I filmed a dramatic and brutal turtle mating event at Sipadan in Sabah, Malaysia, for the courtship episode of BBC’s Life Story. This was the second time round for me as I’d previously covered the event for David Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood almost ten years previously. This time I had the advantage of shooting on the Red Epic in 4k (ultra-hd) housed in a Gates Deep Epic housing. Life Story was filmed over two years which gave me two bites of the cherry at peak mating season which occurs once a year. It’s a good job too as the first shoot was hampered by very poor conditions. There were mating turtles galore but extremely poor visibility which made for an extremely frustrated cameraman and crew! Second time round we were more fortunate with conditions and worked some long days from dawn till dusk at Sipadan.
The green turtles (Chelonia mydas) we were filming spend most of their lives around the reef at Sipadan and it’s the density of turtles there (I’d estimate somewhere around 500+ across the island) that make for such a spectacular mating event. Males will usually couple with a female near, or on, the reef. Finding mating pairs is tricky but that’s only the beginning. Once the male is clamped on the female will often swim at full speed away from the reef in order to get away from other suitors or for other reasons unknown to me. She will also dive steeply and then shoot to the surface from depths of 20-30m which made life even harder. Pushing a large underwater housing in SCUBA gear meant I could just about keep these flippery lovers in sight when pedalling full speed so it was a great workout! Safety was a big concern, and surfacing out of sight of the boat was an issue given the great range these turtles had. We worked out a system whereby a snorkeler would follow the dive teams bubbles at the surface and the boat would then follow the snorkeler. This worked well and was particularly useful with one pair which traveled 2km’s from the island!
We worked hard over several weeks and finally got our reward with a big mating event towards the end of the shoot. At one point 10 males surrounded the poor, harassed female, biting her and the incumbent male in order to try and mate with her themselves. With the large dome being used and the ability to shoot off-speed (slow motion) I managed to get some unique and dramatic shots of the pair bursting through the waters surface to breathe. I was really pleased with the way the final sequence turned out and it ended up being used as the opening sequence in the episode. It also got featured on the highly amusing ‘goggle box’ show – a first for one of my sequences, so proud!
We stayed at ScubaJunkie Mabul dive resort during filming which is always a pleasure. A big shout-out to the management and David Mcann for his in-water assistance.
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