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Reef Encounters: Pawel Achtel

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Pawel Achtel, who is drawn to the "immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life" as a filmmaker.

What is your typical day?

Most of the time there is no typical day. My focus changes depending on what I’m working on at the time. When I’m in the field filming, the morning starts with an equipment check followed by breakfast and then we head out to sea for filming.

The evening is filled with footage offloading before checking and setting up the cameras for the following day. I like to have my equipment all set up a day earlier to avoid last-minute surprises.

  • Day Pawel action shot close with 3Deep and lights, Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

When I first visited the Great Barrier Reef about 30 years ago and put my head down I realised this was something I wanted to pursue. After returning from my holidays, I completed a scuba diving course. I bought a broadcast-quality camera and housing, and since then almost never dived without one in my hands.

What inspires you in your work?

The immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life motivate me to try to capture some of those moments. A well shot 3D spectacle is the ultimate reward. I want to share these experiences with others.

  • DSC00232.small, Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

When we watch pristine marine habitats we often take these environments for granted, but from the perspective of my 30 years of diving, I can tell you that the reefs are dying.

It’s hard to watch. Every year we are losing marine habitats one after another and they take many years to recover. Some of them never do.

I try not to think what the future is going to be like. I try to focus on how to preserve as much as we can and educate others about the importance of these marine ecosystems.

  • Day Pawel filming bommie, Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

I love marine mammals. A humpback whale would be my number one. They are so powerful, yet so gentle. So different, yet so intelligent. Every time I look into a whale’s eye I see a warm, intelligent being.

  • Pawel Whale, Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

Sydney’s pygmy pipehorse (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri).

  • Sydney pygmy pipehorse, Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull
    Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull

What kit do you use?

I film almost exclusively in 3D. My setup is two RED Epic Dragon cameras, 3Deep titanium housing, Denecke Genlock, Nikonos 15mm submersible lenses, Keldan 24X lights with custom reflectors, custom TrueBlue OLPF filters.

  • DSC02397 fixed, Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I’m currently filming an IMAX film called Sea of Love 3D about reproduction and relationships in the ocean.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

Dr John (Charlie) Veron.

  • IMG_1795, Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel