SWIMMING WITH GENTLE GIANTS

Scott Portelli Interview

For most people spending time in Tonga swimming alongside a sixteen metre long, forty ton whales is a dream come true. But for Scott Portelli it’s just another day in the office – an office that he never tires of, even after two decades on the job. The wildlife photographer says: “when you’re in the water, you feel like everything is going really fast, the whales glide and pirouette, but when I look back at the footage, I always feel like I’m looking back at a very slow ballet. They’re incredibly intelligent, non-violent and self-aware creatures.”

It’s taken Scott the better part of his career to understand how to read their behaviour and learn how to best interact with the whales with the aim to create organic interactions and build familiarity. He says “a lot of the time, they don’t even register our presence when we’re in the water with them, but what’s interesting is that they’re conscious and aware of their space; there is never any chance of getting hit by a whale. The adults can come very close without ever touching you, purposefully moving a fin over or under you just so they don’t hit you. The babies are clumsy, rolling around and wanting to play. The key is to keep a good distance and know how to operate safely and recognise behaviour cues.”

A rebel with a cause

Scott’s job doesn’t start and finish with simply capturing footage of the stunning creatures.  The whales distinct personalities make them fascinating creatures to study; with singular personalities, Scott works alongside curious, highly social and interactive whales and others that simply don’t register his presence, with each interaction revealing new findings on whale behaviour.

“We were looking for ways to support local communities, research and perhaps a way to help these whales. There’s a lot more to what we do than just swimming with the whales; there’s a lot of behavioural knowledge required, and an understanding of the science behind it all. I got to a point where I had been doing this for a long time, and the culmination of beautiful moments, building awareness and knowledge on the plight of these animals and their natural habitat,” he says.

After collecting footage of the whales in Tonga for years and building an affinity with them, Scott was inspired to make the film to tell the story of a highly intelligent, yet threatened species.  Teaming up with filmmaker, and fellow whale enthusiast Stefan Andrews, the duo created a stunning short film with the aim to highlight the uniqueness of each whale and their individual personality traits. Scott says “I’ve been filming whales for 18 years and spent over 1000 days in the water with them, and year after year, I discover something new about them.” But conservation and preservation are also on the forefront of Scott’s mind; for him, presenting his audience with beautiful imagery is an effective way to build emotional connection for the species, and incite people to feel engaged in protecting these whales that are subjected to mass hunting and the threat of a rapidly changing climatic landscape. “We hunted these animals almost to extinction,” says Scott. “There were between 100 000 to 200 000 whales that used to travel up Australia’s coast, and now the numbers are believed to be closer to 10 000.”

And their plight doesn’t end with hunting; pollution, disappearing food sources, threats to their environment, these are all things that are current issues directly impacting whales and their habitat. For Scott, empathy, engagement and garnering awareness through film may be the first step towards taking individual action.

Underwater magic

For Scott, the uniqueness of underwater film can be found in the connection that it invites. He says “you can go whale watching and see whales. But you only ever see them from the surface, you don’t get a real sense of what’s going on down below or what they do once they’re out of sight. I think the best thing about underwater imagery is that it builds connection; people stop thinking about whales as big fish in the water and get an insight into what intelligent and interactive beings they are, and it plunges people into a realm that they wouldn’t normally experience.” The film offers a front seat experience to the eerie, ethereal world that exists below the ocean’s surface, and a small insight into the sheer scale of the humpback whale.

Scott also explains that underwater photography and film has allowed us to better understand whales’ behaviour and come back on certain assumptions that were believed to be true prior to having this technology; it has enabled a much more thorough understanding of whale behaviour and biological factors.

Produced and directed by Stefan Andrews, and starring Scott Portelli, Swimming with Gentle Giants intimately showcases whales in their natural habitat in Tonga and Scott’s interactions with them. Through breathtaking underwater and aerial imagery, the short film captures the grace of one of the planet’s largest mammals and their quirky, almost anthropoid behaviour.

You can catch Scott Portelli: Swimming With Gentle Giants at the Ocean Film Festival.

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Swimming with Gentle Giants will be featured as part of the 2020 Ocean Film Festival! Australian & New Zealand ocean lovers will be able to immerse themselves in the wonders of the ocean this coming February to April as the Ocean Film Festival World Tour makes a splash in cinemas across both countries. The festival, which features a carefully curated selection of the world’s most captivating ocean-themed will light up silver screens in 35 towns and cities.

Tickets and screening times are available here!

Words by: Celeste Botton

All images by: Scott Portelli