Meeting With A Mola Mola

The open ocean is blue and clear. It is vast. Rick Rosenthal has spent most of his life trying to discover its secrets and it was amazing to free dive with him into the abyss. As part of the ‘squid team’ in the Azores Rick was charged with filming sperm whales. They are the ‘witness’ in our story because they, unlike humans, have seen giant squid in their natural habitat. In the Azores about an 1/8th of the sperm whale diet by mass is estimated to be giant squid. In the days of whaling, before 1986, cut up sperm whales revealed their stomach contents and sometimes had giant squid inside. Rick set out to learn what the sperm whales knew.

Every day on the sea is different. As Rick has often told me, 'the sea has a switch and sometimes it is on, and sometimes it is off'. Days, costly days, can be spent finding nothing, 'you have to pay your dues,' says Rick. He did. In just a few days the weather cleared and we had series of amazing encounters.

One evening, about 25 miles out, we were just about to go back. Rick suggested I should use his kayak and go and see what we could find. Mario, Rick’s Azorean teammate, propelled the amazing craft, by a bicycle-like mechanism, which flaps rowing blades below. Soon we were jetting over the sea, a slight swell raising and lowering our vision of a whale as we silently (and most importantly without distress for the animal) came closer. But at over a hundred yards away we saw its tail (the 'fluke’) raise into the air – the sign that the game was up – it had dived and disappeared, perhaps a mile below. It was then that we saw the gigantic fin above the surface. Could it be a shark ? This was probably not the time to remember that the world record for the king of all sharks, a 41.2 foot great white, comes from exactly this spot.

Tentatively I held the camera over the side of the kayak – a good compromise between getting the shot and not getting eaten. Then there were shouts from Rick on the main boat that I didn’t understand at first, 'John, John, it’s a mola mola, get in, get in!' A mola mola or sunfish is an entirely peaceful creature and is found in all the world’s seas. It is a gigantic ocean traveler and often comes to the surface where it rolls around for a while in the sun, I presume. Time slowed down, now I was in the water inches away from one of the largest fishes in the sea, perhaps even the largest bony fish on Earth. This was a beautiful monster, weighing over a ton, quite a bit longer than me, and the world record is about 9 feet. It seemed to blink as its eye swiveled to spot me going past. I blinked back; who wouldn’t at meeting such a giant?

Rick, nearly twenty years my senior and twenty times as fit had dived off the boat and was beside me. He swam for a while by the gentle giant and filmed it as it quietly turned and plummeted into the dark below, to go who knows where?

Now we know we are in the right place, an ocean crossroads where the giants come. And we are paying our dues to see a giant squid.

This film will be showing during Expedition Week on National Geographic Channel in November this year watch it to see what other amazing encounters the crew have in the Azores

John Ruthven producer for the giant squid-hunting film, pictured above in our Azorean production office


Rick Rosenthal Filming For Ammonite

Rick Rosenthal has just gone back to the US, he was with us in the Azores for two weeks and the experience was incredible.

Rick is an oceanographer and a legendary cinematogragrapher. Enthusiasm radiates from him as he talks about the life he has witnessed in the ocean. It is clear that the more he sees the more incredible and mysterious this underwater world is. Ammonite is concerned with filming the natural, uninhibited behaviour of animals and Rick has developed a way of filming that gets closer to marine life than most other people.

Using a motor boat to get far out to sea, Nounou the skipper lets down a microphone on a long underwater cable to listen in to the activity going on all around us, Nounou differentiates between the dolphins and whales and then works out how fast the whales are moving and in which direction. We are looking for large groups of whales including full grown males, these are the ones that will dive deep and swallow massive amounts of whatever is living down there – including quantities of giant squid.

The boat stops a considerable distance from some whales that are close to the ocean’s surface. Rick then lowers an inflatable kayak into the water and paddles over towards the animals, they see the kayak but the approach is quiet and non-threatening and the animal usually stays around, unbothered. When he is very close, if Rick feels that his presence is of no concern, he will get in the water, the animal might choose to swim away but often it simply continues to do whatever it was doing.

The footage from these trips is magical, we’ve seen a lot of whales but we’ve seen plenty of other interesting things too. At one point our producer John Ruthven was scared out of his skin when a large fin sticking out of the water looking remarkably like a large shark came very close to the kayak. On investigation this turned out to be the biggest Mola Mola (ocean sunfish) anybody had ever seen, these are deep sea creatures and comparatively rare. Rick and John got in the water and shot some fantastic footage of the strange animal as it swam around surveying them.

We’ve also discovered quite a lot of debris that has floated up from the depths, the remains of a whale’s dinner that has come to the surface, giving us a tantalising glimpse of what we might find when the Giant Cable is lowered down to 500 metres tonight.


The Guppster: More Modifications

After the first dip in the water we realised that a wooden cradle that could hold the Guppster out of the water would make life a lot easier than trying to get it in and out of the boat.

We also realised that we had made this beast far too strong, it was pulling the boat down when in the water. So we have clipped it's wings, making it lighter and less powerful. The latest test went really well, now all we have to do is sort out the camera electronics.

More pics of the Guppster and crew are on Ammonite Film's Facebook page

Guppster Gets A Tattoo

Luis Roque is an Azorean diver, boatman and an artist, he is working with Ammonite on our giant squid challenge and has given the Guppster a proper ocean-going tattoo.


The Guppster Gets Wet

The Guppster has been through several incarnations, this is MK5 going into the water for the first time we needed to know several things;

would it stay upright?

could it withstand the current?

is the winding mechanism on the boat strong enough to support it?

The only problem we encountered was with the last question, the winding mechanism needed another day in the workshop and the whole system has been modified.

Tomorrow we will try the test again...

Photos of our first week in the Azores have been published on our Facebook page if you want to see more


The Giant Cable Arrives ...

... and then what?

After several nail-biting days when the Giant Cable* appeared to be lost in transit, a lorry turned up and dumped it on our driveway.

The next problem was how to shift it somewhere useful, here's how we managed it.

*The Giant Cable is the lynchpin of our efforts to find the Giant Squid - without it we might as well go home.