If Jacques Cousteau had been in possession of a Crittercam, natural history filmmaking as we know it would be radically different.
Instead, the great French explorer took large, heavy cameras into the oceans, cameras with film canisters that had to be switched out after 15 minutes of use.
Yet the discoveries made by Cousteau and his fellow pioneers were inspirational to the next generation of scientists and filmmakers. In 1986, Greg Marshall — during a research project in Belize — had an epiphany. While on a dive, he started thinking about the scavenging remora fish that attach themselves to sharks, going where they go, seeing what they see.
The year before, Sony had introduced the first hand-held video recorder. What if, Marshall wondered, one of these could be attached to a free-swimming whale, turtle or shark? "There's just so much that we don't know about how these animals use their environments," he says. "How they function in this alien world that we have such a hard time accessing."
So he made it happen.
National Geographic, Marshall's employer, owns the copyright on "Crittercam," and in the 27 years since its creation the organization's contributions to the study of natural science have been incalculable.
Marshall, who'll be at the Gray's Reef Ocean Film Festival this weekend to discuss his work, says the earliest Crittercam tests were focused on making sure the attached camera hindered the animal as little as possible.
"In retrospect, I call the very first one a monstrosity, because that's what comes to mind," he laughs. "It was a huge great thing that was the best I could do at the time — and was about the best that could have been done, given the state of the art of cameras at the time.
"The key thing I learned about that first camera was that it didn't bother the animal that I had deployed it on. It was a sea turtle, in a pen in Belize, and the turtle just didn't seem to care that it was there at all."
Since video signals cannot be transmitted through water, the animals must be fitted with an actual camera. It's attached with a temporary epoxy; after a specific amount of time, or under certain weather conditions, the onboard computer detaches the unit and it floats to the surface. It is recovered through the use of a tracking signal.
You can watch some remarkable footage at animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/crittercam.
Of course, Marshall points out, "The films we make take the ten percent of the images that are interesting to people generally. The truth is, the 90 percent that's not really of interest to a lay person is still interesting from a scientific perspective — finding out what an animal doesn't do is almost as relevant as finding out what it does do."
Maybe this won't get big ratings on TV, but that's not really the point. "It's interesting to the scientist in me, and to our research collaborators who really haven't had any other vehicle for being able to get those kinds of statistics as to what these animals do."
Everyone from Jacques Cousteau to Marlin Perkins to Walt Disney knew that engaging the public — showing them fascinating footage of wild animals in the natural habitat — was a crucial step in raising awareness about issues that endanger our planet.
Greg Marshall made his first film, pre-Crittercam, in Central America in 1985. He had to build a transparent underwater housing for then then-new Sony Handy-Cam. It was all very skin of the teeth.
"Long story short," he says, "that film ended up generating $5 million for marine conservation in Belize. So I really saw the direct correlation between funding for conservation and film. And I've been trying to do that ever since."