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But Why Does the Cameraman Always Go First?

So, let's talk about what you don't see in all those "reality" treasure hunting TV shows..

Robert Lewis Knecht ORCA Project 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle holding camera and rifle next to 19th century graves of whaling ship crew membersI got into the treasure hunting and adventure biz back in 1988 when I was a Firefighter/EMT in Key Largo and wrote stories for Florida Keys newspapers and publications. I was hired as the medic and photojournalist on the O.R.C.A. Project (Ocean Research Center of the Arctic), an expedition searching for a whaling ship that sank in 1897, 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle.

There were two things I quickly discovered:

1 - The camera guy often works many more hours then the expedition personnel, filming said personnel when they are “relaxing” (SEE: Having an adult beverage! Or in the case of the Arctic, warming up AND having an adult beverage!) after each day’s search, or logging the day’s footage, etc. etc. etc.

And 2 - The camera guy ALWAYS goes first! So when “Jim” is shown crawling Robert Lewis Knecht going first into a 120 foot deep and pitch black moonstine mine in Sri Lankainto the creepy, dangerous, pitch-black, spider-infested cave, and the somber VO (voice over) says, “Jim is the first person in a thousand years to see the inside of the cave!” that’s a load of HOOEY!  (SEE: balderdash, flapdoodle, horse-feathers, tommyrot.) The audience NEVER ponders how it is they’re seeing ol’ “Jim” enter said cave, FROM THE INSIDE!

In many cases, had the camera been running when the cameraman entered said cave the film would have been much more realistic and entertaining! But you might have heard something like: “That BLEEP Jim! When will he start doing his own BLEEP stunts!  OUCH!  BLEEP BLEEP BLEEP! He gets all the attention!  BLEEP spiders!  I want a raise!”


Robert Lewis Knecht filming Sir Arthur C. Clarke for Arthur C. Clarke- before 2001I’m reminded of this when watching video that I produced and shot in Sri Lanka when my old treasure hunting buddy, Capt. Carl Fismer, and I were working on the Taj Mahal Sunken Treasure project with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (CLICK HERE to see the treasure that was featured on History Channel's PAWN STARS). Sri Lanka is legendary for it precious gems. Even though it is a tiny island, many of the world’s precious and semi-precious gems occur there. My kid brother, Richard, was second camera on this project - that's the only reason there was any footage of me!

So Fizz and I made friends with one of the gem dealers in Colombo, and this fellow drove us south to a series of moonstone mines, one of which we were able to explore and film.

Sri Lankan moonstone miners try to keep Robert Lewis Knecht from hitting his headNow this experience is best understood if I paint this simple picture: most Sri Lankan men are short – they don’t much come past my shoulder, and they ride down into these mines, and up again, in tiny buckets with barely enough room for one of my feet! And the best part of this adventure was that my brother was filming me (yes, going first!), and Fizz being lowered into the mine – 120 feet below!

Now this is not the first time I had done something akin to this.  At least this time I had a strained smile on my face because I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t as bad as that time in the mountains near Volcan Pico de Orizaba in Veracruz, Mexico – largely due to the fact that the rope was bigger, I wasn’t dangling over the side of a 300 foot cliff on a tiny rope ladder (SEE: moldy, rotten rope!), and there wasn’t a little Mayan man above me in a wife-beater T-shirt that said “Tiffany’s Place” on it holding a thin ”safety rope” and repeating “DOOON’T LOOOOOK DAAOOWN!” in very bad English! SEE MAIN BLOG PHOTO

I swear I am NOT making this up!  And you thought Indiana Jones was all in Steven’s imagination!

Srin Lankan miner tries to get Robert Lewis Knecht to let go of a rope while hanging over a 120 foot deep blue moonstone mine shaftAnyway, back to the moonstone mine.  So here I was, stepping into a tiny bucket swinging back and forth over the gaping maw of a black, 120-foot deep shaft, one arm and hand wrapped around the bucket rope and holding my camera in my free hand with a FIRM grip (SEE: white knuckles) on a single rope loop tied to a log in front of me with three Sri Lankan fellows talking over each other giving me different directions on how I should ride down the shaft one of which is grabbing my hand and trying to pry it loose telling me “evreeything OKAY – camera you take middle!” so he can lower me down!


Then the guy finally gets my hand loose, which I now have on the bucket rope trying to keep myself from flipping (SEE: upside down!), and he starts lowering me down and says with an amused chuckle, “Beee careful! You like ell - EEE – font,” to which Fizz, who is peering down the shaft, starts laughing so hard he almost falls in! My brother snorts!


Carl Fismer in Sri Lanka w Robert Lewis Knecht treasure hunting in a moonstone mine while working with Sir Arthur C. Clarke on the Taj Mahal Sunken TreasureAs I descend I can hear Fizz’s maniacal cackle (SEE: Jack Nicholson a la The Shinning) echoing down the shaft. A few moments later, I film him coming down and ask him, “How’s it goin’?” As he swings wildly from side to side, pushing himself off the dripping, slimy wet walls, he replies, “I guess I’m doing all right! Things I won’t do for a dollar!”  Then his bucket snags against the lag boards and almost dumps him out.


Now I get the laugh!

So, bent over to about four feet, standing with stinky mud squishing between our toes (I kept telling myself that back in Miami Beach people pay hundreds of dollars for mud Spa treatments!), we explored the pitch-black, creepy, dangerous, spider AND ant-infested mine – actually it wasn’t that creepy, but every now and then I could feel spiders scurry across my back, and they weren’t the little ones – we’re talkin’ just a tad smaller than the Sri Lankan miners.

Oh, did I say the mine was P-I-T-C-H B-L-A-C-K?

Now I freely admit these days that I have put on a few “over 40 pounds,” but back then I was in pretty good shape. Despite this, when it came time to ascend the shaft, I stepped in the bucket, felt the tug of it lift me an inch or two off the muddy bottom of the mine, and then drop back onto the floor with a sickening sucking sound!


To which my cheerful Sri Lankan guide gleefully announces, “You too big – you have to climb out now.”

Somewhere behind me, Fizz giggles in the pitch-black.

Oh, did I say the mine was 120 feet deep?

And it’s the same distance back to the surface! Luckily, there were wet and slippery lag board braces (horizontal boards that keep the walls from falling in, made out of palm trees cut in half) spaced every few feet with which I became VERY intimate on my LONG climb out – wait for it - all the while with my 110 pound guide following me up, gallantly trying to keep me from falling back down with his hand firmly planted on my buttocks!

Of course, looking back, I should have expected nothing less, since the previous days had been filled with shipwreck dives to over 100 feet, a run in with a cobra that got loose and slithered between my legs as I was filming it (Fizz giggling in the background... again!), and a psychotic four hour plane flight over the jungle out to Great Basses Reef where my young pilot informed me we were in danger of getting shot down with an RPG from the Tamil Tigers – and just making it back to the airport with the needle bouncing on “E.”  (SEE: Pilot direct quote, “In Sri Lanka, ‘E’ means enough!”)

This was May.  On December 25th I unwrapped a carefully wrapped package from my parents – a small aluminum pale with a porcelain Pigmy “el - EEE – font” sitting in it!

I can’t wait to tell you about how NOT to negotiate a deal with an Eskimo, 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle!

See some of the Dutch East India Company treasures we recovered while diving with local divers in Galle Harbor, Sri Lanka here



1 Response

Sherry Bullock

Sherry Bullock

March 22, 2019

OMG, you had me at the top of the shaft I thought. How you do enclosed spaces like that amazes me, but when those spiders started crawling on you that space wouldn’t have been big enough for my get away. Can’t stand the buggers! As I watch the show, I have always thought about the wonderful camera work and the person behind it and knew they had to have gone first. Thanks for your stories!

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