Monthly Archives: September 2014

Beautiful blue beasts

I just swam with and photographed my first blue sharks off the south coast of UK. A sublime experience.

Electric blue and gunmetal: the blue shark

Electric blue and gunmetal: the blue shark

These so-called wolfs of the open ocean pick up scent trails quickly. Less than an hour after settling down to drift south of Cornwall, a tell-tale tug against a lightly-tethered bait announced the cautious arrival of our first shark. When it finally showed near the surface, it was a beauty at over 2m long. Images of blue sharks have long inspired me to photograph them, but I was not well prepared for that first look at a really elegant shark with its gunmetal blue back and huge pectoral fins. Stunning!

Frustratingly, she was reluctant to close in.  Eventually a more confident smaller shark came to the boat.  After taking a few images by hanging my camera over the side, I slipped into the water with mask & snorkel. Straight away she came to check me out. It was quite hard to concentrate on the necessary work to get the images.  I just wanted to marvel at the exquisite lines and colours of this gorgeous shark.

An inquisitive juvenile

An inquisitive juvenile

The visibility was initially quite poor, which made things testy.  I occasionally lost sight of her in the gloom and my heart rate would rise as she bounced me unseen from behind and below. Keeping eye contact was difficult. But the images were coming nicely, so I soon had those that I had visualised and, beginning to feel the cold, climbed out.  How useless I’ve become in cold water – in the same wet suit that I used a few weeks ago in 31 degrees water off Cuba, 16 degrees in the Atlantic felt icy by comparison.

My new favourite: blue sharks rule!

My new favourite: blue sharks rule!

Soon, more sharks arrived, including a cute juvenile only 1m or so long.  In the improving light and visibility, we think that there must have been 7 separate visitors to the boat and I certainly counted 5 all at once in the water.  For those interested in the photography, I was experimenting with very high ISO and very low strobe settings to allow high frame rate flash-filled images.  I’m quite pleased with the results; it lets me nail peak of the action more reliably, especially as these sharks can move very quickly.

So as much as I love the silky sharks of Cuba, I now have a firm new favourite: blue sharks rule! My thanks to Charles Hood for his patience and persistence to finally get me among these exciting sharks; he runs a superb operation out of Penzance.  Watch out for my best images on the competition circuit…

For those interested in underwater photography, I have just opened a new purpose-built classroom in Wiltshire for teaching 1-to-1 and 1-to-2 entry level underwater photography, advanced photographic composition and post-production skills.  All courses are tailored to individuals.

With best wishes to you all my dear friends

Paul

 

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using bait to attract sharks…the risk

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera...

a young reef shark, just before it mouthed my camera…

Using bait to attract sharks so that divers & snorkelers can more easily observe these over-fished but wonderful creatures is controversial.  I’m in favour of these controlled encounters, because it helps the education and advocacy that these endangered animals need. But there are some risks.

I became more alert to it after a friend expressed her discomfort while trying to exit the water at the end of a dive.  The sharks had been attracted by a steel box containing fish remains, but in open water the guides lift the box onto the boat until divers safely exit.  Only then do the sharks get the reward of a fish head or two.  But the sharks had learned to anticipate it and started closing in as the dive was finishing.  I found myself in the same position recently and watched sharks come very close aboard as I climbed onto the boat.  But it was my experience in water where I felt the risks more acutely.  Here’s what happened.

In open water, 3 young reef sharks broke away from a stately group cruising in big circles.  One came to investigate my flash guns, which emit electrical fields that the sharks’ amazing sensors can detect.  Sometimes the sharks mouth the flash units to test what they are. It’s happened to me before, but on this occasion the young shark grabbed the strobe a bit more forcefully.  My reaction was wrong.  I shook the camera hard to encourage the shark to let go.

The sudden movement made the shark back off, but it also peaked his interest and he turned back hard into me, at which stage his 2 buddies sensed something interesting might be happening and in a heartbeat they closed in at an alarming rate.  One mouthed the dome port of my camera and left a small scratch to add to one that I had recently collected from some human mishandling.  The other sharks did not touch anything, but for a few seconds they circled at speed within touching distance.  My heart rate went up and they seemed to sense that too.  I was relieved to be joined by a dive guide who saw what was happening.  The pattern of shark movements soon returned to normal.  My heart rate took a bit longer to recover!

An experienced shark diver declared to another diver/photographer friend that of all the sharks he had dived with, reef sharks were the most twitchy.  I should put this in perspective, though.  My overwhelming experience of shark diving is of controlled engagements with inquisitive creatures that are interested in us, but which very rarely threaten.  Statistics reassure: I am at far greater risk of injury every time I drive my car, no matter how carefully I do that.  So I’m certainly not put off diving with sharks.  I’ll just learn from this experience to control my body language more carefully when around sharks (keep cool)…and continue to respect these wonderful animals when I enter their world…

…on which note I’m out looking for blue sharks in British waters again.  I’ve been unsuccessful finding and photographing these elegant sharks thus far.  Tomorrow’s another day as they say…and I’ll be in the water solo with them if we’re lucky enough to find them, so should get plenty of opportunities for good images.  Fingers crossed…

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