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.

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