The National Geographic Web site tells a little parable about the origin of the Crittercams themselves. In 1986 in the waters off Belize, a big shark approached a diving biology graduate student and filmmaker, Greg Marshall, and swam away with three quick strokes of its powerful tail. Marshall looked longingly after the disappearing shark and spotted a small sucker fish, a remora, an unobtrusive witness to sharky reality, clinging to the big predator. "Envying the remora its intimate knowledge of shark life, Marshall conceived a mechanical equivalent: a video camera, sheltered by waterproof housing, attached to a marine animal." Now our origin story is getting more interesting; we are no longer inside a cartoon ideology of immediacy and stolen selves. Instead Marshall longed for, and built, the remoras intimate view of shark life.5 Some body-snatching is still going on here, but becoming-remora is much more promising in an entangled-species world. Endowed with second sight, we can now enter the compounded world of infoldings of the flesh, because we have left the garden of self-identity and risked the embodied longings and points of view of surrogates, substitutes, and sidekicks. At last, we get to grow up— or, in another idiom, get real. Neither cynical nor naive, we can become savvy about reality engines.6 We are, in Ihde's words, bodies in technologies, in fold after fold, with no unwrinkled place to stop.
If we take the remora seriously as the analogue for Crittercam, then we have to think about just what the relationships of human beings are to the animals swimming about with sucker cameras on their hides. Clearly, the swimming sharks and loggerhead turtles are not in a "companion animal" relationship to the people, on the model of herding dogs or other critters with whom people have worked out elaborate and more-or-less acknowledged cohabitations.7 The camera and the remora are more about accompanying than companioning, more about ""riding along with" rather than "cum panis," that is, "eating bread with." Remoras and Crittercams are not messmates to either people or sharks; they are commensals, neither benefactors nor parasites but devices with their own ends who/which hitch a ride. So, this chapter turns out to be about a commensal technological lifeworld. Same housing, not the same dinner. Same compound; distinct ends. Together for a while, welded by vacuum-generating suckers or good glue. Thanks to their remora-like technological surrogates, in spite of narratives to the contrary, Crittercam's people are decidedly not absent from the doings of the animals they are interested in; technologically active humans get to ride along, holding on as best they can.
At this point, the scholar of science and technology studies starts asking about how the Crittercams are designed and built; how that design changes for each of the forty-odd species who had their techno-remoras fitted by 2004; what things look like from the attached cameras, some of which seem to be at very odd angles; what the devices' technical and social history is over time; how well they hold on; how the join is broken and data collected and read; how audiences (scientific and popular, child and adult) learn the needed semiotic skills to watch animal home videos and have any idea of what they are seeing; what kinds of data besides the visual the devices can collect; how those data integrate with data collected in other ways; how the National Geographic Crittercam projects attach themselves to established, ongoing research projects on the animals; whether those collegial attachments are parasitic, cooperative, or commensal; and whose (animal and human) labor, play, and resources make all this possible. Once one gets beyond the numbing narratives of diving with/as the gods and feeling the divine wind in the abducted face, it turns out that all of these questions can be addressed from the TV shows themselves and their associated Web site.
It is impossible to watch Crittercam shows and not be exhausted and exhilarated by the scenes of athletic, skillful human beings lustily infolding their flesh and their cameras' flesh with the bodies of critter after critter. The sheer physicality of all that is Crittercam dominates the television screen. How could a mentalistic "camera's eye" narrative ever take hold in the face of such immersion in boats, sea spray, waves, immense whales and slippery dugongs, speed and diving, piloting challenges, team interactions, and the materialities of engineering and using the plethora of cameras and other data-collecting devices that are Crittercam? Indeed, the visual structuring of the TV episodes emphasizes bodies, things, parts, substances, sensory experience, timing, emotions—everything that is the thick stuff of Crittercam's lifeworld. The cuts are fast; the visual fields, littered; the size scales of things and critters in relation to the human body, rapidly switched so that the viewer never feels comfortable with the illusion that anything much can be physically taken for granted in relation to oneself. Part bodies of organisms and technologies predominate over whole-body shots. But never is Crittercam's audience allowed to imagine visually or haptically the absence of physicality and crowded presences, no matter what the voice-over says. The word may not be made flesh here, but everything else is.
Consider first the boats, the people in them, and the animals pursued by them. The TV show audience learns quickly that each Crittercam project requires fast boats; expert pilots; and agile, jocular, well-muscled scientist-divers ready to jump off a moving boat and embrace a large swimming critter who is presumably not especially longing to hug a human. In the episode about green turtles and loggerhead turtles off Western Australia, the host Mike Heithaus tells the audience that "chasing after turtles is kind of like being a stunt driver." Of course, first the crews have to find the animals to whom they want to attach their sort of commensal remora. Looking for leatherback turtles off Costa Rica, Crit-tercam people worked with former poachers-turned-tour guides to find these biggest—and, naturally, acutely endangered—marine reptiles on earth, who make a living eating jellyfish. Crittercam scientists and entertainment producers also have to consider that some critters can't wear the current generation of videocams safely; too much drag could lead to the animal's early demise. Thus, we learn, imperial turtles will have to wait for more miniaturization for their remora-like accompaniments.
In the waters of Shark Bay, where the National Geographic Remote Imaging Team and television crew were looking for dugongs, local Aboriginals worked on the boats as sea trackers.8 Implicit in that labor practice are the complex metamorphoses of these particular Aboriginal people from hunters of dugongs to their conservationists and comanagers of research permits and ecotourism. Plant-eating mammals that spend all of their lives in the sea, dugongs are marine relatives of elephants, who shared their last common ancestor about twenty-five million years ago. TV show host Heithaus, himself a PhD scientist who studies predator-
prey interactions among marine animals, with a special taste for sharks, never fails to remind the viewer of the conservation message in all Crit-tercam projects. Such messages include reassurances that special permits were obtained to harass endangered animals with research boats, that interference was kept to a minimum and never pursued to the point of exhausting the animals, and that all of the operations are part of saving organisms and habitats on the edge of extinction.
That has always been the argument of natural history extravaganzas, whether colonial or postcolonial. It might even be true. It takes believing that, under current conditions, knowledge saves; or at least, if not a sufficient condition for enduring and flourishing, finite secular knowledge called science is definitely a necessary condition. Sign me on to that religion. Still, I do long for an idiom that considers multispecies flourishing outside the idiom and apparatus of "Saving the Endangered [fill in the blank]." Rooted in a commitment to the mortal mundane, rather than to either Sacred or Secular Salvation, my longing has to do with the heterogeneous actors necessary to Isabelle Stengers's cosmopolitics.
Not all Crittercams are attached with a hug. Besides considering whether a barnacle-crusted hide will accept sucker cups, be better off with epoxy glue, or need some other attachment technique, Crittercam people have to solve, physically, how to get the videocam packages onto beings as different from one another as dugongs, humpback whales, nurse sharks, and emperor penguins. Take the humpback whales off southeast Alaska. Computer simulations helped remote imaging engineers design special suction cups for these critters. We hear on TV that ""technology, teamwork, and a federal permit were required to get this close to the whales." Many weeks of unsuccessful attempts to attach a camera to a whale (almost a whole research season) were reduced to a couple of minutes of TV time showing one failed attempt after another to plant a camera hanging off a long pole onto a giant moving whale from a boat. Sixteen Crittercams (each worth about ten thousand dollars) were finally successfully deployed. Retrieving those cameras after they came off the whales is an epic tale in itself; witness the ninety miles traveled and the seven hours in a helicopter, following elusive VHF signals, that lead engineer Mehdi Bakhtiari logged to get one camera back from the sea. Thankfully, the remoras on the whales got an eyeful, but more of that later.
Crittercam units are assembled on the TV screen. Attachment devices (sucker, fin clamp, or adhesive mount), integrated video camcorder and data-logging system, microphone, pressure and temperature gauges, headlights, the tracking system for cameras (both those that are still attached and those that have been released from the animals), and the remote release button are all given screen time. However, the technology is put together so quickly in a burst of fast visual cuts from component to component that the viewer is dazed more than informed. Still, it would be impossible to get the visual impression that the camera is a mentalis-tic, dematerializing black box.
In a more relaxed mood, the interested viewer has easy Internet access to technical descriptions and time lines for the Crittercam packages. We learn that in 2004 the cameras record on Hi-8 or digital video tape; that housings are modified for different conditions, with titanium-encased units equipped with visual intensification capability that can record at two thousand meters or more; that field reprogrammability of key elements is facilitated by onsite personal computers; that other sorts of data are logged by sensors for salinity, depth, speed, light level, audio, and more; and that data and imaging sampling can be segregated for different time-scheduling demands corresponding to the research questions being asked. We learn about time-sampling schedules and capacities of the data-collecting devices. Three hours of color recording by 2004 is pretty impressive, especially when those hours can be parsed to acquire, say, twenty seconds every three minutes.
On the Internet, we learn about the progressive miniaturization and greater powers of Crittercams from the first model in 1987, when outer diameters were 7 inches or more, to outer diameters of 2.5 inches with increased data-collecting capabilities in 2004. Sneaked into the Web site narrative is the information that most of Crittercam's complex body is proprietary but was initially built on the basis of existing systems from Sony and JVC. Property matters; by definition, it is about access; Critter-cam is about access. We are told about Greg Marshall's early unsuccessful hunt for both funding and scientific credibility and his eventual success with the backing of the National Geographic Society. That took the savvy instincts of a National Geographic television producer, John Bredar. Development grants followed, with the first successful deployments on free-swimming sharks and sea turtles in 1992. Now Greg Marshall heads up National Geographic's Remote Imaging Program, which is engaged in worldwide scientific collaborations. Finally, we aren't allowed to forget the dreams for the future: Someday Crittercam packages will tell us about physiological parameters such as EKG and stomach temperature. Then, there is the two-inch camera in the near-term imagination of the engineers. These are home movies with a future twist.
The TV screen itself in Crittercam episodes deserves close attention. Especially in scenes featuring Crittercam footage, the viewer is invited to adopt the persona of a videogame player by the semiotic design of the screen. Blocking any naturalistic illusions, the screen is literally outlined like a game space, and the shots from the heads of the critters give forward-pointing motion like that of a videogame avatar. We get the point of view that searchers, eaters, and predators might have of their habitat.
But perhaps most striking of all is the small amount of actual Crittercam footage amid all the other underwater photography of the animals and their environments that fills the episodes. Actual Crittercam footage is, in fact, usually pretty boring and hard to interpret, somewhat like an ultrasound recording of a fetus. Footage without narration is more like an acid trip than a peephole to reality. Cameras might be askew on the head of the critter or pointed down, so that we see lots of muck and lots of water, along with bits of other organisms that make precious little sense without a lot of other visual and narrative work. Or the videocams might be positioned just fine, but nothing much happens during most of the sampling time. Viewer excitement over Crittercam imagery is a highly produced effect. Home movies might be the right analogy after all.
The most visually interesting—and by far the largest amount of— underwater photography in the episodes is given no technical discussion on the TV programs at all. We learn nothing about who took this plentiful non-Crittercam footage, what their cameras were like, or how the animals and camera people interacted. Reading the credits doesn't help much. On the other hand, these genres of footage are familiar to anyone who watches much marine natural-history film and TV. Familiarity in no way diminishes potency. Focused by Eva Shawn Hayward's lens in her analysis of the 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus (Les amours de la pieuvre), by Jean Painleve and Genevieve Hamon, I experience in
Crittercam's "conventional" footage some of the same pleasures of intimacies at surfaces, fast changes in scale, ranges of magnification, and the immersive optics of refraction across varying media.9 Painleve and Hamon's films are aesthetically much more self-conscious and skilled than Critter-cam's assemblages, but once one learns how the dance of magnifications and scales shapes the join of touch and vision to produce Hayward's "fingery eyes," enabled by the biological art-film work, one seeks—and finds—that kind of vision much more widely. In addition, the haptic-visual symphony of Crittercam is helped immeasurably by the intense watery physicality of the whole package. For that, I will watch a lot of odd-angle shots of sea bottoms taken from the hides of critters equipped with techno-remoras.
Crittercam episodes promise something else too: scientific knowledge. What is learned about the animals' lives matters a great deal. Without this dimension, the whole edifice would come tumbling down. Visual-haptic pleasures in part objects and voyeuristic revels in the athletic maneuvers of vigorous young people and other critters in surging waters would not hold me or, I suspect, much of anyone else. In this matter, I am no cynic, even if my eye is firmly on the culturally located technosocial apparatus of knowledge production. Folks in technoculture need their juicy epistemophilic endorphin surge as much as they need sorts of sensory engagement. The brain is, after all, a chemically avid sensory organ.
All the episodes of Crittercam emphasize that the remote imaging people from National Geographic hooked up with marine zoologists doing long-term research. In each case, the Crittercam folks thought their apparatus could help resolve an interesting and ecologically consequential question that was not easily addressable, if at all, by other technological means. The long-term projects provided nearly all the information about habitats, animals, research questions, and grounds for worries about habitat degradation and depleted populations. For example, before Crittercam came on the scene, more than 650 sea turtles caught and tagged over five years had yielded information crucial to understanding the shark-turtle, predator-prey ecologies of Shark Bay off Western Australia. But the Crit-tercam people offered a means to go with the animals into places humans otherwise could not go to see things that changed what we know and how we must act as a consequence, if we have learned to care about the well-being of the entangled animals and people in those ecologies.
Probably because I work and play with herding dogs in real life, the humpback whale collaboration is my favorite one to illustrate these points. Fifteen years of research about how humpbacks live and hunt in the waters off southwest Alaska preceded the arrival of the Crittercam.10 The scientists knew each whale individually by his or her calls and tail-fluke markings. The biologists developed strong ideas about the whales' collaborative hunting after watching them collect giant mouthfuls of herring. But researchers could not prove that collaborative hunting was indeed what the whales were doing, with each whale taking its place in a choreographed division of labor, like that of pairs of expert border collies gathering the sheep on the Lancashire countryside. Whale scientists suspected that individually known humpbacks had been knowledgeably working together for decades to harvest their fishery, but the limits of humans diving with the giant cetaceans stopped them from obtaining crucial visual evidence. Being crushed is no way to secure good data. The Crittercam gave questing humans a way to accompany the whales as if the people were merely commensal sucker fishes along for the ride—and the photo op. In the idiom of Bruno Latour's science and technology studies, the scientists and the natural history entertainment jocks "delegated" parts of their work to the Crittercam multitasking package and to the animals who bore the devices into their worlds.11
We have already seen how hard it was to secure the cameras to the whale hides and then recover them afterward. The sixteen successfully deployed Crittercams from near the end of the season were precious. The scientists wanted to test their hypothesis that certain whales deliberately blew bubbles from below to surround and trap herring that had been herded into tight congregations by other whales, forming a kind of net around the prey. Then, in unison the whales surged upward with their mouths gaping to collect their teaming dinner. People could see the bubbles from the surface, but they could not see how or where or by whom they were produced. Humans could not really tell if the whales were dividing their labor and hunting socially.
Footage from the first fifteen Crittercams did not show what the biologists needed. Suspense on television mounted, and, I like to think, suspense and worry were also rife in the non-TV labs, where people were trying to make sense of the often confusing, vertigo-inducing pictures the videocams brought back. Then, with the sixteenth videotape, shot by a Crittercam-bearing member of the pod, came a clear view, just a few seconds long, of a whale going below the gathered herring that were surrounded by other whales and blowing a bubble net. Callers, bubble blowers, and herders were all accounted for. Bits of footage put together from several cameras gave a reconstructed, visually supported narrative of the border collie-like whales gathering their fish-sheep, penning them flawlessly, and eating them enthusiastically. Good border collies don't do that part, but their cousins and ancestors, the socially hunting wolves, do.
A knowledge bonus also came from the Crittercam in the humpback whale social hunting story. Bits of whale skin adhered to the detached suction cups once the videocam packages were released, and so DNA analyses could be done of individually known (and named) whales who had taken attributable pictures of one another and their habitat. The result: the discovery that whales in the social hunting groups were not close kin. The close teamwork over years would have to be explained, ecologically and evolutionarily, in some other way. I know I should suppress my pleasure in this result, but I raise my California wine glass to the extrafamilial social worlds of working whale colleagues. My endorphins are at high tide.
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