Unless you’ve been living under a triggerfish for the past few months, you’re likely one of the millions of viewers who’ve watched those incredible teasers of bird-eating giant trevally in the Seychelles, which hit the Interwebs on Oct. 26. The footage was captured by a four-person crew from the BBC’s Natural History Unit during fall of 2015 and fall of 2016, as part of the group’s four-year production of Blue Planet II—the much anticipated sequel to its 2001 Emmy-winning original.
This wasn’t easy. For starters, saying there are bird-eating fish “in the Seychelles” is like saying there are beaver-eating wolverines “in Alaska.” The East African nation has 115 islands scattered across nearly a million square miles of Indian Ocean. Before the BBC could even consider the project, someone had to know not only that this phenomenal behavior took place, but also where it happened, when it happened, and what the odds were of filming it. Not surprisingly, fixers for the BBC came from the flyfishing world—mainly, Gerhard Laubscher and a few of his fishy crew from FlyCastaway, the South African-based outfitter and booking agent.
As a company, FlyCastaway began hosting Seychelles trips in 2005, operating mostly from leased liveaboard passenger boats and guiding mainly on Farquhar, the southernmost atoll in the country, roughly 400 miles from the capital city of Mahe. (Few of the Seychelles outer islands have airstrips, and even fewer have accommodations. Farquhar has both.)
The atoll itself covers nearly 70 square miles, but the percentage of Farquhar sitting above water is tiny, less than five square miles spread across 10 different islands. Two of these—North Island (where the airstrip and lodging is), and South Island—make up most of this land, at roughly 1,000 acres each. Coming in third is Goëlette Island, proudly boasting 80 acres of land, a mile and a half of shoreline, and, every fall, roughly 300,000 pairs of an equatorial seabird called the sooty tern.
In New Zealand and other parts of the world, including Seychelles, the sooty tern is known colloquially as “wideawake” due to the obnoxious sound created by thousands of them squawking at once. (The Hawaiian name for them—ewa-ewa—means “cacophony.”) “When there are birds everywhere, it can be almost impossible to hear each other through the noise,” says veteran Seychelles guide Jako Lucas.
In October of 2011, Lucas was one of three not-yet-notorious guides, along with Keith Rose-Innes and Warren Deysel, to be starting a new season on Farquhar for FlyCastaway. Lucas took his people to a small island called Dépose, while Rose-Innes and Deysel headed to Goëlette with their clients—two brothers from South Africa named Craig and Andrew Jensen. On the deeper, lagoon side of Goëlette, Rose-Innes, Deysel, and the Jensens began seeing huge explosions on the surface.
“We knew they were GTs, but we didn’t know what they were smashing,” said Deysel. “Then, when I was on the way back to the boat, I saw a GT tracking a bird. And as the bird flew down to skim the surface for water, the GT made a few attempts to eat it.” Turns out, young terns don’t always fly that well…
Deysel said the topic didn’t come up again until that night at dinner, when most people around the table felt the GTs (also called “geets”) were eating tropical squid. “That’s when I jumped in and said that they could be eating birds, because of what I’d seen. But that theory was quickly laughed at as impossible.”
Over the following three years, a fair number of guided anglers either saw or heard about the bird-eating phenomenon at Goëlette, including Andrew Jensen, who shared the story at a social gathering attended by some film-industry folks. This news then trickled down to the Blue Planet II team, and the team’s researcher, Sophie Morgan, decided to make a call.
“I picked up the phone to Jensen with quite a degree of skepticism,” Morgan said. “But after speaking with him, Jako, and Brendan [Becker, another FlyCastaway guide], I started to believe that this fisherman’s tale might actually be true.”
Morgan was soon talking with Laubscher, since FlyCastaway was and is the only outfitter permitted by the Seychelles’ Island Development Company (IDC) to guide on Farquhar. Plans were made to get Morgan and the rest of the BBC crew to Farquhar for three weeks of filming in fall 2015. “We spoke to the IDC, our partners on Farquhar, and got the ball rolling,” Laubscher said. “When someone calls you from the BBC inquiring about a wildlife documentary, you pay attention.”
The BBC unit returned for two more weeks in 2016, and for both of these trips, Flycastaway was responsible for all of the logistics after they arrived in the Seychelles. Laubscher says he loves the footage that the BBC got, but there remains many misconceptions about the birds. “Like many fishing stories, this one grew bigger and bigger, and soon the perception was that this bird-eating behavior happens all over Farquhar Atoll and the Seychelles,” he said. “It really only happens on a small part of Goëlette, probably because of the fairly deep lagoon.”
Over the course of the two filming sessions, a few different FlyCastaway guides got to work on location with the BBC, including Becker, Matthieu Cosson, and lead guide and partner Tim Babich. But by all accounts, the star guide of the filmmaking team was Seychellois native Peter King, who began working with FlyCastaway in 2014. “I think Peter was a GT in a former life,” Morgan said. “The majority of the airborne shots came after he revealed his ‘secret lunch spot’—a shallow channel where you could see and track the GTs as they hunted. He would then say things like ‘follow that GT, it looks hungry.'”
King said that at first he was excited but unsure about the project. “I’ve never, at any stage of my life, been the kind of person to be in front of a camera,” he said. “But it was an amazing experience that will stay with me forever.”
Morgan added that even when the lagoon wasn’t happening, and the crew was stuck just staring at millions of birds, King remained focused. “Peter would get into the mind of a GT and point out birds that might be on the menu, flying slowly and low to the water. This, combined with hours of a very patient Ted [Giffords, the BBC above-water cameraman] focusing on these birds, yielded the best slow-motion leaping shots.”
Asked about the difficulty of capturing those mind-boggling airborne eats, Morgan gave credit to King and Giffords: “When we made that first trip to Farquhar, there wasn’t even a photo of the behavior. We saw the splashes that indicated the GTs were indeed hunting birds, but as a researcher who’d convinced her producer [Miles Barton] to take this huge leap of faith, I had a growing concern that the behavior wouldn’t be predictable enough to train a camera on. It was testament to both Peter and Ted that we eventually achieved those airborne shots.”
Along with Morgan, Barton, and Giffords, underwater cameraman Daniel Beecham rounded out the BBC foursome on the island. But it was Giffords’ above-water use of the Phantom Flex, a $100K+ camera capable of shooting 1,000 frames per second, that scored the money shots. “The Flex was a vital tool in showing the event in its full detail,” Morgan said. “Our cameras also have a very useful function called pre-record, which is constantly caching a few seconds of footage, so when you press ‘record’ you get footage from before that point. We would have been lost without it—no cameraman is faster than a GT, not even Ted.”
At times, the crew was concerned that they wouldn’t get the shot. “We had always had this concern, but it was actually a comment from Brendan, in a phone call, that cemented our decision to try and film this,” Morgan said. “He said something like, ‘sometimes the juvenile terns get tired and sit on the water, then they are often eaten.’ We knew this would be something we would be able to train the camera on and thus potentially be successful. And sure enough, we got shots like this within a week. But it was beyond my wildest dreams that we would get GTs taking birds in the air.” Morgan had only one word written next to that shot on her storyboard: “Unlikely.”
Becker was skeptical as well, despite what he’d said to Morgan. “Our task was to catch one bird out of hundreds of thousands, dipping down to the water and getting inhaled by a GT that we couldn’t even see,” he said. “We basically had to work out how we would achieve the impossible. It was frustrating at times because we could see birds getting taken all around us—we just couldn’t nail down the shot.”
But again, it was King who came to the rescue. “Thanks to Peter, we figured out when the activity was at its height,” Becker said.
“And he found an area on the island where the geets—at a higher water level—would hold like massive brown trout in the current, waiting patiently for the birds to dip low over them. I knew we were going to astound the world with the most amazing GT footage that has ever been seen. So many years went into this, and we ended up documenting it with the most esteemed wildlife videographers in the world.”
King agreed: “After we’d managed to get all the less difficult footage in 2015, director Miles Barton came to me before they left and said, ‘Pete, we got most of the footage we need, there’s just one bit missing…’ So in 2016, we definitely stepped it up another level. When we finally got the GTs going airborne, it was really difficult not to swear and ruin the audio.”