Shoot Out In Mexico Part I
DIVE’s writer John Boyle is spending three months in Mexico, diving and filming for National Geographic. He tells us the stories from behind the camera. In the first of a three-part series, he dodges a police shoot-out, falls in love with sea lions and crashes his drone…
Chased out of town by angry locals, fish that just don’t turn up, getting stuck in a lagoon with an incoming tide, crashing our drone... it’s not always easy making wildlife documentaries!
‘What’s the most frightening thing you've encountered in your filming career?’ I was recently asked at the end of a talk on filmmaking. The audience at Falmouth University expected tales of encounters with ferocious sharks or man-eating squid. My reply took them by surprise: ‘Mexican cops!’ But it was an honest answer. I’d been stopped by the Mexico City police three times in 24 hours for imagined motoring infractions, including having dive gear (but not tanks) in the back of the car. ‘You need a special licence for carrying cargo,’ I was told. I was only allowed to go on my way after a bribe had been negotiated, the figures written on the dusty paintwork of my rental car.
That wasn’t my scariest encounter with the cops, though. While trying to find my way out of sprawling Mexico City, a wrong turn took me into an industrial area. Crawling in heavy traffic, I heard gunfire. Several kids ran across the road in front of me followed by policemen in flak jackets, blazing away with pistols. Like something out of Die Hard, one of the kids tried to mount a motorbike and was shot. He fell to the floor and blue petrol flames engulfed the bike. After briefly checking him, the cops carried on their pursuit.
But despite my fear of its police force, Mexico is one of my favourite countries on the planet – it’s one of the world’s most underrated and surprising wildlife destinations. And so I found myself committing to three months filming in Mexico.
My contract from National Geographic is the broadest I’ve ever seen. It’s an agreement to distribute my film or films under the working title Wild Mexico, but until the shoot is completed, the outline of the film is left blank. Content will depend on what we shoot.
Our company, Shark Bay Films, is a small operation based in Cornwall, UK. There’s just two of us and we carry out every role – producer, researcher, organiser, cameraman, writer, editor. Fionn Howieson has worked with me for the best part of 20 years and is the more technical of us – he’s the editor, our chief drone pilot, and a good packer, which is essential on a trip like this. I tend to be the organiser and the writer. We’re both cameramen. We try to produce Blue Planet-quality documentaries, but on a college-project budget! National Geographic markets our final product.
It’s a great way to work – once National Geographic have agreed to a distribution deal, we’re able to produce the film we want to make. However, without the support of a production team, every day is an adventure, plans change by the hour and we have to go with the flow of what happens on location – or doesn’t happen.
Our only brief from National Geographic for our Mexico shoot was the advice that pure underwater documentaries are currently hard to sell, so we needed to include topside wildlife to make it a more general programme. Our theme for the film was mass aggregations of creatures, interspersed with cameo portraits of unique Mexican wildlife. To give the programme structure I’d decided to base it around a year in the life of the country, and had managed to condense filming into three month-long trips over the course of the year.
When I made my first underwater documentaries around 25 years ago, it all seemed so easy. A couple of liveaboard trips in destinations such as Palau or Cocos, where all you have to do is roll into the water with your camera, and I had the material for a documentary. True, viewers were less discerning then, and there was an almost insatiable demand from broadcasters for anything underwater. Now not only do you need a good storyline, you also need to go to places and film creatures and phenomena that are new to the viewer.
The research and logistics of a project like Wild Mexico, and then getting to the right locations at the right time, is a massive undertaking. By the end of the project I’ll have taken 28 flights, boarded nine different boats, slept in more than 30 rooms ranging from hotels to huts, and driven 18 vehicles – plus three quad bikes and two horses – to reach locations.
And no matter how meticulous the planning on a project like this, just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
And so we embarked on our first trip. I’d made a hitlist of shots to get and first on the list were sea lions.
Although it’s a bumpy two-hour boat ride from La Paz, the sea lion colony on Espiritu Santo is a popular tourist attraction, drawing boatloads of life-jacketed snorkellers and hordes of divers every day. To get pristine footage without people in, I’d chartered my own boat and left the marina well before dawn. Imagine my irritation, then, as just as I was getting in the water another boat arrived and despite having the whole colony to choose from, decided to tie up to our stern. My anger turned to amazement as I recognised the occupant of the other boat as my friend, photographer Michael Aw, who had a similar plan! It’s amazing how small our diving world is, and how often you bump into friends at the most obscure locations.
Underwater, I wanted a shot of sea lions appearing out of a vast cloud of small silver fish, which would part like a halo around them. The sea lions were there in force, but unfortunately there was no cloud of fish.
But the sea lions quickly became my all-time favourite sea creatures. The pups had just been weaned and were making their first explorations of the undersea world, carefully watched by their mothers, with the larger males patrolling in the background. The playful pups were like little puppies. Anything and everything fascinated them: they rolled around, play fighting with each other; picked up rocks, took them to the surface and dropped them to watch them spiral down; played with divers, tugging on fins and nibbling at face masks – one even found a discarded snorkel and swam with it in its mouth, chased by its playmates. When they got tired, they pulled themselves onto the rocks to suckle and sleep in the sun.
My next stop was the fishing village that stopped fishing. Near the tip of Baja California, miles from any other town and ten miles beyond the end of the tarmac road, lies the tiny village of Cabo Pulmo, a fishing village with a difference: 30 years ago they decided to declare their waters a marine reserve and stop fishing. Instead, the former fishermen run trips for divers, snorkellers and – in the right season – whale watchers.
The results are stunning – fish stocks have apparently increased by 463 per cent – though no-one quite knows how that very specific statistic was calculated. Once you’re underwater, there’s no doubting the claims. Most spectacular was the colossal school of jacks that spiralled from the sand seabed to the surface. We also found other fish, such as yellow snapper, schooling in numbers unknown elsewhere in the Sea of Cortez. Big snapper and grouper, usually isolated sightings, roamed the reefs in gangs. And the park was so well organised we timed our dives so there was no other boat around. We were on fire! After four days diving – working with our French guide Thierry Lannoy who’s lived in Mexico for many years and boat owner Manuel – I’d filmed jacks in every way I could imagine.
But while I’d been enjoying spectacular diving, Fionn had been getting a very painful bum, sitting on the metal luggage rack of a quad bike and covering up to 50 miles a night searching beaches on the Pacific coast for nesting turtles.
In living memory, countless hordes of turtles once came ashore to nest but loss of habitat and egg poaching have seriously reduced the numbers. Much of the Mexican coast is now patrolled by conservation groups, licensed by the government, who help protect the turtles. Francesca Dvorak at Tortugueros Las Playitas holds the licence for the Todos Santos area and offered to help with our project.
When a turtle nests, the volunteers, led by Francesca and her husband German Agundez, collect the eggs and take them to a secure compound to hatch before a carefully controlled release. Unprotected nests are vulnerable to poachers as well as feral dogs and other creatures digging them up. Releasing them in this way means more hatchlings make it to the open sea and are less likely to be preyed on by birds and crabs.
However, nesting turtles are in short supply, and the nests already in the compound are showing no signs of hatching due to an unusual snap of cold weather. So Fionn is spending each night on the back of a quad bike patrolling the beaches and each day waiting hopefully for the first hatchlings to show.
We’ve brought a new piece of kit on this trip: a quadcopter with a GoPro camera attached. It’d been our plan to get aerial shots of whales, mobula rays, sea lions and sand dunes on a shoestring budget, and while he waited for turtles to hatch, Fionn was using the opportunity to get acquainted with it.
But the machine seemed to have a mind of its own. After a few minutes of successful flying, it suddenly went into ‘come home’ mode, headed straight for Fionn, climbed to about 20 metres, shut down its motors and then plummeted dramatically to the beach. So Fionn headed to the workshop for repairs – luckily we’d brought plenty of spares.
Back at Cabo Pulmo, I was promised interesting things to come. Early in the year, Thierry told me, as sea temperatures drop and the blue waters become green with algae, mobula rays aggregate in their tens of thousands, dozens leaping from the water at any time in a synchronised ballet. I made plans to to return at the height of the mobula season.
On the very last day before we flew home, the first hatchling Olive Ridley turtle poked its nose from the sand. It was quickly followed by others, and at sunset we filmed the tiny creatures scrambling down the beach, instinctively heading for the ocean. Beaten back by waves, they struggled on until the last washed out to sea, without a single mortality to predators. Hopefully, they’ll return to nest on this same beach in years to come. It was a heart-warming end to the first stage of our film shoot.