Spring 1997

Revealing the Wonders of the North Atlantic

By Joan Killough-Miller

As spotlights and camera sweep across the ocean floor, bizarre and beautiful creatures go about their business, paying no heed to the divers who have penetrated their dark and secret world. Two blue wolffish nestle in a crevice, peering out with oafish grins that seem to belong in the pages of a Dr. Seuss book.

A flat-bodied goosefish swishes by, stalls, and seems to disappear, camouflaged against the sea bed, until it breaks cover and swirls away.

It's hard to believe that this is New England, just a few hundred miles northeast of Worcester. Divers Jonathan Bird '90 and Tom Krasuski '92 are filming off the coast of Eastport, Maine, reveling in the rich diversity of colorful life that flourishes in the North Atlantic.

That's right, the North Atlantic.

Bird says he wants you to revise your preconceptions about his favorite ocean. "Most people think of the North Atlantic as this cold, green, murky, polluted cesspool," he says. "They say you'd have to be insane to dive there, that there's nothing to see."

To defend the fragile beauty of the undersea world, Bird and Krasuski founded Oceanic Research Group, a nonprofit organization with this motto: "Dedicated to the conservation of the world's oceans and marine life through education." The more people learn about the world's oceans and their inhabitants, they reason, the more they will want to protect them.

"If people don't know that dolphins are being killed in nets to catch tuna, then they won't care," says Bird. "If they don't know that hazardous wastes are being dumped into our oceans, they can't act to stop it." Krasuski sees ORG's role as forming a link between researchers, current events and the public, by communicating scientific knowledge in everyday terms.

The wolffish and goosefish won an Emmy for Bird and Krasuski last year.

The duo received the coveted honor for production and videography of an episode of Chronicle, a news magazine produced by Boston television station WCVB. The program, titled "Underwater New England," brought ORG's message to millions of New England area viewers; it was nominated for a second Emmy in cinematography. Another Chronicle episode on sharks aired last fall, and proposals for other television specials are in the works.

Glossy color photos of North Atlantic sea creatures began showing up on coffee tables all over the country this winter when Bird's book Beneath the North Atlantic (Tide-Mark Press Ltd., 1996) made its way into bookstores. The large-format book features 120 full-color photographs taken from Maine to North Carolina (mostly by Bird) and 75,000 words of text, also by Bird. He says the book combines a dive adventure, marine biology and art-book photography.

"You see so many books about the tropical oceans - the Caribbean, the South Pacific," Bird says. "People always think of the Caribbean as a beautiful blue coral reef area that is just wonderful, but they never think of the North Atlantic that way. Many people just don't realize the incredible diversity and the amazing amount of life there is here in the North Atlantic." ORG also produces a yearly Sharks calendar. Another calendar, Whales & Dolphins, produced in cooperation with the Whale Conservation Institute, was a big seller during last year's Christmas gift season.

Pretty good for two former Raytheon engineers who started out by traveling around to science classes to put on slide shows for schoolchildren. Ironically, Bird and Krasuski, both graduates of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, did not know each other at WPI. Bird received his bachelor's degree in 1990 and was interviewed and hired at Raytheon by Krasuski, who completed his master's degree in 1992. "We became friends and diving buddies," says Krasuski. "He inspired me to try it, and he was with me on my first dive." Four recreational dives later, they started ORG.

Bird took up diving to fulfill WPI's physical education requirement. "By my senior year, I was bombing out of class every Friday and driving to Cape Ann to dive." A longtime photographer and former president of the camera club, he soon found that just diving wasn't enough.

"When you first get certified as a diver, you're thrilled by the fact that you can breathe underwater," he says. "You're perfectly happy to go to the local lake, where there's absolutely nothing to see, and go underwater and just breathe. When you get past that stage, you want to see something when you dive. Eventually, I think, you get to the point where you take up some kind of an underwater hobby, and that becomes the reason you go diving. For me, diving is a tool, to get me where I need to go to take photographs."

Soon the desire to know more about the organisms they were photographing sent both men back to school. Bird started with some community college evening courses in marine biology, and wound up leaving Raytheon in 1993 to enroll full time in the ocean engineering program at the University of New Hampshire.

Ocean engineering is an interface discipline with eccentric subspecialties, such as designing submarine hulls or devising instruments to study sea creatures. Bird focused on marine biology and did his thesis on the manatees of Central Florida, designing an audio device that picks up their vocal responses to sound stimuli.

Krasuski left Raytheon a year later to begin the master's program at UNH. "Jon's into zoology," he says. "I'm more of a physical oceanographer." He specializes in two areas: ocean optics and ocean acoustics.

For the first, he writes computer algorithms to help researchers understand ocean color as recorded by satellites; the latter involves developing instrumentation to record and map underwater sound pressure waves.

While in school, the two continued to build ORG, which incorporated as a Chapter 501 (c)(3) nonprofit environmental organization in 1993. Bird serves as president, Krasuski is head of cinematography, and Rick Doyle, another friend from Raytheon, is director of public relations. Bird's wife, Kimberly Whitworth, handles legal matters. Through its Web page (http://www.oceanicresearch.org/), ORG publicizes new films and helps schoolchildren track the progress of Chessie, the famous East Coast manatee. Other services include on-location internships, undersea photography courses, and marketing stock photography and video footage to publishers and filmmakers. Some spectacular images of undersea life can be sampled in glorious full color.

As ORG grows beyond its roots, the credits and awards accumulate, including three CINDY (CINema in inDustrY) awards and a "Kids First" endorsement from the Coalition for Quality Children's Video.

The current challenge is breaking into the television entertainment market, with titles like Sharks: The Real Story, which will broadcast this year on more than 20 PBS affiliates across the nation. Written for adult audiences, the film debunks the popular image of sharks as bloodthirsty killers by revealing the difficulties ORG encountered trying to stage a feeding frenzy for its educational film Sharks and How They Live.

Bird admits that it's hard to switch gears between the educational and popular entertainment approaches. "A school film has to be straight science," he says. "Teachers have a 40-minute class, and they want to show a film and have time left for discussion. You don't have time for fluff, or the adventures of the dive crew. 'Ah, zee dive crrrhuw enters zee wah-terrr' - that Jacques Cousteau thing. You can't do it. Teachers and distributors want to feel they are getting their money's worth.

"The big difference between educational filmmaking and writing for television is that in the classroom, the students have a teacher watching them, but the person watching TV has a remote control. You've got to keep the fun in there. For instance, what happens when the dive team does something wrong, when the animals don't cooperate and do what you want them to do? People always enjoy the misadventures of the dive team. That's why Jacques Cousteau was so good - he was fun!"

On camera, Bird and Krasuski maintain a sense of wonder, even after all the hours they've logged underwater. Krasuski clowns a bit as he feeds sea urchins to an anemone. Bird compares a seal to a puppy, then lies still as a curious seal approaches and sniffs at the legs of his wet suit. On impulse, Krasuski spears an urchin on his diving knife and feeds it to the toothy wolffish (an experiment he admits he will not repeat, after seeing the urchin being crushed to bits between the strong bony plates of the wolffish's mouth). Their enthusiasm impresses even the smiling Chronicle hosts.

Can it be that a WPI gym requirement has spawned the next Jacques Cousteau? "I've long since given up on the idea of getting rich and famous from this," says Bird. "Now I'm just hoping to make a living doing what I love to do."

[WPI] [Contents] [Top]

Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:51:29 EDT 1999