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Under Antarctic Ice

Interview 1 | 2

The man behind the incredible images in NATURE's "Under Antarctic Ice" is Norbert Wu, an independent photographer and filmmaker who has photographed in nearly every conceivable locale, ranging from the freezing waters of the Arctic and Antarctic to the coral reefs and jungles of the tropics. Wu's work has appeared in thousands of books and films, and been shown in museums. He holds electrical and mechanical engineering degrees from Stanford University, and did doctoral work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

"Under Antarctic Ice" filmmaker and diver Norbert Wu.
In 1997, 1999, and 2000, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Wu Artists and Writers grants to document wildlife and research in Antarctica -- journeys that ultimately resulted in "Under Antarctic Ice." In 2000, he was awarded the U.S. Antarctica Service Medal "for his contributions to exploration and science."

NATURE recently touched based with Wu at his studio near Monterey, CA.

You've photographed and filmed all over the world -- what made you pursue such an ambitious project in Antarctica?

In 1997, I first went down to McMurdo Station in the Ross Sea, the southernmost marine environment in the world, to shoot still photographs. Scientists had thought that Antarctica's water, like the Arctic's, supported little diversity of life. But the southern seas are proving to be full of surprises. While the topside life is minimal, the marine life is dynamic, colorful, and extensive. I shot 500 rolls of film, and those photos proved to be tremendously popular. My experience led me to propose a documentary on Antarctica's marine world to Nature. Fred Kaufman, NATURE's executive producer, asked me to shoot the documentary in high definition (HD) video, so viewers could "truly experience the otherworldliness of Antarctica." So I returned to McMurdo in 1999 and 2000 with a film team.

Isn't Antarctic diving dangerous?

Diving in freezing water -- water temperatures were 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit -- can be tricky. But its not as harsh on the gear as you might think. There were days where we had topside conditions of negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the saliva in my mask immediately turned to ice (you spit in the mask before diving to prevent fogging during the dive). My drysuit froze up so I could barely move. But since water can only get so cold before it freezes, the underwater environment is relatively warm and at least predictable.

As a teammate, Dr. Dale Stokes, once put it: "There's this large, active, colorful community under the ice, and then you come up through a hole into a raging blizzard." We did have a few problems with the gear, but none of them substantial. Also, diving from sea ice was heaven for me, since I detest boats. Sometimes doing a dive was as simple as loading one of our tracked vehicles, driving to a heated hut over a hole in the ice, and jumping in the water.

Was Antarctica the toughest place you've ever worked?

I wouldn't say the toughest. Typically, when people hear we are diving in ice, they can't believe it. But in Antarctica you have a base and lots of support. The dive huts protect you from the cold, and at the end of the day, you usually have a warm bed and a meal. Tropical locations often present more problems. You've got humidity and insects. Every environment has its own set of obstacles.

Photo Essay
View some of the filmmaker's stunning photos

Norbert Wu talks about filming in the frozen seas

Antarctic Research
What scientists are finding

For Teachers
View the "Under Antarctic Ice" Lesson Plan

Web links and books about Antarctica

Animal Scramble
Play our game!

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