for National Geographic News
Greg Marshall, director and executive producer of National Geographic's Remote Imaging Program and inventor of Crittercam, recounts how it all began: a lifelong love of the ocean, a job in Belize, and one accommodating sea turtle.
You majored in political science in college. How did you move to marine biology?
I had always been fascinated with it [marine biology] as a kid But I was sort of subject to social influences, and didn't believe that it was possible to make a living as a marine biologist. So rather than go to school as an undergraduate in marine science, I decided to prepare to be a lawyer or something reasonable.
A couple of years after finishing my undergraduate I just realized, "Well, you know, you've kind of got one chance in life to do what you really would dream of, and you at least ought to try it." So I went back for a year of undergrad coursework so that I could prepare to go to graduate school in marine science. I applied and got in, and have been on that track ever since.
When, and how, was Crittercam born?
Well, I had the idea for it in '86, so it's been quite a while now. I was working in Belize at the time. Actually, that was where I most directly combined the two interests [marine and political sciences], because I took a job with the Agency for International Development [where] I was director of a marine research project.
With respect to the idea for Crittercam, [I] just sort of had this epiphanal experience one day when I was diving and saw a shark [that] had a remora attached to it. I thought, "Wow, wouldn't it be great to be that remora and ride along with the shark and see what it's doing all day?" In that moment I realized that we could make an electronic video recording "remora."
Without an engineering background, how did you learn how to build the first one?
While I was in Belize, I also made a film about [a] problem that I was studying I wanted to tell a broad story and get people to care about what I cared about. To do that, though, I needed to get underwater because I was dealing with a story in the marine world.
Since I had no money, I had to basically develop an underwater housing and camera system It [was] just a matter of using the best common sense that I could muster, and talking to people about what they had used and what had worked for them .
You know, I built this thing for about $35 [And] it was actually pretty much the same system, reconfigured and streamlined, that I used on the very first test on a sea turtle in Belize in 1987.
What did that first Crittercam look like?
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