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Whale documentary director recalls challenge of filming under water

Fathom follows two scientists on their research projects on opposite sides of the world.


Fathom is available to watch now (Apple/PA)

Fathom is available to watch now (Apple/PA)

Fathom is available to watch now (Apple/PA)

The director of a new Apple documentary about humpback whales has revealed the challenge of filming the mammal in water and how a power failure almost derailed the whole project.

Fathom follows Dr Ellen Garland and Dr Michelle Fournet, two scientists focused on the study of humpback whale songs and social communication, as they embark on parallel research journeys on opposite sides of the world in a bid to better understand the creatures.

It documents the researchers’ 2019 field seasons in south-east Alaska and French Polynesia, with director Drew Xanthopoulos the only person on the shoot because of the tight quarters of fieldwork.

He told the PA news agency: “You have a sort of rain slick that goes around the camera and sort of protects it from splashes and stuff, but if that camera slips out of my hand and it falls in the water, that’s just the end of it, there’s no back-up to that.

“The most unique technical challenge was operating in a place for over 30 days in which there’s no electricity available.

“I had 400lbs of solar panels and electric generators with me and all of them failed, halfway through.

“Dr Fournet is proficient at repairing these things, and so she just opened the guts up, pulled out the wires, started stripping things and re-cutting things and connected it to a spare inverter she had – and that was the only reason I was able to film the rest of the movie.

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“The technical challenges were really unique.

“Making a film with people is always a very emotional process.

“Dr Garland and Dr Fournet are my good friends, we’ve been through a lot together.

“They’ve let me into their world, I’ve let them into my world, so it’s a profound emotional experience, absolutely. You’re experiencing the highs and lows together and getting to know each other’s worlds.

“It’s also very vulnerable to volunteer yourself to be represented in a film and there’s an enormous amount of trust that goes into that. So it’s a uniquely emotional experience; there’s no analogy for it.”

Discussing the fascination whales hold, he added: “I cannot think of a group of animals that has captured the human imagination since the moment we became aware of them than whales.

“In our proposals for grants, we had this line that Ahab would never have chased a white ostrich; it had to have been a whale.

“There’s something about the possibilities of what could be going on in their world, in their minds, and in their communities.

“That, in conjunction with how uniquely elusive they are, just captures the human imagination, and we very badly want to know as much as we can about them.”

Fathom is available to watch now on Apple TV+.

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