked to wait outside. So I take in the view: a lone boat returning from a night of fishing, seabirds swarming its stern; waterfalls tumbling off the fortress-like island; small ash-gray birds shadowing our boat.

10 a.m.
Hall calls upstairs to say the meeting's over and would Lance please come down and get the IMAX camera for reloading? Once the PIG is on board, I watch Holdson and Conlin reload it. They work quickly, being careful to keep stray billows of seaspray from wafting into the open housing. Ten minutes later, the camera is on its way back down to Hall.

10:15 a.m.
The intercom crackles—Hall again. He's shooting juvenile cardinalfish hiding among the protective spines of sea urchins, he says, and it's fine for the new guy, Tyson, to come down, along with divemaster Peter Kragh and Michele Hall. Within minutes, we're on the elevator, descending into the depths along the anchor line. We will not lose sight of this vital lifeline, for the current is positively charging through there. Last year, just such a current swept four scuba divers five miles out to sea before their dive boat finally managed to find them—five hours later.


Billy and Mark Billy Holdson (in shades) and Mark Conlin reload the IMAX camera at sea.
10:30 a.m.
It must be rush hour. High above my perch 106 feet down on the seamount's crest, I see my first hammerheads: a contingent of 40 or 50, sashaying along as if they had not a care in the world. The visibility is not great, and I can only half see them, moving in silhouette against the brightly lit surface. Thermoclines of cold current sweep through the surrounding 78-degree water, throwing the scene out of focus for a moment till they pass, as illusory as the ghostly hammerheads. Closer in, in fact all around me on this undersea mountaintop, whitetip reef sharks patrol the Bajo's basaltic hallways. I can see the cat-like eyes of the nearest ones checking me out. Suddenly my beeper goes off. It is the dive computer on my wrist, telling me that I've exceeded the no-decompression limits and must decompress for one minute. I reluctantly head up, decompress for ten minutes, then climb aboard the panga, exhilarated at my first brush with the hammers.

11:15 a.m.
Meetings over, we return to our hotel, the Undersea Hunter, for lunch. Michele Hall takes the wheel, apparently for the first time judging from the gentle ribbing of her all-male colleagues. (She takes it in her stride.)

12 p.m.
Power lunch of burgers, fries, salad, and cookies, followed by a post-prandial meeting to view the footage shot in the morning. (The IMAX camera has an 8mm video camera built into it for just such instant viewings.) There's a particularly poetic shot of hammerheads arcing through the blue, a good candidate for the final cut. The Halls have made a rough assembly of 65 minutes (not counting footage from this trip). The final IMAX film can be no more than 40 minutes. As Cranston told me, it will be easy to cut 10 minutes, painful to cut another 10, excruciating to cut the final five.

Rush hour at Bajo Alcyone Rush hour at Bajo Alcyone.

2 p.m.
Hall calls a low-level meeting at Lobster Rock, a helmet of basalt jutting out of the east side of Chatham Bay. He plans to film close-ups of whitetip faces. Unlike hammerheads, whitetips are not skittish around scuba bubbles, so I'm allowed down right away, along with Kragh and Michele Hall. "Suits" are everywhere—the gray-skinned whitetips—and smaller reef fish tend to keep well out of their way. Halfway into the dive, Kragh taps my arm to point out a suit among suits: a rare silvertip shark. Later, we watch a mottled white flounder have a late lunch. Flat as a pancake, it sidles forward with infinite patience toward a group of little red cardinalfish feeling safe among an urchin's fearful black spines. Closer . . . closer—snap! The group has one less little red cardinalfish.

3:30 p.m.
Back on the surface, we get a call from the other panga. An unplanned meeting is being called off-site with some VIPs. Three Pacific manta rays are doing laps around their boat on the far side of Lobster Rock—does Howard want to film them? Hall replies in the affirmative, and Pepe puts the petal to the metal. Five minutes later, Hall and Cranston are in the water with the PIG and a newly mounted 30 mm wide-angle lens. For the next hour, as we watch the late-afternoon sunlight bring out the tiniest detail on Lobster Rock, the pair try to catch up to the rays, whose paired dorsal fins now and then slice the surface. Like all VIPs, the mantas give Hall and Cranston the run-around, and they get no good footage. But at least one of us is thrilled just to have caught a glimpse of these graceful birds of the sea.

5 p.m.
The workday is over. Back at the Undersea Hunter, we wash down our gear, get changed, take notes, read—whatever will get us through till dinner at 7. I start thinking about the next day, which will be as atypical as today was typical. I plan to join a biologist and several others on an overnight ascent of Mt. Yglesias, the highest mountain on Cocos Island.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Photos: (1,3) Peter Tyson/NOVA/WGBH; (2) ©Michele Hall; (4) ©Howard Hall..

Hammerheads or Bust (Sept. 23)
Get Used To It (Sept. 25)
Nature Reigns at Cocos (Sept. 27)
The PIG and the Process (Sept. 29)
Hammerheads Sighted (Oct. 1)
Assault on Cocos (Oct. 3)
The Director's Cut (Oct. 5)
Swimming with Whitetip Reef Sharks (Oct. 7)
The Magnificent Seven (Oct. 9)
The Search for Lake Cocos (Oct. 11)
Courtship of the Marbled Rays (Oct. 13)
Of Booby and Beebe (Oct. 15)
Taken by Surprise (Oct. 17)
"This is Cocos, This is Cool" (Oct. 19)


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