Moviemaker in Malaysia

From Norfolk to the reefs of Borneo, and from biologist to underwater cameraman – Simon Enderby is our featured Movie Maker

New Generation

So how does the son of a Norfolk pig farmer become a leading underwater cameraman living in Borneo, with credits on dozens of documentaries broadcast by television stations worldwide? And all this achieved while he is still in his thirties...

Simon Enderby’s career has been characterised by persistence, a passion for underwater filming, and a healthy dose of being in the right place at the right time. And his success has been irrevocably intertwined with that of Scubazoo, a unique collaboration started by another pair of young ex-pat British divers, Simon Christopher and Jason Isley, in 1996.

Scubazoo started life as an island videography business, filming dive guests at the resorts on Sipadan island. The lads had just a couple of old Hi8 cameras with housings. They would dive with the groups and sell VHS tapes of their day’s diving to whoever would buy them. It’s a formula common at dive resorts around the world.

Simon joined them in 1998 and after just one day’s initiation, was left to run Scubazoo’s new island studio on Layang Layang in the South China Sea – a job that was to open the door for him to become one of a new generation of leading underwater cameramen.

Scubazoo has grown into a major force in underwater film-making with a group of talented underwater cameramen who work on everything from corporate videos to top-end documentaries.

At the end of his first year at Aberdeen University, Enderby gained a summer internship at the HQ of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Three months of counting, identifying, dissecting, and sifting through piles of Antarctic squid as part of pioneering research into the potential of the southern ocean’s squid-fishing industry taught him two things – that cephalopods are the most amazing family of creatures on this planet, and that the world’s oceans are still largely uncharted and unexplored. Until then, his degree course had been in terrestrial ecology, his aim to become the next Dian Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist fame). Returning to Aberdeen, he changed as many of his courses as possible to marine biology.

Again, fate stepped in to steer Simon towards what was to become his career. A midnight paddle down the Grade 4 North Esk River led to a temporary ban from the university canoe club. ‘We did have glowsticks!’ says Simon, but this didn’t seem to appease the authorities and he looked for something to replace canoeing. He took up scuba diving, and was hooked.

In his last year of university, Simon and some colleagues organised the first comprehensive coral reef survey of Layang Layang Atoll in the South China Sea, in collaboration with the University of Malaysia. This was a complete success, and after a short spell back in the UK working with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, the team received funding for an extensive, eight-month survey of the entire coastline and coral reefs of Sabah, East Malaysia.

On completion of this, Simon ran a marine turtle research programme on Malaysia’s Turtle Islands Park on Sabah’s east coast. Within days of finishing his turtle research, and one day after his 24th birthday, he returned to Layang Layang to begin life as an underwater cameraman.

Until then Simon had virtually no experience in underwater filming. He’d used a Sea & Sea stills camera for marine survey work and had toyed with an old Hi8 video camera in a homemade housing a few times. Simon’s Scubazoo training on Layang-Layang was simple – Jason Isley handed Simon a camera and they went diving. Within five minutes, totally engrossed in filming, Simon had lost sight of Jason but carried on filming for the rest of the dive ‘having a ball’. Jason left the island the very next day, and Simon set to work filming dive tourists. The learning curve was very steep indeed, but he had a creative eye and took to filming straight away.

A couple of months later, Simon was once again in the right place at the right time. TV presenter Nick Baker came to Sabah to carry out his first dives for The Really Wild Show, and together with Jason Isley, Simon found himself filming for the BBC for the first time. It’s a relationship that has lasted. Simon and Scubazoo have filmed with Nick many times since then – but Simon has never let Nick forget that they made him wear a pink ‘Laura Ashley’ mask throughout that first show!

Since then, recognition as one of the leaders of the new generation of underwater cameramen has taken Simon to destinations around the world, including as Monty Hall’s underwater cameraman on both series of Great Ocean Adventures. He’s worked on high profile productions such as the BBC’s Last Chance to See with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine, Deadly 60 with Steve Backshall, and Human Planet: Oceans – his work on that project winning him a BAFTA nomination.

Simon is very modest about his achievements. ‘I consider every time I pick up a camera a training day,’ he says. ‘Even now, I always like trying something new or different, and hate to think that one day I would be so arrogant as to think that I knew it all. Every day with a camera in my hands is a good day, even better if I am underwater with the fishes.’

What would he regard as his biggest achievement? ‘Over the past 14 years I’ve been so lucky to visit so many places and film on a myriad of different projects, and I feel a successful result in any of these projects or film shoots is a great achievement. Whether filming great white sharks underwater in Mexico and the footage being screened 17 seconds later on UK TV sets, or finishing a shoot with saltwater crocodiles and getting out of the water with all my arms and legs still attached. Or giving presentations on the world’s marine ecosystems to school kids and having a six-year-old vow never to throw plastic into the sea for fear of suffocating a sea turtle, or hearing an entrenched traditionalist Asian say he’ll never eat shark fin soup – to me these are equally great achievements too.’

Cephalopods still remain his favourite subjects. ‘Whether it’s a Giant Pacific octopus, voracious Humboldt squid or funky flamboyant cuttlefish, I can never stop filming these incredible creatures.’

Is there anywhere he hasn’t filmed that he would like to? ‘Antarctica – without a doubt. I have been angling for Antarctic projects for quite some time. To come face to face with a leopard seal is a real personal quest of mine.’

Funny stories? ‘Many! Wrestling with Monty Halls, finishing a shark shoot and surfacing into a Hooters Calendar Girls shoot, filming a top TV reality show while experiencing severe stomach issues, and watching Michaela Strachan try to call to dolphins by humming through a snorkel...’

At the age of 38, Simon is proof that if you want it enough, then with passion – and the luck of being in the right place at the right time – your dream is an achievable goal. He’s now a partner in Scubazoo, which has grown from the initial two-man team to an operation employing 18 people and carrying out work all around the world. But it’s not an easy ride. ‘Of course our business has had more than its fair share of ups and downs, but our passion and stubbornness to see through our dream keeps us going.’


Simon’s Show reel: the pick of some of his best shots


Palau Jellyfish Lake: dream-like sequence in the famous jellyfish lake


Promotional video: Kandooma Resort, Maldives




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