Published in Line Up magazine, August / September 1999
BUG EYES ON STALKS nervously peered out from behind a mound of silt, a pair of black and gold pupils scouring the lunar landscaped sea-bed. The octopus was more concerned with the shifty-looking crab than with the team of divers.

Having no protective shell, it represented the marine equivalent of a Big Mac and fries to a predator. W ith the prospect of an easy lunch within pincer-distance, the crab inched sideways, preparing to pounce. But this octopus had a rather neat trick hidden up one of its eight sleeves.

‘Look at that!’, exclaimed scientist Dr Mark Norman. ‘He just changed into a sea-snake’. ‘Unbelievable’ replied his assistant, Julian. ‘I’ve never seen an occie do that before’. The octopus uncoiled two arms in opposite directions, and waving one arm tip hypnotically performed a very convincing impersonation of a banded sea snake, stripes and all. The bewildered crab, pincers raised, scuttled away, not waiting to find out if this was some cruel hoax. Unbelievable indeed. Not only had they just found the Mimic Octopus, but their conversation had been recorded entirely underwater.

For the Love of an Octopus

IT WAS MARK’S PASSION for octopuses which had brought us to Indonesia. Animal People is BBC’s natural history series portraying the extraordinary fascination some human beings have with certain animals. Both Mark and Julian are cephalopod experts, meaning they like octopuses, squid and cuttlefish an awful lot. They’d heard about a new species capable of imitating other marine life, from fellow Australian marine photographers Roger Steene and Rudi Kuiter. The BBC had also found out about it, hence the involvement of myself, two cameramen, a producer and a one-eyed boat captain.

Producer Joe Kennedy wanted to film the quest for the Mimic Octopus. The location - Sulawesi, smack bang in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago, sandwiched between Borneo and New Guinea. The island looks like a Rorschach ink-blot test. A lush, and in places inaccessible land, described by 19th century naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace as, “wonderfully rich in peculiar forms; many of which are singular or beautiful, and in some cases absolutely unique upon the globe”. This is the land of the tarsier and the cuscus; Asian and Australian fauna living in harmony under the same forest canopy.

Indonesia has to rate as one of a few countries where even arriving in the dead of night, you’d still know where you were. As soon as the aircraft door opened, the sweet, sickly aroma of clove-scented cigarettes puffed by millions of Indonesians invaded my nostrils. I stepped off the plane and into a sauna, and before I’d reached the terminal building, my shirt was ready for the laundry basket. Temperature: 32 degrees, humidity: 95%. With Indonesia’s 17,000 islands straddling the equator, there aren’t any really big climatic changes. Some say there is a wet and dry season, but in reality that usually means a wet and wetter season. Dark rain clouds were making their daily congregation over the distant mountains, and it would only be a matter of hours before we would get a downpour.

Preparing the kit

WITH A DAY TO ACCLIMATISE and prepare for two weeks at sea, I checked that everything had survived the journey so far. My basic kit consists of a Portadat PDR1000TC, SQN 4s, Sennheisers 416 and 70, Pearl MS8 mic for MS wildtracks, Lectrosonics radio mics, Tram and Sanken lavalier mics.These are packed into four watertight Pelican cases. My biggest concern was the DAT’s susceptibility to moisture. In three years I have tried just about every method to keep the DAT recorder’s circuitry reasonably dry in tropical climates. However, I’ve still to find a tried and tested formula for keeping humidity out. As it is, I’ve resorted to carrying a bundle of possible solutions , including a hair-drier, silica-gel, and cling-film. I like the “dry-bag” method. These bags used by diving folk, are made of tough PVC, seal air-tight and will even float, should you be unlucky enough to lose one overboard. More often than not, it’s the rapid change in atmospheric conditions that causes a DAT recorder to “DEW” up, as warm air collides with cold metallic surfaces. By sealing the machine inside, condensation collects on the bag rather than on your DAT. Gradually opening the bag allows the machine to acclimatise better, and hopefully prevents the dreaded “DEW” light flashing. A good dose of direct sunlight on the machine can also work wonders in a short space of time, if you have a patient director.

The sound kit taken care of, my attention now turned to recording the divers’ conversations underwater. Each diver was to have 2-way comms, with their voice recorded clean. Each diver had to be totally independent, in order to recce more than one dive site simultaneously. This obviously ruled out any cables daisy-chaining the divers together. The solution was hired from Premiere Diving, a small but extremely helpful company based in Poole, Dorset.

Speech bubbles

THE BUDDY PHONE is an extremely neat little system providing 2-way comms between diver to diver, and via a surface-unit, to topside. Each diver wears a full face-mask, fitted with waterproof earphones, microphone and most importantly, air-supply. This in turn is connected to a belt-pack transceiver, which automatically powers up on immersion. 8 rechargeable AA batteries power the unit, giving the transceiver about 15 to 20 hours use. The water-resistant microphone is kept completely dry by being enclosed within the mask’s muzzle, which also houses the scuba bits along with a waterproof PTT button. Imagine wearing a Star Wars stormtrooper’s helmet, and you’re not far off. When the diver is more accustomed to the mask, a VOX mode is also available by double-clicking the PTT button. VOX mode does take some getting used to, as the system reacts more favourably to hard consonants such as “t” and “d”, rather than “f” and “r” to activate the circuit. Initially this made for some very strange recordings where Mark kept shouting ‘Ow!’ ‘Ow!’ Later on, I asked him if the mask was painful to wear. ‘No, why do you ask?’ he said. ‘ Well, it’s just that you were shouting ‘Ow!’ a lot. That’s ‘Wow!’, not ‘Ow!’, he exclaimed. ‘Antastic’, I thought.

By their third dive, the divers were doing well. Whilst they were all chattering down below, I listened in via the surface-unit. Mounted inside a tiny waterproof case were a loudspeaker, volume and squelch controls, CB mic and headset sockets, 12V DC terminals, an unbalanced phono o/p and, my link to the divers below, a transducer cable. The transducer was then dangled within range of the divers. The Buddy Phone is said to have a range of up to 1 km, depending on water conditions, but I found that any distance greater than 100 metres was pushing it a bit. It develops an echo, as sound waves bounce off everything, from shoals of fish, to rocks to even the boat’s hull.

The task of recording each diver’s voice clean presented somewhat more of a challenge. Again though, due a good deal in part to the helpfulness of Premiere’s Sean Piper, this problem had already been addressed. A clear perspex underwater housing was constructed for a Sony DAT Walkman. This in turn was connected to both the transceiver and the face-mask, splitting the signal off the diver’s microphone. The housing, like the belt-pack transceiver was then strapped to the air-tank cummerbund, adding to the spaghetti of hoses, regulators and depth gauges the poor diver already had to contend with. All that was missing now was a pair of cymbals between his knees and a harmonica around his neck. The test recordings were extremely clean, much better than the “walkie-talkie” quality audio from the surface unit.

Making waves

We boarded the Symphony, a 60 foot liveaboard and our home for the next two weeks. Space was at a premium, what with a 16mm camera kit, three underwater DVCs, my audio gear, the Buddy Phone and eight dive-bags to contend with. Somehow most of it vanished into the numerous cubby-holes around the boat. Power was not a problem. A generator provided 240V around the clock. Working on a boat is a perfect exercise in efficient use of space. You learn very quickly not to leave anything where it might get trodden on, or where it could fall over. Rule 101 - if you don’t need it, put it back in the box. Shame this rule doesn’t extend to my own home.

The engines rattled into action, and we headed south out of the relative calm of the Lembeh Straits, and onto the open sea. Cobalt-clear water sloshed against the Symphony’s hull, whilst within swimming distance pristine stretches of shoreline shimmered in the fierce midday heat . I had a sudden yearning for a Bacardi and Coke. Damn those advertising companies. Food on board was a distinctly Indonesian affair. Plenty of fried chicken, fish, vegetables and rice. Given the tininess of the galley we were constantly amazed at what cookie served up. Our favourite was the sambal, a spicy relish made from fresh chillies and lemon juice, which ties a neat bow-line in your tonsils.

On arrival at a calm bay fringed with mangrove, we began filming, with all the Aussie guys eager to go diving. Because of the small size of the dive prep area, I secretly gaffer-taped 2 rubber-mounted Sanken lavaliers to the ceiling, providing an effective pair of boundary mics. This way I could capture all the pre-dive chat whilst hiding in the cabin next door. The trouble was, I forgot just how crude Aussies can be when left on their own. Trying to get a clean sentence down on DAT proved more difficult that I thought. I pity the poor editor who’ll have to sort that lot out.

Given how much ground the divers can cover meant that I had to be more mobile, so I loaded the surface unit (and an NP1 for power) into an inflatable Zodiac. I synchronised my watch with the DAT walkman’s clock. This way I kept a pretty accurate log of the divers’ dialogue. With the aid of our Indonesian boatman, aptly named Ferry, I rowed alongside the stream of scuba bubbles rising from the depths below. With an hour or so to kill whilst the rest of the crew were busy underwater, I had plenty of time to admire Sulawesi’s rugged scenery. Row upon row of rounded peaks, like camel humps cloaked in vegetation, their summits hidden in thick mist. Later that evening I examined a map of the island, only to find a blank void where we were meant to be. Welcome to the Lost World.

Days began early, to ensure getting the best of the weather before the rains arrived. Waking up at 5.30, drinking Sulawesi coffee and watching dozens of local fishermen paddling home with their night’s catch is a very pleasant way to start the day. The view spoilt only by our cameraman doing morning exercises in his Y-fronts. By 9am we’re up to 30 degrees. The DAT casing had become a hot-plate, so I removed the carry-case to aid ventilation. I start to notice rust spots too, on the XLR plugs. A squirt of contact cleaner and a gentle scrub with a “Christmas-tree” toothbrush ought to do the trick. Who said sea-air was good for you?

The Buddy Phone was also not immune to moisture problems. The delicate parts (especially the mic assembly) must be kept dry, otherwise speech becomes distorted. Imagine my disgust when I discovered one diver had sneezed into his mask. Part of my daily routine involved stripping down the equipment. A blast of compressed air, followed by contact cleaner and silicone grease usually solved the problem.

Every day brought new discoveries. We kept an aquarium ready for any specimens found, including several different species of octopus. On one occasion, a small octopus tried to go “over the top”, plopping onto the aft deck. As I picked it up, it clung to the back of my hand. Prying it off, I felt two painful nips, octopuses having a sharp parrot-like beak. I later learnt from Mark and Julian that my attacker’s closest relation was the poisonous blue-ring octopus, which can deliver a fatal bite. ‘No antitoxin exists’, Mark informed me. ‘In the 1960s, the doctor’s only advice was reassure the paralysed victim by avoiding comments like, “He’s a goner”.’

Slowly the wonders of the warm Molucca sea revealed themselves to us. Our octopod friend displayed an incredible array of disguises, giving us much to talk about over dinner and glasses of Balinese red wine. A glittering chain of Primus-lamps bobbed on the horizon - fishermen diving for abalone. Grasshoppers and cicadas hissed noisily from the dark gloom of the forest. And far below, a pair of bug eyes glanced up at us from its shadowy lair.

The Octopus Hunter (Wildscreen Panda Award 2000 - Revelation)
BBC Animal People / Zebra Films
Produced by Joe Kennedy
First broadcast in July 1999