Richard Fitzpatrick might have the one of the best jobs in the world. Not only is he a marine biologist (specialising in shark research), but he’s also an Emmy Award-winning ocean cinematographer who has worked on more than 140 natural history documentaries with the likes of David Attenborough, Netflix, Disney and National Geographic.
Based in Queensland, Australia, Fitzpatrick’s love for the ocean started when he was seven and went snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef for the first time. “As soon as I saw the corals and the colourful seashells I was hooked for life,” he said. Since then the self-confessed “fish nerd” has filmed everything from whale sharks to baby jellyfish, using his work to support marine research, education and conservation via the Biopixel Oceans Foundation that he co-founded in 2016.
On World Ocean Day, he talks to the BBC about some of the hairiest moments he’s had underwater, where to find the world’s best “hidden” dive spots, and how we urgently need to get people passionate about protecting our oceans.
Richard Fitzpatrick has spent more than 20,000 hours underwater filming marine life (Credit: Christian Miller)
What was it like filming with David Attenborough?
I’ve done a few shows [with him] over the years. But the biggest one I did was Great Barrier Reef, which I spent almost two years filming, and for most of it I was out there by myself. I was that guy who went out for months on end to get the animal footage, and then [David Attenborough] rocks in with his crew for two weeks, does two stand up pieces and disappears again!
But that’s how I like to spend my time, just me and my animals. It was great to have spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours underwater. And when you first see the documentary with his voice over the top, it gives you a very good buzz.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve ever filmed in the ocean?
I’ve filmed great whites, tiger sharks, whales and everything. But orcas are a truly impressive animal. In Argentina, the orcas were beaching themselves to predate on seals that were in the in the shallows. It was extraordinary to watch.
Have you had any hairy moments while you’ve been filming?
Lots! I’ve spent more than 20,000 hours underwater and my job is to go looking for trouble.
I’ve had many incidents: I’ve been hospitalised; bitten by sharks; stung by jellyfish; bitten by sea snakes; three compression sicknesses; numerous concussions from sharks; broken bones; broken ribs; punctured lung; cracked skull from a pressure injury, where I was brought out of the water and had to get resuscitated.
But you still love your job?
Oh, yes. Totally.
When filming underwater, taking the time to establish a relationship with the animals is crucial (Credit: Christian Miller)
Why is ocean cinematography so hazardous?
The thing with filming underwater is you have to be close to the animals. If you were shooting in the savannah and filming a lion, you can have a 1,000mm lens on it from half a mile away. But underwater, we want to be within inches. And to do that, you have to establish a relationship with the animal that you’re filming in order to get close to it.
Sometimes, I’ll spend days establishing a relationship with a particular animal so I can then film its natural behaviour, like reproduction or feeding.
What is the most surprising marine encounter you’ve had?
There’s these fish called trigger fish. They’re about the size of your arm and they’re renowned for being really aggressive when it’s mating time, and they build huge nests like moon craters that are about 3m across.
I once spent two days with a female trigger fish who was tending her eggs, her learning that I wasn’t a threat. I had the lens right up to her eggs while she was blowing water on them and fanning them, and she just didn’t care at all. But whilst filming her, I could feel one of my legs getting lifted up, moved to the left and gently put down again. It was the fish in the adjacent crater! Obviously, my fin was in the wrong spot and this other trigger fish just gently moved it to where she wanted to be.
Interestingly, after I’d been with them for a few days, a photographer friend wanted to get some close-up photos of the fish that I’d been working on. He swam straight in without letting the fish know who he was or what he was, and they attacked him and broke his camera.
Raja Ampat is located at the heart of the Coral Triangle region, which is home to the richest marine biodiversity on Earth (Credit: Georgette Douwma/Getty Images)
What’s the most incredible (and under-the-radar) dive spot you’ve been to?
The most mind-blowing for me is in far West Papua [Indonesia], an area called Raja Ampat. It has the most stunning corals and density of fish you’ve ever seen. While you’re underwater, you can imagine hearing David Attenborough’s voice in the background.
I was one of the first people to ever film there, around 25-30 years ago. And at that time, while I was filming underwater, I could hear explosions from the dynamite fishing. Luckily, it’s now been protected.
Where would you suggest going to see truly unique marine life?
The marine mammal diversity of Patagonia is unbelievable. I did two trips to Argentina in one year: one trip was the orcas. A few months later, I went back to film southern right whales. You can go snorkelling with these whales in the crystal-clear water. There’s also sea lion life; while just above water, you’ve got armadillos and guanacos.
What’s the most underrated dive spot you’ve been to?
What I’m looking at right now: Sydney Harbour. You’ve got octopus and seahorses and a mix of tropical species in the summer months, and beautiful cold-water coral gardens and electric rays. There’s a really eclectic mix of unique Australian marine life here, and you can just walk off the beach and have a look around.
According to Richard Fitzpatrick, Sydney Harbour is an underrated and excellent dive spot (Credit: Manfred Gottschalk/Getty Images)
Where would you recommend going to see the Great Barrier Reef at its most pristine and beautiful?
The far north of the Great Barrier Reef. There’s only a handful of boats that do big expedition trips up through there, some targeted to scuba divers, others to snorkellers.
You’ve got the uber luxury end, like True North; but Mike Ball and Spirit of Freedom do far north expeditions during the summer months and that’s when you can see massive numbers of turtles. Summer also means reproduction time for the reef, and it’s like a soap opera playing out everywhere you look: coral spawning; animals chasing each other, being dominant or trying to mate. It’s just wonderful.
What underwater destination is still on your bucket list?
The Galapagos for the amazing marine life. It’s right where the temperate zone is kicking in, the productivity in the water, the big schools of hammerheads. I’d love to see that. And there’s a lot of endemic fish species over there that we just don’t have in the West Pacific.
Why is ocean conservation so important to you?
For most people, their perception of the oceans finishes when they look at the surface of the ocean, not knowing what’s actually happening or how it works underneath. It’s very foreign to most people. I’ve always been interested in educating people about the wonders of the ocean, as I’m a strong believer that people will only protect what they love and understand.
Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula is an important breeding ground for southern sea lions (Credit: by wildestanimal/Getty Images)
Tell us about some of the conservation work you’re doing
We’ve just recently discovered an aggregation site in the far north of the Great Barrier Reef for whale sharks and a little-known whale called the Omura’s whale, which is pretty exciting.
There’s been a huge black hole in our knowledge about whale sharks, which are critically endangered. And now we’ve found an aggregation site where they come together, where we can satellite tag and put cameras on them to learn where they go.
What are some other career highlights?
On a project for the BBC around 15 years ago, we discovered that there was a massive problem with the world’s biggest green sea turtle nesting site [on the Great Barrier Reef’s Raine Island] in that it wasn’t producing baby sea turtles.
As a result of us highlighting this issue, it ended up being a big, funded project by the Queensland government, the federal government and then Indigenous owners of that area, where the island was basically reshaped and rebuilt up. The sand was reprofiled so the turtle eggs were no longer getting drowned on the big king tides, and the island was turned back into a functional place for these critically endangered animals to start their life.
What’s your advice for travellers to tread lightly in the marine world?
Pick an operator with high eco standards. In the Great Barrier Reef, there’s different levels of eco accreditation as well as a Master Reef Guide programme. Then you know you’re getting the right information and that the operator cares about their carbon footprint, waste management and all those kinds of thing.
Travellers can help protect the Great Barrier Reef through the Great Reef Census (Credit: Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty Images)
And how can travellers get involved with saving the Great Barrier Reef?
Probably the best way right now is the Great Reef Census [a ground-breaking citizen science effort to survey the entire reef]. You can be one of the people out there collecting the images, but if you’re living on the other side of the planet, you can actually go into their online application and use some of your screen time to help them analyse photos for their database. It means that even if you can’t travel, you can do a “virtual dive” from your iPhone!
How do you make people passionate about the ocean?
We try to generate really amazing images and stories about what is happening in the ocean, both the good and the bad. We need to do the good, so people have a sense of hope. But the bad shows what can happen if we don’t start changing our ways.
That’s kind of our role at Biopixel and Biopixel Oceans Foundation. But generally, for people anywhere on the planet, we need to reverse climate change. Everyone needs to take responsibility over their own carbon footprint and do whatever they can at home, work, business or school to get things back on track as fast as possible. Because, literally, every day we delay, the less diversity we will have in the future.