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Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 10 years on

Ten years ago, my first long feature for a commercial magazine was published and, to this day, Landfill-on-Sea for Ecologist remains my most searched-for piece of work. That’s because it taps into a massive and growing problem: our ever-swelling appetite for plastics. Plastic pollution in our oceans has shot up in the past decade, not helped, of course, by the proliferation of single-use plastics in our everyday lives. Plastic, in one form or another, is simply everywhere. And that must change.

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Ecologist magazine front cover

That was the message of my piece in 2007. So, why, a decade on, is the article as accurate as it was when it first appeared (save for even larger numbers)?

Two weeks ago, I was on board a research yacht, travelling in the Coral Sea with documentary makers and founders of not-for-profit Two Hands. Along the beaches of Queensland’s more remote islands, we found scores of bottle tops, bits and pieces of packaging material and the scarily ever-present gnarled flip-flops (with shark bite marks).

The anti-plastic lobby is building strength and the Two Handsers of the world are doing their bit to affect cultural change, but their message is up against slow governance, bottom lines and the petrochemical industry’s might, which, faced with a future of electric cars and the like, depends on our plastic addiction for its own survival.

It’s a David and Goliath battle, meaning that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is going nowhere fast – and that first, big feature of mine remains scarily pertinent.

 

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The Perilous Reef, feature story // 7 June 2011

THE PERILOUS REEF

Three screens are flashing images of blueness at me. Blurred smudges of azure, navy, royal and aquamarine are punctuated by snatched glimpses of fins, smatters of pink, smears of bright yellow and the white fuzz of foaming water.

I’m in the BBC’s Far North Queensland editing suite near Cairns – a windowless, empty room besides the bank of computers ahead – and series producer James Brickell has sat watching the stream of moving images for a solid eight hours. Where my untrained eye sees montages of colour and watery action, James sees minutiae of the natural world: a coral polyp unfurling, a feather star feeding, a fish cleaning a shark.

The room – the antithesis to the material we’re watching – is not a far cry from those in James’ usual work environment, the tardis-like halls of the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. From those Georgian buildings, he has worked on some of the most talked-about crowd pleasers in the NHU’s history, including Really Wild Show, Big Cat Diary and Wildlife on One and is quietly famous as the series director of hit children’s show, Deadly 60, and producer of Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood’s ‘Snakes’ episode. From rappelling into ‘hellish’ caves in Borneo and having his hand lacerated by piranhas in the Amazon, to confounding scientists by filming never-before-seen jumping snakes in Singapore and working with naturalist and ‘living icon’, David Attenborough, James has seen more than his fair share of the extraordinary.

The location, though, is what makes this project so special. Not far from here, beyond the lazily leaning palm trees, vinegar-stationed beaches and shark baits lies the Great Barrier Reef – the subject of the BBC team’s project and the single most challenging story James has ever been asked to declaim. Never before has a ‘blockbuster’, big budget, comprehensive series about the GBR been made and the story has never been riper for telling.

The rub – yes, even in paradise, there is a rub – hinges upon logistics and the all-pervading infectious air of concern from scientists and those who know the reef best: the Great Barrier Reef lies precariously on a knife-edge, teetering between survival and irreversible destruction.

A national icon, a World Heritage area, an internationally renowned tourism honeypot and a ‘natural wonder of the world’ – no wonder the GBR, the world’s largest reef, is held so close the hearts of so many Australians.

“Everyone feels ownership of the reef. It’s an object with a personality – albeit a very big object with a very big personality. Everyone I’ve met, from dive operators to marine biologists to tourists want us to do really well. I feel a huge responsibility to tell the truth about what is happening to the reef – that weight of responsibility to those people is a new thing for me” James tells me. “I want to show the reef at its best so the world can see it’s most dramatic, beautiful, violent, awe-inspiring best.”

Easier said than done.

At nearly £1 million per episode funded by the BBC, Channel Nine and the Discovery channel, the three-part Great Barrier Reef series’ production is a global affair. 19 natural history and production experts, all leaders in their fields, come from five different countries and Brickell and his family have been plucked from England’s West Country and posted to Far North Queensland for a full year.

No stranger to capturing the raw, chaotic beauty of nature on film at the behest of the elements, filming the GBR has been an eye-opening experience for James’ team.

“When you make a wildlife film you’re trying to control as many elements as you can” he says. “You can do your best research but ultimately you can’t control animals and you can’t control weather. In the sea, you’re dealing with light, tides, lunar activity, weather, swell, currents, underwater equipment, access, restrictions, park authorities, seasons”, and, let’s not forget, the wettest Queensland spring on record. “Just to get a cameraman into clear water in good light with minimal currents, no waves and with the animal behaving well – that is very, very rare. Most of what I do is a compromise. The camera breaks, the light changes, the animal won’t cooperate, the swell changes. There are many, many more ways a shoot can go wrong than go right.”

The technological wizardry alone is bigger, better and more unique than anything that has gone before. Whole pieces of submersible kit have been invented to allow the team to reach as far as possible beyond the usual horizons of ocean cinematography.

Richard Fitzpatrick, marine biologist, principal underwater cameraman and the team’s resident shark expert – or as James put it, “basically a walking encyclopaedia of the GBR” – has built an underwater ultra-high speed camera that, as a world first, allows the team to record, store and review footage underwater.

A Cineflex camera – unusual in natural history filming, but at home in Hollywood – has been hired, according to James, at “crippling, eye-watering expense” and means that the team can document the whole reef from the air, capturing ever-elusive natural shots of animal behaviour.

Dealing with tiny depths of field is part and parcel of the rigours of natural history filming. An almost imperceptible 1mm movement of an immensely rare tropical sea dragon, for example, throws footage of the delicate creature entirely out of focus. In the end, it took 120 minutes of footage to produce what will eventually form a 1-minute clip in the film. The feeding sequence the team sought took just three frames of a 600-frames-per-second-clip.

Using specially-adapted remote cameras, it took two weeks to capture a usable shot of a dwarf Minky whale (incidentally thought to be the only whales to seek human contact) swimming next to the reef. The cameras, attached to rocks, recorded more than 100 hours of footage and yielded just five seconds of action.

“Painstaking, involved and without instant satisfaction,” James says the specialist time-lapse photography of the reef has, thankfully, allowed the team to show coral as a metropolis, a cityscape through which fish travel on ‘super highways’.

“To be able to visualise the life of coral in a way that’s never been seen before and using all the technologies we have available is truly astounding.” James tells me. “The reef is like a city in every way – all the bizarre creatures that have different functions on the reef. There are cleaners, builders, gardeners, demolition experts and a vast range of hunters – every creature has a different job and a different niche in which to survive. You get these weird marriages of convenience where two or three animals live in a partnership in which both a key to the success of the partnership.”

Coral itself could not survive without the symbiotic relationship it has with zooxanthellae algae. Rising levels of seawater acidification and sea temperatures can destroy this relationship and the coral bleaches, or dies, without the algae.

“Our experiments have ranged from utter disasters to absolutely stunning footage” James admits. The team has filmed, for the first time, a gall crab’s bluffing survival tactics. They’ve seen Christmas tree worms unfurling and crabs with anemones attached to their claws.

“The reef has a Jekyl and Hyde personality. It changes at night, sounds and sights alter and the whole cast of characters changes completely. It’s a beautiful city with a dark underbelly. I think it’s a miracle that any fish survives 24 hours on the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, they do survive because they all seem to know their place.”

Something, perhaps, we, as custodians of the reef, could learn from. It’s no secret that the GBR – almost flush with sugar cane plantations, sitting in slowly acidifying water, at the mercy of climate change, commercially fished and on the pathway of liners from SE Asia – is under threat. Indeed, renowned reef expert, Dr. Charlie Veron, maintains that coral reefs will be a thing of the past in just 50 years’ time.

James’ children have swum with lemon sharks, scrambled through dense rainforest and played with stag beetles the size of limes during their humid Australian break from Bristol. By the time the reef is expected to perish, they and their peers at the local infant school, where outings to the beach are the norm, won’t have yet turned 60 years old.

It’s clear that the GBR’s loss – and the hole it would leave in its wake – is too much for most to accept. The series, due to air in 2012, is hoped to educate as much as inspire. No mean feat. Still, Brickell shrugs and smiles, “It’s business for me.”

He shows me a freshly edited promotional clip, bursting with the perilous beauty of the reef. It speaks volumes. The production taking shape in this quiet BBC outpost is both a call to arms and a salutary lesson: all this, one day, could be but a film.

Technological wizardry at work in the Coral Sea.

An elusive Minky whale makes a rare appearance.

Setting up a time-lapse camera to capture the night sky above the GBR.

Wearing wet-weather gear on a bright sunny day – for sunburn as much as dryness.

Most footage came from never-before-filmed outposts of the reef.

Walking on water, not a bad day at the office.

An elegant black tipped reef shark in his home territory.

James – lover of all things feathered, furred and finned – and his mate the grouper.

Corals, creatures, colours and patterns merge and reflect.

Waiting for the perfect shot can take many an air tanks – 100 hours yielded just 5 seconds of Minky whale footage.

James in his element as a golden school dashes past.

James, in red, next to series presenter, the rather lovely ex-marine, Monty Halls.

An endangered sea turtle makes tracks towards the warm and equally in-peril Coral Sea.

Words, Daisy Dumas; images, courtesy of and many thanks to James Brickell at the BBC.

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The Underwater Project, feature story // 26 May 2011

THE SUBMERGED LENS

A haze of smashed blues and whites, the bright sting of sunlight and a briny hit. The wave rolls onwards, lurching forwards with a power that seems so benign from afar. It throws itself in a powerful lunge, crashes down and topples everything in its path – but for the ocean swimmers who know that to survive a wave is to dive deep.

Grip the sand, they remind themselves. Go low, stay low. Their faces spontaneously contort, their muscles tightening in reaction to the saltwater and the struggle for power in the ocean.

They surface when the surge has passed. Then breathe.

They don’t know that a camera has captured it all; from straining arms clawing at sand to eyes squeezed tightly shut against the bite of salt.

Mark Tipple, 29, holds the 11-pound camera as steady as possible in the melting foam and makes his way to the shore.

“Surf photography’s been around forever, I wanted something different” Mark says.

“I was bored of shooting empty waves. One day, I was caught inside by a big wave and as I dove underwater I suddenly thought I’d see what the kids next to me were going through – I turned the camera on them.”

That day, it took just one picture, ‘Escape’, to transform the way Mark viewed the ocean – the split-second decision to turn his camera on the swimmers setting the ball rolling for a series that has captured imaginations across the globe.

“That first image remains one of my strongest – I realised immediately that it was close to what I had been looking for ten years ago on my first surfing road trip.”

We’re in Bronte, Sydney, the cityscape a long way off from Mark’s home in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Like a fish out of the water, I can’t help thinking the city isn’t where this tall, lean, dreadlocked surfer belongs.

Mark’s bond with the ocean has taken him around Australia, Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, and by road through America and Canada to Alaska. The sea is in his blood – his brother’s a marine biologist and his father was a nomadic surfer who, like the rest of the family, has always lived next to the ocean. Photography was a way to structure the random travel, to give his journeys a goal. It was a frustration with “stock-standard surf shots” that led to Escape – and, eventually, The Underwater Project.

Since Mark Tipple began, by happy accident, to photograph ocean swimmers underwater, he has come to recognise a physical and emotional fragility in people that so often remains hidden. The images portray a stillness that betrays the violent energy of the situation, but taps into one of Tipple’s original – and unpredictable – inspirations for the project: war photography.

“I wanted to focus on the same raw emotion as the war photographs I had seen, to capture genuine expression; to see people being real. Usually, the camera’s presence gets in the way, people don’t forget the camera, they pose and feel self-conscious. However, over time or through a greater elemental presence than the camera, genuine emotion is unveiled, and poses are stripped away.”

The struggle for survival underwater is a way to break down this formality, a catalyst for breaking down social inhibitions. “Underwater, people are concentrating on survival – the camera is the last thing on their mind, and real emotions are revealed without trappings.”

“I didn’t know anything about these swimmers and suddenly I was seeing raw emotion, a struggle. The same wave can be beautiful and perfect and in a split second it can switch to end-of-the-world Armageddon-style violence.”

Mark has had his fair share of struggles, too.

“When we shoot big waves back in SA, I only shoot with people I trust as I don’t want to put them in danger. My mate Scott and I went to a remote beach near Port Lincoln – the waves had about 8 to10-foot faces, but when we got out there we realised they were about twice as big as we had expected. We got absolutely pounded, managed to get three shots in the 20 minutes before the ocean kicked us back to shore. The ocean beat us. I’ve landed on people, I’ve run into them underwater, I’ve stayed underwater too long and surfaced dizzy from a lack of oxygen, I’ve lost my camera. And I was almost landed on by a dolphin…”

His work has taken him to California and Mexico, where he filmed a short movie, Shark Diver, featuring his brother, Luke, a renowned shark expert.

“After filming Shark Diver, I was back in SA, in the water. A bunch of fins came close but we knew they were dolphins, as sharks rarely swim in packs. I was waiting for the next wave when a dolphin flew from the back of the wave towards me and landed less than three feet away. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the shots later – there was even a rainbow in the picture.”

Serendipitous as they may be, the majority of shots focus on survival and there’s a clear subdivision of powers at play. “There are those who are fighting against the ocean, they know how to handle themselves and the waves. Then there are those who are dominated by the ocean, the rookies who are not sure how to stand up to its power.”

The pictures have come to document the changing face of the ocean, the seasons and moon as power-brokers – and man as a small element in the face of the ocean’s might.

“The summer is full of skimpily dressed swimmers, so vulnerable in the face of the elements. They are more exposed, the ocean could have complete dominance over those swimmers – the pictures show a frailty in the face of the ocean. In the winter, there is a shift to people who are stepping it up – people in wetsuits, in flippers, they are prepared.”

The ultimate sad irony, of course, being man’s dominance over the ocean in terms of climate change and pollutants – and how unprepared for the potential of acidified oceans we really are.

In the end, he says the shots are “just pretty pictures, they’re context-less.” Out of the search for meaning has come Mark’s current project, Ocean.

Whilst filming Shark Diver in California and Mexico, Mark worked alongside Scott Cassell, renowned marine biologist and environmentalist. “Scott told me that we could have as little as twenty years until the ocean kills us. It was a wake up call.” He soon saw the potential of using ocean photography as a call to arms, a merging of humanitarian concerns with the beauty of nature. “I realised that humanitarian concerns can’t be divorced from environmental ones – they’re one and the same.”

And so began the Ocean series, Mark’s next project, upon which he has been working for the last few months. The culmination of attempting to combine humanitarian work with his love of the ocean, the series is about “giving the ocean a human face” and focuses on multimedia stories about the people who base their lives around the ocean – the ocean is their work, pleasure and survival, those for whom “the ocean is engrained in who they are.”

He has spent weeks filming surfboard shapers and pro surfers, lifeguards and surf photographers, a commercial and recreational fisherman and surfer, a nomadic surfer, a marine biologist, a Fijian family who live on and from fish and will next capture similar footage from nations who are most at risk from sea level change.

He hopes the series of 12 seven-minute films, all produced from his room in Bronte, will not only encourage introspection about the place of the ocean in our lives – and a possible future without its spectacular presence – but will also push corporations to invest in ocean research. It’s hard to comprehend here in Bronte with its perfect beach and suntanned lifeguards, but there’s more than swimming and surfing at stake.

“We’re Australian. The ocean is so much a part of who we are.” He quietly says as he stares out beyond the arc of golden sand and towards the distant waves, the city of four million behind us.

“I’m worried about our lifestyles. My life is the ocean – I don’t know what I’d do if it wasn’t there.”

Escape

Frozen

Deep

Moment

Shine

Parachute

Streak

Power

Away

Womb

Pause

BUY PRINTS and support Mark’s work at The Underwater Project and show some love on his Facebook page. Words by Daisy Dumas, all images copyright Mark Tipple.

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Greenhouse by Joost: all that glisters is not green // 1 March 2011

In a country that is home to the world’s biggest houses, roads full of ubiquitous 4×4 utes, a world-famous city that is crippled by its own anachronistically stunted public transport network and voracious tumble dryer usage even on 30C days, green concepts have a long, steep hill to climb before hitting mainstream palatability.

So, it is no mean feat that Greenhouse by Joost, a pop-up eco restaurant sitting bang in the epicentre of some of the most globally famous and eye-wateringly expensive real estate known to man, is setting a few tongues wagging here in Sydney. It helps that the temporary structure is covered in plants, is eye-catchingly rustic against the anathematic glass backdop of (uber fancy) Quay restaurant and is the inadvertent limelight stealer in many a tourist snap of the enduring Trifecta – ‘harbour, ‘bridge and ‘house.

Londoners are lucky to have the brilliant Waterhouse and Acorn House eco restaurants in their midst, as well as the low-energy Duke of Cambridge, Saf and Clerkenwell Kitchen. Those eateries, however, aren’t housed in a glorified (but very lovely) outhouse that is a salutory call to energy-hungry Sydneysiders to try to spare some thought for the environment the next time they switch on the A/C. Joost is a brave man.

The building is made of salvaged everything. Glasses are jam jars and flowers are from the rooftop gardens. Chairs are made of reclaimed metal tubing and plates are chunks of plywood. There are no rubbish bins and all waste is composted. Cutlery is wooden and there is a little demonstration oat mill to play with. It’s a big, bright, bustling space and the view is, well, it’s pretty damn phenomenal.

But what Greenhouse makes up for in novelty it sadly lacks in a menu that didn’t cut the proverbial organic mustard for me. Although the oysters, cured meats and olives were spot-on the meal sadly didn’t live up to the view or the experience. Herbs from the roof, flour milled on site, pasta, bread, the whole shebang, made in the temporary kitchens is all very well and good – and I love the idea – but the bread was tasteless, the bumpy pasta lacking punch and the pizza dotted by crunchy disks of anaemic potato and not much else besides.

The focus, I suppose, should not be on the food but on the premise of the place – it’s here to send a message and to that extent, it’s done well. Or so the smiling waitress up near the loos must surely feel – I heard her explain to each loo goer upon leaving the trestle-table-for-door loos that yes, the tap is working fine, it is supposed to keep running to give you a sense of how much water goes into each loo flush. Sydney, though, is a city of food-lovers and green goodness alone cannot fill a stomach.

Like any good novelty, its days are numbered. It’s worth a visit if only to try the home-made (but soon to be marketed) gin, but more to the point, it’s worth a visit to see what can be done with a bit of lateral thinking and some wild strawberry plants. And all within a city in which it is impossible to find a streetside recycling bin, where the car always takes precedent and where clothes-laden washing lines are as rare as hen’s teeth.

 

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