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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,
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
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