A hidden world surrounds this island of ours. An underwater habitat teeming with colour, migration and uncountable creatures, most of which we’ll never have the chance to see in the flesh: oily thongweed, pink algae, purple urchins, “carpets of acorn barnacles” and “fattened starfish”.
Stories from the Deep is a collection of Ken O’Sullivan’s experiences as an underwater cameraman and documentary maker, exploring his relationship with this aquatic world and its many inhabitants, a landscape which O’Sullivan captures using macro photography or “extreme close-up photography”.
At times the stories are ones of history and heritage, accounts of hard lives and essential skills and a lost way of life. Tales of shallow dives and far-flung adventures break on gentle waves of poetry and images of coast and wildlife, ghostly basking sharks and exotic reefs, a moon jellyfish that almost looks like an alien planet itself, water lapping at its outskirts, the earth glowing beneath.
The book is a romance with the Irish sea and a fling with the tides of foreign shores. It is a tumultuous affair with the wild Atlantic Ocean. True, there have been some disagreements over the years, the weathering of storms and the riding of waves, or the constant surge and bob, so a full day of shooting might return zero minutes of footage.
There’s even been the risk of an abrupt end to the relationship, the one and only time the author captured the bubble-feeding of whales, a three-stone camera in hands and a sudden awareness that all experienced sea-life had deserted the scene.
A few pages into the book and it’s obvious that this work is a passion the author can’t live without. The sea is in his bones, as it’s in the bones of most coastal folk, the instinctive need to be close to the water passed down from one generation to the next, the same way a sea turtle starts for the incoming tide the moment it has cracked free from the egg.
The stories are as much about the oceans within, the currents of an upbringing that still ripple into adulthood, a father who fished the islands and taught a boy how to use a trammel net. The story of a currach race against the neighbouring villages, the 1932 Fenit Regatta, a tale that carries the weight of decades’ worth of retelling so a son might need to replicate a fraction of it, if only to feel himself worthy of island life.
The book is also about place. What takes a person away from their home, in the author’s case, to the United States, London and mainland Europe. It’s a question that comes up
throughout, the author seeking answers in similar stories to his own, aware of how work and the need to support will uproot and push emigration, and how people emigrate to places where they have friends or relatives, establishing new communities.
Still, home or the idea of home that’s nestled in a mind, the sound of familiar waves that resonates in the soul, can call a person back time and time again.
Many challenges face the wildlife filmmaker. There’s the natural elements to contend with, attempts at capturing a landscape that is constantly moving and so lacking in light. Each day is the shifting of heavy equipment and lumbering across country in an old Volkswagen van.
Funding is a massive issue too. The constant refusal from broadcasters and state agencies and the lack of funding available in general. Documentary-making isn’t cheap. Filming can be slow, the subject matter unpredictable.
The fact that Blue Planet is financed by national broadcasters in four or five countries, with a budget of “€1.5 to €2 million per TV hour” puts things in perspective.
But with the backing of the EPA, O’Sullivan’s company Sea Fever Productions has gone on to receive such high-profile commissions as Farraigí na hÉireann for TG4, The Silver Branch for the Irish Film Board, and Ireland’s Deep Atlantic, which has been added as an online classroom resource for Junior Cycle students.
His writings take us from the west of Ireland to the Cape Verde islands with their westerly winds and the author’s nagging fear of engine failure when the nearest land is some 4,000km away. Then it’s off to the Azores, a stopover for a multitude of whale species – sei, minke, fin, blue, and the humpback of course, 35-tonne beast, the weight of six elephants and the size of a double-decker bus.
The Cape Verde experience inspired him to try to document the humpbacks in the North
Atlantic, and the hunt for the breeding grounds and the passages remind me of an experience of my own. Australia, a decade and a half ago now, the way the air tastes different so early in the morning and especially as we begin our journey toward choppy waves.
With the line of the horizon in the distance, the guide continuously dampens expectations so it’s even more of a surprise to encounter a number of pods, humpbacks rising to have a look at the boat and splashing their tails for fun. There is this feeling on the return that you’ve just witnessed real magic. O’Sullivan uses the word “spiritual” when describing experiences like this. Whatever narrative it might take, it’s certainly something that never leaves you.
Making a documentary, O’Sullivan once interviewed 93-year-old Tomás Ó Conghaile, a currach fisherman from Inis Óirr. The man spoke about the day of the great north wind in 1944, when he was out fishing with four others and became separated from land by a treacherous tide. “Bhí an farraige bhriste ón Oilean na Caorach go Ceann Cailleach,” O’Conghaile says. “The sea was broken from Mutton Island to Hag’s Head.” It took the crew six hours rowing into that north wind before they made it to shore.
The sea is broken in a different way now. And conservation is at the heart of each of these stories.
O’Sullivan often speaks of the threat to the ocean environment, ecotourism and the need to preserve. Scientists estimate that somewhere between 70 million and 100 million sharks are being slaughtered globally every year for their fins. Fishing vessels are a constant threat to fish populations, which in turn is a threat to the animals that feed on fish.
The work and stories of Ken O’Sullivan and others like him are a step in protecting the hidden world that surrounds every inch of this land. Like the crew in Inis Óirr who fought against the ferocious sea the day of the great north wind, it might take every inch of our will and perseverance to keep this ecosystem from being dismantled in our lifetime.
But to fight and survive to share the tale afterward, surely that’s one story everybody wants to tell.