Globe-trotting National Geographic photographer settles in Maine, trains his cameras here.

DURHAM — On assignment for National Geographic magazine, Mauricio Handler was in the Millennium Atoll, out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, swimming with sharks for several hours and they’d gotten along just fine.

Then, late afternoon struck.

“It’s like a dinner bell,” Handler, 52, said. “I had to leave the cameras at the bottom, I had to get out. I had to fish my gear out with a line and hook. It looked like a beehive when you looked down, hundreds of sharks.”

He told the story standing on the frozen shores of little Runaround Pond in Durham recently, training an ultra-high-definition camera on the ice during late-season snow flurries.

Nothing was happening in particular — but that was exactly what could make it interesting, he said.

“A lot of it is luck; luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” Handler said. “You can wait weeks for a 30-second moment.”

To date, most of his work — above water and below — has been in exotic locales outside the U.S.

Google “Mauricio Handler” and you’ll quickly find a shot of him standing on the ocean floor, eye-to-eye with a 45-foot, 80-ton Southern right whale near Auckland Island in subantarctic New Zealand. The photo ran as a double-page spread in October 2008 in National Geographic, where he worked as a freelancer for nearly 20 years.

Now, the photographer is planning his first personal film projects: two documentaries, one long-term, one short, on Maine wildlife. Filming will start in earnest as soon as he’s back from four months on the road. In early April he left to shoot in his native Chile for one independent production, then will head off to another project in Mexico, then finally he’ll lead three photo expeditions swimming with whale sharks, also in Mexico.

Ten years ago, Handler left the balmy Caribbean to call Maine home. Last year, he and wife, Julia, bought a house in the countryside here.

“I’m one of the few people that moved here without thinking about anything logical like taxation,” said Handler. “We’ve moved here because it’s beautiful.”

Taking the plunge

Handler has shot and filmed all over and lived all over. Born in Chile, he was raised in Michigan, went to school for 11 years in Puerto Rico and then lived in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, for 20 years.

He started diving at 16. Handler got his first assignment with National Geographic magazine — shooting tarpons off the island of St. John — in 1996. He worked on a two-man team that spent weeks to months on about 15 assignments in places like the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, New Zealand and Japan.

In the British Virgin Islands, he also ran a yacht, which led Handler to Maine. He picked it up at The Hinckley Company in Southwest Harbor and sailed the yacht down to the Caribbean, then made the return trip nine years later.

Now, National Geographic acts as an agent for his body of work — amazingly close, color-drenched images of great whites, dolphins, barracudas, sea turtles and all manner of sea and wildlife — while Handler and Julia run two of their own companies, AQUATERRAFILMS and Handler Photo Expeditions.

For the film company, “our goal is to create content for documentary work, independent films and stock,” Handler said.

He shoots in UHD — ultra-high def, five times the resolution of HD — on the same types of cameras used to film “The Hobbit” and the “Avatar” sequels. 

For the photo expeditions, he and Julia lead about four trips a year, lasting anywhere from a week to a month. The trips had been targeted to other underwater photographers and filmmakers, but last year expanded for the first time to St. Joseph’s College students. This year they’re up to two student groups, both swimming with huge whale sharks in Mexico in August. 

“We’ll have 10, 20, 100 30-foot animals swimming up to you,” he said. “It’s a life-changing trip for them. This becomes a springboard for many people to have their first adventures underwater.”

(The sharks are enormous; fortunately, they’re filter feeders.) 

His hope is to get that expedition accredited so he can eventually offer it for college credit and work with other universities.

Life, death, sharks

Back in rural Maine in late August, he’ll kick off the local documentary work, which is in pre-production now. The long-term project called “Maine Wild: From Mountain to Sea” should take a team of local filmmakers, led by Handler, two to three years. He’s still looking for wildlife scientists and others to collaborate with “to find unique moments” in the woods and underwater.

They’ll shoot a pilot, pitch it, then hope to follow with several episodes that have multiple animal-centric story lines each.

“There will be stories out here never before shown on film,” Handler said. “It’s stuff everybody’s seen but never in these combinations. There’s life and death stories here.”

For the shorter documentary, he’ll spend a year and focus just on Durham wildlife, culminating in a community screening. It follows a principle that he teaches in class at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport.

“Before they go crazy traveling the world, they have to film in a 10-mile radius,” Handler said. “There’s wonderful little slices of people and circumstances that are close to us.”

Enter currently frozen Runaround Pond. Come summer, Handler will dive in with his equipment and, to hear him tell it, come what may.

“I detest leeches,” he said. “Sharks are no problem — leeches I have a very big problem with.”

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