BEHIND THE SCENES - Dominica aerial footage

Teams led by Rotorpixel/ReefNet owner, Keri Wilk, assembled in the Commonwealth of Dominica during March 2014, with government permits specifically allowing in-water encounters with any marine mammals found around the island. Underwater photography of the resident population of sperm whales was the primary goal of the expedition, but aerial photography/videography of them (in addition to Dominica's topside attractions) took a close second, with three DJI Phantom 2 Vision w/Rotorpixel gimbal systems in tow.

During nearly a month on the water, flying between 1-2 hours each day, Keri accumulated countless hours of footage over the ocean (and inland), most of which is rather unique. Encounters included socializing groups of sperm whales, giant pods of dolphins, as well as beaked, humpback, and false-killer whales (the latter only briefly). Some of the highlights have been put together in this video (above) for your viewing pleasure, but also as a showcase of our camera stabilization capabilities. None of the footage was stabilized in post-production - everything is as-shot, straight from the quadcopter's camera.

Thankfully, all of the team members were accomplished photographers, and some of them took some behind-the-scenes shots of the quadcopters in action:

Some words from Keri:

2013 Phantom setup (low res).jpg

At the beginning of 2013, when the first Phantom quadcopter was released by DJI, I immediately caught the aerial imaging bug. As an underwater photographer who travels all over the world to beautiful remote destinations, adding a Phantom to my gear arsenal was an easy decision.

I picked one up local hobby shop, bought a cheap servo-driven camera gimbal for my GoPro Hero 3, pieced together an FPV (first person view) system with the help of New Generation Hobbies, and only a few days later, took it all to Dominica with for my first attempt at aerial photography/videography. 

I was a very new pilot, with only a couple of days of experience, but years of video gaming as a kid combined with the Phantom's rock-steady GPS-hold feature gave me a fighting chance at using the system safely. However, I still crashed a few times (into a tree, a boulder, and myself - ouch!), and the gimbal introduced so much shaking/vibration into footage that it was all basically useless. After a month on the island, and on the ocean with the world's largest predator (sperm whale), I didn't come home with a single piece of usable aerial footage - bigtime bummer. The very short video here is a small sample of footage from that trip, which is painfully useless. It also has my first Phantom crash ever.

Fast-forward 1 year. I was now deeply immersed in the multirotor world. I started Rotorpixel with Eric Cheng (currently DJI's director of aerial imaging), designed a number of direct drive gimbals for aerial systems at the beginning of the brushless gimbal boom, and had a new Dominican government permit to be in the water with the islands population of sperm whales during March 2014.

DJI released a new version of their Phantom - the Phantom 2 Vision (P2V). It has a built-in camera, and I had just finished designing a new 2-axis direct drive gimbal for it's camera, so I brought 3 full P2V systems along with me outfitted with our gimbals (in addition to an unreasonable amount of underwater photo gear). In the span of less than a year, aerial imaging technology evolved greatly, making my chance of success much higher this second time around. So, off I headed with an amazing group of underwater photographers to Dominica to document the island's sperm whales, and other beautiful landmarks. However, as prepared as I was for round 2, I still ran into a number of speed bumps.

All aspects of aerial imaging are made more difficult while on a boat. Since the boat was usually moving quickly when flights had to take place (making bow-waves for dolphins, pursuing whales, or en route back to shore) take-offs and landings had to be performed primarily by hand. The intense Caribbean sun made viewing the live video feed on a smart phone almost impossible. The boat’s constant rocking in the waves and its wet floors made firm footing difficult to achieve confidently. And, one of our low-flying quads was nearly taken out of the sky by dolphins jumping and by whales exhaling forcefully through their blowholes. As if these factors didn't make flying over water intense enough, I've lost a painful number of aerial systems in water already!

Once back on land, the flight dangers seemed to follow. A 10-hour round-trip hike through thick rainforests brought me and a few other team members through a steamy sulfur valley on the way to the world's second largest boiling volcanic lake (fumarole), the steam from which rendered one of the quadcopters unusable. Flying deep in the jungle, without the aid of GPS, and with thin, almost invisible vines hanging down in random places, was precarious, but ultimately worth the effort. I returned with a number of interesting waterfall shots that likely have never been achieved before on Dominica. I also tried my hand at a few 5-15 image aerial panoramas, which worked out well with some guidance from Adobe guru Russell Brown (go here for a great tutorial!).

Footage of the sperm whales from below the surface  was equally - if not more - dramatic. All of the following photos were taken with natural light while freediving with either a Canon 1DX or Nikon D4 in a Nauticam housing fitted with a 230mm Zen dome port. All gear was supplied by Reef Photo & Video and Nauticam. Here's a small gallery of images from the expedition:

While I was able to come home with some pretty interesting footage, there are still several shots (above and below water) which haven't been checked off my list. That's why I'm heading back to Dominica again in March, for round 3! I've got some spaces available on the permit, so if you are interested in joining, please let me know! Click the link below for details about the trip.