Tips: Underwater filming

Elizabeth White is part of the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) Diving Advice team. Here are her tips for successful underwater filming.

Underwater filming is one of the most highly regulated parts of specialist filming. It can be very dangerous so it’s critical you carefully plan your shoot to both ensure the safety of your team and to obtain your footage. Remember that when planning these kinds of shoots you will have much less time filming underwater than you would have on land. You only have the hours your cameraman is allowed underwater.

"The rewards are fantastic when you get it right." – Elizabeth White

What kind of animal are you trying to film? Its behaviour and where it lives are all factors that will influence how you go about filming it.

You may find that you can simply snorkel with animals that live in very shallow water, as seen in Deadly 60 Bites. However, for some animals, like sharks, snorkelling isn’t the best option. Sharks are ambush predators, meaning they like to attack things swimming on the surface. The NHU made a number of films with the world champion free diver Tanya Streeter for Wild: Shark Therapy. For the shoot with tiger sharks, Tanya swimming in a silver suit would have looked just like a dolphin – their key prey. So they decided to put her on scuba so she could sit comfortably on the sea bed and keep out of the feeding zone.

As well as knowing the animal you are trying to film, you must know as much as you can about its environment. For example, how deep does it live? Pacific Abyss used deep breathers, a piece of technology that allows you to recycle the air you breathe out and so allow you to go deeper for longer than you would with normal scuba diving kit. This is much more complex both in terms of logistics and the experience and qualifications needed by your cameraman, but it opens up a world of possibilities.

Another thing to consider is how warm or cold will the water be? In Nature’s Great Events they were diving in sub zero temperatures, which takes a huge toll on the body.

Communication is another key thing to consider. How are those on the surface going to communicate with those underwater?

Presenters can add a huge amount to an underwater story. There are masks that allow the presenter to talk to the camera but these can feel claustrophobic so you must ensure they are happy to use these. In Deadly 60 Bites Steve Backshall uses a full face mask which allows the viewer to share his excitement.

Successful underwater filming involves experience, knowledge and planning. It’s not something to undertake lightly but can give some really unforgettable results.