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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

As I try to take a forward stroke, my paddle bounces off the swarm of reef sharks circling below. My kayak rocks as they bump against the hull. Looking down, I scan the uncountable gray shapes darting randomly back and forth. Many look to be in the 6 to 7 foot range. Suddenly there’s a larger yellow one, obviously different from the rest. It’s a lemon shark, more aggressive than the abundant black-tips. It sinks out of sight.

I wonder what would happen if I flipped over? My pulse is racing.

A camera had jammed on the first go-around, so the National Geographic film crew signals me to paddle over the shark mass again. Right, OK. Why should I hesitate? After all, the photographers are in the water filming while I’m protected in my plastic kayak cocoon. Back I go.

© Peter McBride,
National Geographic

Our Tahitian-French friend Ugo sees John, a cameraman, float toward the shark feeding frenzy, too absorbed in his work to notice. Ugo grabs John frantically and scolds him: All the people in the water are supposed to hold onto the boat’s bowline while Ugo throws tuna scraps to attract the sharks for filming. Calmly hanging off the rope, near the boat, supposedly reduces the shark threat. Right, OK. I take a few more slow runs over Ugo’s “shark city” for the camera. Catching small waves to shore, I enjoy a few last glimpses of the sharks and reflect on those tense, amazing minutes above them.

In September 2002, I joined a National Geographic-sponsored expedition headed south to the Tuamotu islands of French Polynesia. The team had contacted NOLS in search of an experienced ocean paddler, and I was fortunate enough to be able to join them. My feelings were far beyond excited as I headed to the South Pacific.

The National Geographic team was a mix of skills and experience, including writer Jon Bowermaster, photographer Peter McBride, cinematographer John Armstrong, and renowned whitewater kayaker Alex Nicks, who shot additional video while also serving as the “sound guy.” I was the lead wilderness skills person, responsible for navigation, safety, equipment and rations. But, as I was the only person without a media role, I often ended up posing for the camera. Perhaps I will add “sea kayak model” to my resume.

Shooting film on the ocean is all about getting different perspectives. Things get boring quickly from the angle and height of a sea kayak cockpit, so the team had all sorts of tricks to make shots more interesting. Peter McBride would ascend coconut palms with rock climbing gear. He also had a camera mount with extensions for the kayak’s stern hatch. The wacky, pterodactyl-like ultralight airplane of Gerard, a wild Frenchman, provided a different camera angle. And then, of course, there was the underwater filming. During almost every kayaking film session, the plea was to “be closer, much closer.” One day Jon Bowermaster descended to 80 feet with scuba gear.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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