As a kid, I was never more certain of anything than my dream of one day working with the ocean.
Pocket money evaporated from the piggybank for the purposes of marine field guides, fish ID books and huge volumes of underwater photography. I’d pore over them, spellbound, etching every last creature into my memory. When school asked us to present on a topic of our choice to practice our public speaking skills, I delivered a jubilant speech about my favourite ocean animals (for which I was awarded ‘most enthusiastic speaker’). Getting my PADI open water dive certification was just a necessary stepping stone to what I saw as my inevitable career path; thanks to the encouragement of my family, subsequent dive guides and bits of scuba equipment appeared every birthday.
I later discovered that I wasn’t entirely unique in this regard. A childhood interest in the ocean is surprisingly common — though I was lucky to have been able to take mine as far as I did, it seems that most people have had some sort of ‘marine biologist phase’ when they were growing up. There’s something about the underwater world that fascinates and excites us, and something in particular to be said for the way it especially captures the imagination of young people. That’s why shows like the BBC’s Blue Planet are so important. More than any other nature programme, the Blue Planet series has been watched, lauded and loved world-over by people of all ages and backgrounds. (Really – it’s ratings are the highest ever recorded for a nature show). A visually staggering accomplishment in documentary filmmaking and an inspiration for the youth of today to become the change-makers of tomorrow, Blue Planet has simultaneously done justice to the oceans’ ugly plight and surreal beauty. Every frame is simply exquisite; for all us viewers it has brought astonishing scenes we’ll likely never otherwise experience into our homes and, by extension, a cause closer to our hearts.
The results are mesmerising, but it’s no secret that they didn’t just happen overnight. I’m curious in the ‘behind the scenes’ of an undertaking like this: the high definition cameras, unrelenting dedication and superhuman levels of patience pulled together by a group of hardy individuals whose lives are devoted to impactful storytelling. Roger Munns is one of them. The Emmy award-winning underwater cameraman is based in Borneo, and was one of the principal cameramen on Blue Planet 2 as well as having worked on the Life series. With 17 years of experience under his dive belt and over 4000 dives made in his career so far, Munns doesn’t run short of stories about his time spent working on shoots of various sizes and budgets. I managed to internalise my fan-girling long enough to find out more about his time in the field — underwater charades, anyone?— his quintessentially British attitude towards setbacks, and creative ambitions for the future.
I’ve read about how you got started. Is it right to say you ‘fell into’ this profession rather than necessarily intending to wind up doing what you are now?
That’s about right. I probably didn’t think about underwater filming as a full time career until I was in my mid 20’s. Scuba diving wasn’t even on my radar until I hit a flat surf spell in Australia in 2000 when I was traveling. I worked at a dive centre in Byron Bay in return for a free open water course and fell in love with being underwater. I’d always had a passion for photography and managed to marry the two things. Within a year of learning to dive I was earning my living from filming underwater.
Do you have any advice for aspiring wildlife cameramen/women with regards to starting out in this industry?
Wildlife film making has become a very competitive area yet there is no defined career path or set of qualifications you need. That makes it a little tricky to offer definitive advice. You definitely need to truly have a passion for both wildlife and photography in order to make the sacrifices needed to do this for a living. All the travel and prep plus the freelance aspect mean you live a very abnormal life, both financially and with respect to friends and family. I would say you should be prepared to work for very little (or nothing at all) at first, in order to gain experience, build your contacts and your showreel. There are some great blogs from successful camera operators like …. John Brown, Warwick Sloss etc online. Links are on my FAQ (https://www.roger-munns.com/faq/).
What are some of the most exciting things you’ve witnessed in the water?
I’ve had spectacular experiences such as being in the water with a superpod of sperm whales, ten 50 tonne male humpback whales fighting over a female, and a 100 manta rays feeding in a small bay in the Maldives and I’ve also witnessed some incredible intelligence such as a tuskfish using some coral as an anvil to open a shell and an octopus and a grouper hunting collaboratively. The adrenaline from the spectacular megafauna is intense but it’s probably being there to witness bravery and intelligent acts from regular reef critters that I enjoy the most.
Can you describe the logistics of shooting large animals?
Hmm. It really depends on the subject and the situation. It normally boils down to either spending weeks on end searching for something in the open ocean or waiting patiently in one location for something to happen. When we filmed the humpback heat run in Tonga for Life we spent three weeks searching before we got lucky. Every day we would load up the boat at dawn and head out to the blue. Most days we came back empty handed at dusk. Some of the biggest challenges are mental – keeping up hope and optimism in the face of constant failure can be extremely hard. Knowing when to quit can be tricky as well. Are you being unlucky or do you need to change strategy? Often the difference between failure and success can be as simple as deciding to take the boat North instead of South on a given day.
I know you’ve worked on Life etc, but must talk Blue Planet 2. Obviously incredible public reception (and congrats on the awards). Did you know you were on to something special?
Thanks so much! I’m fortunate to work regularly for the BBC but as an underwater cameraman of course Blue Planet II was incredibly special for me to work on. It was a generation ago that Blue Planet I came out and it was well loved so we knew we had to match very high expectations for stories and cinematography. The team that was assembled was absolutely first class and everyone involved had a passion for the underwater world. Honestly I’m so proud and humbled to have been able to work on the series. I still get goosebumps when I hear the opening title music.
A lot goes on behind the scenes to get the finished product. In particular, I hear all sorts of crazy stats about how long it takes to film certain scenes – like that you’re often waiting for days or weeks before you can capture something. Can you note any examples?
So over the course of four years of production for Blue Planet II the team mounted 127 expeditions to 37 different countries. Camera operators spent a combined 6000hrs underwater at depths of up to 1000m. There is no typical shoot but we’re often on location for 2-3 weeks to film one 4-5min sequence. For example when we filmed the boiling sea in costa rica we spent 20 days out in the open ocean following a pod of dolphins until they finally found their prey on the last day of our shoot (during our breakfast of course).
I imagine it can get tedious or frustrating. How do you deal with the disappointment?
I’ve got so much experience of it that I deal with it pretty well now! You just have to accept that sometimes nature doesn’t cooperate and there’s no point beating yourself up for something you can’t control. Like the British say.. Keep calm and carry on.
Any particular favourite memories from filming Blue Planet 2, either/both on or off screen?
Producer Jonathan Smith and I spent so long underwater at ‘Turtle rock’ – a turtle cleaning station at Sipadan, Malaysia – that we started playing underwater charades. As far as I’m aware it might be a world first!
I’m still having nightmares about that horrific giant sea worm. Have you ever felt scared – or at least, uncomfortable, shooting a particular subject?
Hehe. ‘Watch out there’s a bobbit about’ could well be Attenborough’s best line ever! I’m generally pretty comfy in the water but I did get a little nervous once when freediving with a humpback whale calf. It was probably only a few weeks and it had the playful mind of a puppy dog but the mass of a full grown elephant! At first it was amazing but after an hour or so it got a little too curious and gave my safety diver Jason and I a few bumps. We saw the huge mother down below watching her kid playing with these two muppets and suddenly felt a little vulnerable!
On the other hand, do you have any particular favourite photo subjects?
That is so tough. I almost went for flamboyant cuttlefish because they are so.. well.. flamboyant! However I will go for Manta rays because of their grace and beauty. They are very social and intelligent which means you can have very special encounters with them. I could watch them forever. I’m a patron of the manta trust (https://www.mantatrust.org/) who do amazing work to help understand and protect these charismatic animals.
What is uniquely challenging and rewarding about your work?
I think the travel is the biggest challenge. Being away from home and family for such long periods of time is tough on everyone. I’m very grateful and fortunate to have an understanding wife and kids.
I feel most rewarded when people who have never dived, or even snorkelled, tell me they enjoyed my work. The underwater world probably feels very inaccessible to the majority of the 7 billion people living on our planet so I hope my images inspire them to care about the ocean and its inhabitants just a little bit, to eat a little less seafood or to cut down on their plastic usage.
What do you aspire to create/capture in the future?
There are a few holy grail moments underwater which mostly involve large animals giving birth. No-one has captured a manta ray or humpback whale giving birth in the wild yet. That would be incredible. I’d also like to do some more work at the poles.
Why did you decide to settle in Borneo?
I came to dive Sipadan, way back in 2001, but I stayed because of the lovely people, great food, and relaxed pace of life.
When you’re not diving/filming what do you like to do?
Ideally I’d be surfing, watching the sunrise with a good cup of coffee and spending time with my family.
I love diving. I have a sort of “places I must dive before I die” wish list. Can you add 3 recommendations?
Sipadan for the turtles and the huge school of jacks, Hanifaru bay in the Maldives for the massive aggregation of feeding Manta rays, Vavau in Tonga to freedive with a humpback whale and calf.
Thank you Roger! You can find out more about his work on https://www.roger-munns.com/