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See What The Penguin Sees
GREG MARSHALL Is Uncovering the Secret Lives of Whales, Sharks, and Those Funny Birds That Can't Fly. By Brooke Lea Foster
Comments () | Published April 1, 2004

A yellow kayak bobs in the waves. Marine biologist Greg Marshall sits cross-legged in front, a colleague behind him. They paddle away from the sloop from which others in their team watch.

It's 1996, and the team is searching for sperm whales off the coast of the Azores, a group of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic. Marshall scans the water. When the 40-ton whales surface, he wants to be close. His walkie-talkie crackles; his colleagues on the boat have spotted the whales. "They're right ahead of you, off your starboard bow."

Up they come, several of them, blowing geysers of water that soak Marshall's shirt. He grabs the camera--cased in yellow titanium and shaped like a mini rocket ship--and slides forward until he's dangling over the water. Before the whale can splash back into the ocean, he presses the camera's suction cup onto its slippery back.

He calls it Crittercam. With it, Marshall has done what even Jacques Cousteau couldn't do--capture the secret lives of ocean animals.

He came up with the idea for Crittercam as a graduate student nearly 20 years ago. Films by Cousteau and others invariably featured fish darting away from a figure in fins and wetsuit. But how do sea animals act when people aren't around?

Crittercam has the answer. Riding piggyback on turtles, sharks, or fish, it records days and even weeks of ocean life--how animals hunt, eat, and play. Marshall has collected thousands of hours on 36 species, including sea lions, penguins, walruses, and sharks. Such footage makes for great TV--National Geographic has made a dozen documentaries--as well as groundbreaking science.

In the green waters of the Azores, the sperm whale that Marshall made his accomplice delivered stunning images. The video shows the whale swimming close to two others, their white bellies nearly touching. The audio catches clicks and creaks as well as howls and squeals never associated with sperm whales. Several dolphins swim in front of the whales, doing flips in what seems like a celebratory dance.

Nearly 300 feet below the ocean's surface, the whales come face to face, their jaws moving as if speaking. Several years later, what the animals were doing is still a mystery. "But now we know that there is intelligent communication between these whales," Marshall says.

"It blows my mind to see this stuff."

Ma rshall is standing in Crittercam's lab in the basement of the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington. His office is on the sixth floor with those of other television producers, including his wife, Birgit Buhleier, who has been Marshall's sidekick almost since Crittercam's inception.

The lab is where the Crittercam is built and tailored for each animal. Engineers sit amid cabinets housing drawers of screws, batteries, and wiring. One staffer works on a computer program to measure the acceleration of the animal.

"This is probably the most creative place in the whole building," says Marshall. The Crittercam is programmed to record audio and measure depth, temperature, and time. Mehdi Bakhtiari, an engineer, designed a release mechanism; when the camera finishes recording, it is preprogrammed to detatch and deploy to the surface. A homing device helps the team retrieve it.

The researchers are field-testing the Crittercam on animals out of the water. Marshall picks up one of the team's most recent projects--a Crittercam for an eagle. Less than three inches long, the camera is mounted on several computer-processor slabs and a strip of wood like a ruler. Thin elastic harnesses will fasten it around the bird's wings. It weighs 100 grams, about 3H ounces.

The team's engineers have created designs more complex than Marshall ever dreamed of. "I couldn't put one of these together now," he says. "The technology in this lab has superseded me."

Ma rshall was on an ordinary dive when he came face to face with a reef shark. He was swimming in clear waters off Belize, monitoring the dwindling queen conch snail for the Agency for International Development. A graduate student in marine biology, he had just completed a film about the snail using the new Sony camcorder fitted with a waterproof casing. It was 1986. He was 28.

The smooth-angled nose of the shark emerged out of the mist. Marshall and the shark eyed each other, inches apart. Then, with a couple flips of its tail, it was gone.

The encounter gave Marshall an idea. A small remora, or suckerfish, had been attached to the shark's stomach. If he could create a camera that hitched a ride on the shark in a similar way, he could collect hours of footage. "I remember thinking, God, this has to be done."

When Marshall returned to graduate school at a state university on Long Island, he talked to scientists, researchers, and National Geographic officials. They all said, "Great idea. Come back when it works."

He set to work building the camera, financing the project with credit cards and construction stints building houses. When he couldn't pay the bills, he took a job with the Environmental Protection Agency and moved back to Washington. (He graduated from Arlington's Washington-Lee High School and earned his undergraduate degree in international relations at Georgetown.)

In 1989, Marshall traveled to St. Croix to test a prototype on a leatherback turtle. When the turtle dove, the camera imploded under deep-water pressure. A second test a year later failed as well, and Marshall was ready to give up.

But at a documentary-film conference, he met John Bredar, a producer with National Geographic Television. Bredar prodded him to talk about his failed dream and asked him to lunch. Within months, he helped Marshall get a $15,000 grant from Geographic.

Marshall's first lab at National Geographic was a storage closet in the parking garage. Geographic staff tweaked his ideas for the Crittercam, and an engineer at the Office of Naval Research suggested he change its cross-sectional shape from rectangular to cylindrical, which made it less likely to implode in deep water.

In 1992 Marshall tested the new Crittercam in Cozumel, Mexico. Things didn't start well--a bull shark bit the leg of a National Geographic cameraman to the bone. But the shark was hooked, and Marshall, using a dart tag, tethered the long, cylindrical Crittercam to its dorsal fin.

The footage wasn't action-packed, but it demonstrated the power of the Crittercam to unlock the ocean's secrets. Tiger sharks, it eventually showed, like to "bounce," swimming to the surface to hunt water snakes and turtles, then diving to snare prey on the bottom.

Recent Crittercam discoveries have helped conservation groups. Hawaiian conservationists used the camera to study the endangered monk seal. For years, fishermen had been barred from the shallow waters where researchers thought the animals fed. But the Crittercam found that the seals feed at much greater depths. The protection area is being changed, and conservationists hope the species can bounce back.

Other conservationists are lining up for Marshall's help, and a 13-part National Geographic series is airing this spring featuring Crittercam footage of such species.

"To get into an animal's world through their eyes gives people a more intimate connection with the animal," he says.

Marshall's wife, Birgit, joins him in the field and helps him dream up ideas. "If Crittercam is Greg's baby," Birgit says, "then I'm the one who adopted it."

Their four-month-old son, Logan, will join them on research trips not long after he's out of diapers. Their older son, Connor, is two.

Greg met Birgit in 1988 while in grad school on Long Island. Birgit, who grew up in a small town near Munich, was visiting a friend who lived in a group house with Marshall. "When I heard his idea, I thought it was the coolest thing," she says. "I didn't think he was crazy at all."

The two hit it off, and after a long-distance romance, Birgit moved to Washington. They married in 1995.

In their first apartment, the living room doubled as a machine shop, and their bedroom housed an electronics lab. They tested the first terrestrial Crittercam on their cat, Snaake. They did pressure-sustaining experiments in the bathtub.

Birgit says she fell in love with Marshall's mind. He has as many zany ideas for inventions as Doc, the mad scientist from the movie Back to the Future.

At age eight, Marshall dreamed of inventing a boat that could change into a submarine. As a teenager, he started a list of possible inventions. The list now fills four file folders on his computer. In his "miscellaneous" file, he recently added the idea of an automatic driveway car wash.

One idea nags at him--just as the Crittercam did. It came to him after piloting a small Cessna, one of his hobbies. He calls it a "concept vehicle," and he believes it could revolutionize commuting.

"I don't want to tell you all of the details," he says, playfully sticking out his tongue. But he'll say this: "I'd like to live in West Virginia on ten acres. There's no way I have the patience for a three-hour commute. I have the patience for a 30-minute flight but not the hassle that goes with flying into the local airport. I want to land on the roof of this building."

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 04/01/2004 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles