A Bird’s-Eye View of Colombia’s Fragile Beauty (Part 1 of 3)

This week in Marseille, France, the 6th annual World Water Forum is bringing freshwater experts together to discuss solutions to today’s water issues. CI’s recent video about Colombia’s threatened páramo ecosystems — which supply critical fresh water to Bogotá — will be screened at the forum; here on our blog, CI cameraman John Martin gives a behind-the-scenes look at filming the spectacular aerial shots in the video.

The páramos surrounding Bogotá provide fresh water for the city's 8 million residents. (© Conservation International)

Filming and documenting amazing ecosystems around our planet is my passion. I have spent the great majority of my career filming tropical rainforests, lowland marshes and wetlands — and, more recently, underwater.

On a recent trip to Colombia, my latest challenge came in filming the country’s high-mountain páramo ecosystems — from the air.

Filming nature from above is not only fun, but extremely important to expose a bird’s-eye view of the great expanse of ecosystems, their pristine condition — or, in many sad cases, their level of destruction and degradation.

Normally when I film aerial images, I take whatever flying resources are available. Sometimes I shoot out the doorway of a small, high-wing Cessna plane, other times from a military aircraft. Each time I pray I won’t drop the camera. The images usually turn out great — though sometimes shaky, for obvious reasons.

This time in Colombia, however, I had the great fortune of filming aerials with a Cineflex system. Mounted on the nose of a helicopter, Cineflex is a gyro-stabilized dome that houses a high-definition camera and minimizes shakiness. The camera is controlled from the cabin inside the helicopter with a joystick resembling a video game console.

The helicopter used for filming the páramos in Colombia. The Cineflex camera system is attached to the nose of the aircraft. (© CI/Photo by John Martin)

To learn more about using this new technology, CI joined forces with Aerial Filmworks’ Ron Chapple, an experienced Cineflex operator and director of photography, and set out to document these amazing, fragile páramo ecosystems from above.

Páramos are complex ecosystems made up of grasslands, shrubs, moss, forests, creeks and lakes. They are located in the northern Andes, approximately 3,000 meters (more than 9,800 feet) above sea level. Although páramos can be found in northern Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Panama, Colombia is home to 60 percent of them.

In Colombia, the most important páramos surround the capital city of Bogotá. As they are the source of fresh water for nearly 8 million residents living in the city and surrounding areas, they are absolutely essential for human well-being; due to Bogotá’s high elevation, water cannot be pumped from below. Despite the indispensability of páramos, these fragile ecosystems are highly threatened by large-scale industrial farming, illegal coal mining and climate change.

My mission, with Ron Chapple, was to document at least two of the most important of Colombia’s páramos from the air: Chingaza and Guerrero. With four days to achieve our mission, Ron and I headed out to the small Guaymaral airport, a half-hour drive from Bogotá, to meet our pilot and prepare for our aerial adventure.

John Martin is CI’s senior video production manager. To see video footage from John’s trip, stay tuned!

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