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Media Diving is a term that covers underwater photography and underwater filming. Media Diving is often carried out in support of television documentaries or films featuring underwater photography or footage. Media divers are normally highly trained camera operators who use diving as a method to reach their workplace, although some underwater photographers may start as recreational divers and move on to make a living from their hobby. The state and territory WH&S regulations are basically silent on any specific legal requirements for diver certifications for media diving.

The Australian/New Zealand Standard 2299 Occupational diving operations; Part 4: Film and photographic diving, which has been prepared specifically for diving work in the film and photographic industry, supplies requirements and guidance relevant for producers, contractors and employees. The Standard is intended to assist in addressing the ‘duty of care’ with respect to diving placed on employers (such as producers) and employees under workplace health and safety legislation to take care of both themselves and others within the workplace.

Tasks Performed on the Job

Preparing equipment, planning, researching, organizing logistics, diving, cleaning equipment are common tasks for media divers – mufti-tasking in the field is the norm. Media divers rely on the expertise and observations of others (scientists, naturalists, locals) therefore research is critical to ensure that you are in the right place, at the right time, with the best people, when the desired action for the footage takes place. In addition to the specialist media activities, there are of course the additional tasks of maintaining generators, compressors, SCUBA gear, boats and First Aid equipment.
Equipment in this field is varied, with both SCUBA and surface supplied equipment used, depending on requirements.  Increasingly, rebreathers are being used for wildlife-related work as they are normally quiet, release few or no bubbles (which reduce the risk of frightening off the subject which is the subject of the film or photography) and allow the diver an increased bottom time.

Other equipment used includes film & high definition video cameras in underwater housings, with special underwater lighting, remote cameras, HD, mini HD and even underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Responsibilities and Challenges

As organisations increasingly require more formal records and extra field supervision to cover themselves legally for WH&S reasons, costs in a remote location may increase to the point where enough time to film behaviour and logistics becomes too costly. The more people, the more boat space & logistics required. More bureaucratic rules and paperwork don’t necessarily mean more safety as it’s up to the judgment & experience of the people on the spot to assess conditions and make decisions. This will increasingly be a responsibility and a challenge for underwater filmmaking.

Challenges Include:

  • keeping camera gear functional and watertight in remote locations and maintaining personnel safety
  • maintaining the balance between adhering to no decompression limits while spending as much time as the budget/ health allows in water to get the desired footage.
  • limited time in a location due to high cost of running/hiring boats makes filming periods tight – when filming wildlife behaviour, the more time the better!
  • the dilemma of not being able to dive if you have a head cold or the flu, which creates pressures if you are in a remote location with expensive boats and assistants having to be paid for.

You need to be flexible so when an opportunistic event happens (like a whale shark swims by), the team is ready to jump in and film it. Action, like bait ball frenzies, won’t wait and can’t be scheduled. Weather can be unpredictable & water murky, while strong winds often make it unworkable. Then there are tides, currents, cold water & marine hazards to factor in as well!

It is fairly normal for filmmakers to have no days off and to work long hours (definitely not 9 – 5) while involved in the development of a film. Filmmakers are not necessarily guaranteed work all year, and earning a decent living can be extremely precarious. It can be possible to earn very little (e.g. $5/hour) when in the field given the number of hours spent preparing equipment, planning, researching, organizing logistics, diving, cleaning equipment etc.

It’s essential to be an experienced diver, able to work under the whole gamut of possible operational and environmental conditions and to handle the logistics of using cameras & heavy lighting equipment with long lengths of cable underwater safely. Usually media divers work with unfamiliar people/buddies & hire boats in unfamiliar places overseas. It’s important for individual divers to check safety themselves, particularly air quality, equipment and evacuation plans,  as they may be travelling alone or with few others, especially when going to remote locations.

Highlights and Rewards

Media diving can be an exciting, fascinating career and lifestyle that can take you to some of the most remote and beautiful locations on earth. Nice job if you can get it!

See the feature article below on David Parer and Elizabeth Parer-Cook (successful Australian media divers) for insight into the exciting career of wildlife film-making both topside and underwater.

How to Become a Media Diver

It is rare to find permanent employment as a media diver, the usual situation being to work as an independent filmmaker. This includes the extremely challenging task of securing funding to make the film. Raising the money to make an underwater film takes long periods of time and companies like to use people with a track record so it’s difficult to break in but possible.  Commonly people need multiple co-production partners to finance a film and this means editorial control is split as different broadcasters have different requirements for different audiences. If producers buy stock footage they want GREAT high definition material in clear water with exceptional never-seen-before behaviour!  That’s hard to get and, due to marine expenses such as running boats, about 4 times as costly as just getting topside material.

Thanks to Liz Parer-Cook and David Parer (Albatross Films and Marine Services) for their contribution to this web page.

A Glimpse of Media Diving with Wildlife Film-makers David Parer and Elizabeth Parer-Cook

When it comes to a career full of adventure, travel and wildlife, that of David Parer and Elizabeth Parer-Cook, Australian wildlife filmmakers is hard to beat. Since the mid 1970s they have filmed all around the world, from Antarctica to Papua New Guinea, Patagonia to Norway. David & Elizabeth have made exciting, spectacular films about animals both topside and underwater which not only show how extraordinarily adaptable they are, but somehow capture the magnificent landscapes in which they live, while at the same time revealing the latest cutting-edge information about their behaviour and lives.

Over the years by using special camera techniques and equipment underwater David has captured on film many detailed behavioural sequences, including killer whale predation and family life around the world, marine iguanas feeding on algae in the Galapagos, coral spawning on the Great Barrier Reef, platypus courtship with in-burrow development of the young, sharks, leafy sea dragons, pteropods, penguins in the Antarctic, dugong, albatross, elephant seals and many other temperate and tropical marine life.

In the 1970s & 80s David & Liz went to the Antarctic on many occasions (for them the best place in the world!) to film wildlife. They recreated the 1911 journey of Douglas Mawson and also filmed a Biomedical Expedition on the plateau behind Dumont D’Urville Station. They went on to make  several internationally acclaimed films including ‘Wolves of the Sea’ (Emmy and Gold Panda award winner), a documentary about the natural history of killer whales and ‘Mysteries of the Ocean Wanderers’ (Panda award winner) about wandering albatross.

From 1995 to 1997 they explored the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands making three films about the archipelago. The first of these, ‘The Dragons of the Galapagos’ is about the incredible struggle for survival of the marine and land iguanas living on the edge of a volcano. ‘Islands of the Vampire Birds’ tells the story of how a tiny finch colonized and evolved there, while ‘Two Years in Galapagos’ shows the adventures the filmmakers had (with their three year old daughter) in making the films (See the website for more information at ‘The Dragons of Galapagos’ went on to win another Gold Panda at Wildscreen ’98 as well as two Emmies for Music & Editing. While ‘Islands of the Vampire Birds’ won a Rockie at the BANFF Television Festival in 2000.

Since then, David and Elizabeth have made detailed behavioural films about Platypus, Tasmanian Devils, one about Surviving Extreme Environments (about the MIR Space Station & Antarctica) and have just completed a film shot in High Definition about the Parrots & Cockatoos of Australia called “Australia-Land of Parrots” .

Their work has been shown on national ABC Television in Australia and has been sold to many overseas TV networks including the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery, Turner Broadcasting and PBS in the USA, Telcast in Germany and Canal Plus in France & Spain. In all, their films have won over 130 Australian and international awards for program achievement, cinematography, sound and editing.

The real joy for David & Liz has been spending lengthy periods of time both topside & underwater, observing the intimate life of animals in wonderful places like the Antarctic, Papua New Guinea, the Red Sea and Australia. They have also met and worked with some fabulous people. After 35 years and 28 years (respectively) working for the ABC Natural History Unit, David and Liz now work as Independent Wildlife Filmmakers for their own company “Albatross Films & Marine Services”. It’s an exciting, fascinating life that has taken them to some of the most remote locations on earth.

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