In September of 2015, I traveled to the Seychelles on one of my early shoots for 'Blue Planet II'. Our team consisted of myself, veteran BBC producer Miles Barton, cameraman extraordinaire Ted Giffords and researcher Sophie Morgan - who had been working up the story. Our destination was Farquhar Atoll - one of the most remote islands in the Seychelles - and our job was simple; to film something that had never been filmed, photographed, or recorded in scientific literature before. Gulp. It's at this stage I have to take my hat off to Miles, for choosing to take such a momentous (albeit calculated) risk. It's only by choosing to take these kinds of risks that the BBC is able to keep finding new natural history stories that wow audiences and ultimately keep the industry thriving.
The behaviour we were headed to try and document was one that I had already been tipped off about by a good friend, who had been on a fly-fishing charter around the outer islands of the Seychelles a year or so earlier. He had been informed by local guides that every now and again, whilst fishing in an area where there were large bird colonies, that they had a couple of times caught Giant Trevallies (GTs) that once landed on deck, would regurgitate a mass of feathers and mangled bird parts. Initially, the fisherman assumed that the GTs were scavenging on dead or dying birds, but then every now and again, one of them would catch a glimpse out of the corner of their eye, of what looked to be a GT flying through the air. They surmised the fish were taking the birds mid-air. Surmised is the best word to describe this situation - the definiton being "to suppose that something is true without having evidence to confirm it." This is exactly the case we were in when we started, and traveling all the way to the Seychelles with little evidence to support the existence of what we were going to film is a big call to make.
It has to be said, that even without being able to take out agile birds mid air, GTs are extraordinary fish. Caranx ignoblis, or 'the iggie' are a favourite fish of many divers, fishermen and general marine enthusiasts. They have an incredible presence and perform many extraordinary behaviours, including gathering in huge groups to swim up estuaries on South Africa's east coast and they have even been documented in scientific literature attacking and killing reef sharks! My job on the shoot was to film the GTs underwater, as a compliment to the long lens work that Ted would be doing, both using the Cineflex Ultra on a rig we built onto a small boat but also in a 'traditional' long lens style - on the sticks with RED Dragon and Phantom Flex, both with the amazing Canon 50-1000 lens.
I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time in the Seychelles Islands over the last ten years or so, having been based there for my old job with the Save Our Seas Foundation. During these years I made frequent excursions out to many of the outer islands, including D'Arros, Desroche, Aldabra, Cosmoledo and Astove - but I'd never made it to Farquhar, so just getting out there was an exciting opportunity. The real excitement however, lay in the opportunity to work on such an exciting story and attempt to document behaviour that had hardly even been seen by people before, let alone filmed to the sort of standard we have come to expect of BBC land-mark productions.
What with the territory being somewhat familiar and also having filmed GTs as normal reef characters in many parts of the world, I felt fairly confident I would be able to do the GTs justice, but I knew working inside the atoll, where the behaviour takes place was going to be tough because of fluctuating visibility. We would be at the mercy of the tides - their daily rhythm bringing poor vis on the outgoing tide (as sediment from the inside of the lagoon is flushed out) and improving with the influx of clean oceanic water. The first few days of diving left me feeling somewhat rattled - the GTs were more tricky to get close to than I expected, I assumed because the area is so remote and very seldom dived. It didn't take too long however for the fish to start getting used to me and giving me nice close passes, helping to paint a portrait of them underwater - shots that help tell the story of the clash between the fish and the birds. It turned out that ultimately my job had been relatively easy. Ted however was still stuck with an absolutely monumental task. The job of getting his lens honed onto exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time (and in focus) was nigh on impossible - the birds would rocket out of lagoon at an indeterminable spot, completely without warning. Perseverance and tenacity ultimately paid off for Ted however. With assistance from Peter, one of the local Seychellois fishing guides, Ted filmed some astonishing strikes, with the GTs annihilating the Terns both on the surface as they were resting and even the fish mid-air attempting to take birds on the wing. Peter, like many fishermen has both incredible eyes, that see the tiniest gesture the fish is making, even through the ripples on the surface of the water - he also has in innate understanding of the behaviour, that has taught him when the GTs will take an opportunity to grab a bird.
Ted's shots stand out for me as some of the most extraordinary footage I have ever seen.
What I like about this tale, is that ultimately success was not won by new technology, as is so often the way with natural history work - it was a combination of Ted's skill, field craft and tenacity, coupled with expert local knowledge that lead to this extraordinary footage being captured, helping to document an incredible behaviour that has seldom been seen by human eyes.