How To Capture A Molting Lobster on Film

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Posted by tleemay on September 11, 2006 at 17:13:04:

From Ocean.com

The lobster stood on a rock about two feet away. Behind the lobster, the kelp shifted in the gentle surge. Bright comets flew out of the night - small shrimp and fish attracted to the powerful movie lights. But I was intent on the lobster. I was sure I could reach out and touch it. But I was equally sure that I would find nothing there if I tried.

The membrane between the lobster's tail and cephlothorax had ruptured and it was slowly withdrawing its many legs, antennae, feelers, and mouthparts from its old exoskeleton. It was one of the most amazing demonstrations of the almost incomprehensible sophistication of nature. The lobster was molting.

I resisted my temptation to reach out to the lobster and instead turned in my seat and leaned back comfortably. Nearby I could hear the audience's murmurs of amazement. I was just glad the image was in focus - no mean trick in 70mm photography and especially in 70mm Imax 3D. My expensive gambit had paid off. Now the audience of Imax executives and theater owners marveled at a 3D image of a molting lobster that looked essentially the same as the image I saw through my diving mask when I filmed it - the same size, the same distance away, the same brilliant color, and in three dimensions. Beside me, I heard the film's producer, Graeme Ferguson, whisper, "Wonderful, just wonderful." Music to my ears.

When the lights came up, I was congratulated on the success of our expedition. The lobster molting sequence had been especially popular. "How did you get that lobster shot?" one lady asked. "Did you just find it doing that, molting its shell?"

Yeah, I was tempted to say. Yeah, four of us just happened to be swimming around in the middle of the night. And we just happened to have a 1,500-pound underwater Imax 3D camera with us. And, on a whim, one of the divers had brought a 100-pound tripod. And just by chance another had brought an entire bank of 650-watt movie lights. And someone, I forget who, just thought they would swim around with an extra 75 pounds of lead, just in case we wanted to hold the tripod down in the moderate surge or something. Yeah, and we were just swimming around, you know, and we just stumbled upon this bug molting its shell.

No, I thought, that's rude. I should tell the truth. But that's a rather long story. The truth is that we spent five days getting that sequence. We shot more than 14,000 feet of film spending approximately $70,000 in film stock, processing, and printing. The additional costs of crew, camera rental, boat charter for those five days certainly put the cost well above $100,000. All for a simple shot of a lobster shedding its shell.

Well, obviously not so simple. First I contacted Dr. Jack Engel of the University of California at Santa Barbara. He agreed to come to Catalina Island for three days to help us (under his collecting permit) collect lobsters and identify those that might soon be entering the molting process. Collecting the lobsters was no easy task. When lobsters are entering the molting process they loose their appetites. So they can't be baited into traps. They must be captured by hand, very carefully, to avoid breaking off legs or antennae. Breaking off lobster parts would be unpleasant for the lobsters and would make poor specimens for filming. During three nights of repetitive night dives, our crew of eight divers collected or inspected an estimated 1,000 lobsters. Most were either inspected before capture or were released underwater immediately after capture. Of these 1,000 lobsters or so, we found five that were candidates for molting during the next few days.

These finalists in the lobster talent search were placed in aquariums on the deck of the M\V Conception. There were three small lobster, one that was extremely small - too small to film with the Imax 3D system, and one really big, beautiful, four-pound bug. They were all treated with tender loving care. They had already cost the production a small fortune in crew and charter costs.

Lobsters molt at night. So to keep the expensive operation from standing idle all day, we decided to go ten miles offshore of Catalina and film blue sharks during daylight, planning to be back at Isthmus Reef an hour or so before a 7:30 pm sunset. This turned out to be a poor decision. Not only did we fail to attract any sharks for filming, but at 4:00 pm I looked into one of the aquariums and saw one of the small lobsters showing signs of imminent molting.

In a mad rush, we pulled up our shark cage and drove at full throttle for Isthmus Reef. The trip took about forty-five minutes. Upon reaching the reef Captain Roger Wood (Woody) quickly deployed both bow and stern anchors. Noel Archambault and Stuart MacFarland prepared the camera and John Robirds hoisted it over the side. The launch and recovery team of Mark Conlin and Mark Thurlow were dressed and ready to dive. They entered the water as Bob Cranston and I donned our mixed-gas rebreathers. We were all set to go when location manager, Michele Hall, looked in the lobster tank and said, "Too late."

The lobster had already molted. I couldn't believe it. The sun was still high above the horizon, and the lobster had molted anyway. None of us had ever heard of a lobster molting in daylight before. Everyone starred at the aquarium in disbelief.

Our second night was even more frustrating. We had four lobsters left. After an hour of scouting, we had found a suitable location to set up the camera very near the location where the lobsters were collected. At 10:30 pm, a second small lobster began to show signs that it was going to molt.

In minutes, the camera was over the side and our dive team was in the water. Bob and I wore rebreathers, which would give us twelve hours of potential bottom time. Of course, that much exposure is almost impossible even with the top of the line DUI dry suits we were wearing. But, at least, air supply would not be a limiting factor. Conlin and Thurlow brought the heavy tripod to Bob and me at our selected film location. While Bob and I set up the tripod, Conlin and Thurlow went back for the camera and lights. Once the 1,500-pound camera system was mounted on the tripod, Bob added seventy-five pounds of lead weight to the tripod legs to prevent the camera from moving in the surge. Meanwhile, Conlin went back for the lobster, which John Robirds had placed in a five gallon pickle barrel filled with water.

With the camera ready and the lights burning, I removed the lid of the bucket. The lobster was still intact. We had made it in time! I reached into the bucket and gently removed the lobster. Then I released it on the rock in front of the camera. The lobster walked across the rock and found a comfortable place to begin the molting process. I quickly composed the shot by adjusting the fluid-head brakes on the tripod head, then took a focus measurement, and then set the aperture. Everything was ready. We had made it in time! We eagerly waited for the lobster to begin the molting process. And we continued to wait. And then we waited some more.

After two and a half hours, Bob and I were beginning to get very uncomfortable. Conlin and Thurlow had been shuttling back to the boat regularly for air tank changes and hot coffee, but they weren't in much better shape. At three hours, we were all cold. The lobster hadn't moved. Again, I couldn't believe our luck. The first lobster couldn't wait until we anchored the boat. It molted within one hour of showing signs of beginning. This second lobster started the process four hours ago, but since then hadn't progressed at all!

At three and a half hours, I was getting punchy. I was shaking so badly that I had a hard time retaining my mouthpiece. I realized we were so cold because earlier that day we had spent four hours underwater unsuccessfully filming garibaldi courtship behavior for our garibaldi nesting sequence. We were approaching eight hours of bottom time for the day. I began to think of reasons why we had to abort. I began to worry about our oxygen exposure. At the elevated oxygen levels Bob and I were breathing, we had already exceeded pulmonary oxygen toxicity limits. We should abort, I thought. We had to abort. It was smart to abort.

With sudden insight, I gave the signal to abort. Conlin asked if I wanted to recover the camera. I gave the signal that everything was going back. Thurlow used the our OTS underwater communications system to signal the surface team that we were returning.

We climbed out of the water at 2:30 am. Everyone was shaking uncontrollably. Many of the surface crew were passed out all over the Conception's salon. Michele was awake and brought the divers hot drinks, as Mark Conlin gently put the lobster back in the tank. Fifteen minutes later the lobster molted in the aquarium.

It happened so fast that there was no hope of setting the camera up and getting back down to the dive site. If I had been smart enough to leave the camera set up on the bottom we might have had a chance, but with the camera on the deck there was no hope. I couldn't believe it. I was so upset I kicked one of the steel Scubapro 95 cubic-foot dive tanks in the tank rack. This had very little effect on the tank and considerably more effect on the bones of my big toe.

The next morning, the funereal atmosphere aboard the Conception was lessened slightly by a limerick written on the galley chalkboard.

"There was a small lobster named Red
Whose shell he just wouldn't shed,
So with a sigh, I poked out his eye
Then gleefully crushed his head!"

This seemed to cheer everyone up a bit and by the end of the day there were numerous limericks on the chalkboard, all of which included lobsters and much unpublishable language. That night we tried again. We had three lobsters left. One was too small to film. But one was a giant.

At 7:00 pm two lobsters began looking as if molting was imminent, the tiny lobster and the big one. By 7:30 pm we were ready to dive. But then things began to go wrong. Bob had a battery failure on his rebreather. In a rush we changed batteries. Then Woody called me to the stern of the boat and said, "You might want to check the current". The refrigerator-sized underwater Imax 3D camera and current make a really bad combination. We had to change dive sites.

We raced the Conception down the island and into a small cove. It was a poor dive site since it was exposed to the nasty south swell that had been building all day. But we didn't have time to be choosy. After anchoring, Bob and I raced into the water to look for a suitable filming site. We could hear the clock ticking against us. Conditions were terrible. But we had no time to move again. I decided we'd just have to live with the swell and poor visibility.

At my signal, the rest of the team entered the water with all the gear. We quickly set up the shot on a rock covered with brown algae. I didn't like the way it looked but it couldn't be helped. Soon everything was in place and the lobster was on the rock. We had made it in time! We had beaten the clock!

Three hours later, the lobster still hadn't molted. I couldn't believe it. When we couldn't stand it any more, I again signaled to abort the dive. This time, however, I told Thurlow to leave all the gear on the bottom. Mark used the communications set to inform the topside crew to turn off the lights, but that the camera was staying on the bottom. In a few minutes, we were all gathered on the deck of the Conception drinking coffee, trying to warm up, and watching the lobster in the tank for any sign of change.

The tiny lobster had also not molted. Michele asked if she could take it down and photograph it with her still camera. Since it was too small for the Imax rig I said, "sure, knock yourself out." Michele donned her gear, took the lobster in a bucket and swam off into the night.

Thirty minutes later, Michele was back. The dive team sat in our chairs huddled around the lobster tank and watched her take off her gear. She wasn't talking. When we could wait no longer I said, "Well!"

"You don't want to know," she said. I could tell from the look on her face what she meant. The lobster had molted as soon as she set it on a rock. She shot her entire roll of film on it and was back on the boat in a half-hour! She simply couldn't bring herself to tell us how easy it had been. That was wise. We would have thrown her overboard in her dry suit underwear!

Before the realization of Michele's success had set in, Cathy Cranston pointed at the lobster in the tank and said, "Look!" The lobster was beginning to molt.

Since everyone had remained dressed in their dry suits, it took no time at all for us to don gear and get into the water. Bob and I went with standard SCUBA to avoid the lengthier suiting-up time rebreathers required. Michele set the timer on her watch. Within six minutes of Cathy's signal, we had the lobster on the rock and the IMAX® camera was rolling.

It took another seven minutes for the lobster to complete its molt. I turned the camera on and just let it run. In seven minutes, the camera would burn $25,000 worth of film (including processing and printing). The camera ran flawlessly.

It seems like a perfect ending to the story doesn't it? Unfortunately, it's not. During that seven-minute, fabulously expensive shot, our movie lights went out twice! Surge shifted the camera on the tripod, raising the frame line, which would prevent our editor from dissolving between various stages of the molt in post-production. And at the critical moment, when the lobster was just about to completely emerge from its old skin, surge blew it right off the rock! It was a disaster.

I looked at the lady who had asked me how I had captured the lobster molting shot. She was starring at me like I had dropped a loop or something. "Oh, sorry." I said. "I was just remembering something. Actually, we were lucky with that lobster shot. Sometimes we just have really great luck."

This vague explanation seemed to satisfy the lady and she smiled and commented on another portion of the film. But I had drifted off again by then.

On the last night, we had one small lobster left. Everyone was trying to be as cheerful as possible, but the fear of another failure was palatable. Michele, on the other hand, tried to hide her glee at having succeeded in photographing molting so easily with her still camera. We all wanted to throw her to the sharks.

At 9:00 pm the lobster looked ready. By 9:30 pm we were once again set up with the lobster on a rock. An hour later, the lobster molted. Mark Thurlow gave a play-by-play to the topside crew over the communications set.

"It's molting, it's molting. Camera is rolling. It's working! We're getting it." The topside crew was dancing on the deck.

The lobster molted perfectly. When it popped out of its shell, it landed perfectly on the rock next to its old molt and sat there facing the camera. I let the camera roll an additional thirty seconds then turned it off. Perfect! Everything had worked perfectly! Like I said to the lady, sometimes we just get lucky.

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