Up Close and Natural

After working on the acclaimed BBC documentary series 'Planet Earth,' photographer Gil Arbel decided to embark on a project of his own. He's taking adventurers on once-in-a-lifetime trips (for their benefit) at extreme prices (for his benefit). If you have about NIS 40,000 to spare, you too can look a great white shark in the eye

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
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Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

The area looked like a battlefield. Birds dove down from the sky, there were hundreds of dolphins all around, and sharks and whales below. We were in the heart of the sardine run, sitting in a boat in the ocean. Every summer, huge schools of sardines arrive off the coast of South Africa, and in their wake schools of hundreds of predators. We were there, too. On the first day nothing happened - it was very depressing. But on the second day - by now we were skeptical - the predators arrived from every which way, with perfect timing, for a free royal feast. It was a spectacular scene. But then, when we got closer, we saw something more cruel and more wonderful: The harmony was shattered before our eyes."

In his small apartment in Caesarea's Neot Golf development, in short overalls and a faded T-shirt, nature photographer Gil Arbel still gets a thrill when he recalls the spectacle he witnessed a few months ago.

"Suddenly a family of six orcas appeared - and orcas had never before been seen in this region," he relates in a staccato style. (The orca, or killer whale, is actually the largest species of the dolphin family, and feeds on fish and other marine mammals.) "We saw that they were doing something, but couldn't see what it was at that distance. When we approached we saw that they were preying on a regular dolphin. It was a bizarre surprise, because it's known that during the sardine run, the participants do not prey on one another, only on the sardines. The orcas changed our entire conception.

"The whole thing lasted a few minutes," Arbel continues. "The water was filled with sharks attracted by the blood of the poor dolphin that was being eaten. At first we shot from above and then I jumped into the water. It was a frightening scene: blood, sharks and orcas swimming madly. While I was filming, one of the orcas turned around toward me and seized a dolphin right in front of the camera, and then disappeared with its prey and the rest of the school. My heart was pounding wildly. It's a once-in-a-lifetime shot, I thought to myself. I have seen the show of my life."

"Because, unfortunately, I am financing the project myself, I am recruiting other fanatics to join me on the expeditions," he says about the combined documentary-tourism endeavor, on which he will spend about $2 million, according to his plan. "On the expedition to Africa I took seven Israelis who are nature lovers and hunger for extreme activity. The people I take help me finance the project and in return I give them the opportunity to experience nature in the closest possible way, to play an active role in the making of a nature film."

To realize his plan, Arbel markets it to people in television terms. "The concept recalls a survival journey," he says, "a type of extreme program that integrates the finest reality imaginable. The group goes on a journey that is definitely not an organized tour, and I am not a tour guide. I am out to shoot a film and I don't have time to be a babysitter. The people who join me are part of the production, part of the mission.

The first group Arbel put together visited Africa in June. Besides the sardine run, the trip of two and a half weeks included entering a metal cage for a close-up, terrifying encounter with a great white shark - the most dangerous known to man; a safari amid a pride of lions in two Botswana nature reserves; and a helicopter ride above herds of elephants and antelopes as they nimbly navigated brackish streams.

Not all the candidates were accepted, he explains, even some who had already paid (the cost ranges from a minimum of $7,000 to $13,000, including everything).

"Because this is not an ordinary excursion, the dynamics, the chemistry and the cooperation between the people is very important," Arbel explains. "They are venturing together into the extreme of the extreme. The dynamics are usually created by them; I try not to intervene. Fortunately this was a group of people who are not spoiled and are open-minded and love nature and photography. But it could have been different. Not long before the trip I decided, for example, to leave out two people, even though they had already paid. They were simply not suitable."

Yaniv Yosef, a paramedic of 35 from Moshav Merhavia, was easily accepted to the exclusive expedition.

"I called Gil after seeing an ad in the paper," he relates. "I have a nature and photography bug, and the idea appealed to me immediately. From my point of view, it was a winning combination - to go on a very different type of trip with a professional crew. The idea of being involved in the production of a nature film was very attractive, and in retrospect I can say it was also an important part of my experience. Gil's passion for photography is rare; I was happy to help as much as I could. True, I went with the goal of enjoying myself, but even before we left it was clear to everyone that we had come to lend a hand - that Gil and his camera were of primary importance, that the photography and visual results were the main thing, that production of the film took precedence over every personal whim."

But he also admits to experiencing a big disappointment: "We set out early in the morning and at a certain point we released into the water a kind of carpet that simulates the movement of a seal. We lay on the deck and waited for the sharks to show up. We wanted to get the perfect shot. What I wanted most of all was to photograph a shark leaping out of the water, but regrettably I missed it. Chris Fellows, a very well-known wildlife photographer, who was with us on the boat, got that shot. I was in the dumps for two days afterward."

Arbel, his hefty body sunk into a sofa, relates that already as a child in Ashkelon, he was drawn to nature.

"I grew up by the sea, in a family that liked to take in all the injured animals in the area. As a boy, I got along much better with animals than with people. I found myself at the seashore a lot; the sea was also dominant in my childhood. Many times I went there instead of going to school. I didn't surf or anything, just walked around.

"As a boy, I watched BBC nature movies a lot on Channel 1. They enchanted me - they were a very strong memory for me. Somehow, I think, everything was connected: the sea, the animals at home, the movies on TV and also stories that my grandmother from South Africa told me, about the untamed nature in the Dark Continent."

After service in the Nahal paramilitary brigade, he enrolled in Camera Obscura, a photography school in Tel Aviv, but stayed only a few months.

"I decided to leave the school and go to Sinai. On the way I stopped at the Dolphin Reef in Eilat. I needed money and asked if I could work there as a videographer, making movies for tourists. I really liked the place," he continues.

"Every morning, before the site opened to the public, I played with the dolphins, patting them from the dock. It was only a temporary job - making movies like a McDonald's production line - but I treated the work as a profession. I really got into it and invested a lot. I remember there were rules, such as to photograph the tourists more than the dolphins, but I found myself filming only dolphins. I was sure I would stay there forever, but gradually I realized I was stuck, that I was not really in nature but in a compound of partly-trained dolphins. I wanted the real thing, I wanted to burst out."

Thus, dreaming of new challenges, Arbel left Eilat after two years. On the Internet he saw spectacular photos of the Kingdom of Tonga, a chain of islands in the South Pacific. "I read that Tonga was the best place in the world to photograph whales and decided immediately to go there," he recalls. "I bought photographic equipment and went on my own, even though I didn't really have any idea what the islands were or what whales were. I thought I'd stay a week or two, but stayed four months. At that time I was not yet a sufficiently skilled underwater photographer."

Arbel admits he didn't believe he would succeed to get within touching distance of the world's largest mammal, and did not dream his fantasies would become a reality: "It's funny: I traveled to photograph whales, but I didn't believe I would get that close to them. I will never forget the first time I met a whale face to face. It's not something you can prepare yourself for.

"It was a perfect day. The sea was smooth. Suddenly we saw a school of whales from the boat. The skipper, a local man, said they were calm and sent me to dive. In the blue water, I encountered a huge black object - a female whale. She stayed with me for a quarter of an hour and touched the camera lens. It was beyond my imagination. It was the first time in my life I felt like a nature photographer. Afterward I couldn't leave. I went out to sea day after day, to shoot more and more."

But after the big breakthrough came a big disappointment. "Unfortunately, my relations with the BBC did not continue as I had expected," he says with palpable discomfort. "They have their cameramen and my work with them was for a specific project. They didn't really need me. It then became clear to me what a tough industry nature photography is, and that I don't have the tools or connections for it. I understood that it is almost impossible to break into the National Geographic Channel, and if so, you have to wait in an endless line. It's the same with the Discovery Channel. The doors were pretty much shut in Israel, too, because nature photography never really developed here. You can turn on the TV and see for yourself. Nature doesn't interest our commercial channels. I was in a crisis."

It was when the doors were closed to him that Arbel launched his ambitious "Vanishing World" project. After drawing up a list of places and natural phenomena that he wanted to document, he started to think about a business solution to enable it to get off the ground.

Arbel: "During the filming for 'Planet Earth,' I felt I wanted to do something similar, but this time for myself, to make an impressive film about natural phenomena that would encompass the whole world. I realized very early on that without financing the project would never happen. You know, I could have waited my whole life for the BBC or National Geographic and in the end nothing would have happened. It was clear to me that if I did not take action, I'd never become a nature photographer."

A film Arbel made around this time for the underwater observatory in Eilat led him to think about integrating tourism with his photographic work, and produced a new breakthrough.

"While on the job, I met the owner of the observatory, the Israeli millionaire Morris Kahn," Arbel recounts. "I did a pilot plan of my business model with him" - and Kahn accepted the invitation and accompanied him on the Tonga Islands expedition.

"I gained fame as the only Israeli who did photography for the BBC production," Arbel continues, "and that helped me recruit people for my first expedition. In the course of the work, I discovered this was a good way for me to go. I found that working alone is good for me, without a producer standing over me and telling me what he wants. It's more convenient for me to deal with the animals and construct the scene myself."

Do you have special techniques for constructing scenes?

Arbel: "It's very difficult to create interest in a nature movie, because most of the time nothing happens. Ultimately, the goal is to tell a story. That's not simple, but it is precisely my challenge. I have already made a few short films, but not a full-length one. At the moment I am also working on a television series that describes the behind-the-scenes work for my big movie, which is earmarked for the cinema. The film will take shape only after I finish shooting, when I will decide which scenes to use. That depends, in turn, on what I will film. I never know exactly what will happen in front of the camera. That's the reason I am choosing to focus on phenomena I am sure about, like the sardine run in South Africa, the polar bears and the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. It's true that these are well-known phenomena, but I intend to tell the story from my angle."

Have you ever thought about filming in Israel?

"I thought of filming tortoises in Israel, even though I want to film tortoises in Costa Rica, too. The truth is that just yesterday I saw footage of ibexes at Ein Gedi [on the Dead Sea] that was shot for 'Planet Earth.' It looked so pathetic. What are ibexes, after all? I like big animals, especially mammals; I like to see and capture their power. That has an impact, seeing a big animal on a big screen. It's not like seeing a spider. I am not putting down the nature in Israel, but my connection to nature is not divorced from my thinking about photography. My goal is always to bring nature to the screen, to get the perfect shot that is part of a bigger work."

Was there one particular moment when you realized that this is what you were cut out for?

"Yes. It was in Thailand, on an expedition I conducted in the wake of elephants. I heard about a place where there were jungle elephants that swam a lake in order to get from one jungle to another. They were considered very dangerous - they had killed local people - so photographers were afraid to get close to them, but I was turned on by it. I wanted to be the first to film them. In the course of two years, from 2003, I was there twice until I managed to find them, get close and shoot them under and above the water. That was my second serious expedition, after Tonga.

"I came to the nature reserves where the elephants are and hooked up with a guide. We traveled in a boat, slept in wooden huts and went into the jungle every day. It was a nightmare. You hear the elephants all the time, but you don't know where they are. The problem is that if you see them, it's very dangerous, because by then they are very close. The way we worked was that after finding them, we waited for them in the water. There was wild adrenaline. The more I did it, the more I realized that this is what I wanted to do."

Next month, Arbel will visit Rwanda with a new group; in February he plans to head for the North Pole. The expedition in the wake of the mountain gorillas, which according to IUCN (an international conservation organization) are in danger of extinction, will take place in two national parks, Volcanoes in Rwanda and Mgahinga in Uganda.

"This year, 2009, was declared the Year of the Gorilla by all the wildlife preservation associations," Arbel notes. "Today there are a few hundred mountain gorillas left in Rwanda, and they are becoming extinct because of hunting and the destruction of forests. As far as I am concerned, the danger facing these animals only heightens the need for more documentation of them."

Your expeditions are colorful and spectacular, but also distressing: You are filming the demise of marvelous creatures.

"The pleasure in filming these amazing natural phenomena is always mixed with sadness, with astonishment, with concern. It is a great privilege to see nature at the zenith of its glory, but also hard to avoid thinking about the tremendous damage the human species has caused in the past 200 years. I find it absolutely terrible. My feeling is that no one in the Western world has the right to destroy a vast and wonderful living world. It is utterly crass.

"So, in addition to the excitement and the pleasure, my work is also a mission. I am assuming the right to document species on the brink of extinction. That is my modest contribution amid the destructive course of Western civilization: to raise awareness of the tragedy. On every expedition I ask myself how anyone can harm such marvelous animals - terminate this wonderful cycle of life." W