Chasing Arctic Whale, Filmmaker Found Thin Ice

Brent Butler
for Ultimate Explorer
June 25, 2004
One of only a handful of filmmakers who dive under the Arctic sea ice,
Adam Ravetch spent two years tracking bowhead whales for the National
Geographic Ultimate Explorer
documentary On Thin Ice. The
documentary premieres Sunday, June 27, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC TV.

Much about the whale—an elusive species listed as endangered in some Arctic regions by the World Conservation Union—remains a mystery to scientists.

"I'm always trying to reveal something that wasn't known before," Ravetch said. "That's my big thing."

It took a battery of high-tech instruments, an ability to overcome harsh conditions, and two years of patience for Ravetch to gather enough footage for his documentary.

"Getting to the animals takes the majority of your time," Ravetch said. "You will have one day out of ten actually shooting. The rest is figuring out the logistics."

The southern California native said he thrives in the Arctic, an extreme environment where ocean temperatures can drop below freezing. The water's salinity allows it to remain unfrozen even at subzero temperatures.

Ravetch studied zoology at San Diego State University as an undergraduate and completed shark research in graduate school at California State University Long Beach. But 15 years ago the filmmaker traveled north, drawn to the Arctic by his diving interest.

"I wanted to do something that was far from what I was already doing," Ravetch recalled. "I was headed towards covering the Caribbean, and even though I could challenge myself there … I knew that the Arctic was different."

On Thin Ice

During his bowhead whale project, Ravetch faced one of his greatest challenges on top of the ice rather than under it. While snorkeling with a group of friendly Beluga whales, the filmmaker heard his guide yell that the ice was moving. Ravetch scrambled out of the water and saw that the chunk of ice he was on was floating fast out to sea.

Loaded with video cameras, underwater housings, dive gear, and a 44-pound (20-kilogram) weight belt around his waist, Ravetch slipped into the 29° Fahrenheit (minus 1.7° Celsius) water and started to swim back to the ice cap. But the filmmaker quickly fatigued as he struggled to reach the "safe ice" nearly 100 yards (90 meters) away.

"I tried all my tricks," Ravetch said. "I turned on my back and began to swim backwards. It still didn't help, and my legs were running out of gas … I decided that I had to drop all the weight, or I wasn't going to make it."

Reluctantly, Ravetch decided to jettison his equipment. But before he did, he looked down and saw 50 Beluga whales swimming beneath him, the closest they had ever been. "This blanket of white underneath me distracted me from dropping my weights," Ravetch recalled. "I took one more look up at where the ice might be, and it seemed closer."

A moment earlier, Ravetch said it seemed impossible to swim on. But now, no longer alone, the filmmaker kicked as hard as he could and swam to safety.


Ravetch has documented his experiences with ocean creatures in more than 90 television programs.

For his latest film on bowhead whales, Ravetch traveled to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic with a team of researchers. The scientists and filmmaker gained a never before seen look into the lives of these massive Arctic mammals.

Weighing upward of 60 tons (54 metric tons) and reaching lengths up to 50 feet (15 meters), the bowhead whale is one of the Arctic's great mysteries. The creature may live for a century, possibly two.

Employing Crittercams (a research tool safely worn by animals that captures video, audio, and other data), satellite transmitters, and a state-of-the-art research vessel, the scientists gained valuable knowledge about the lives of bowhead whales.

Little had been known about the whale's specific migration paths. But with the help of a satellite transmitter, researchers were able to identify the path these whales travel from Greenland to Lancaster Sound, Canada, a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) journey the whale makes in just ten days.

In nearly 15 years of Arctic travel, Ravetch said he had never been able to film a bowhead whale close-up—until that expedition.

"Finding the bowhead in clear water was really challenging," Ravetch said. "The logistics of finding animals in the Arctic is difficult. The obstacles of … how to get over the ice, under the ice, around the ice—80 percent of your time is [spent] just doing that."

Ultimate Explorer's On Thin Ice premieres Sunday, June 27, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC TV.

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