Editor's Note: This story is taken from the GOOD10 Ocean's Issue. You can download and read the entire digital magazine issue for free here.
Orla Doherty, a filmmaker for the BBC Studios Natural History Unit and Mark Dalio, Founder & Creative Director of OceanX, represent the intersection of cutting edge scientific research, exploration and filmmaking. Doherty spent more than 500 hours in the deep ocean, producing the "Deep Sea" episode of the awe-inspiring docuseries Blue Planet II. OceanX, true to its mission to "explore the ocean and bring it back to the world," provided the ships, submersibles and filming equipment necessary to capture the wonders of the deep sea and connect to millions across the globe. In this interview, the two discuss the symbiotic relationship between film, adventure and science.
How did the working relationship between OceanX and the BBC Natural History Unit come to be?
Orla Doherty: We had been commissioned to make Blue Planet II four or five years ago. It was my job to reach out to oceanographic institutions, scientists, marine biologists, underwater camera folk and really create a network of partners that were going to help us accomplish a groundbreaking, jaw-dropping series about the ocean. My particular mission was to figure out how are we going to film in the deep ocean. It's not easy at all. We didn't want to get into the deep ocean and just document it. We wanted to make a beautiful film, one that captured the magnificence of this world. That means being able to get extraordinary amounts of tech, camera and lights and just get down there. I knew that this was going to be a really hard thing to do. Eventually, I connected with Mark and his organization and talked about how we were going to launch into filming an amazing series.
Mark Dalio: This really brings me back to memory lane. We were in the early stages of some of the work that we're doing at OceanX and were really looking for projects that had a global footprint and brought the beauty of the natural world to audiences in new ways. We thought it was just going to be one shoot and one expedition. Then it naturally progressed into another one and another project.
Orla Doherty: When we first chatted, we realized that we both had seen this single volcano called Tavurvur on this island Rabaul at very different times, about 10 years apart, which was active and erupting. We both thought, "Wait a minute." We both know and deeply love this one volcano on the other side of the planet. Clearly, it was meant to be. Mark has access to deep sea submersibles and I thought we could partner with him and make a beautiful film about the deep sea. When I hung up, I knew he was the perfect person to work on this series with. It was one of those fabulous moments where you know something has begun. Here we are seven years later and it's still going.
Tell us a bit about the Alucia— the 56-meter research and exploration vessel built to broaden the scientific understanding of the ocean. It's the home base for filming Blue Planet II and the home of so much technological wizardry.
Mark Dalio: Alucia has been around for quite some time. We actually acquired it in 2012, while I was working at National Geographic. I was very much involved with the work Alucia was doing. We undertook an expedition with NHK and Discovery to go film a giant squid for the first time. We used our platform at Alucia with two manned submersibles, helicopter operations, wet labs and dry labs to conduct really groundbreaking science. A lot of the work that we did was with Orla and her team at Blue Planet II, like when we did the first 1,000 meter submersible dive in Antarctica. I think it's been quite a journey being able to use the scientific platform to further our knowledge of the oceans and to excite the public too.
The Deepest Dive in Antarctica Reveals a Sea Floor Teeming With Life www.youtube.com
Do you remember your first impressions of the ship? What was that like?
Orla Doherty: I spent 10 years at sea studying coral reefs in the Pacific while living on a hand-built junk boat. We studied the coral reefs and tried to understand them and diagnose them all around the world. Although it was very important work, the ocean exploration was done in a very antique, old school way. It is the polar opposite of Alucia. A decade later, when I find myself standing on the deck of Alucia, it's like I'm traveling through time. I've gone from some sort of Medieval sailing platform with a tiny engine and a generator, to Alucia, which is like this floating kind of spaceship with submersibles that can get picked up and dropped into the deep sea. It can take us down to 1,000 meters and it's extraordinary. It was such a rush of excitement to meet a vessel like this and see the capabilities of ocean exploration.
Mark Dalio: You're going from zero hours in submersible to 500 hours, I believe.
Orla Doherty: Yeah, which is incredible. It's just so incredible. My knowledge of the ocean up until standing on the deck of Alucia stopped at about 50 meters because that's kind of as deep as you can go when you're on SCUBA. But then when I discovered that this deep ocean was all there for the taking if you had the tools to get into it, everything changed. On my very first trip on Alucia, we took some dives and we talked about brainstorming a partnership and how we could really work together on that "Deep Sea" episode for the series. It completely transformed my sensory experience of the ocean. The deep was no longer an academic place that you just read about in books. It was a place you could actually go to, which was incredible.
Mark Dalio: Most ocean exploration to those depths are handled through ROVs, which are remotely operated vehicles. I think using submersibles offers that human connection for both scientists and filmmakers into the deep sea. It also takes the audience along the journey through their eyes, which really sets submersibles apart. Then also being able to actually conduct the science and the filming – it would be a lot harder to do through ROVs.
You're both so deeply immersed in a world most people can't access or even fathom. Do you sometimes feel like visitors from another planet after you've spent so much time in the ocean?
Orla Doherty: The very first time that I'd been out at sea—we'd been out for about two months—we came back and I went into a supermarket to buy groceries. It was hilarious because I had land sickness so the shelves felt like they were going to cave in on top of me. I kind of had to stop and brace myself because that's what happens when you've been moving constantly. Then you go to solid dry land and you're not moving, but you think you are. In terms of feeling like an alien, like I come from outer space, the most crystal clear example of that for me is when we were working in the Gulf of Mexico. We took a detour on the recommendation of this brilliant deep sea scientist, Mandy Joye. She led me to some methane bubbles which sounds somewhat unexciting. You can see it in Blue Planet II, but these giant bubbles are rocketing out of what looks like a desert, a mud bottom, like nothing there. Then these bubbles shoot all the way up to the surface at 780 meters above us. We watched as the bubbles cascaded out of nothing and shot past us. It was truly like going to another planet that day. I really felt like I had left Planet Earth entirely.
What does it feel like when you come back to the surface?
Orla Doherty: We go down and we film for seven or eight hours, and then we ascend back to the surface. I can't wrap my head around the fact that we were ascending. I felt like we should be falling out of the sky because we've just left, we've gone into outer space and now we should be coming back down to Earth. The next day, we dived to that very same place, and there was nothing happening. It was like it had never happened. It felt like we caught this one moment in time that probably nobody will see with their own eyes ever again. It was extraordinary.
For astronauts, there's a famous expression about the overview effect, essentially how your perspective of life on Planet Earth changes when you can see the entire planet. Do you feel like there's something similar with exploring the deep ocean?
Mark Dalio: Yeah, absolutely. I think that going into these locations like Antarctica or even Papua New Guinea really makes you appreciate the natural world and really brings me back to what really allowed me to fall in love with the oceans and nature to begin with. You know, being able to really connect in a way where you don't have any distractions and you really have a clear focus for each of those missions. Then you get introduced to these really alien worlds and creatures that inhabit these various locations. The remoteness really allows you time for reflection… You don't have all the distractions of the city and what we're used to daily. It brings to light why you're doing this and why you want the public to be able to experience, to feel, that same connection to the natural world.
OceanX, as described by your chief scientist, is a global community that is engaged with understanding, enjoying and protecting our oceans. Blue Planet II was the most watched TV show on the BBC in 2017. What's next?
Orla Doherty: I think it's about continuing to try and access equivalent audiences and new audiences. We want to bring the ocean into the living rooms of people all around the world and to do it over and over and over again in many different ways. The project that we're collaborating on now is trying to have as massive an impact in terms of provoking thinking around the ocean. It's about enlightening people about the ocean and what's in it, why it's there and why it's important. It's about provoking action around the ocean. But we're taking a completely different approach from Blue Planet II, where we let the animals tell their stories. That was us giving the ocean, giving the natural world, a voice. Beautifully crafted imagery, really well-thought through storytelling techniques, really evocative music and beautifully written script to take an audience through these natural worlds and meet these animal characters. But we're ready for the next adventure now. We're going to have the human experience.
Mark Dalio: I think part of that journey is connecting and bringing that everyday ocean story to the world. I think human connection is absolutely the way to go. We love these beautiful natural history sequences. But being able to actually do that with the scientists and give the scientists a voice onscreen is really going to be able to shine a light on their work and really start to inspire the next generation to have role models. They'll be able to show audiences that marine biology and exploration is not just for these astronaut like figures, but being able to hopefully bring them on the journey in multiple ways.
Orla Doherty: But there's a whole other way to wake the world up to the ocean— that's to join an expedition of exploration, adventure, science, boundary-pushing, technology-busting new ways of getting into the ocean and uncovering its great secrets. To explore its dark mysteries, meet its incredible creatures, come face-to-face, eye-to-eye with them and to do that through the human experience is our next adventure.
Are there any proverbial white whales left to be filmed—moments or creatures that are in the ocean that have not been captured on film yet? Or are we kind of at the stage where we just have to look for things and see what we find?
Mark Dalio: Every day that we're on the ship we're experiencing new wonders and discoveries. I think that certainly the colossal squid would be an interesting one to go after given that we were able to capture the first footage of the giant squid, now bringing that up to scale and really go after the white whale, as you say. I think also one that has always intrigued me is the White Shark Café off the coast of California. I want to know what are these aggregations of great whites doing in this location. All of the satellite tags have been showing that they are there, but they don't know whether it's feeding, mating or what. That's certainly something that we have been interested in. But I would say that the colossal squid would definitely be one of the key white whales that's still yet to be filmed.
Orla Doherty: I think there are treasures on the deep floor that we truly don't know are there yet. For me, the erupting mud volcano was a classic example of that. That's really something that has never been seen before. I think there are plenty of those, and it's simply about putting the time in, doing really good research and working with great scientists that can help guide you to where something might happen. The other truly great revelation, which may not be as headline grabbing as the colossal squid (because it's even bigger than the giant squid,) is the new layers of intimate behaviors in animals. We think, "Yeah, I know sperm whales. I know what a sperm whale does." But we don't have a clue. Having the capability to spend extended periods of time with animals like that—there is so much in their intimate relationships either with each other or with other animals that aggregate around them. For me, there's sort of myth busting magic in going deeper and deeper into that. So that's a world we think we know. We don't know it. We still don't know. The magic of the ocean is you can put in the time and you can get nothing. We've had that experience, but when it gives you a gift, it gives you something to treasure for the rest of your life.
What does it feel like to see something that maybe people have never seen before? You know, to see a new bioluminescent fish or a natural phenomenon?
Orla Doherty: It only has value if we've got all the shots so it's not just us seeing it. It's so we can put together a compelling visual and significant story that we can then share with audiences around the world. That's when seeing it was worth it. Don't get me wrong, it's great seeing it. We can marvel and say it's lovely and wonderful, but we're not going out to make Blue Planet II for me to have a good time. We're going out there to show the world what's in our oceans. I was never on top of what was new, what was amazing, until I was in there to go, "Oh my God. We really can tell this story. We really have got it from every angle. We really didn't miss a moment. We can really share the magnificence of what we've experienced." For me, that's when I could celebrate what we have seen.
Mark Dalio: Sometimes you don't comprehend the significance. You might really appreciate it, but once it really sinks in, once you're back on land and can go through some of the scientific data or work with scientists, it hits you. You start to understand the implications and the effects of it. I think going back to the methane bubbles and the brine pools, like speaking to Mandy Joye afterward and going into the significance that has it might look amazing and might really be a visual spectacle. But then you have to understand the significance. You realize that all of this methane is sitting down below the surface and it's actually coming out more because of the warming that the Earth is going through. It's similar to what you see in places like Siberia where these pockets of methane under the permafrost are getting released and creating these huge craters and it's significantly increasing. As it increases and gets released because of the warming, we won't know the true effects of how that will increase since no one's been there. It's almost like a ticking time bomb that's waiting to happen, but no one actually can see what the timeframe is and what the effects are until it's too late.
Exploring the Alien World of Brine Pools www.youtube.com
Speaking of timeframe—can you talk about filming a "whale fall" in timelapse?
Orla Doherty: We wanted to film what happens to a whale when it dies and sinks to the sea floor. We were working with a team in the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean who have their own submersible. We knew that we could get repeat access to the deep sea to be able to watch this. We had about an 18-month window to document it from beginning to end. It was an extremely complicated procedure wrapped in the kind of state of the modern ocean. Whales are dying all around the world because they're being struck by ships. Unfortunately, that was the fate of our whale. So we got it to the sea floor and with a GoPro on it, and within 26 minutes, a great big six-gill shark had sniffed it out and was on it. Then having the capability of being able to dive in at intermittent intervals and being able to really document that change over time was remarkable. But having video data from somewhere like 750 meters deep in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean observing a decaying carcass that is then feeding everything from giant predators to successional scavengers, 18 months later, was just extraordinary. It was extraordinary to be a part of it.
The term "sci-fi tech" comes up a lot when speaking of the technology OceanX and the Alucia have access to. What are some of the things on there that you feel really represent and encompass that term?
Mark Dalio: I think one specific piece of tech that we don't always have on the ship is the E-Jelly. This amazing scientist, Edith Widder, who was actually the one that was able to find the giant squid for the first time, invented this device. The E-Jelly is this light display that tries to mimic light that a jellyfish makes and creates this effect called a burglar alarm. Basically, the jellyfish emits the light effect on the device to warn if it's getting eaten by a predator. The larger predators like the giant squid of Humboldt see it and attack the fish or other creatures that are attacking the jellyfish. What you find is you can actually bring those down and attract all sorts of squid behavior from that. When we went with Orla and the BBC team off the coast of Chile, we ventured into the hunting grounds of the Humboldt squid where hundreds if not thousands of squid are in these depths. I think the work that Edith did in terms of pioneering it for the use of the giant squid, but then also for the Humboldt squid, is just a perfect example of how scientists are innovating and bringing new concepts and technology to uncover the secret lives of these creatures.
Even with the most amazing technology, there are still limits. What's one thing you wish existed today?
Orla Doherty: The submersible that I could go and live in. I'm not joking. I really do wish they existed. I'd love to live in a deep sea house that I could drive around at great distances because the deep ocean is very, very big, but that I could really go down and stay down for months. I'm in lockdown here. I've been in lockdown for 13 weeks so far. I'm fine. I could do 13 weeks on the deep sea floor, no problem. I just need the food, water and the machine. It would be creeping and crawling. I could do a grid pattern across the entire deep sea basin. It would probably take me the rest of my life to explore the ocean in the submersible, but I'd be okay with that.
You've both made the ocean your lives. Do you feel this deep connection with something you always had inside of you or was it fostered over time?
Mark Dalio: I've always loved the natural world. I've loved nature. It's hard for me to pinpoint if that was just an inherent love that I was born with or if it was fostered through my experiences both at sea as well as just being able to go with family. My father was really avid in terms of hiking and bringing us into the natural world and teaching us that human connection and respect that you have to give. That certainly translated into my love of the oceans. I think that without seeing and without experiencing it, it's hard to love something. I think that when you start to uncover this alien world and see all the beauty, but also all the issues that are going on, then you're able to really have that profound impact on yourself and your appreciation for it. There's different ways to experience it, so I'm not saying just actually physically being there, but even experiencing it on screen or in a VR setting.
Orla Doherty: For my 30th birthday present to myself, I learned to SCUBA dive. I put a tank on my back and I put my head under water, I saw my first coral reef, and my life changed instantly. I quit my job, I left London, and I moved to a boat in the Pacific. I spent 10 years underwater basically trying to do something to help change the future for coral reefs. That moment was my introduction to the ocean. I was a late bloomer, but I fell in love. I fell in love really, really hard. Ever since that moment, the focus has been the driver for everything I've done with my life. I'm pretty sure it's going to continue to be so.
Our oceans are in need of protection. They're in need of people caring about them. You're doing the hard work of bringing it to the masses, but what is a small action that every person on the planet could do to protect our oceans and help to heal them?
Orla Doherty: Connect to it. Think about the fish on your plate and where it came from. Think about everything we're doing wherever we are on Planet Earth, even if we're in the middle of continental U.S.A., right in the heart of it. We are connected to the ocean. What we're doing is either being fueled by the ocean, delivered by the ocean or driven by the ocean. What we're doing is impacting back whether that's us putting our emissions up into the air and then coming back down and creating havoc or changing the ocean or bleaching our coral reefs. The biggest thing that any of us can do is have the ocean in our consciousness.
Mark Dalio: As consumers, purchasing behaviors are very important. There are all of these small businesses that might promote better ways like using less plastic or less materials that are harmful to the oceans. Putting the pressure on the various corporations that might have a harmful effect is important. As consumers, we need to be more conscious of the way we are living that's less harmful to the ocean. I think that purchasing behavior is certainly something that's small, but if everyone chooses brands that are eco-conscious and does it on a larger scale, we could actually have a bigger impact in the future.
Orla Doherty: When we think about this planet, we think about our impact on it. When we think about how we are interfacing with Planet Earth, with our natural world—it's all important. The ocean is the greatest part of our natural world. It also happens to be one of the most important parts. Value it. It's actually the very thing that keeps us alive.