In a small ship anchored off of Lemesurier Island in Alaska's Inside Passage a naturalist shares a few parting words to a group of tourists in the ship's lounge, and then flips back-first into the icy water. Covered head to toe in a neoprene dry suit and armed with an HD camera and high intensity lights, he is on a mission is to capture the profusion of brilliantly colorful and rarely seen life that lives below the surface of the seemingly black waters. After a few short minutes spent acclimating to conditions 60 feet below the surface, the naturalist, Justin Hofman, comes upon a giant sunflower sea star. At the same time, in the ship's lounge, the group sees the sea star come to life on flat-screen televisions. They hear Justin's voice come through a speaker:
"And we have liftoff! Or I guess touchdown, really."
This is the first airing of what Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic are calling a "Live Dive." Their two 62-guest ships, National Geographic Sea Lion and National Geographic Sea Bird, ply Alaska's waters every summer on weekly voyages between Juneau and Sitka. Guests on these small vessels represent just .2% of the 1 million+ tourists visiting Alaska every year on cruise ships alone, and this group of 41 is the first to ever experience the undersea in such a way. One participant marveled, "This is the best TV I ever watched. Real reality!"
But the Live Dive is more than streaming reality TV. Thanks to a two-way audio system that plugs into the diver's facemask, guests in the lounge can not only hear the diver's running commentary, they can ask questions of him in the moment. No more talking at the television. This time you'd actually receive a response. The sound of the diver's breathing through the mask is eerily similar to that of Darth Vader, as if he'd turned to marine biology instead of the Dark Side.
The sights beneath the surface are just as otherworldly. The more Justin and his buddy diver Ian explore the more the screens fill with odd creatures with odd names like nudibranchs, plumose anemones and sea snails. A halibut darts by, the camera shakes and the viewers can feel Justin's excitement to catch up with it.
The pilot "episode" of the Live Dive received big ratings from guests, so Lindblad and National Geographic will continue to develop the program. Like any show, adjustments will be made to enhance the viewer experience as the Alaska travel season progresses. New shooting locations and new characters like giant octopus, sea lions, rockfish and more. However, there is one aspect of the program that the company vows will never change:
-- Marc Cappelletti