Armed with sterling degrees from Ateneo de Manila University, Georgetown University, and Harvard University, he has transformed his interests into passions. In education, he was a high-school principal, university professor and an administrator, and co-founder of a school. “Influencing and molding youth is very important,” he explains. “They need to be empowered to develop themselves to the best of their abilities.”
Suntay has a big heart. He established the Carewell Community Foundation, which provides support, education, and hope to persons with cancer and their loved ones, free of charge. His wife, parents, and father-in-law died of cancer, and he feels it is his to duty to help others through the foundation.
His love for education and marine environment led him to the SEA-VIP Institute, a foundation that uses science, education, and advocacy, of which he is the president. The institute’s primary mission is to protect the marine biodiversity in the Verde Island Passage, a strait that separates the islands of Luzon and Mindanao.
But it is in being an underwater videographer that has made Suntay more fascinating. He has shot films for National Geographic and other organizations, culminating in On the Brink: Uncharted Waters, a documentary on the whale-sharks tourism in the Philippines. It was awarded the Conservation Award at the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival in 2016.
How did he get into the underwater world? He started scuba diving and eventually became a professional diver. Then, a friend lent him his underwater camera. He learned editing and started making short videos.
Suntay describes his wide range of emotions when he is filming underwater: “Awe for the beauty and grandeur that I’m certain only God and the Universe could have created. Respect for being in a world that belongs to the flora and fauna beneath waves. Excitement as I anticipate and actually film the never-ending variety of phenomena that occur underwater. Peace and serenity as I drift gently in the currents and watch the beauty and splendor of the underwater world unfold before my eyes and camera lens. Urgency as I realize that unless we all act now, we stand lose all this! Humility and empowerment as I know that I share in the awesome responsibility of helping people better appreciate the amazing beauty, critical importance, and delicate fragility of our unbelievable underwater world.”
Patience is needed in shooting underwater. More patience, he tells me, is needed in waiting for the perfect set of circumstances. And that involves waiting for the subject to appear and behave interestingly to capture the so-called “money shot.” In positioning and maneuvering, safety has to be taken into consideration, including that of the subject and the underwater flora and fauna.
The underwater realm is surprisingly a good setting for humor. When filming in Palau, Suntay was excited to see sharks, manta, barracuda, and other marine creatures, and he started shooting. The footage that he took in the dive, however, showed sand, coral, his legs, and water! “After the fact,” he remembers with a laugh, “I realized that I pressed the shutter button to stop filming when I was intending to start.” Fortunately, he was able to correct his mistakes in the next dive.
Then, there was a time when he was filming super tiny creatures, which were about an inch or smaller, using a set of stacked close-up macro lenses. Suddenly, a whale shark swam right over him! He thought he shot a pot of gold, but all he saw in the footage were spots because he was using the wrong lenses!
To people who want to become underwater videographers, he advises them to be very experienced and comfortable with scuba diving before getting into videography. Also, they have to know how to use their cameras well. He expects them to enjoy what they are doing. “They should respect the environment,” he adds. “Also, they have the responsibility to work for the betterment of the marine and terrestrial world.”
Suntay is indebted to Marissa Floirendo, Gutsy Tuason, and Jovic Santos, who all mentored him in underwater videography. He is grateful to his colleagues and friends at NUDI (Network of Underwater Digital Imagers) and Studio H2O who encouraged and inspired him to keep coming up with films.
Robert “Bobbit” Suntay never knew where his passions and interests would take him, and he loves the adventure of having a multitude of experiences. But he has never stopped at reaching for the star. “To be a United Nations Special Envoy for Marine Conservation Awareness someday would be cool!”
The author wishes to thank Almira Astudillo Gilles, Ph.D., for her assistance in the interview.
Rey E. de la Cruz, Ed.D., Positively Filipino correspondent, writes from Chicagoland when he is not loving the arts and traveling. He is the author of the children’s book, Ballesteros on My Mind: My Hometown in the Philippines, which also has Ilocano, Spanish, and Tagalog versions.