Photos: ADAM RAVETCH
A San Fernando boy, Adam Ravetch first discovered the joys of being underwater, by putting his parents’ lawn chairs in the swimming pool, and then diving “deep” to explore the “shipwrecks.”
Last year, his three-decade career of capturing shots in some of the harshest conditions, including the frigid Arctic oceans, was recognized when he was awarded the NOGI Fellow of the Arts, the equivalent of an “Oscar of the Ocean” based on excellence in the diving world.
In 61 years, only 61 people have received the award and include Jacques Cousteau, Lloyd Bridges, Scott Carpenter and James Cameron. To view the underwater award-winning cinematographer in action, visit: https://vimeo.com/752648269
Ravetch, who spoke to the Palisades Rotary Club on April 11, said, “Water is like a drug—addictive. To capture life underwater is important.”
When he was 18, he moved to San Diego, which was the home of the Bottom Scratchers, free divers, who during the depression fed their families by catching fish in the sea. Using a bow and arrow, on a single breath of air, they would dive underwater to catch their prey.
It was this group, that also captured the first photography underwater – the first underwater cinematographers – that inspired Ravetch.
He went to Cal State Long Beach where he worked as a graduate student with Dr. Donald Nelson, who established the Shark Lab.
Nelson discovered that sharks warn you before they bite you. They swim in a pronounced figure 8, with pectoral fins down, which had never been noticed before.
For Ravetch, it was a defining moment.
He has spent a lifetime of challenging the accepted view of animals and recording it. “Don seared into my soul the mantra to push forward observing new behaviors. And felt with a determined dedication I could discover something new.”
In 1988, he would make his first arctic dive, a location he would return to again and again. It was -26 degrees, on the ice and below water it was 29.5 degrees.
Diving in frigid conditions can cause regulators to freeze – and divers use dry suits, rather than wetsuits. The weather becomes an ominous unspoken character during filming.
Ravetch spoke about one exceptionally harrowing experience. He went through a hole in the ice to record the animals underneath the icy sheet.
When he came back to the site of the hole, (he had been tethered by a rope like an umbilical cord), “There was no longer a hole there,” He said, “Just mush.”
The person on top of the ice, chopped a place for him to push his camera through, and then continued to chop until they could pull him out from the ice.
Instead of choosing a different climate to continue diving, Ravetch said, “I was captivated by the ice.”
He started working with the Inuit, native people who inhabit the northernmost area of the Earth around the Arctic for their help in locations and knowledge of the animals.
In 1995, he made several photographic discoveries about the Greenland Shark, which had not been well-studied because of the depth and location where they are found in the Artic.
The shark, which could live up to 500 years, is the longest-lived vertebrate on earth and it is thought this species of shark may be as old as dinosaurs. The gestation period of the young is 8 to 18 years.
No one knew what Greenland shark ate, but one was found with a seal in its stomach, so it is thought that in addition to invertebrates and fish, they will eat other Arctic animals.
Ravetch filmed for National Geographic and in 2007 shot a documentary, Arctic Tale, which was narrated by Queen Latifah. The story followed a polar bear named Nanu and a female walrus named Seela, the first generation of Arctic animals to face the challenges of a warming world.
During the filming he discovered the birthing grounds of the eastern Atlantic walrus. Contrary to the scientific belief that only hungry desperate polar bears would dare take on a two-ton walrus with dagger like tusks, Ravetch’s film showed that some bears specialized in walrus as a food source during the ice-free summers when seals their more normal food source was not available.
He directed another movie, Ice Bear (2013).
Ravetch field directed, appeared in and shared a voice over with Meryl Streep in To the Arctic 3D Imax.
More recently he has filmed Polar Bears Hunt Beluga Whales for PBS, Arctic Whales and Secrets of the Whales for Disney.
The filmmaker captured a rare elephant seal birth for Smithsonian TV Series, and contributed to this year’s Earth Day Apple TV Release, Big Beasts.
He’s currently working on a 3D Dome Movie for an aquarium group and a narwhale project.
“Narwhales are the last animal we know very little about,” Ravetch said. “They use the 9’ tusk, to hit and stun fish, which our cameras were the first to reveal after centuries of its purpose going unanswered.
“They are the unicorn of the sea,” he said.
Ravetch also collaborates with scientists, and helped launch a five-year study with the USGS where polar bears were outfitted with cameras. They were filmed in the Bering Sea and showed how the bears’ sea ice home was diminishing.
He was asked about the effects of climate change in the Arctic.
“Thirty years ago, there was multi-year ice that never melted. It was the glue that held the Arctic ice together,” Ravetch said. “Now that multiyear ice is almost all gone, and the ice breaks up as a month earlier than my first visit north in 1990.”
And with the disappearance of the ice, the animals of the arctic as well as the Inuit will face new challenges.
“I just can’t be doom and gloom about the warming Arctic,” Ravetch said. “The people and animals of the north are so determined, so smart and have faced the harshest challenges and conditions on earth. I’d like to think they will adapt to a way forward.
“It is a resilient, determined community, the Arctic,” he said. “The animals, the people, they just persevere.”