I was sitting in a zodiac in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, feeling that same sense of excitement I had felt in Antarctica earlier this year - intuitively knowing that our encounter with the fin whales was not over yet. The date was the 15th June 2017.
Only a couple of months earlier (on the 24 March 2017), I was sitting in a zodiac in Mikkelsen Harbour off the Antarctic Peninsula watching blocks of brash ice bob slightly on a calm glassy sea, waiting patiently for a whale to reveal its hump. It would happen. I just had to be patient, I thought. However, as night began to fall, the captain of our small boat decided it was time to go back. Although my confidence in my own intuition was shattered, as this was the last excursion while in Antarctica searching for whales, I clutched onto my camera, clinging onto every second of possibility left out in the ocean. There was still time to spot a whale before our zodiac reached the mother ship belonging to One Ocean Expeditions. And, then it happened - the ‘friendly whale’ appeared. (See ‘The Friendly Whale’ blog, April 2017).
While sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, this memory - this ‘feeling’ - burned into my mind.
If you have seen Innsaei on Netflix, you might understand what I mean. ‘Intuition’ is that instinctive feeling in the gut that you can’t explain logically. It is a part of our human makeup, which we have been ignoring and slowly losing over time as we become more caught up in cities, in logic, and as we become more distant from nature and our senses.
As someone whose lifeblood is connected to the creative arts and to the outdoors, intuition is something that is important to me. It is something that I listen to, but it is something I also judge and question.
So, I was sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea questioning my intuition, wondering whether it was true that we were yet to have the best encounter with a whale - and then it happened.
The hump of a fin whale appeared.
The driver of the zodiac sped towards the whale, and James slipped into the water like a seal, slipping comfortably into its own home. I sat silently. My eyes were focused on the blue ripple James had left behind and, once again, I tried to imagine what James was seeing - some majestic giant of the sea.
Then, James broke the surface with an excited gasp for air. His smile said it all. He had got the shot. Better yet, he had submerged to find himself face-to-face with not one whale, but two - a mother and a calf.
In just one day, the conditions had changed from calm and sunny to hazy with a bit of chop, and back again to being calm, allowing us to get this special shot. As we gained more and more visibility, we were able to see the whale activity on the surface.
Nature was on our side. The sea can be an unpredictable and unforgiving place, but today it embraced our presence entirely, just as if the ocean knew we were here to help it.
Our journey to help share the story of the Pelagos Sanctuary essentially began in May 2016 when we first met Italian marine scientist Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara at his Milano home.
At that stage, we were trying to uncover some of the best stories that we could find to help tell the bigger picture narrative about the birth of the movement to protect the sea.
I have always been a strong believer in learning from history, trying to understand the moral meaning of events, and working out how we can adapt these lessons into the present. Giuseppe's story struck me as being rather unique in this regard, as his efforts would have meant swallowing a great deal of pride, (and he likely spent a lot of unpaid time on this project), as he took his bold steps to go through the tedious process of establishing the first ever marine sanctuary out on the high seas - the Pelagos Sanctuary.
As I sat there listening to Giuseppe muse philosophically over his past in his vibrant little garden, I kept asking myself - but, how do we share this incredible story?
Here was a man with so much wisdom and knowledge, who has truly stepped right outside his comfort zone to do something innovative.
Yet, his story seemed almost impossible to share in visual images.
To tell his story, we would need images out on the high sea, of whales, dolphins, and it also involved a Prince. (The whole concept sounded very expensive, and out of our reach, as The Map to Paradise documentary was being funded out of our own empty pockets).
Listening to Giuseppe talk, however, clearly gave me the inspiration and courage to also step outside my comfort zone and make this story happen.
We felt quite attached to the story, and when you get attached as a documentary-maker, you can be very stubborn in not letting it go.
So, when the opportunity miraculously arose, and we had a chance encounter with one of Prince Albert II's closest confidants, I just had to give it a go, sharing our story idea we had with him.
Simply being in the presence of someone so globally important made me feel small and made me question what it was I was doing.
Was my proposal appropriate? Should I be speaking out loud?
However, I pushed these feelings from my mind and it was me this time who had to swallow pride, knowing that the worst that could happen was nothing at all.
I remember how my gaze dropped to the floor with embarrassment.
I had expelled all of my energy sharing my proposal.
I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks, fearing what the response would be, when suddenly he said "Okay, let's do it. When should we do it?"
I was so stunned that I stuttered in response.
Indeed, it was the Foundation of Prince Albert II of Monaco, which would end up assisting us to get this filming complete, helping to pay for the costs of travel for all of the stories in this documentary.
I can't express what it is like as a creative, and a conservationist, to have the backing of someone as important as this. It makes the world of difference.
It gives you the confidence to keep going.
No matter how hard the task is, the journey in front of you in completing such a mammoth project, you know that you just have to finish it.
You are always thinking 'I have to try my best to get over every obstacle, because I can't let those who support us down.'
Co-Director, James Sherwood, and I can tell you that it is hard to work unpaid on such a big project for three years, knowing that you are burning a hole in your very own pocket.
You have no choice but to dig deep to keep that fire in your belly going, hanging onto the belief that you are doing your bit to try and save the world.
And, so we kept going.
We were in the Pelagos Sanctuary, feeling like we had stepped into a dreamworld, watching the colourful flames of the sun as it set that night.
Nature blessed us with more rewards - a pastel pink and purple sky. Its colours spread from sky to sea, so they looked like they were one. I could not distinguish the horizon. It was beautiful to see.
Meanwhile, the whales and the dolphins continued to spurt and show off their humps. The whole scene of sky, sea and frolicking wildlife made me feel as if I was being transported back to our journey to the end of the Earth in Antarctica. It was unbelievable to think that we could be thousands of kilometres away from that place, and yet here was a scene that looked identical - just without the ice and the cold.
That night, I would rise at 1AM to do my first ever night watch out at sea.
While getting up at 1AM seems like a gruelling thing to do, it was an exciting moment for me.
Although I am terrible at keeping my eyes open in the dark, the adrenaline running through my body kept me alert. We were scheduled to work on shifts in pairs, sharing a set of binoculars. The goal was to keep an eye on the tiny twinkling lights of moving vessels on the horizon. If a vessel got too close, we would need to turn on our lights and possibly move our boat.
The thought of colliding with a giant cargo ship, and sinking, certainly was enough to keep me alert.
My eyes were glued to the horizon. From morning, under the burn of the sun to the cool dead of night, the majority of my time had been spent scanning the sea as far as I could see.
I felt alive, truly connected with the wild as I listened to the occasional spurt of a curious dolphin or whale somewhere close to the boat. Perhaps, it was saying ‘hello’?
I knew right then that I would remember this night vividly and that it would go down in my log as the best ‘late night’ of my life - I was surrounded by whales, stars and a glossy black sea. The cloak of darkness had heightened my senses, my ability to hear, touch and feel, so that blindness had in fact become ‘seeing the big wide world.’
I climbed up to the bridge, ascending the ladder as if it were some big mountain, and when I got to the top, a dizzy vertigo overcame me as I looked up at the dark sky full of dazzling stars.
This moment was a chance to totally immerse myself in my surroundings; it was a chance to forget about city life, deadlines, and the weight of expectation and importance that I had placed on the outcome of the next two days for just a moment.
Then, I climbed down from the bridge and, after I completed my watch, I sunk back into my bunk bed below deck, and there I was struck by a sense of apprehension. Had our luck peaked? Would the weather stay just like this?
Good weather never lasts forever, I sighed with regret.
Tomorrow, we would try to find some more whales before returning from the high seas to anchor in a bay just off the coast of Nice, France. Then, the next morning at 8:30AM, we were due to meet Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara and the Prince.
I tried to roll over, clear my mind, and go to sleep - as best as I could.
TO BE CONTINUED…