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Jaimen Hudson: Eyes in the Sky

May 1, 2024 Alex Ghenis

Photo by Jaimen Hudson

Before he racked up credits filming for Netflix, PBS and the Australian Broadcasting Company, and before he ever dreamed of amassing over 200,000 Instagram followers, Jaimen Hudson found himself in the same situation as so many others after spinal cord injuries: seeking some job or pursuit that would provide him purpose.

As the son of boating tour guides in the southern coastal town of Esperance in Western Australia, Hudson envisioned a life working on and around the water. “My earliest memories are of just being around the ocean,” he says. With beautiful bays, white sand beaches and, nearby, the 105 islands of the Recherche Archipelago, Esperance is driven by the marine tourism industry. Hudson earned his scuba license by age 10, and in high school, checked off the courses and certifications that would help him to work in marine tourism. His goal was to be a deckhand by graduation and to keep building from there.

Hudson with one of his trusty drones.

He spent time diving among the corals and migrating whales, and rode dirt bikes on the flowing sand dunes for the adrenaline rush. But in July 2008, at age 17, a motorcycle accident brought Hudson’s plans to a halt. He came up short on a dune jump and flew over the handlebars, resulting in a C5 SCI.

Less than a year after his injury, Hudson started thinking again about his future. “I told my mom I wanted to hate going to work on Monday just like everyone else, because I didn’t want to sit around at home,” he says. “I wanted to have a purpose and feel like I was contributing.” He stayed close to the water, filling a number of roles in the family’s boat touring business—answering phones, accounting and, eventually, managing it too.

Discovering Drones

By 2015, Hudson was itching for something new. There weren’t many accessible activities in Esperance, and the combination of work and parties was growing dull. It was perfect timing, then, when a customer brought a new drone along on a boat tour to a nearby island. The client was filming promotional footage for a soon-to-be-released model drone. At the end of the trip they gave Hudson some of the footage. “I was blown away with how cool the perspective was,” he says. “I started thinking, maybe this is something I could do from my wheelchair, perhaps that [it] could be my new hobby.”

He began watching the limited number of YouTube videos available on how to fly drones. “I was wondering how I would be able to utilize my hands—I’ve got zero dexterity,” he says. Within weeks, his parents and girlfriend encouraged him to buy a drone and to just sell it if he couldn’t operate the thing. Recreational drones had only been on the market for five years, and top models were thousands of dollars, so Hudson bought a cheaper drone and outfitted it with a camera. Then he headed to Blue Haven Rock, a nearby outlook with turquoise-colored coves.

Hudson sells calendars featuring his stunning photos. On March 8, 2015, Hudson posted his first drone video to his Instagram account, @jaimenhudson. It was a simple 360-degree spin above the scenery, including a speedboat towing a water-skier, and showed that Hudson could create some beautiful shots. “I just became addicted to it,” he says.

Within weeks, his Instagram became a regular stream of aerial photos and videos of landscapes, surfers and boats. In August that year, Hudson posted his first wildlife shot: a whale off Blue Haven Beach. That was followed by a pod of dolphins surfing the waves, whales in groups—even swimming under a paddleboarder—and yet more beach and surfing scenes. It helped that Hudson didn’t need to modify the drone controls. “That made life so much easier,” he says, “since I could basically buy any drone at the moment and just fly it straight out of the box.”

Hudson sells calendars featuring his stunning photos.

On weekends, Hudson and a companion would drive down the coast to launch his drone and search for good scenes. “I was lucky to capture some unique wildlife scenarios that sort of went viral online,” he says. “No one else had really seen wildlife from a drone’s perspective back then.” A surfing video in December 2015 got more than 30,000 views, while two more of dolphins riding the waves in 2016 attracted 17,000 and 23,000 views. Soon Hudson was getting messages for interviews and being written up in print and online, becoming a growing presence in the world of wildlife photography. In 2016, he put together his first drone photography calendar, which he sold at the family business and the local farmer’s market.

Hudson grew up working in and around the marine tourism industry in Western Australia. A spinal cord injury in 2008 briefly took him away from the water, but he found his way back as a drone photographer.

Combining Sky and Sea

During those first years of droning, Hudson received a visit from a family friend that ended up paying big dividends. As a nature filmmaker and video producer with four decades of experience, Leighton De Barros makes shows and documentaries with big names like National Geographic, Discovery, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, filming mostly diving and marine wildlife. De Barros remembered Hudson as “a vibrant little kid” from when he hired the family boat for some work on an ABC show in the mid-1990s. “The next time I saw [Jaimen’s dad], he said, ‘Would you like to see him? He’s in a wheelchair,’” says De Barros. “I’d vaguely heard about what he was doing, and then he showed me, and it was quite spectacular.” The career filmmaker saw something special in Hudson’s early videos.

De Barros eventually took up droning himself, knowing it could be good for his business. In 2017, Western Australia required all commercial and some recreational drone users to take classes and get licensed. In a stroke of luck, Hudson parked right next to De Barros at a droner-certification course in Perth. “So we reconnected by fate,” De Barros says, “and he’s showing me his footage and I said, ‘You know, we should do a documentary on your work, because it’s really quite spectacular.’” He says Hudson has “the eye of a camera person” and is a natural at framing shots and creating smooth motions with his drone work.

De Barros wished to showcase Hudson’s work, share his story, and afford him new filming opportunities that could build his skills in the process. He also thought that Hudson could learn how to move beyond well-crafted one-off social media clips and into capturing multiple shots that could tell stories of wildlife and be sold to wildlife film producers like the BBC and Australian ABC.

Hudson went all in on the project, which was about more than just his past. He suggested a documentary that started with his personal story and drone work, and then showed him training to scuba dive again. De Barros loved the idea and wanted to direct the film. The result, Jaimen Hudson: From Sky to Sea, earned multiple four-star reviews and national acclaim. Unfortunately, doctors nixed the scuba plans partway through the story out of concerns that Hudson couldn’t cough hard enough if he inhaled water, but ultimately Hudson was able to snorkel among fish and a curious humpback whale. The film showed Hudson as a family man—with his wife, Jess, and two young kids—a drone operator, and a dreamer.

“That experience of being back in the ocean again was just unreal,” Hudson says. “As soon as my lips touched the saltwater, it was just like all these memories of being in the ocean came flooding back to me, and I felt almost immediately at ease, like the ocean welcomed me back with open arms.”

De Barros and Hudson were both thrilled with the outcome. De Barros wants to find backers for even more documentaries to showcase Hudson’s journeys. One recent pitch fell short, but he’s hopeful for the future. At the moment, Jaimen Hudson: From Sky to Sea is available for streaming in Australia only.

Coasting Along

Hudson still goes out droning most weekends, a task he can do on his own since he bought a car with a lift and hand controls. Over the years, he has developed a business strategy for his droning. At one point, he explored land-based droning and worked in the desert with a Japanese film producer. That kind of hired film work, he says, is always hit or miss, and time spent filming involves a lot of waiting. “I guess that’s the nature of marine wildlife or any wildlife,” he says. “It makes you realize the value of the clip you might have, because if they can license it from you, they obviously don’t have to pay for weeks of production.”

These days, Hudson focuses on that kind of licensed drone work instead of filming gigs. His licensed drone work is featured in documentaries such as Magical Land of Oz, which is available for streaming through PBS and in a yet-unreleased documentary on Netflix.

He and Jess took over the family business in 2018. They now have a wheelchair-accessible van for land tours and are converting part of the office into a couple of wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms. “That’s obviously something very important to me,” Hudson says, “just ensuring that our tourism offerings are accessible to all, not just [nondisabled] people.” Hudson has also been involved in local disability work, providing input to the government and tourism industry in Esperance. His Instagram continues to grow, with over 200,000 followers. A recent reel garnered more than 940,000 likes—numbers he never dreamed of when he uploaded that first clip of Blue Haven Rock in 2015.

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