Scott Snider knew something was quite wrong the instant he saw a camera drifting towards the seafloor like a severed limb from Jaws. When the wayward camera plunged past, the Folly Beach cinematographer had been hovering a few feet off the Bahamian seafloor hefting a heavy underwater camera amidst a swarm of reef, lemon and tiger sharks, some weighing 800 to 1000 pounds.
Peering over his shoulder, Snider was horrified to see colleague, photographer and divemaster Jim Abernathy enveloped in a cloud of blood, punching the hell out of a 300 pound shark that had latched onto his arm. The shark was shaking him violently. “It was bad,” Snider said. “He was getting seriously injured.”
Worse, with a couple dozen other sharks darting around, Snider and two other divers were trapped 30 feet down. When the shark let go of Abernathy, he darted for the platform and a couple nearby divers managed to help him get out of the water. Snider and the remaining two divers circled to see in all directions and tried to stay calm.
“I couldn’t even see the stern of our 65-foot boat,” Snider said. “There was that much blood in the water. The main thing with tiger sharks is to get down to the bottom. You don’t want to hang out at the surface. That’s where you’re going to get hit. One of the big tigers was about to cruise through the blood, so I thought: Wait. Just sit here and wait. See how he reacts. And he didn’t. He just kept doing his thing and circling around. So we waited until the stern of the boat was clear, and then we shot out of there.”
After a couple of harrowing hours of first aid, a Coast Guard helicopter lowered a rescue basket. Abernathy would live to dive another day. For Snider, that frightful 2011 encounter was just another day at the office. Once a young outdoorsman searching for his path in life and bouncing between the Florida Keys and his native Lowcountry, Snider has spent the last couple of decades utterly obsessed with animal behavior and getting the shot.
He’s endured countless bites and stings, filmed venomous snakes on most continents, narrowly avoided unpleasant run-in’s with African lions and Bengal tigers, just escaped the hooves of stampeding wildebeests and, oh yeah, stared down Chernobyl-irradiated wolves. But Snider insists he’s not looking for personal life or death moments. Part of his job is about being close enough to witness sometimes dramatic scenes, but — hopefully — knowing the animals’ behavior well enough to stay safe.
One of the World’s Best
Snider is low key. He doesn’t have an Instagram account, and isn’t much on Facebook. Surfing out near his home on Folly with his family, he’s just a laid back, smiling member of the local crew. Yet his combination of patience, intuition, experience and drive has managed to earn him a formidable reputation as one of the world’s top-tier wildlife documentarians.
Today, Snider captures the secret lives of creatures for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, the BBC, Disney Plus, PBS, Animal Planet, Smithsonian and most recently, Netflix, which airs Snider’s stunning footage of Lowcountry dolphins with season 2 of its series Animal, which dropped March 18. With gorgeous footage and savvy narration from Rashida Jones, Rebel Wilson and Bryan Cranston, Animal’s first season has been a huge hit for Netflix, racking up 72 million views.
On a warm afternoon, Snider fires up his skiff and grabs a big tripod and a 4K camera to see if he might capture the unique behavior of a few Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Motoring down Folly River towards Kiawah Island, he unfolds a bit more of his 50 years on earth. Snider’s dad, Dennis, was a lifer with Zeiss optics, a job that took the family all over the U.S. during Scott’s early years. Eventually, they landed in Summerville. Both parents were passionate outdoorspeople who became smitten with the Lowcountry and decided to stay.
“Every weekend, we went on big trips, hunting and fishing,” Scott said. “But we took unusual trips, too. Jump in a canoe to explore deep into the Everglades. In Michigan, we hopped up to Canada, jumped on a train and loaded our stuff in and just traveled for hours and hours. You come across some far-flung spot, like a cool string of lakes, then you wave down the conductor and just jump off with your gear and canoes. Conductor says, ‘I’ll be coming back down this track in 10 days, roughly midday, so be here.’ Then there was island hopping from Florida to the Bahamas in a little single-engine boat. Back then, there weren’t hundreds of people doing that. Things were always breaking down. You do a field fix — put a Band-Aid on something. That was always part of the adventure.”
At 15, Snider began following his dad on dives off Charleston and his underwater experience increased exponentially. Offshore, Lowcountry waters can be surprisingly clear, but it’s a long run to the good spots. Minimum dive depths too, are generally greater than 80 feet and 20 miles or more offshore, meaning there are no safe shallows. Still, where Dennis went, Scott followed.
Snider graduated from Summerville High in 1989, and University of South Carolina in 1994. A typical post-grad trying to figure out next steps, he relocated to the Florida Keys with a handful of friends. There he worked on a charter boat, dove and partied. After a year of living in a real life Jimmy Buffett song, an epiphany came one Friday night.
“My friends are all out having a blast,” he said. “And I’m sitting watching a National Geographic special — it’s about this interaction between a diver and a giant Pacific octopus. How the guy was posturing. How they were communicating non-verbally. He was understanding this animal and reacting in order to get close. It was amazing. I knew this was something I understood, something I was good at. After that, I had, basically, a target.”
A different kind of film school
Snider had met his longtime girlfriend, a fellow diver named Jordana Abrams, in the Keys. Eventually though, she moved to New York to work as a graphic designer. With only a few dollars to his name, Snider decided to follow her and find a way to break into filmmaking. He would network and knock on the door of every wildlife film person he could find between Manhattan and Washington, D.C., home of both National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. He would volunteer on film sets at New York University and seek production work on any set he could find.
“After every meeting, I would go home, and literally record word for word, everything they had to say,” he said. “I would follow up on every single suggestion they made and I’d chase down every lead. I never had drive like that in my life.”
The first toe in the door came at National Geographic. Snider landed a temp job in the film acquisition department, screening films to see if they would be a good fit for National Geographic Explorer. This led to a meeting with Nat Geo inventor, biologist and filmmaker Greg Marshall, a “mad scientist” who revolutionized wildlife filmmaking with his Crittercam inventions — custom made for a variety of marine animals.
“We just hit it off,” Snider said. “It was sharks, whales, seals and sea turtles. I was amazed by this incredible group of people.”
One day, Snider might be soldering a motherboard or a pressure switch on a camera that would ride down a few hundred feet on the back of a shark or turtle. Another day might find his team devising a sled system that would detach from the shell of a sea turtle at a pre-determined time, allowing a satellite-tracked Crittercam to be retrieved at sea.
On the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Snider partnered with National Marine Fisheries scientists to study a crash in the population of highly endangered monk seals. A seal-mounted Crittercam revealed that the pinnipeds relied on octopus and tilefish found on very isolated deepwater reefs that were at risk of being mowed by trawlers for their black coral.
“So they didn’t allow the black coral fishery to open,” he said. “That was due to Crittercam, because you were literally looking at the head of a seal and watching it hunt.”
A couple of years on, Snider and his now wife Jordana were living in Washington, D.C., where she worked on a series for Discovery Channel. When an opportunity arose to move to Belize and work for legendary National Geographic filmmakers Richard and Carol Foster, the Sniders leapt.
The next year was transformative. “They sent us all over the country with all of these major wildlife spectacles going on,” said Snider. “Rappelling into trees to film baby scarlet macaws. Canoeing down these virgin rivers to track down tapir or peccary or film whale sharks on a reef. We’d come back exhausted and torn to pieces, then eat really good food, catch up with the other team and screen footage.
“Carol was my structural coach: Did I tell the story? Establish the locations? Am I moving enough or is this a boring static shot? Did I get the detailed action? The cutaways? Richard would advise me creatively: Did I notice nuanced behaviors? How did I use the camera? We’d talk about lens choice, lighting and all that. On top of that, I’d never been immersed in the jungle before. We lived with jaguars. We had ocelots, margay, kinkajou and bats. Belize was my film school.”
After 7 films and more than a year in Belize, Snider’s chance to direct his first film came in the form of a documentary on tarantulas. Despite nightmarish childhood memories of taking the webs of hand-sized Everglades garden spiders to the face, Snider filled their Bethesda rental home’s basement with over 100 tarantulas.
Jordana, who is absolutely amazing, was totally ok with it,” he laughed. “How many people out there would allow 100 tarantulas in their basement? I mean we still did laundry down there. A couple escaped too. And I couldn’t sleep knowing that. So you literally break apart the entire basement foot by foot until you find it.”
When thoughts of a family loomed in 2003, Folly Beach was the obvious landing pad. Not only to be close to family but there were plenty of opportunities for local filming. “We live in the most biodiverse corner of the United States,” Snider said. “We’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff going on. So many insects, mammals and definitely reptiles. I mean, we have 52 species of snakes alone in the southeast.”
Whether you’re waiting beneath an African tree festooned with sleeping lions, tracking wolves around Chernobyl, or getting up close and personal with small local critters, animals may not do anything interesting for a long time. Thus, patience is key. The rewards can be spectacular — and frightening. One summer a few years back, the biologist at Kiawah Island told Snider where he might find some big gators along a string of forested ponds. He stumbled upon a “freshly” killed floating deer carcass.
“And I camped out there,” Snider said. “I knew enough to sit there because a gator would be back. I waited for three days straight getting drained by mosquitoes. Finally on the third day, it was getting late, and this massive male showed up. Gators can’t chew. So I knew he was gonna have to break this thing apart.”
The gator exploded from the water violently shaking the putrefying buck in its jaws. Snider’s camera was rolling. He nailed the shot. Then he went home and took a shower.
Our globally unique dolphin behavior
Behind Folly Beach County Park, Scott Snider slows his engine and points to a pod of dolphins cruising the shallows. This is one of the groups he’s filmed over the past few years that exhibit a truly remarkable — and local — behavior. When the water warms, and mullet fill Lowcountry creeks, these dolphins have learned a globally unique hunting method called “strand feeding.”
Dolphins work hard to corral a school of mullet into a tight group on a preferred stretch of shoreline. Then, one dolphin will peer out of the water at the beach, “spy hopping” to make sure the coast is clear of people, dogs or sharp shells. Then, at a trigger moment known only to the dolphins, the whole pod emits piercing underwater vocalizations in unison and rushes the shore.
Caught in the cetacean bow wake, panicked mullet are forced onto the shoreline. The dolphins follow them completely out of the water and onto the sand. Heeled over on their right sides, they snatch as many struggling fish as they can, then flop back into the water. It’s an amazing sight.
“The dolphins work really hard,” Snider said. “And what’s so fascinating is this is not hardwired behavior. This is cultural. That’s really important. This is a learned behavior taught from the mother to the offspring.”
Strand feeding pods can be found from South Carolina down into the coastal marshes of Georgia, and that’s pretty much it. And only our resident dolphins — who live almost exclusively in the creeks — do this. They even appear to be evolving differently, with bigger fins and smaller, more maneuverable bodies. Teeth wear unevenly — getting ground down more on the right hand, sandy side.
“We really need to give them room to hunt when strand feeding,” Snider said. “In my experience, the local guides do a good job of giving dolphins their space and the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network has had a huge positive impact out at Kiawah and Seabrook. But tourists will walk or kayak up, or boats are parked ashore. Some of the best strand feeding spots are also party beaches. I’ve watched and filmed many times where dolphin who are just about to strand back off at the spy hop stage because people are too close. My question is, is there a tipping point? With more people every year coming to the Lowcountry, is there a point where they won’t do this anymore?”
See Snider’s work on Dolphins, Season 2, Episode 4 of the Netflix series Animal.
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