Filming the Samurai Subs

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By: Writer/Director Devon Chivvis, Wild Life Productions

Motion sickness. Diesel Fumes. Bunks with a 1 foot clearing to the ceiling.   Aboard the KOK mothership, this is the easy part.  Tomorrow I will be directing from inside a 7-foot diameter sphere at depths of over 3,000 feet.  This is not your average expedition, nor your average production.

Sleep.  Must sleep, must get up really early to drink and process coffee in order not to urinate in the DSV.

That’s right.  I am a female adventure director, and there are no facilities in the 7-foot diameter DSV command center.  The boys have it easier.  They are provided with bags.  The ladies?  An empty nut jar.  I’d rather dehydrate my body and not have to worry about that complication.   But Terry, Chief Pilot, warns dehydration is no good at those depths, because while the cabin is pressurized with sea level air, it is easy to get a killer headache during your dive.  I’ll take the Aleve with me.   Ok Sleep.  Time to Sleep.  Wait, where is my shot list?  Right, in my day sac.  My equilibrium adjusts to the sea, and my mind stops racing.

BEEP BEEP BEEP!  My stopwatch thankfully wakes me.  It’s 4:30 AM.  I stumble like a drunken sailor with the motion of the boat to the galley, the most wonderful place in the world.  The cook has placed fresh blueberry muffins out for the early risers.  But I better not eat too much or that problem with the facilities in the DSV might arise. Just a little bit of coffee to get the sea salt out of my eyes.


I double-check my bag filled with the few items I will need for the 8-hour dive. Aleve. Check. Lunch (just a bit!) check. SHOT LISTS.  Check.  Pen. Check. Layers. (It can get mighty cold at those depths where there is no light). Check.

Final shot list review with cameramen and DSV pilots. Remove shoes, take deep breath, and get into sub.

It’s go time.

The hatch closes, and we lift off the deck, then suspended over the water, the DSV swings like a pendulum.  My stomach holds, and we immediately start filming.  One of the best shots will be our entry into the water from inside the DSV. We drop in, and slowly the water starts to creep up the glass of our portholes.  No leaks.  This is good.  We’re going down, and the shot is awesome.  The light changes from light blue to azure, to dark blue, and slowly but surely during this hour-long descent to the bottom of the ocean floor, the world around us bubbles in to black.

I am in the Pisces 5 with our pilot, Max. Once we are on the bottom, he calls to the mother ship for a location and a bearing (for we cannot navigate on our own.  GPS does not work through water). Then Max contacts Terry, the pilot of the other DSV, the Pisces 4, and we make a plan.  The third passenger is one of our cameramen, Doug. He is running 2 interior cameras, and 3 exterior cameras.  He is also 6’4” and can hardly move inside the DSV, but he does a great job.  Working together –and doing our best to stay out of Max’s way—we make our way to the target for the day: the wreck of the I-401, a 400 foot long Japanese aircraft carrying submarine.   We turn off the interior lights so Max can see in the dark more clearly.


I lie on my belly to look out the port side porthole.  Max is in the middle piloting, and Doug is manning the cameras on the starboard side. Slowly but surely, the wreck of this massive submarine comes into view. I feel like we’ve entered another dimension.  This can’t be possible.  This submarine cannot possibly be this big.  The lights of our DSV can’t throw the length of the sub, which is longer than a football field.  I must snap out of my daze and get to work.

For the next several hours, we traverse the World War II wreck, making sure to film this giant beast from the widest shots possible down to the most minute details.  We can see through the deck into the guts of the sub, we can see the stairs on the conning tower and an open door, as if someone had just been there.  We can see the snorkel, shining like it was built yesterday, and we can see the numbers painted on the side of the conning tower: I-401.  I am transfixed.  This is scuba diving on steroids.

But filming at these depths is not easy.  There are many hazards on the bottom –from unexploded ordnances –we flew the Pisces 5 over several hedgehogs and torpedoes, to entanglement hazards such as fishing line caught on the submarine wreck.  Currents, however, really are boss down here; we must take advantage of a current in our favor and avoid the currents that will push us into the wreck.  Several times we are pushed in the wrong direction and must make a second pass to get the footage we need.

We are getting shots of a lifetime, but the more excited we get, the more oxygen we use, and the more carbon dioxide we expel.  The more carbon dioxide in the air, the lazier we get.  Bad news.  Our levels of CO2 are rising. We must stop to change out our life support. We film this process called “changing out the scrubbers”, for the behind the scenes reel.  Once this is done, I check in with our DP in the Pisces 4 to review his shot list.  We continue filming both interior scenes and the beauties of the wreck.  After about 6.5 hours, we begin preparations to head back topside. I once again lie on my belly, still in awe of the submarine we are about to leave.

Max and Terry coordinate their return to the mothership –we will follow Terry’s lead. We lift off the ground, and Max shuts all the lights off our DSV. In the distance, we see the silouhette of Terry’s DSV, outlined just by his own “headlights”.  We fly behind him through the dark water, and I feel as if we are flying through outerspace.  I could stay down here forever.

The pitch black begins to turn dark blue, then azure, the light blue again and sure enough, we see daylight as we are lifted onto the deck of the mother ship.  I check my shot list as we prepare to open the hatch and confirm we have everything we planned for, and then some.  Max stands up to twist open the hatch, and as I take my first breath of fresh air, I realize there is only one thing that I have forgotten: to pee.