I almost didn't go to the Alcyone Seamount this morning. Alcyone is on the
southeast side of Cocos, and the wind has been blowing 20 knots on that side
of the island for several days, producing very rough seas. And it was
Alcyone has been rough during this entire expedition. I feel sorry for my
crew when we go to there. Half of them get seasick when we work the
seamount. Our dive there yesterday wasn't much encouragement. Visibility was
so poor that I aborted the dive after 15 minutes, without shooting any film.
So I had lots of good excuses for not going to Alcyone this morning. But
Alcyone is the
only dive site at Cocos where we have consistently sighted large schools of
hammerhead sharks. And a good sequence on hammerhead sharks is the last item
that still needs significant work on the Island of the Sharks script.
As soon as our two dive skiffs rounded Lobster Rock heading for Alcyone, I
knew I had made the right decision. Although it was still rough and still
raining, it wasn't as bad as I had suspected. More importantly, I could tell
that the water rushing past our skiff was blue and not green, as it had been
the day before. Visibility was going to be better.
Lance Milbrand (in water) takes the IMAX camera from Billy Holdson.
We anchored our skiffs, and Bob Cranston, Mark Thurlow, Avi Klapfer (the
owner of the Undersea Hunter), and I descended wearing our closed-circuit
rebreathers. I was immediately thrilled with what I saw. Visibility was 70
feet or more, and I could see a large school of hammerheads passing over the
seamount as I drifted down toward the bottom 100 feet below. I lifted my OTS
communication device and called up to the camera skiff. "Send the camera," I
Lance Milbrand descended with the camera and was met by Thurlow, who had
brought down our powerful movie lights. With Cranston's help, they mounted
the lights on the camera and began swimming the system in my direction. With
Klapfer's help, I had selected a site on the seamount's highest peak and
anxiously waited for them. A school of 200 hammerheads were passing directly
over my head, and I couldn't do a darn thing without the camera. But I knew
they would be back.
Milbrand passed me the camera, and I waved him away. He was wearing
open-circuit scuba and, ironically, the bubbles might frighten the sharks
away. Milbrand took a quick look at the school of sharks and turned toward
the anchorline. I settled down beside a large rock and waited for the school
to return. It didn't take long. Soon I could see a massive school of
hammerheads approaching from the south. I raised the camera and pressed the
run switch. As a school of 100 sharks passed overhead, another school
approached from the east and converged to create a school of 200 or 300. But
just as the nearest shark came within 10 feet of the camera, it bolted away,
causing the rest of the school to bolt as well.
This is a consistent pattern when I try to film hammerheads with our IMAX
camera. The machine makes so much noise that the sharks freak out just as
they come close enough for a really great shot. We've made dozens of dives
and spent more than 100 hours underwater trying to complete our hammerhead
sequence. It's been slow going.
We had been down just over one hour when I finally ran out of film. Oddly
enough, the camera holds only three minutes worth of film. But at $1,000 per
minute (the cost to purchase, process, and print the film), I tend to be
pretty careful about when I press the run switch. In fact, we average
one-and-a-half hours underwater to shoot each three-minute load.
Scalloped hammerheads swinging past Alcyone.
With the camera roll now exposed, I called to the surface on the
communications system. "Surface copy."
"Surface copies, go ahead," Mark Conlin said from the camera boat.
"Recover the camera," I said. "Give me a fast film change. We'll wait on
"Surface copies." Conlin broadcast from above. "Lance is on his way. We'll
give you a film change. You'll be waiting on the anchorline." Cranston,
Thurlow, Klapfer, and I swam to the anchorline and began ascending. We were
soon met by Milbrand hurrying our way. My decompression computer registered
15 minutes of decompression time, meaning we would have to stay at 15 feet
the surface for that long before surfacing. But we didn't plan on going up
yet. Instead, we would decompress and wait for the camera. When it was
reloaded, we would go right back down. At the end of the second dive I knew
we would be looking at some really serious decompression time, but when
conditions are good, you've got to shoot. Tomorrow the water might be murky
It took 20 minutes to reload the camera and get Milbrand back in the water.
Normally, Billy Holdson and Conlin would turn the camera around faster. But
it was so rough on the surface that they had trouble holding the camera
still while Holdson threaded the film. Milbrand threw up twice. Hanging on
the anchorline was much nicer. I felt sorry for them up above. I did some
time on the camera support boat last trip when I had to stay out of the
water due to an ear infection. I can tell you that trying to load that
camera on a rough day at Alcyone is a foolproof foundation of a successful
I also felt sorry for my wife Michele and Peter Kragh on the dive skiff
(the second of the two boats we had anchored at Alcyone). They waited for us
to finish with the IMAX camera so that Michele could come down to shoot
production stills. I'm sure she wasn't having a very nice day either.
Although only 97 pounds, I am constantly amazed at how tough Michele is.
Towards the surface
Finally, we saw Milbrand jump in the water and so the four of us on the
anchorline headed back down. Once again on the bottom with the lights
remounted, I was ready to shoot a second three minutes of film. I wanted to
shoot fast, because I knew we were now quickly accumulating decompression
time. With Cranston's help, I swam the camera to the southern end of the
seamount and descended to 110 feet. There I framed a school of very colorful
yellow goatfish and waited for the hammerheads to pass in the background. I
didn't have to wait long. Almost immediately, a big school began heading my
way. I triggered the camera and concentrated on keeping the goatfish in the
lower part of the frame as sharks filled the center and top of the
viewfinder. In rapid succession, I took four different shots of the goatfish
school as hammerheads passed overhead. Soon the film magazine was spent.
"Surface copy, recover all gear, recover all gear," I called through my
underwater microphone. "Send the scuba divers down. We're all finished
As the four of us in rebreathers dangled from the anchorline beginning our
30 minutes of decompression time, I thought about the last few shots I'd
taken. I was in such a hurry that I think I may have underexposed the first
few shots and possibly set the focus wrong on the last one. I won't know for
sure until I'm back in California three weeks from now, when I can view the
footage on the big screen. But to be conservative, I plan to shoot the same
scenes tomorrow if I get a chance.
Michele and Kragh passed us on their way to the bottom to shoot some still
photos. A few minutes later, Milbrand and Conlin followed. When we four
rebreather divers left the water, we had been down just over two hours.
On the way back to the Undersea Hunter, I could hear the guys on the camera
boat singing the theme to Gilligan's Island at the top of their lungs as
waves broke over the bow of their skiff and drenched them in salt water.
Soon my comrades of the dive skiff joined in the chorus. I realized once
again that if Island of the Sharks turns out to be a great film, it will
largely be because
I have such a great crew.
Howard Hall is the director and cinematographer of Island of the Sharks.