Over his WPI years, he expanded his circle of friends by participating in the photography club and working audio equipment for Lens and Lights. He was also a devoted member of The Project and Twelve Mile Limit, bands that specialized in music best described as “obscure progressive rock—nothing that anyone generally wanted to listen to,” says Bird, that played in steady rotation at vintage Worcester hotspots like Gompei’s Place, Ralph’s Diner, and McGillicuddy’s.
Despite growing up less than a half-hour’s drive from the Massachusetts coast, underwater cinematographer Jonathan Bird ’90 was hardly a beach bum. “Before I got scuba certified, I can count on one hand the number of times I had been to the ocean,” he says. But a love of photography, an annoying graduation requirement, and a fascination with documentarian Jacques Cousteau led him to a career he loves, one that spans expertise as a producer, director, editor, writer, and sometimes actor.
Bird is co-founder and president of the ocean conservation nonprofit Oceanic Research Group and has a YouTube series, three IMAX films, membership in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, and a deep commitment to ocean conservation. It’s no surprise that Bird’s childhood idol was Cousteau, who hosted The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau from 1966 to 1976.
Cousteau’s lofty status was based on Bird’s appreciation for the oceanographer’s seemingly exotic work. “I didn’t grow up thinking regular people could become scuba divers,” Bird says. “I thought scuba divers were superheroes. Blue World is my homage to Jacques Cousteau. The idea is to be educational yet adventurous, which is what I think Jacques Cousteau’s show was about.”
A Life-changing Course
Despite his fascination with Cousteau’s program, Bird’s own ocean-based career bloomed from one improbable WPI requirement—physical education. Given the academic rigor facing him as a WPI student, that PE credit irritated Bird. “I remember making a big stink about it with my friends,” he says. “I’d say, ‘Why do we have to take gym? You know, we’re in college.’”
His early PE credits lived up to his admittedly low expectations. A badminton class ran him ragged; an unflattering softball showing followed. But then the scuba diving option caught his attention. “I could get scuba certified and get that credit,” he says. “And it’s a good thing we had that gym credit requirement because it changed the course of my life.”
Before long, Bird was heading to the coast to dive regularly. He became president of the WPI Scuba Club, and he began to merge his lifelong passion for being behind a camera to his newfound discovery of the underwater world. “To this day, as much as I enjoy scuba diving, if you take my camera away, I might just drink on the beach,” he says, laughing. “Without the camera, I kind of lose the point.”
It was neither photography nor scuba diving that landed Bird at WPI in the first place. “I was interested in a number of things when I was in high school,” he says. “But I was really fascinated with high-end audio and the whole process of reproducing music in a good way.”
As a self-professed audio nerd, Bird’s dream was to run a company that made high-end speakers, so an electrical engineering major was a logical next step. A friend went to WPI so that put the university somewhere on his radar, but just barely. A rainy, cold campus tour underwhelmed him, but a later sun-drenched accepted students day presented a whole new feeling and cemented his choice. “It was the most beautiful campus I had ever seen,” he says.
Even with his newfound scuba diving affinity, Bird didn’t jump into his current career right away. He put his ECE degree to work as an RF design engineer at Raytheon for a couple of years, with work on the Patriot defensive missile system used to save lives during the Gulf War as one of his most memorable projects.
I wanted to see if I could make a career out of what I was interested in before I got too comfortable.
But the call of the sea was impossible to ignore. “I wanted to see if I could make a career out of what I was interested in before I got too comfortable,” he recalls. “I saw a lot of people who stayed a little too long and got a little too cushy. They had a family, a mortgage, and were locked into it. They were past the point where they could pursue their dreams. I said to myself, ‘I am going to become like that if I don’t do it fast.’”
During his off time, Bird and fellow Raytheon colleague and dive buddy Tom Krasuski ’92 began giving educational presentations about conservation and ocean health in local science classes, finding a style that blended education and entertainment—a style Bird uses to this day. Those forays into classrooms guided his next steps. Echoing the wisdom of Cousteau (“If you want people to care about something, you have to get them to love it.”), Bird decided to change his course of action. He earned an MS in ocean engineering with a focus on marine biology from the University of New Hampshire (with a full tuition scholarship) and decided to take a dive into the unknown.
Spreading the Word About the Ocean
With an unwavering commitment to the ocean, Bird is dedicated to getting people to love the creatures in it so they will be more inclined to protect them and the waters they live in. Using underwater cinematography offers a way to observe closely and show the real, often remarkable interactions between the animals or between animals and humans.
“You’re in another whole world when you’re diving,” Bird says. “You can approach marine life closer than anything on land. In the ocean, animals are curious and will come over to you. People who dive have a greater appreciation for the ocean and the animals in the ocean and become the strongest advocates for ocean conservation.”
While he’s come to realize that scuba divers aren’t actually superheroes, they’re a pretty special group of people. “Once you dive, you are in a kind of club,” he says, noting that newcomers are welcome. “The best thing is that anyone can be in this club.”
Bird is aware he holds a special responsibility to share information in a way that captivates an audience. “Because Blue World is my passion and filmmaking is my thing, telling a good story is important,” he says. Rare animals or unusual sights aren’t what drive the filming locations. “I think, ‘Where can I go where I can tell a good story?’ You always want to bring something fresh to the table.”
And he has. Bird currently has three IMAX movies playing across the country. Locally, Ancient Caves is enjoying a run of already more than 18 months at the Museum of Science, while Secrets of the Sea 3D just opened at the New England Aquarium. It was made in collaboration with the renowned filmmaking team of Howard and Michele Hall, Bird’s longtime professional inspirations who have become collaborators and friends. In fact, the Halls’ 1992 documentary Shadows in a Desert Sea played a pivotal role in Bird’s current career. “That was the film that made me want to be a filmmaker,” he says. Upcoming projects include filming in the Bahamas with wild spotted dolphins, and then filming at the Tennessee Aquarium for a Blue World shoot and a Secrets of the Sea premiere at their IMAX theater.
People who dive have a greater appreciation for the ocean and the animals in the ocean and become the strongest advocates for ocean conservation.
Through his work, Bird consistently shows the ocean as a home. “There are so many people, companies, nations that treat the ocean both as an endless resource and as a dumping ground,” he says. “People who dive understand that. I’ve been diving long enough to see the changes in the ocean, and it’s depressing what’s going on.” Warming ocean temperatures have vastly changed the types and amounts of marine life he sees in, for example, the Gulf of Maine.
And overfishing is a problem that people might hear about, but Bird sees the direct impact. “We used to see so much more marine life than we do now,” he says. “I haven’t seen a cod in a decade.” As marine life shifts habitats, it changes everything about the delicate ecosystem as the dynamics of species are altered.
Bird’s beliefs change how he lives his own life, although he’s cautious about how he shares his opinions. He might joke that he won’t eat seafood out of professional courtesy, but the reality is he cannot in good conscience eat what he considers a finite and rapidly disappearing food source.
“Eight billion people can’t survive on wildlife,” he says. “Unlike ranches that raise animals for food, fishing doesn’t work that way. People are turned off by being hit over the head with conservationism. So all you have to do is show them what’s happening on this reef—show them these amazing behaviors and they will like the animals and think they are cool. And they will care about them.”
It’s easy for Bird to love marine life. With more than 5,000 dives under his belt, encompassing every continent, he has seen all manner of marine interactions and behaviors. Swimming with whales, dolphins, sharks, and manta rays is especially awe-inspiring, given the size of the animals and the intelligence they show. “There’s a lot going on in their heads that you aren’t realizing,” he says. Dolphins and seals are especially known to investigate and even play with humans in the ocean. Bird recalls one afternoon dive spent with a manta ray that stayed with him for hours, returning after Bird took periodic breaks out of the water and even hanging close to the surface when the scuba tanks were depleted and Bird changed to snorkeling. “I think she was bored—and, obviously, very intelligent,” he says.
Although he feels like he could have an honorary marine biology degree by now, Bird’s expertise is gained from the extensive observation and interaction that most people don’t have, like how he knows hammerhead sharks are “the most scaredy-cat of all the sharks” or the way he describes being a sucker for cephalopods. “I like a good octopus encounter,” he quips.
Peaceful as it may seem, the ocean has perils. Bird recalls a heart-stopping moment while filming sperm whales with his wife, Christine. The 35-foot creature came up to them, and as Christine was filming, she moved in closer just as the whale shifted and brought its fluke up to dive. Bird recalls seeing Christine pulled to within inches of the whale’s powerful tail. Incredibly, the massive animal sensed her, stopped, flipped upside down to get a closer look at this human interloper, and gently maneuvered as to not touch her. “This is an animal so incredibly aware of its surroundings,” says Bird, “and so gentle. Unless you’re a giant squid, and then you’re dinner!”
An Unlikely Career
Looking back, Bird considers his forethought in shaping a career and life that suits him so well. “I don’t know what even possessed me,” he says. “I think I just figured out this philosophy early in life that I didn’t want to be in a cubicle doing something I didn’t really like. I wanted to be out doing something I really liked. The luckiest thing is that I found it. And it’s a lot easier to go for it when you’re younger.”
Bird says he’s grateful to his wife (they met through the New England Aquarium Diving Club) who was able to support his career while managing her own career and their family life. As he was often away for one week during most months of the year, she was the primary caregiver for their two children (a son, now 16, and a daughter, now 19). But the flexibility offered on his weeks at home is something Bird cherishes. “I could be there to bring them to the bus,” he says, and he treasures those family memories.
Years removed from his student days, Bird still holds close the friendships and the knowledge he gained at WPI.
From working with his favorite professor, Russell H. Krackhardt ’48 MS (“the greatest professor I ever had”), who retired the year Bird graduated, to building resilience in the face of failing physics, Bird says the lessons were there for the taking. “I was that kid in high school that got straight As without even trying,” he says. “When I got to WPI, I was the stupidest kid they let in that year. I realized you can’t approach WPI the way you approach high school. I had to learn how to study.”
Learning to study didn’t come easily and one night frustration got the better of him. Opening his window to yell out, “Help! I need help with EE2001!,” Bird never expected an answer. But John Mansolillo’s voice floated back from across the street, “What’s the problem?” Mansolillo, a year ahead of Bird, came over and offered his mesh analysis knowledge until Bird grasped the concept–and a lifelong friendship began. “I really didn’t know the guy,” says Bird, laughing. “But he came right over and walked me through it. A lightbulb went on, and he said, ‘My work here is done,’ and left. He’s one of my best friends in the world.”
Bird says people ask him frequently what good an engineering degree is for an underwater cinematographer. “It’s amazing because engineering teaches you that you can do anything,” he says. “You can solve whatever problem you come up with. Any time I am presented with a challenge, I think, ‘How do I build something that fixes that?’ whether it’s a tool, camera housing, or a piece of lighting equipment. We are constantly building gear for our productions.” Bird thanks his engineering education for the way he approaches a problem. “It’s that thought process,” he says. “When you are presented with an obstacle, one simply engineers a way around it. Engineering is a really great background for just about anything.”
Bird is grateful that he took a leap of faith all those years ago to pursue a career path that provided him with meaning and that has a broad effect on the world. “I am incredibly lucky that I get to do what I love for a living,” he says. “I never forget that.”