Geomedia: Film: Exploring Florida's aquifers with filmmaker Tom Fitz

by Bethany Augliere
Thursday, February 9, 2017

Filmmaker Tom Fitz describes the first time he found himself sitting, alone, more than 20 meters below Earth’s surface and about 300 meters into an underwater cave: He was waiting in position to film a sequence of divers swimming through a narrow passageway as their lights illuminated the chamber for his new, yet to be named, documentary. “I was suddenly in absolute, complete black,” Fitz says. “The kind of darkness that we rarely experience.”

As he waited in the dark, his mind wandered and a creeping sensation of anxiety began to build. To quell the fear, Fitz flipped on his light, and risked potentially ruining the shot. But after a few seconds of looking around, he realized that all was as it should be, and he was fine. He turned off the light, went back to work and enjoyed the blackness. When the divers emerged from the tunnel “we got a glorious shot,” he says.

Fitz is an Emmy-winning natural-history filmmaker who has spent the past 30 years traveling the world, shooting documentaries for the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and other media outlets. He’s filmed spotted dolphins feeding on squid at night in the Bahamas, orcas hunting gray whale calves in Monterey Bay, Calif., and pygmy sloths swimming in Central America.

Natural-history filmmaker Tom Fitz. Credit: ©Schoolyard Films/Kat Brown.

In 2008, he founded Schoolyard Films, a nonprofit dedicated to educating children about the natural world. As the executive director, he produces short films — distributed for free — on various topics that include customized lesson plans for elementary, middle and high schools corresponding to state and national science standards. “An underlying theme throughout all of our work is the importance of stewardship and protecting the planet,” Fitz says.

His latest documentary for Schoolyard Films highlights the Floridan aquifer system — which is how he found himself submerged in an underwater cave — and the challenges it faces, such as pollution. “It’s a place so few people get a chance to see,” he says. “I am really thrilled to join that small group of folks.”

The Sunshine State sits on a thick bed of porous Paleogene carbonate rocks that make up the Floridan aquifer system, which spans 260,000 square kilometers of the southeastern United States, including Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. This system supplies drinking water for 10 million people, as well as water for irrigation and industrial and agricultural use, which together account for about 50 percent of the withdrawals from the aquifer system. “It’s underneath so many of us as we go about our daily lives,” Fitz says, yet “it is largely unknown.” He says he hopes the film sheds light on this unknown, but important, system.

Dissolution of the carbonate rock by groundwater has created networks of submerged tunnels and chambers in many locations in the aquifer. In May 2016, he and his crew traveled to Ginnie Springs in Central Florida to shoot inside the watery vaults for a week. But first, he needed a cave diving certification. Despite years of diving, Fitz had never explored caves, which requires specialized training. The hazards range from disturbing the delicate silt on the bottom, which can cloud the water and create a blackout, to getting lost amid the labyrinthine tunnels. And if something goes wrong, you can’t quickly rise to the surface, so there is little margin for error. “It’s an environment that, sadly, has taken a lot of lives, and so honestly the lesson is, you do it right or don’t do it at all,” Fitz says.

Before shooting, his team spent a week training with one of the world’s foremost underwater cave divers and explorers, Jill Heinerth, who is featured in the film. In previously explored cave systems, tunnels are lined with ropes, which divers follow to find their way. “You never lose sight of your way out; you’re always connected,” Fitz says. During the week, he and his team crawled around the bottom of a cave with blindfolds on, learning how to navigate back to the cave entrance or work out staged predicaments. That way, if something happened, they would have the knowledge to work through a problem, “rather than just panicking,” Fitz says.

During training, Fitz learned how to swim and kick in a new way, so as not to disturb the bottom sediment. For him, it also made filming smoothly a challenge. “I always aspire to operate the camera in a way that lets the viewer forget that there is actually a camera operator between him or her and the story,” Fitz says. But he adapted. Fitz learned he could film moving shots while he was being carried along by the current, and he could get stable shots if he hunkered down on the bottom and held onto the rock. “I was learning how to work in a new environment,” he says.

On a field trip organized by the Cambrian Foundation, which conducts environmental educational outreach in schools, these students learned about springs, aquifers, and water quality and accessibility issues. Credit: ©Schoolyard Films/Cambrian Foundation 2016.

One of his favorite experiences, he says, was finding wildlife in the seemingly stark and lifeless environment. Fitz worked with biologist Tom Morris, a friend and colleague of Heinerth, who helped locate the animals, including catfish and a blind albino crayfish. During the night, the fish leave the cave to feed in the river, but they return during the day and defecate in the cave, providing a source of nutrients for the crayfish. But filming these little crustaceans wasn’t easy. “They live in a silty part of the system, and just getting in there safely, and staying in there safely, and keeping the water clear for the camera — believe me, it was full of challenges!” Fitz says.

In the new documentary, viewers will see underwater caves and meet biologists, explorers and a group of young students sampling water quality as part of their school curriculum. To Fitz, the film is appealing because of its adventure and dramatic setting. “You leave the lit world behind you, and there are glorious, big wide open spaces, and very narrow little cracks and passageways to squeeze through,” he says. While giving a talk to fourth graders about a year ago, he recalls how, when one student asked him what his next project was, he put up an image of the underwater cave and the kids were awestruck, he says. “The visual aspect of this film will really help engage the students into the story, and that’s a good thing for a filmmaker.”

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