About the journey
Norbert Wu returns to Antarctica for new film, outreach projects
Posted March 26, 2010
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.”