Gavin Newman is a long time Greenpeace cameraman, photographer, diver and now, remote-controlled submarine driver!
It all seemed very simple in the beginning. I’d been using remote controlled cameras for years, bolting them on boats, helicopters, kites and even birds. I’d even welded a remote-operated camera onto the hull of our ship the Esperanza to film dolphins underwater, so how hard could it be? Take my underwater camera system, bolt a couple of motors to it and you have a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of filming hundreds of metres underwater, right? Well in theory “yes”, that’s all an ROV is, but in practice things were to prove rather more difficult.
Five years later, with several more grey hairs and a slightly closer working relationship with my bank than I planned, NEMO is finally proving to be everything I had hoped for.
For a cameraman, image quality is everything. I’d worked with several commercially built ROVs in the past, but they were built for the oil and gas industries and research, not for the rather different demands of television production. When not filming for Greenpeace, I work for BBC in the UK making natural history documentaries. Working on such iconic series as Planet Earth taught me that with the technology available to us today, there is no excuse for poor quality. Documentary makers like the BBC had turned away from ROVs, due to their poor image quality when compared to the super high quality High Definition images expected by today’s audiences.
As an underwater cameraman myself I know that divers take the best underwater images, you can’t beat being there, but as human beings underwater we have some serious limitations to overcome. We need a constant supply of air to breath, we get cold, we get tired and even with the best modern diving equipment there are serious physical limits to the depths we can reach. So there was the challenge; to build a Remotely Operated Vehicle capable of filming broadcast quality HD images, in situations where I couldn’t go myself. The system had to be affordable enough for small research organisations and television production companies to use, portable enough to use in remote locations, yet produce images acceptable to BBC’s Natural History Film Unit - the most uncompromising television producers anywhere in the world.
So it is that I find myself in the Arctic, within walking distance of the North Pole, filming corals in HD nearly 200m underwater, for hours on end. Normally covered with seawith sea ice, we’re the first people to ever see and document a part of our planet that’s proving more spectacular than any of the scientists or us ashore imagined. It’s something really worth protecting and maybe through seeing our images people will finally realise that.
Of course I’m not really down there, but sitting on the ship above, with a couple of joysticks and a mug of steaming coffee. I’ve dived under the ice in the past but this time its NEMO, my alter ego of five years that’s down there having the fun. As a diver at heart I love to dive anywhere, anytime, but on this occasion any jealously quickly fades when I realise we’ve been underwater over 2 hours now and the water temperature is 1 degree BELOW freezing... Diving is good but sometimes coffee is better!
"Surveying Svalbard's sea floor" A video from The Esperanza:
Gavin Newman is currently on board the Esperanza as part of the Arctic Under Pressure expedition 2010.
Photos: © Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace