Diving ambition

Christian Wehrle on World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon and Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure

by Jennie Kermode

Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure
Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure

There’s nowhere that Christian Wehrle would rather be than underneath the sea. An enthusiastic diver ever since he was a child, he loves to share his passion with others, and how better to do that than through documentary? World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon was released on Amazon earlier this year, and takes viewers on a journey through the wreckage of the Japanese fleet caught at harbour in a critical but rarely discussed incident in World War Two. Following it later this year will be a film he actually made more than a decade ago, Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure, which captures the experience of exploring beneath the waves at El Ikhwa, Egypt.

“Even when I was very little, I got my flippers and my little mask, and I was swimming, and I loved it,” he tells me. “When I was 14, I did my open water scuba course thanks to my dad. He was diving since the Sixties, so I was lucky to start very young, and I was lucky that we traveled a bit. So I saw the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and I kept doing courses while I was doing this. When I was 19, I was a scuba instructor already.”

There were always more courses to do, he explains, and he was particularly interested in getting his technical licenses, so he did things like learning to use mixed gases back in the Nineties, when it was still fairly rare. Then life took an unexpected turn.

Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure
Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure

“A friend of mine was stepping foot into the film business, and I was working for television. They came sometimes and needed helping hands. I loved that. Film school wasn't that common at that time in the Nineties, and so it wasn't really clear how you could get in. And so I got this opportunity by a friend who was actually in a film production as an assistant, so I went to Berlin. I was young and it was easy to travel far away.

“And so that's like these two things. I did my instructor course, and I was already a scuba instructor. And then I went to Babelsberg, and it was the first time I was in Germany and actually in Berlin for five years straight. I started diving more and more around Berlin, but mainly I was working in the film industry, which kept becoming bigger and bigger.”

He’s worked on some pretty big productions, such as The Bourne Supremacy, The Constant Gardener, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon and, more recently, John Wick: Chapter 4.

“I was really lucky,” he says. “51% of what you get, I think, is always luck.”

In between working on other people’s films, he found the time to develop his own.

“For Red Sea: Brother Islands, I started back in 2011. The first time I went there, I just had a new underwater housing on the camera, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to try it out and see.’ And this spot was so beautiful and not untouched, but very close to it, this incredible intact coral. There was one shipwreck, which was not a tragedy like in the other documentary I did. They managed to hit the island and the ship sank, but everyone was rescued. There wasn't many people on board. There was no war or anything. And this ship is 100 years now on the ground and you could see how the marine life took over.

“It looks like a giant coral, actually, this wreck. And so for this documentary, it was really about all these beautiful corals and fish. I knew there were sharks and people go there for sharks, but I didn't really honestly know what I was throwing myself into, because suddenly you're surrounded by hammerheads and whoa! It’s very intense. And, yeah, I loved it.” He grins. “So I had to come back and back, and I did three or four trips to actually get this documentary because it's a very unique spot. It's like very untouched and beautiful because it's so remote. You have to take a trip by boat at least 10 hours to go there, meaning you can't just do a day trip or diving for just some hours. You have to really commit yourself.”

The other film is very different in character.

“It's really like a history piece,” he says. “Truk Lagoon is like a museum underwater. They call it the ghost fleet as well, or the Japanese Pearl Harbor – the response of the US to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years later, they found the Japanese naval base and they managed to sink these 40 or more ships and 50 aircrafts within two days. They had some boxes, but very minimal, and the Japanese fleet was totally destroyed. And when you go diving there, nowadays, it's the same thing. The marine life takes over. It merges with these wrecks into something beautiful as well.

World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon
World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon

“You do see all these huge vessels which were prepared for war, and you even have human remains still there, though they’re mostly taken away. It's like a war cemetery where you see these ships packed with tanks and mines. And so that was a totally different story. I thought it's important to actually tell it because no one I know knew about Truk Lagoon, which is called Chuuk now. Everyone would know about Pearl Harbor, but there was so much more going on, obviously, in the wartime, and this was just a quick victory, I guess, for the US. So that's probably why it has not been that known, I guess.”

Was it still a risk of things exploding down there during filming?

“I was asking this and I heard some explosions, but I think it was actually dynamite fishing. I don't think anything goes off anymore. It's not dangerous by the explosions. It's more dangerous to get entangled if you dive into these wrecks because there's so many things you can actually get stuck to. I'm a cave diver, so I know about that. You learn a lot about zero visibility and how to behave and not to panic, which is the most important thing.

“Most people, they go inside because there's a huge opening and that's fine for non cave divers as well, but then you go down to the engine rooms and if your light would go off, I don't think you would see your hand in front of your face.”

In both films, there's quite a focus on safety. He’s keen to help educate divers about this.

“At heart, I am a diver even before I’m a filmmaker. So I do these for divers, for anyone who's interested in this underwater world. There are some things you have to keep in mind doing this. For Truk Lagoon, for the wrecks, it's even more. Both spots can be deep. I mean, the Brother Islands, I was doing a technical trip there, 100 metres or deeper. But it's not a real necessity to do this at the Brothers or at Truk because they're both in the range for open water or advanced open water divers.

“For the shark diving, there is a lot. Every guide would tell you what to do or how to behave when the shark comes close to you. If you scuba dive, your vision is very limited. You have this mask on, so you go pretty straight forward.” he positions his hands on either side of his face, then indicates something to his left. “Now how would I see what is here? You wouldn't see this because there's a mask. You wouldn't see the shark which is coming here.

“You have to concentrate and tell yourself ‘Don't scream underwater,’ because the sharks, they hear it and they’ll be like, ‘What's going on?’ These are things you hear from the guides as well. They will tell you how to behave. And it's funny you mentioned safety, because of my new documentary I'm doing right now.”

He’s referring to Blue Hole The Call Of The Abyss, set in and around the famous underwater feature off the coast of Belize.

“That's actually the point about beautiful dive spots where people totally underestimate the danger of it. There’s this beautiful clear water, warm water, no currents. You'd be like, ‘Wow, why is this dangerous?’ Or ‘Why is it so many people die there?’ Because a lot of people died there. And I did my first dive and I told my buddy to go on the other side of the arch, there's this little, it's not a cave, but it's an overhead going 25 meters. It's like a swimming pool. It goes down like a skiing slope from 60 meters to 100, I think, or a bit more. And where the 100 meters is on the ground, there is this archway where you can swim through.

Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure
Red Sea: Brother Islands – A Scuba Dive Adventure

“This is where were filming and I was looking with my camera and I was focusing, obviously, on the image and looking at the diver. And then I checked my computer and was like, ‘Oh, I'm five metres deeper than I was supposed to be.’ If you go like 10 meters and it's 15, it's not that big a deal. But if you go 60 meters and then you're at 65, first you use a lot of more air if you are open circuit. I'm using a repeater so it wasn't a problem for me. The mix I had was for 90 meters, I think. But I realised that you can easily get into trouble.

“It's so huge and you get distracted and if you sink five or ten metres further, a lot of physics change, especially at 60 to 70 meters. It's claimed that oxygen gets toxic even at 66 metres, and the gas gets more dense. So if you breathe air, you will find it harder and harder to breathe. If you make a mistake and you start dropping, you might drop more and more. And this is how many people actually die there. They run out of air and they drown.”

On a lighter note, we discuss the experience of filming the beautiful fish on the reefs, accounting for the fact that they’re not just there to be admired – they have concerns of their own.

“Yeah, it's a learning curve you do by approaching them. As soon as you go too close or too fast, you scare animals off. So you have to be very slow, very cautious, and you can see that some like it and some don't. Some are interested in you and some really get scared off and you have no chance of getting them. Even sharks. I had one hammerhead – they are called hammerheads not just because of the head, but because when they feel threatened, they do this with their head like a hammer movement.” He mimes it. “And when you see this, you back off immediately, because it’s impressive. And for smaller animals here, they would just show you the tail fin and that doesn't look nice. So you go slowly.

“Since I started using a rebreather, it's much quieter. I don't make any noise because the bubbles are actually very noisy when you do open circle diving, and this noise is distracting a little. And the bubbles as well. It's like dolphins use air bubbles to trap fish, so the animals are not that fond of bubbles. So yeah, it's very about approaching them very slowly, trying to find the right angle and a lot of waiting. So it's frustrating for buddies because the camera is totally your world.”

I tell him that I was interested in the way that the divers at the Brothers almost seem to have become part of the ecosystem, in that some fish take advantage of them to hunt other fish.

“Oh yeah. Look for a second and you think ‘Oh, this is so beautiful and calm.’ And then you realise every fish is either trying to get food or avoid getting eaten. They are very creative. They use the divers to hide. The flute fish, they would try to swim with you and hide beyond either your bubbles or your big tank and shoot out to get a bite from the smaller fish.

“On night dives, you have to be careful not to play God. If you point your torch at a small fish, a lot of big fish will swim up. When you do a night dive, bigger fish might swim beside you and they just wait for a fish to show up in your torch light and they would get it. If you point your light to a small fish, it's almost certainly something is going to attack.”

World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon
World War II: The Shipwrecks Of Truk Lagoon

We talk about his ambitions and the diving films he would like to make.

“I have four more on my table right now. I love diving so much and I think there's so much variety in it. Like I said, cave diving is one of my big interests, and I have one documentary about the flooded mines which are around Europe. There's so much history in it as well because these are old mines. Then there's lakes in a lot of quarries here in Germany where there's still houses and most have beautiful stories to tell. Then I like to do movies for families, since I became a father two years ago.

“The Truk Lagoon film maybe isn't that easy for families, but I showed it to a friend. She's a documentary director as well, and she was looking at it with her seven-year-old daughter and her husband, and the daughter was so into it, she wants to go diving now. And that's what I really love. I try to make films for people who might be interested in history, when I see a good story, or for the biology and for fun and for adventure.”

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