Documentary producer John Cullum ’08 braves snakes, eels and more to reveal our largest ocean

When you go somewhere called Snake Island, you bring your snake boots. But when John Cullum ’08 showed up with his film crew on the mountainous bit of rock in China’s Bohai Sea, he found boots wouldn’t be much help. The island’s 20,000 venomous pit vipers live in the trees, where they launch themselves at unsuspecting birds. “Other than keeping your eyes open, there’s not much you can do,” he says. “It was hands down the most insane field location I’ve ever been to.”

Cullum and his crew spent seven days on the island, working from dawn to dusk, before they got their payoff — capturing for the first time on camera one of the snakes leaping out of a tree to catch its prey. The scene is one of the most iconic images from Big Pacific, the five-part documentary Cullum produced for PBS, which seeks to demystify one of the most vast, yet least explored parts of our planet. The series aired last summer.

“The Pacific Ocean is a third of our planet — every single continent can fit within it,” says Cullum. “Yet we’ve barely scraped the surface of it.”

Cullum’s double major of animal behavior and studio art at Bucknell perfectly prepared him for his career as a producer of natural history documentaries for the likes of National Geographic, allowing him to find stories hidden in scientific papers that others may have missed.

In addition to the spellbinding pit vipers, he captured many other rare scenes, including saltwater moray eels that come up on land to hunt crabs, and puffer fish in Japan that create underwater art to attract mates.

“Our goal is to get people to see the Pacific in a new light and inspire them more to care,” Cullum says. “If they can watch something and say, I had no idea that kind of thing is out there, that’s what it’s all about.”