The Art of Filming Crocodiles

Crocodile
Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile.

While working on Sri Lanka I often saw crocodiles that quickly disappeared beneath the surface before I was able to capture them on film. That was kind of frustrating. I had, for several years, tried building hides up in the trees, inside hollowed trunks, hides virtually invisible for the human eye, but the crocodiles, which are highly intelligent creatures, always knew I was there.

Over the years I had gotten to know the Swedish wildlife filmmaker, Jan Lindblad. One evening we were talking and I asked him what I should do to film crocodiles. He hadn’t really worked much with crocodiles and didn’t have any concrete advice, but he told me that he had learned a few tricks over the years. “One way,” he said, “is to sound like the animal, smell like the animal, or move like the animal that you are trying to film.”

Well, crocodiles grunt similar to pigs but most of the time they’re pretty quiet, so imitating the way they sound wouldn’t be easy and I wasn’t really interested in smelling like a crocodile. Moving like a crocodile, that might be worth trying.

A couple of days later I decided to try it. In a clearing in the middle of the jungle I found a mudflat dissected by a meandering river. Through the binoculars I spotted five crocodiles. I left the rest of the team in the jeep that we parked about 400 yards away, far enough to avoid scaring the crocs. A few yards from the jeep I laid down and began the slow, arduous task of crawling on my belly like a crocodile, pushing the camera in front of me on a specially-made sled. After every push forward I stopped to make sure the crocodiles by the river hadn’t moved. Three hours later I reached the edge of the river. The crocs were still maybe 50 meters away.

Suddenly one of the crocodiles on the other side of the river slid into the water. “Well, that’s that,” I thought, “it’s not going to work this time either.” I lay perfectly still, my head in my hands, waiting for the rest of the crocodiles to do the same thing, but nothing happened. Strange! Surprisingly, off to my left, a pair of eyes slowly broke the surface just a little bit more than an arms-length away from where I was lying by the river’s edge. Apparently the crocodile from the other side had not been frightened, but had come across to check me out. Was he simply curious, or was he looking to see what could be on the menu this hot afternoon? It didn’t matter to me in the least. I was so ecstatic that my efforts had paid off, I had finally gotten close to these shy giants. Slowly I turned the camera and focused on the crocodile’s eyeballs. I started the camera rolling and we laid there, staring at each other for a couple of minutes. When I had gotten my sequence, the eyes slowly disappeared under the water and the croc swam across to the beach on the other side of the river. When he had gotten comfortable in the afternoon sun, he opened his mouth. That is a sign that the crocodile feels safe and happy.

Perhaps he had crossed the river just to see if I really was a crocodile. Apparently he decided that, despite some rather obvious defects, I was acceptable. For the rest of the afternoon, until the sun was going down, I crawled around amidst the crocodiles like I was part of the group. It’s important to test every possiblity in order to succeed, even in some things seem a little crazy.

Birth of a Filmmaker

Stefan Quinth - age 3
My interest in wildlife and nature began at an early age.

My motivation is to produce films that will encourage people and help them see new possibilities. We need positive messages in a world where the media has, unfortunately, become pessimistic and violent.

You know that children are fascinated by anything crawling on the ground: worms, beetles, and all kinds of animals. I was the same way growing up. Wherever there were bugs, I would be there digging them up. I grew up near fields and woods. My father, who didn’t really share my interest for wildlife and things that crawled on the ground, told me often, “Be careful in the woods, son, and never go close to the stone walls because there are snakes there.”

Snakes? Well, at four or five years old, I just had to find out what was so dangerous about those creepy, crawly creatures. I had no choice but to crawl on and around the stone walls looking for the things I was supposed to look out for. So that’s what I did and my interest in wildlife and nature was sparked.

When I was 15 years old I worked after school, evenings and weekends as a photographer and journalist for the local newspaper. It was rewarding to tell stories with words and pictures. But I was soon introduced to something even more exciting and rewarding, filmmaking! When I was 17, my friends and I produced a film that got a lot of attention. We didn’t really have a name for our film until after we held a press conference. On the front page of the local newspaper was a picture from the film under the headline, “Tarzan – Son of Moose.” We thought that sounded pretty good. Later, I sent the film to Swedish Television and they called the very next day and asked if they could purchase the film. I’ve never sold a film that quickly to a television station since then.

When the film had been aired all over Sweden the verdict was in. The Daily News (Dagens Nyheter) wrote the next day:

”There are many talented and ambitions wildlife and documentary filmmakers in this country. But the film that took up the majority of the last episode should have stayed within the confines of the closest friends, to be shown only after consuming the sixth or seventh cocktail of moonshine and Coca-Cola. That anything so embarrassing and asinine could be shown on Swedish Public Service Television is disgusting. Is this what our license money pays for? If I worked for that organization and had been responsible for choosing that film for public viewing, I would go underground and not emerge again until the trumpets sounded on judgment day.

Well, he certainly didn’t spare our feelings but, can you believe it, the Daily News’ critic had suffered through our entire film and written about it!?! It didn’t matter to us at all if he liked the film or not. That was my first film to be aired in every house all over the country. The door to a world of filmmaking stood wide open.

Gone in Seven Minutes

Uyak Bay, Kodiak, Alaska
Uyak Bay where the SS Aleutian went down in 1929.

The S.S. Aleutian sailed from Seattle in the spring of 1929 with 300 passengers. Her captain was John Gus Nord, a Swedish-American with an unblemished, 30‑year career sailing the North Pacific. During the night of May 27th, most of the passengers disembarked at one of the canneries where they would be working over the summer. The weather was calm and the visibility good as the ship continued deeper into Uyak Bay with the remaining 15 passengers and a 135-man crew on board.

At 5:30 a.m., just south of Amook Island, there was a violent tremor, followed by a horrifying noise coming from the hull. The flagship of the Alaska Steamship Company had struck a submerged rock. Captain Nord, who understood immediately what had happened, ordered full steam ahead, hoping to beach the ship, but she was too damaged. The rock had torn an enormous hole in the hull, and the ship quickly filled with water. With her propellers high in the air, she sank, just seven minutes after the collision. An eerie silence was all that remained after the ship went down, reported one of the crewmembers. Not even a ripple disturbed the surface of the water.

In what was later lauded as the most efficient act of live-saving at sea, the captain and his crew deployed the lifeboats and evacuated everyone on board, with one exception. Manuel Dorras, a young crewman, drowned when he left the lifeboat, returning to the sinking ship to rescue his lucky horseshoe.

Everyone was stunned by the tragedy and their narrow escape. Captain John Gus Nord never quite recovered from the shock. He mourned his ship as if it were his own child.

It was assumed that the S.S. Aleutian had sunk in very deep water, and no attempts were made to salvage her. In 2002, seventy-three years after the accident, Steve Lloyd, author and shipwreck historian from Anchorage, Alaska, found the ship resting just 220 feet below the surface.

Following the dive line into the inky darkness the first sight of the ship is the two masts, now covered in white anemones, rising out of the darkness like ethereal watchmen. The ship is still intact after all these years despite the powerful currents. Shipworms have devoured most of the wood fittings but the hull remains, and the Aleutian is now a living museum, deep below the surface of Uyak Bay.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from http://www.cameraq.com/eng/books.html )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See www.cameraq.com  for more information.

Finding the Kad’yak

Newspapers
The discovery of the Kad’yak made headlines all over the nation.

The California gold rush, which started in 1849, flooded the state with people and increased the general wealth. Along with a higher standard of living came a greater demand for ice, which was a difficult product to obtain and deliver.

By the mid-1800s, the economy in Russian America had hit bottom. The sea otter population had diminished, and the fur trade on Kodiak collapsed. Thankfully, a new source of income presented itself. In 1852, the lake on Woody Island, an island near the city of Kodiak, became one of Alaska’s most valuable assets. In the winter, the ice on the lake was sawed into blocks and shipped to San Francisco. When the first load sold for $75 a ton, the Russian American Company realized that ice was a very profitable commodity. They soon had competition, however, when the first ice machines were invented. Twenty years later, machines had taken over the business entirely.

The Kad’yak was one of The Russian American Company’s smallest ships. She was a three-masted bark, 120 feet long and 30 feet wide. Her hull was covered in copper to prevent the growth of barnacles and other marine organisms.

On March 30, 1860, the Kad’yak left Woody Island bound for San Francisco, loaded with 356 tons of ice. Perhaps he was running late, or perhaps Captain Illarion Arkhimandritov was not superstitious. For whatever reason, he failed to observe the usual custom of paying his respects at Father Herman’s grave to receive a blessing for the voyage. Locals would later blame Kad’yak’s fate on this omission.

Shortly after setting sail, the ship hit a rock, tearing a large hole in the hull and quickly filling with water. The crew abandoned ship and went ashore in the lifeboats. But the ship didn’t sink. Her cargo of ice kept her afloat, drifting between the islands. Four days later, she sank in Icon Bay, off of Spruce Island. Ironically, the top of the ship’s mast and yardarm, still visible above the water, formed a cross marking her watery grave, directly in front of Father Herman’s chapel.

Since the 1970s, people had been searching in vain for the sunken Kad’yak, using the location parameters recorded in the ship’s log. Bradley Stevens suspected that those parameters had been misinterpreted and,143 years after she sank, believed he had new clues about Kad’yak’s position.

On July 21, 2003, we left the Kodiak harbor on board the Melmar. Our captain was Joshua Lewis, a teacher and fisherman from Kodiak. With great expectations, we arrived in Icon Bay, lowered the magnetometer into the water and fastened it behind the boat. A magnetometer, a device that resembles a miniature submarine, is an ultra-powerful metal detector that can detect metal buried or submerged far below the surface. Towing the magnetometer back and forth, we mapped the floor of the bay. When we reached the position Bradley had marked on his map, the magnetometer indicated the presence of large metal objects. Could it be the Kad’yak?

We began diving that afternoon, and by evening, we had found several pieces of copper. Cautiously optimistic, we returned to Kodiak.

Early the next morning, we were back in Icon Bay, and on our first dive, we found what appeared to be part of the ballast. We also found two cannons, an anchor, and a chain that matched the time period of the Kad’yak. Convinced that we had made a substantial discovery, we reported our findings. The news spread across the nation, and all diving was stopped in Icon Bay. Because of the historical significance of our find, all exploration rights for the shipwreck had automatically transferred to the State of Alaska.

The following summer, the East Carolina University organized a marine archeological excavation of the lagoon, and we who had found the shipwreck were invited, somewhat reluctantly, to join the expedition. With support from NOAA and the National Science Foundation, the university had the resources and the competency to complete the task. Though many artifacts were uncovered during the excavation, the most significant find was the copper hub of the ship’s wheel with the name “Kad’yak” inscribed in Russian letters, which positively identified the shipwreck.

When the excavation was completed, the remains of the Kad’yak were again buried in sand. A large portion of the hull and other artifacts from the ship lay in wait for someone with the authority and the resources to uncover her secrets. Barring that, Captain Arkhimandritov’s old ship will rest in peace at the bottom of the lagoon for centuries to come.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Below the Surface

Diving in Kodiak water
Kodiak is a diver’s paradise with enchanting kelp forests inhabited by colorful and curious creatures.

I got my PADI diver’s license in 1980 while working on the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Since then, I have explored most of the premier diving sites of the world, like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Red Sea, the Andaman Islands south of Burma, the West Indies, and the South Pacific. But few places are as rich in fish, shellfish and other marine wildlife as the coral gardens and kelp forests that surround Kodiak. A calm, sunny day in Kodiak waters is one of the most exciting dives a diver will ever experience.

There are many odd and colorful creatures in the ocean around the Kodiak islands. Besides the five species of salmon, there are several species of cod, herring, halibut, starfish in every color of the rainbow, sea cucumbers, octopi, shellfish, sea otters, several kinds of whales, and the giant salmon shark.

My first dive on Kodiak was off the shores of Fort Abercrombie. After a few minutes in the water, two curious sea lions approached me, poking at my diving equipment. On land sea lions are large and cumbersome animals, but in the water they are elegant and graceful. Their familiarity was both exciting and alarming. One little nibble on my rubber air hose could have had devastating consequences. But they soon decided that I was a rather boring playmate and left me and my equipment without harm.

In the 1940s and 1950s, new radar equipment revealed large hoards of king crabs in the waters around Kodiak. This discovery launched a boom in the fishing industry, and in just five years, Kodiak was transformed from a small fishing community to one of the largest commercial fishing ports in the United States. Annual catches of up to 100 million pounds were pulled from the waters around Kodiak and delivered to the canneries.

Commercial fishing of king crabs continued for 25 years. Then, in the 1970s, the population of king crabs dwindled. By 1982, the catch was so poor that fishing was stopped. No one knows for sure why the king crabs disappeared, but researchers believe that overfishing could be one of the main factors.

Pete Cummiskey, one of my good friends on Kodiak, is a diver and marine biologist who has been working with the king crabs since the mid-80s. I asked him to show me the crab pods. There is protection in numbers, so juvenile crabs group together in giant balls to protect themselves from predators. A large pod can have several thousand crabs.

One gorgeous but cold November day, we went out in Womens Bay in search of crabs. Earlier that year, Pete had tagged several individuals and attached transmitters to their shells. Pete lowered the receiver into the water and soon picked up a signal. We prepared for our dive.

The pod was about 90-120 feet down, engulfed in a dense cloud of sediment churned up by the crabs. It was so thick, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and it took a few minutes to locate the pod. Because of the poor visibility, I had to get really close to the crabs in order to film.

The king crab is an impressive animal with a leg span of up to 6 feet across, and with large powerful claws that could easily snap off a finger. As they get older and larger they are less dependent on the pod, but the crabs in the pod I was filming were still fairly large.

Lying on the bottom, trying to get as close as I could with my camera, I felt the sharp pinch of a claw grabbing on to my arm through my thick diver’s suit. It was so painful I almost dropped the camera. I tried to pull the crab away, but it refused to let go. I realized that the only way to free myself from the monster was to rise to the surface. Halfway up, the crab finally let go and sank to the bottom. I had learned my lesson – Give the king crabs a wide berth!

I did descend again, however, and resumed my filming of the remarkable crab pods on the bottom of Womens Bay, keeping a respectful distance.

We located more pods and made several dives in the bay that day. Through his research, Pete has learned a lot about the king crabs’ environment and their migration along the ocean floor. Hopefully his research will lead to a rejuvenation of the king crab population so that commercial fishing of this wonderful delicacy can resume on Kodiak.

(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )

Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.

Choice of a Lifetime

June 19, 1982
June 19, 1982

Many of the choices we make through life can be changed or revoked without very much difficulty, but some ought to be thoroughly thought through before they are made. One of the more difficult of these would be the choice of a life partner or spouse – a choice that can be a great blessing or devastating for the rest of your life.

Today, June 19, LaVonne and I are celebrating 35 years of marriage. 35 years!    It’s unbelievable that time has passed so quickly. When we were newlyweds we met a couple that had just celebrated their 5th anniversary. WOW! We thought that sounded like a very long time.

In 1979 I was working in California and renting a few rooms in the house of a Swedish woman. One day, when I came home, she said that we were invited for dinner at the home of her friend who was also from Sweden. That sounded nice so I accompanied her to dinner. Of course I couldn’t imagine that May-Britt, the Swedish woman who had invited us, would soon be my mother-in-law. We drove to the house in Arcadia, about an hour from where I was living, and it was here that I first met LaVonne. It wasn’t, perhaps, love at first sight, but it was memorable. I saw LaVonne a few more times before I returned to Sweden in the spring of 1980.

In the spring of 1980 I was filming a documentary about the mission sailboat, Elida, and their orphanage in India. In the summer I was going to film on the boat in Sweden. LaVonne was in Sweden visiting relatives and had, a bit reluctantly, stayed to sail with Elida along the west coast for a week. It happened to be the same week that I was filming onboard the boat. It didn’t take very long before LaVonne was glad that she had stayed behind when her mother went home to the USA. A few days after we left Elida, I invited LaVonne to go with me to Liseberg, an amusement park in Gothenburg. Liseberg can be a dangerous place for a bachelor who wishes to remain single. That’s where it said, “click.”

LaVonne returned to her aunt’s house in Småland where she would stay for a few days before going back to the states. While there she called her mother. LaVonne, who hadn’t spoken many words in Swedish earlier, began babbling in Swedish about this man she had met. May-Britt was surprised and shocked, something BIG had happened.

In 1981 I was again working in California and was able to spend a lot of time with LaVonne and her family. The following winter I was working on Sri Lanka and could only talk to her briefly by telephone. At that time you had to order your call through the post office on Sri Lanka and then wait for a couple hours to be connected. But LaVonne wrote to me every day, making the other members of my team a bit jealous over the amount of letters I received.

The wedding was set for June 19, 1982. I returned to Sweden from Sri Lanka and one week later flew to California. Luckily LaVonne and her mother had made all the plans and everything worked wonderfully. My father and brothers and their wives all came to the wedding. We had over 400 guests and it was a celebration we’ll never forget.

I got an amazingly beautiful, intelligent and loving woman for a wife. It’s now been 35 years and I want to say in all honesty and with all my heart that I love you more now then ever, you, my best friend and wife.

A Peek at Eternity

What was left of my Triumph Spitfire
He told them not to hurry since no one could have survived such a crash.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning, January 10, 1978. Temperatures had dipped below freezing during the night, but by 10 o’clock in the morning the sun was already warming up when I climbed into my little Triumph Spitfire sports car. I was on my way to town for a meeting with the director of the school where I had been teaching classes since I was in high school. It was a 15-mile trip that I had done hundreds of times.

Exiting Vårgårda at the intersection by the Doggy dog food factory, there were no on/off ramps to the highway, only a stop sign before I would turn left. It was just like any other day, only a little prettier and sunnier then most winter days. I loved my Triumph, which I had bought six months earlier. It handled beautifully and purred like a kitten, licking the asphalt as I sped away. I drove down the hill, past the gas station and over the bridge past Doggy. I carefully stepped on the brakes as I approached the stop sign. Large spruce trees by the side of the road cast a shadow across asphalt. I tried the brakes again but nothing happened. The road approaching the intersection was covered in black ice. It was impossible to stop and there was a huge semi-truck speeding past. I saw the big wheels and realize that I was heading straight towards the truck. My reflex reaction was to pull the handbrake to skid sideways so I wouldn’t glide under the trailer. I found out later that that reaction bought me a mille-second of time and I missed the truck trailer.

The car spun around, coming to a stop in the middle of the highway, with its nose pointing towards Vårgårda. But I have no memory of what happened after I saw the wheels of the truck and pulled the handbrake. A tank truck was behind the semi-truck. The driver hit the brakes 200 meters from where I stood but, because of the icy conditions, couldn’t stop the truck. Another car was approaching in the opposite direction so he had no choice but to plow into my little sports car.

In a violent collision the truck ended up on top of my sports car and together we slid for another 300 meters before coming to a stop. My Triumph was completely crushed underneath the cab of the truck. The only thing somewhat unscathed was the driver’s seat. Since the car had spun around on the road, the truck hit it on the passenger side.

It seems that someone was watching over me. Medical personnel were immediately on the scene. The car behind the tanker was driven by a doctor on his way the hospital. In the second car there was a nurse, also heading to work. A third person ran to the Doggy factory to call an ambulance but, I later learned, he told them not to hurry since no one could have survived such a crash.

The wheels of the first truck are the last things I remember. After that all feelings of fear or worry were gone. I came instead to a world filled with enormous joy, where there was no sorrow or pain. I had a very distinct sense of the presence of other people, but there was one person in particular who guided me. I experienced a world that was indescribably beautiful and wonderful. A world much more real and tangible than the world I knew. I had no desire to return to the old world, neither did I think of my family or friends. In this new world the joy was so intoxicating it eradicated all thoughts of what was left behind. Death and sorrow didn’t exist.

Suddenly my guide was telling me that I would have to return to the old world. I was only 19 and had everything to live for, but I was devastated that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay. If I had to leave this wonderful place and return to what we consider to be life, I wanted to tell everyone in the whole world about…could it have been heaven? But a very kind voice told me that I would not be able to tell anyone about what I had seen and experienced. I was taken to a round door and, passing through it, returned to the old world and all my memories of what I had experienced were carefully erased.

When I regained consciousness at the hospital all I had left was the disappointment of not being able to stay in, or remember, the world I had visited. I also felt the pain of all my injuries. My disappointment turned to anger and a profound sorrow that is hard to describe. My parents were by my bed. I can’t remember what we said, but my mother told me later that I was so angry when I woke up that they had to leave the room for a while.

For a long time afterwards I struggled to remember my experiences. Sometimes I tightened all the muscles in my mangled body to force the memories to the surface, but it didn’t work, my memories were gone. All I could remember was that it was a wonderful place, more “real” than the life we are living, and the voice telling me that I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it.

The experience of being pinned under the tanker truck, lying there on that frozen asphalt, then being transported by ambulance and those first painful hours in the hospital would most certainly have been excruciating if I had been conscious. Instead I was given a glimpse of eternity, a reality that has given me great joy throughout my life. It hasn’t taken away my desire to live, but has assured me that something much better is waiting. I am convinced that it was God who appeared as my kind guide who was strangely familiar.

Sir, Sir!…Don’t be afraid!

Stefan Quinth holding cobra, 1982
It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

My first visit to Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it is also called, was in 1980 when I was 23 years old. It was, and is, a fabulous island with amazing wildlife, scenery and history. One day, when I was sitting in my hotel room, I saw two young boys squatting by the side of the road. They didn’t seem to be local boys. They carried cloth bags and a box that they had placed on the road in front of them. Curious, I watched them for a while and discovered that they had snakes crawling out of their pockets and around their feet. Not just your garden-variety snakes, these were cobras, the snake they say kills more people than all other snakes combined!

When I was four years old my father told me, “Son, be careful in the forest and never go near the stone walls because there are snakes there.” That admonition served only to spike my interest in the animals that I was supposed to avoid. Now, when I had a chance to study the king of all snakes, I just had to go out and get a closer look and talk to the boys. They told me, in broken English, who they were and where they came from. I was impressed by the way they handled their animals. As a filmmaker, who had produced and sold a few of my first wildlife documentaries to television, the temptation was just too great. I would have to go home, get my camera and then return, as soon as possible, to Sri Lanka.

One year later I was back again and produced the first documentary about the snake people for Swedish Television. They are actually called Ahikuntake, which, in Sanskrit, means, “people who catch spear bodies,” or rather, “snake catchers.” They are nomads, traveling around the island collecting poisonous snakes from rice paddies, plantations, homes and gardens.

As the rice ripens it attracts rats and mice, and the snakes follow in their wake to feast on rodents. When it is time to harvest there are plenty of poisonous reptiles lurking in the knee-high rice. Before the reapers can step out into the paddy they call on the Ahikuntake to come and gather the snakes. When their bags are full, they’ll walk around to another field and release the snakes. That might sound strange, but if they killed the snakes, the rats and mice would destroy every harvest for years to come. The snakes, especially the cobra, are essential for the economic survival of the rice farmers.

When I returned to Sri Lanka to produce my first film about the Ahikuntake, I followed the children out to the fields to gather poisonous snakes. The children, only 8-10 years old, picked up those dangerous animals as if they were toys. It looked kind of fun and I, who had been interested in snakes since I was a small boy, also wanted to try. Understandably a bit nervous, I tried approaching the serpents from behind, but every time I got close enough to grab the least dangerous end, the snake turned around, hissed and lunged at me. After umpteen attempts that all failed, one of the children tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Sir, sir! Don’t be afraid! DON’T BE AFRAID!” These children who had been playing with snakes since before they could walk, saw nothing dangerous in their task.

You could compare those children in the field with our own children who have learned to walk on the sidewalk along a heavily trafficked street in the city. We’ve also taught them how to safely cross that same street. As long as we follow the rules, we are not particularly concerned about the cars, but one false move, a thoughtless mistake, could be catastrophic. The same applies in the field and since snakes can also sense or smell fear, it is important to remain calm when working with poisonous snakes.

The children in the rice field taught me an important lesson that day. “Sir, don’t be afraid!” Fear is, in itself, the most dangerous thing we carry with us wherever we go. Fear causes us to make foolish decisions, whether it is when we confront a bear in the forest or our boss when we are asking for a raise. It took awhile before I was comfortable holding a cobra in my hands, but I learned a great lesson; fear is our greatest enemy in any situation.

Sri Lanka – My first visit

Two Ahikuntaka boys
Two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. (Photo: Per Wester)

My teacher in elementary school had a sister living on the island of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. Sometimes her sister sent letters. It was a special treat when our teacher read the letters out loud for the class. While she was reading, the envelope was passed around the class so that we could see the beautiful stamps with exotic animals and flowers that were glued in the corner. From the letters came exciting stories about elephants, jungles, endless beaches and about tea that grew on bushes. For me, Ceylon was a country sprung from the pages of storybooks.

In November-December, 1980, when I was 23 years old, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ceylon. By that time the country had officially reverted to its original name, Sri Lanka, which means “the shining or glimmering island.” When I arrived on Sri Lanka the first time, the International airport, located just north of the capital, Colombo, was only a small, inconspicuous building surrounded by palm trees that seemed to bow down as the plane came in for a landing. When the doors of the plane opened and I took my first steps down the stairs out into a tropical world it felt like walking into a soft wall of warm, moist air – a totally new experience for me.

All the stories my teacher had read from her sister’s letter came to life, but the sound of the waves, the intense song of the tropical birds and the smell of the flowers and burning grass in the warm, humid air was something that could not be portrayed on paper. Sri Lanka was so much more. Still, the colorful stories springing from those letters telling about a tropical island, far off in the great big world, had left an indelible impression on me as a child.

My first encounter with the people and sights of Sri Lanka had been so intense. Every day was full of new experiences. I had walked on warm, empty beaches, seen elephants and met people who welcomed me as a friend. It was impossible not to fall in love with this tropical paradise. There was only one thing missing on my list of things to experience, and that was to see a cobra. But one morning, just before Christmas, 1980, looking out of the window of my bungalow, I saw two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. At first I paid them little heed, but when I discovered that the boy’s cloth bags were full of snakes I was intrigued. I went right out to talk to the boys and was able to become acquainted with their extraordinary pets. Finally, I was able to hold a real-live cobra! Little did I know, meeting those young boys would lead to a deep, life-long friendship with an exciting culture.

That first visit to Sri Lanka was followed by many more and over the years my teacher’s sister, Inga-Lisa Fairweather, who has lived on Sri Lanka for many decades, became a very close friend. I have returned to the island almost once a year since 1980. It’s fascinating how the stories we’ve heard as a child can have a lasting influence on our lives. I never dreamt that Sri Lanka, my childhood paradise, would one day be like a second home to me. Throughout the years I have made some extended visits and produced many films about the people, nature and animals on the island.

Sri Lanka – A Paradise to Return To

LaVonne and a Blue Whale
Swimming with a Blue Whale – We were only yards away!

There are some countries in the world that have that little extra something, that appeal that draws you back like a super magnet. Sri Lanka is one of the countries I find difficult to be away from for very long. They have everything – jungles, wild animals, history, fascinating people, long beaches and exciting underwater scenery. It’s never hard for me, as a filmmaker, to find a story on this paradise island.

My latest trip, in March-April, was my 30th visit to Sri Lanka. I have often been there over extended periods, maybe 2-4 months at a time, working on various film projects. My first visit to this paradise island was in 1980. Sri Lanka was, at that time, a somewhat primitive country with rough, narrow roads and people doing hard labor with simple tools. A country not yet industrialized but still maintaining the unique culture of a fading colonial era.

Now, in 2017, Sri Lanka is a modern country with well-developed roads and transportation. People live much like we do in Europe, for better or for worse. For me, one of the more disturbing “modernizations” is the ever-present television that can now be found even in the simplest homes in rural Sri Lanka. People have succumbed to the same social paralysis that affected us in the 1960’s, staring at a moving picture on the screen rather than visiting and talking with each other. Even if they don’t have time to sit down and watch, the television is left on as some sort of artificial companion or status symbol. Of course, television, correctly used, can be a great source of entertainment and information.

This spring I and my wife and colleague, LaVonne, were in Sri Lanka to film the final scenes for our new film, a story about the Ahikuntaka people, and to gather more material for our new book about Sri Lanka. First we visited Kudagama, a small village about 30 minutes drive south of Anuradhapura. When I came to Kudagama the first time to film in 1982, the village was little more than a cluster of huts made from mud, sticks and leaves. Most alarming, however, was the obvious alcohol problems in the village. Virtually 100% of the people from the age of 10 years old were alcoholics, drinking large quantities of the cheapest alcohol called Kasippu. Terrible violence and riots broke out daily. I think it could best be described as “Hell on Earth.” In our coming book and the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” I’ll describe more about working in the village at that time.

Since that first visit in 1982, I have followed the Ahikuntaka people throughout the years and seen the village develop and change. This spring we spent several days in the village, interviewing the elders and visiting with friends. No longer a hell on earth, it is now closer to paradise. What brought this change? I’ll tell you more about that later.

After our visit in Kudagama we traveled to Sri Lanka’s east coast to film and photograph the marine national park, Pigeon Island. The national park is a popular destination and the coral reefs surrounding the island have been damaged and destroyed by the many tourists walking in the bay, breaking off the delicate corals. Although Pigeon Island is worth a visit, the real excitement is to be found just outside the national park in the deeper water where the Sperm whales and Blue whales feed. We dove at several beautiful sites that week, but one day we were snorkeling in deep water when a Blue whale swam straight towards me. (The Blue whale is the largest creature to ever live on earth.) His enormous body was just a few yards in front of me when he slowly dove into the bottomless depths. The intensely blue water, laced with rays of sunlight, engulfed the whale as it was slowly sunk into the depths. It was magical. Swimming with that gentle giant in his own environment is an experience I’ll never forget.

Coming this fall, 2017, the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” and a book about my favorite places on the paradise island, Sri Lanka.

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