Camera, Action!

December 2011 - New York Times Green-Blog by Richard L. Pyle
© copyright by Undersea Hunter Group
The journey from my home in Hawaii to San José, Costa Rica, was fraught with the usual assortment of international travel woes – a delayed flight, a missing piece of luggage containing expensive diving equipment and a bit of a mix-up involving my ride from the airport.

None of those problems were insurmountable. And nearly 24 hours after leaving Honolulu, I was in a comfortable bed in the guest room of my friend Avi Klapfer, owner of the Undersea Hunter Group, a pre-eminent adventure dive operator based in Costa Rica that would be providing its DeepSee submersible and her mother ship, Argo, for a diving expedition to Cocos Island.

The expedition is part of One World One Ocean, a nonprofit media campaign initiated this year by MacGillivray Freeman Films, known for giant-screen educational offerings like “To Fly.” The idea is to harness the power of film, television and new media to jump-start a global movement to restore oceans to health.

The campaign will involve traveling to more than 40 locations and all five oceans over the next four years, using cutting-edge IMAX and 3-D digital film technologies to tell the most compelling ocean stories. My role is twofold: I’m both a scientific adviser to the project and an active participant in the expeditions, which will allow me to conduct my own research.

Although I wear many hats, I primarily consider myself an ichthyologist and a taxonomist. As an ichthyologist, my research is focused on fish — particularly coral-reef fish. As a taxonomist, my job is to discover and describe new species and study their evolutionary relationships as well as document their distributions — both geographically and in terms of specific habitats where each species is found. In essence, I am a fish nerd.

I earned my Ph.D at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, under the guidance of John E. Randall. Jack is the grandmaster fish nerd, having described and named more new species of fish than any other living ichthyologist and more valid species of coral-reef fish than anyone else in history.

Jack was successful in part because he began his career around the same time that conventional scuba gear became available, and he was among the first to use this new technology to document coral-reef fish. Conventional scuba is limited to a depth of about 150 to 200 feet, but the coral reef environment extends much deeper beneath clear, tropical waters, to about 500 feet below the surface.

Following in Jack’s footsteps, I have been using advanced diving technology (especially closed-circuit mixed-gas rebreather systems) for the last two decades to explore these greater depths in search of new species of fish. For this expedition, however, rebreathers will only be part of the technological picture.

One morning, I joined Avi, the dive operator, along with his wife, Oley, my friends Michelle and Howard Hall, and Greg, Barbara and Shaun MacGillivray for breakfast. It had been more than a decade since we were all together while making the IMAX film “Coral Reef Adventure.”

After breakfast, we traveled by van to the town of Puntarenas, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, where we met up with the rest of the film crew and other passengers to load all of our gear, and ourselves, aboard the Argo, the newest of the Undersea Hunter Group’s fleet. Thus began our 320-mile, 36-hour trip to Cocos Island, which is renowned among divers for its striking underwater features, rich communities of fish, large aggregations of several shark species (particularly hammerheads) and spectacular diving conditions.

Most important, the island is vigorously protected by the Costa Rican government with a local wildlife management station operated by well-trained rangers. We hope to use our blend of technologies — the high-tech rebreather gear, the state-of-the-art camera equipment and the DeepSee submersible — in unparalleled ways, not just for scientific exploration or exceptional filmmaking but as critical tools in ocean conservation.

After more than a year of careful planning, our adventure has finally begun!

Richard Pyle, an ichthyologist and database developer at Bishop Museum in Honolulu, is exploring and documenting marine biodiversity as a science adviser for the One World One Ocean initiative. In a series of posts for the Green blog, he will describe an expedition to Cocos Island, off the Costa Rican coast.

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