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About the journey

Norbert Wu returns to Antarctica for new film, outreach projects


Norbert Wu stands at the stern of the Zodiac, maneuvering the slow-moving inflatable boat through a thick soup of brash ice. The rubber squeaks against the chunks of ice, while the steel prop on the outboard grinds down the bigger pieces and spits them out into the boat’s wake.

A bulky orange float coat makes his short, stout figure appear even thicker. Wu doesn’t exactly sport a Jacques Cousteau physique, but the stature belies a near-legendary fearlessness that has helped propel him into the upper echelon of natural history photographers and filmmakers over the last 20 years.

But Wu has no plans today to jump in the nearly freezing Antarctic waters, playground for Adélie penguins, humpback whales and stealthy leopard seals. He’s left that job to divers Ryan Caldwell and Martin Schuster, who are already zipped up in their dry suits, waiting to reach the morning’s dive site — a sunken Argentine Navy ship, the Bahia Paraiso, just a couple of kilometers from Palmer Station.

Their objective isn’t really the ship, which ran aground in 1989, but to test out a new technique for filming a krill swarm underwater. While Caldwell and Schuster are in the water, Wu and team member Andy Day will lower a high-definition video camera down on a rope. The divers are to check the camera to see how well it hangs in the water.

It’s a bid to capture something unique — a school of shrimplike krill, a significant part of the food web here — in a place that has become increasingly well documented over the years.

“I have not seen good video or stills [of krill swarms],” Wu says. “I’ve seen some grainy black and white video that The BBC did about 20 years ago. I don’t think it’s been done well before.”

Wu should know. Few photographers or filmmakers have enjoyed the sort of access to Antarctica he has had over the last decade or so. The National Science Foundation (NSF) selected him three times to participate in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program between 1997 and 2000 to document the marine environment in McMurdo Sound.

He made the most of the opportunity, creating the documentary, “Under Antarctic Ice,” which became the first film made in Antarctica to use the high-definition format that is popular today. At the time, it was pioneering work, especially for Wu, who had been strictly a still photographer for the first half of his career.

He had enlisted his childhood friend Day — a biologist and photographer himself — during one season to assist with the filming. Somehow, they made it work.

“He foolishly entrusted me with this $100,000 camera, putting it into the waterproof housing ever day,” Day recalls, as the Zodiac floats in the placid water while Schuster and Caldwell blow bubbles below. “I had no prior experience of such things. The training I got was suspect at best —but it never flooded.”

Wu laughs at the memory, particularly the reaction of the Sony executives who lent him the two expensive cameras. “Those guys were so nervous about me bringing those cameras down. They were freaking out.”

In addition to the movie, Wu produced a tabletop book with writer Jim Mastro, also called “Under Antarctic Ice,” along with a children’s book, magazine articles and an online field guide of Antarctic critters that has taken on a life of its own.

“I think it’s still being used by a lot of researchers,” he says of the site maintained by former Antarctic dive team member Peter Brueggeman at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “That thing blossomed way beyond what I initially contributed. It’s got photographs from hundreds of contributors.”

Wu hopes to create a similar body of work with his latest grant from the NSF through its Informal Science Education program, with a focus on public outreach, as part of the International Polar Year. He returned to McMurdo last season and worked with a film crew from the BBC on an episode for its nature documentary series “Life.”

He also made his first visit to the Antarctic Peninsula that same season in 2009-10, hoping to expand the online field guide, as well as create new material for future books and a film. This year is the last field season on his grant.

After his success at McMurdo, why come back?

“I wanted to see the Antarctic Peninsula,” says Wu, who had to endure a four-day crossing of the Southern Ocean from Chile to reach this remote location. (He gets extremely seasick.) “It’s very different. It’s amazing how much difference there is in marine life and visibility there is here.”

Different isn’t always better. McMurdo Sound is famous for its amazingly clear water, with more than 100 meters of visibility as the rule rather than the exception. A green murkiness shrouds the underwater world near Palmer Station, making it difficult to get the dramatic shots that became iconic of Wu’s work out of McMurdo Sound.

An instructor and dive guide from Seattle, Caldwell says the diving is also challenging because the team doesn’t really know what it will find at any particular spot.

“You don’t have people from yesterday telling you what the dive is going to be like today. In a lot of places, you’ll get that,” observes Caldwell, who also worked with Wu in McMurdo. “It’s a lot more exploratory diving. When you get to a site, you don’t know what you’re going to see.”

Caldwell says he hopes the work produced here will spur interest in not only the Antarctic but conservation issues as well. The science is important, he says, but programs like those produced by Wu and the BBC get to “the hearts and souls of people.”

“I’m amazed by the work we did in McMurdo … being a part of it makes me feel proud of what I’ve done, what I’ve worked for. I love this and I don’t ever want it to go away,” he says, gesturing to the ocean, the icebergs, penguin colonies on distant islands, “and it’s deteriorating quickly. Outreach is definitely very important.”

Wu knows he has to tell a dramatic story in images and film to capture those hearts and souls. One of his goals this season is to film predation of penguins by leopard seals — large, sharp-toothed carnivores with reptilian heads that have been known to chew on the Zodiac’s inflatable pontoons.

He got his wish on a different day, when he and Caldwell found a leopard shaking a penguin like a dog with a chew toy. Later, sated by the meal, the leopard lounged on an ice floe. Wu jumped in the water to film some additional footage after only minutes before watching the power of the spotted predator.

“I think long and hard about dangerous situations the older I’ve gotten,” he admits. “I used to jump in with stuff all the time — alligators or whatever.”

The 48-year-old photographer isn’t necessarily slowing down, but after years of crisscrossing the world, he’s learned to savor some experiences over others.

“I’m more selective about what I get excited about,” Wu says. “It really is the journey than what you see in a lot of ways.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Norbert Wu, Norbert Wu Productions, Award No. 0732907.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs