P.E.I. shipwrecks to star in new virtual reality documentary

Filmmaker Will Beckett is using virtual reality technology to bring viewers underwater to explore two shipwrecks along P.E.I.'s North Shore.

Avid snorkelers take viewers below the surface to see shipwrecks up close

Will Beckett can be seen filming the George N. Orr with his virtual reality underwater camera. (Will Beckett )

Filmmaker Will Beckett is using virtual reality technology to bring viewers underwater to explore two shipwrecks along P.E.I.'s North Shore.

Beckett and assistant director Jeremy Pickering spent two days in July and early August filming the remains of the George N. Orr and the Sovinto with underwater cameras. 

The 360-degree VR mini-documentary is called In the Shallows: A Tale of Two Shipwrecks.

The two are avid snorkelers and learned about the two shipwrecks while searching for places to go snorkeling around Prince Edward Island.

They called an Island dive shop and were referred to the George N. Orr, a World War One shore patrol vessel that sank near Savage Harbour, P.E.I.

Jeremy Pickering exploring one of the shipwrecks featured in the documentary. (Will Beckett )

"It was only maybe 100 feet from shore at most and in very shallow water, no more than six to eight feet," said Beckett, who specializes in documentary films about paleontology and archeology.

"So I thought that's very do-able." 

They visited the wreck for the first time in the summer of 2016.

Visibility was one of the biggest issues as the film crew had to wait for calm days, both above and below the water. (Will Beckett )

"I was struck by how beautiful the wreck was and how distinctive the features were," Beckett said.

"It's basically the bottom and ribbing of the ship but it's very distinct, even with all the weed growth, and very picturesque."

The Sovinto wreck was recommended to them by another local group of divers.

The filmmakers hope the virtual reality technology will help viewers feel as if they are also under the water. (Jeremy Pickering)

"The Sovinto has a bit of folk history to it, it came ashore during some very bad November gales in 1906," Beckett said.

"Unlike the George N. Orr, people actually died on this particular shipwreck because it was a very nasty storm and we discovered ourselves that, even on a nice day, the currents out there can be fairly strong."

Beckett said there is even a poem written about the wreck of the Sovinto.

Challenging weather

The only access to the Sovinto was across private property in Priest Pond, P.E.I., and it took until 2019 to find a cottage owner who would let them get to the beach.

Weather was an obvious challenge for the filmmakers who had to wait out days of heavy surf and rip currents on the North Shore.

Beckett describes the wreck of the George N. Orr as 'very distinct, even with all the weed growth and very picturesque.' (Will Beckett)

"When you do a documentary under the water, and Steven Spielberg could tell you this having filmed Jaws, filming under the water is just as, if not more volatile," Beckett said. 

"Even if you get a calm sea, the currents underneath may still be fairly strong, so you're going to get a lot of sediment blocking visibility and blocking light."

Beckett says there were lots of lobsters around the shipwrecks and they were surprisingly large. (Jeremy Pickering)

Wildlife, Beckett says, was another challenge.

"Lobsters are abundant on these wrecks and we were surprised how large some of these lobsters grow," Beckett said. 

"Neither one of us have had any particular nasty reaction of jellyfish, but they're not something you want to get smacked in the face with."

Beckett also recorded a time lapse of the sunrise at Savage Harbour, P.E.I., that will be part of the documentary. ( Will Beckett )

Virtual reality

The filmmakers were using a 360-degree virtual reality camera, technology that Beckett said has only become commercially available within the last five years.

"I played around with VR photography back in the late 1990s when I was a student at Truro Community College," Beckett said. 

"Back then it was very expensive, you needed very specialized gear and software and I only had access to it because I was in a college that was paying for it."

Beckett is excited to be able to use the technology to take people inside his photos and videos.

"Not very many people know about these wrecks that lie so close inshore and not many people tend to go snorkeling or free diving unless they're really avid divers," Beckett said.

"So I thought it might be fun, with this particular documentary, if I could give people the illusion of coming with me on this wonderful trip."

Plating from the Sovinto found by Beckett and Pickering on the beach. (Will Beckett )

Beckett expects the final documentary will run between seven and 10 minutes.

"With VR documentaries, it's still a very new medium and you don't want people sitting there for two hours watching, getting seasick and motion sick," Beckett said.

"As I understand it, it's possible for your inner ear to become quite messed up when you're wearing a headset after a long period of time so I want to keep it as short as possible." 

Beckett says viewers will be able to watch it on YouTube, without a headset, for free, moving their phone around to get the VR perspective.

On a computer, viewers will be able to use the mouse or their finger on a touch screen.

Will Beckett, left, and Jeremy Pickering are avid snorkelers and learned about the two shipwrecks while searching for places to go snorkeling around Prince Edward Island. (Will Beckett/Facebook)

Mysteries below

Beckett has already posted some still photos from the shipwrecks.

"The reaction has been pretty enthusiastic," Beckett said.

"People seem to really enjoy being able to look at these things in a virtual environment even if they're just looking at it through their phone without a headset."

Beckett says the virtual reality technology allows viewers to come under water with them. (Submitted by Will Beckett)

Beckett said that was why he decided to do the documentary using virtual reality.

"It gives them a sense of depth, literally, because they can see how far or how not far under the surface these wrecks lie," Beckett said.

"Hopefully it will do what I want it to do, which is get people thinking when they go to the beach, 'I wonder what lies just a little further beyond shore, what mysteries lie there.'"

Beckett is hoping to have the documentary ready sometime in January or February 2020.

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About the Author

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.


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