Ian Shive has had some adventures, including SCUBA diving Pacific atolls for the IMAX film Hidden Pacific and photographing the nation’s protected areas for his coffee table book, The National Parks: Our American Legacy. But none of his globetrotting, Shark Week filming and national park visiting prepared him for what he’d experience exploring Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
“It was a trip of a lifetime,” says the Los Angeles-based photographer and filmmaker. “I have never felt so isolated.”
Over two summers he spent six weeks embedded with a United States Fish and Wildlife research team as they boated around the rugged island chain. Shive captured the adventure, the wildlife and the history of the expeditions in the documentary The Last Unknown, premiering today (March 18) on Discovery+.
“It’s a compelling story,” says Shive. “The documentary is not just about the wildlife. It’s also about the people that go out and do the research. The scientists are some of the most accomplished adventurers I know.”
The Aleutians are a chain of more than 2,500 islands that extend from the Alaska mainland in a 1,200-mile arc across the north Pacific. The 3.2 million-acre Aleutian Maritime Wildlife Refuge protects most of the area, including more than 50 volcanoes, the nesting habitat of 40 million seabirds and congregations of marine mammals, including whales, walruses and northern fur seals.
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The only way to get to most of the islands is by boat. On both trips, Shive and a camera crew joined the USWF’s annual expedition aboard R/V Tiglax. The research vessel stops to monitor important wildlife sites and resupplies scientists conducting long-term studies.
One project that Shive joined was a bird-poop analysis from millions of nesting seabirds to learn about conditions in the North Pacific and Bering Sea. On one island the scientists can gather millions of data points about a huge area of ocean.
“The birds go out and gather the data for the scientists,” Shive says. “There’s no other way they could gather that information. It’s a pretty cool process.”
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The highlight of the trip for Shive was also its most anticipated stop.
With the area’s stormy weather, rough seas and limited infrastructure—there are almost no docks or harbors—landing on any island was never guaranteed. At Bogoslof Island there’s the additional hazard of a volcanic eruption. The island’s volcano has spewed lava 17 times in the last 20 years.
“We had to check in with the volcanologists to make sure it was safe before we could land,” says Shive.
After negotiating waves to get to the beach, Shive found an otherworldly landscape of black sand, bubbling mud pools, steam vents and not a blade of vegetation. There were no signs of humans, either—not even plastic washed up on the beach. But there were 140,000 northern fur seals, the world’s largest colony.
“I felt like [Charles] Darwin,” Shive says.
The most surprising aspect of the Aleutians, though, was the human history. The islands made up part of the land bridge traveled by the first humans to reach North America from Asia. In the documentary, Shive visits archeological sites from their ancestors, the Unangan or Aleut people, who have lived on the islands for at least 8,000 years.
The area also played an important, but little known, role during World War II. In 1942, the Japanese invaded two of the islands and occupied them for a year. For the first time ever, Shive took cameras inside the fox holes dug by Japanese soldiers. “No one had been inside them for 75 years,” he says. On another island he checked out the remains of a crashed B-24 bomber.
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“The Aleutians are like a time capsule,” Shive says. “They’re so isolated and protected it’s like time stood still.”
That’s why he wanted to make the documentary.
“Most people will never go to the Aleutians to see how special they are,” he says. “I wanted to connect people to the place, to show the value of it. Seeing is believing.”
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