BY KENDYL COUNTS
Trudging through the forest with his video camera in hand and his dog at his heels, it’s undeniable that CCHS AP Environmental and Marine Science teacher Michael Mauntler prefers fieldwork to busywork. Finding noteworthy observations in everything from bears and sharks to epiphytes on trees, Mr. Mauntler sets out to show his students that everything in nature has a story if they simply look through the right lens.
Mr. Mauntler enjoyed a “stereotypical” childhood, spending much of his time outdoors. Though he took an interest in the ocean early on, the midwestern terrain that he grew up on lent itself more to rolling plains than crashing waves.
“The one thing that I always really had a fascination with was the ocean, but growing up in Ohio, you don’t really have a lot of access to it,” Mr. Mauntler said. “I kind of had to wait.”
Inspired by some of his high school teachers and determined to make a difference in the lives of students, he pursued a degree in education at a small school in Ohio. It wasn’t until his graduation from college that Mr. Mauntler found his way back to his childhood interests, opening the door for environmental exploration alongside educational endeavors. After finishing his undergraduate studies he moved to Florida, where he worked at a marine lab in Sarasota. It was here, filming animals for the lab, that he was thrust unwittingly into the film industry.
“[Studying film] was an accident,” Mr. Mauntler said. “I had never really done anything with cameras, but because of my diving background they stuck a camera in my hands and said ‘here, go shoot.’ It was a really rough learning curve.”
Though at first his shots were out of focus and his equipment was mismatched, Mr. Mauntler began to enjoy capturing underwater scenes to share with those above the surface. After buying a camera of his own, Mr. Mauntler started teaching at Cooper City High School and soon discovered that his job and his hobby went hand in hand. Taking advantage of Florida’s coastal ecosystems, he set out to prove to his students that the most effective learning often takes place beyond the four walls of a classroom.
“I was teaching here and I was surprised by how many of my marine science students had never actually stuck their face in the water to see what was there,” Mr. Mauntler said. “So I put together a little underwater music video to show them.”
After a period of teaching at Cooper City High School, Mr. Mauntler made the decision to apply to a graduate film school in New Zealand. But, instead of giving up his career in education, he was simply looking to broaden his horizons and expand his methods of teaching. With that in mind, he submitted his underwater music video as part of his application, and was accepted.
“There’s nothing that makes me special in terms of being smarter than anybody else or being more talented than anybody else,” Mr. Mauntler said. “I just took a chance on applying to the film school in New Zealand, and I got in.”
As part of the program, Mr. Mauntler produced a half hour documentary on one of his favorite animals – the sevengill shark. Given the elusive nature of the animals, the filming process was nothing short of an adventure. Guided by rumors and hearsay, Mr. Mauntler made the trek to the uninhabited southern part of the island where he convinced a couple of fishermen to bring him along on their boat.
“When we finally got down there it was really rough,” Mr. Mauntler said. “They dropped me off with my little row boat that I had rented and my camera gear. I saw all kinds of animals but I didn’t see any sharks.”
Though it often seemed like the sharks simply didn’t want to be found, it was when time was running out that they finally appeared in the harbor by his school, of all places. From that encounter, the thesis film evolved to become a “juxtaposition between the town and the sharks,” where nature and man coexist in an unlikely symbiosis.
New Zealand is often thought of as the quintessential representation of natural beauty, home to an abundance of wildlife and picturesque landscapes. For Mr. Mauntler, however, the most memorable quality of the country was the hospitality of its inhabitants. Fondly recalling the friendliness of the people he encountered and their willingness to open their homes to those in need, Mr. Mauntler admitted that he had far more culture shock coming back to the United States than he did leaving; however, soon he was back and ready to work on more film projects.
After receiving the contact information of numerous producers, Mr. Mauntler reached out to all of them, ultimately procuring not a single response. Still without any offers, he decided to fly to London and meet with BBC producers in person, securing his first shoot on a show called Nature’s Most Amazing Events. Before long he was on his way to Alaska to capture footage of humpback whales for an episode entitled “The Great Feast.” Though the whales were not difficult to find, the search for the perfect sequence of their feeding habits lasted about a month.
“In a lot of other films you can script and direct things, and if they aren’t perfect you can reshoot it several times,” Mr. Mauntler said. “But with wildlife, a lot of it is just waiting for the right moment, and that boat starts to get really small when you’re stuck on it for days.”
Coincidentally, that would not be his last extended stay on a boat in the frigid waters of Alaska. Mr. Mauntler’s next project, a documentary called “Fortress of the Bears,” would take him back to that same region during the coldest Alaskan summer in thirty five years. The opportunity to film the majestic mammals thrilled Mr. Mauntler, and the opportunity to watch a documentary filmed by their very own teacher continues to thrill his students each year.
“I found the experience to be a unique one because it made me more [interested in] the documentary,” CCHS Junior Megan Hujber said.
Though his documentaries are replete with shots of luscious greenery and lustrous waters, Mr. Mauntler admits that things don’t always look quite as perfect behind the scenes.
“It can be unpredictable,” Mr. Mauntler said. “At one point a very small pipe in the engine of our boat had a tiny hole in it, and we were leaking oil. For a while, the whole operation was held together by a zip tie and a piece of rubber.”
However stressful it may be when the boat breaks down or the weather takes a turn for the worse, the times when things go right make all of the frustration worth it.
“It’s really special to be out there, and it’s very sad because not a lot of people [get to] do that,” Mr. Mauntler said. “The best moments I would sum up as being part of something bigger than yourself.”