Tag Archives: sharks

Gorgeous Gentle Giants

Giant Manta Ray - I need a wider lens!I’m not long back from what might have been the best dive expedition of my life.  It would be easy to overdo the superlatives, but three things made the trip to Socorro in the Pacific Ocean stand out.

First the boat, Nautilus Belle Amie, and its crew.  Outstanding in every respect.  It can be tough diving in strong and unpredictable currents over very deep water.  But the balance between safety and freedom to get on with your dive was perfect.  5 star accommodation and food, wonderful service from a friendly and very interesting crew.


Secondly, the geology above and below water.  Volcanic, big, stark, spectacular.Paul_Colley-29

whitetip close up-2

And then the animal encounters.  Uber-playful dolphins, huge swirling schools of jacks parading against the azure blue, sharks coming out of your ears.  But also what we really went for, which was the giant mantas.

If you follow the brief and don’t chase them, you can get some amazing encounters from these 6 metre wingspan intelligent giants of the ocean.  They look like stealth bombers in their sometimes all-black livery as they approach silently out of the deep.

I don’t want to say much more.  Just to retain the images and emotions of diving at such a remote location with some of the Pacific ocean’s most charismatic creatures.

Magnificent.  Wonderful.  Exceptional. shark_jacks


Best wishes, dear friends.


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Cuba – opening up to the World…

Silky shark in the Gardens of the Queen

Silky shark in the Gardens of the Queen

The historic announcement this week by President Obama heralds a long-overdue warming of the US relationship with Cuba.  It came as I finished another fantastic photography trip to the Caribbean island. I had been wondering ever since I first visited Cuba, to dive in its amazing waters, what the impact of a thaw in US relations might have on the country and in particular on its apex-predator-heavy coral reefs.

Foremost might be the pressure for more diving inside long-established marine reserves, where most of the predators find rare sanctuary.  It could be hard for Cuba to resist the assumptions that might come with any new investment in the diving infrastructure.

But the Cubans have a great feel for conservation of their resources, so I hope that they will resist any pressures that ultimately threaten what they currently have, which is a reef system in balance and dominated by hundreds of predators: sharks of many types; huge groupers in big numbers; saltwater crocodiles; and big schools of large game fish like Tarpon.

I’m optimistic that sense will generally prevail.  But having seen this coming for some time, I’ll repeat what I’ve been telling many of my friends over the same period: if you want to guarantee seeing Cuba at its best – above and below water – visit in the next few years before the big corporations make their moves on property and the leisure industries.  Although some investment will be essential and create very welcome improvements, Cuba may never be the same again.  So go now!  Here’s a link if you’re interested in the diving: Shark Diving in Cuba

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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



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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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Shark photography: Cuba November 2014

Dear friends,

If you are interested in the superb shark, goliath grouper and saltwater crocodile photography opportunities available in Cuba later this year, check out the attached itinerary for the photography-biased trips to Jardines de la Reina and Cayo Largo.  There will be a similar trip in January 2015, for which more details will follow later this year.

all best, Paul

Cuba photo workshop Nov 2014

workshop thumbnail




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Why composition matters: aesthetics and photographic intent

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Ansel Adams

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

composition is a supremely cost-effective way of improving our images

For the next 5 months as I make the final run-in to an end-of-May 2014 publishing date for my new book Winning Images with any Underwater Camera, I’m going to set out a few of the big ideas in the hope that I might gain your interest in it.  This could be the first underwater photography book that has tried to weave together ideas from traditional theory and contemporary science. I aspire that it will add something to the corporate body of knowledge and advance our mutual quest to more consistently produce images that win the minds of our friends, family, peer photographers, judges of competitions or editors of magazines and books. The emphasis in this book will most definitely be on any camera, because its thesis is that composition (and not technology) is the supremely cost-effective way of improving our images.

Although underwater photography can be functional and therefore a craft, for example in journalism to tell environmental stories or in marketing to advertise scuba equipment, most people interested in this book will be pursuing underwater photography for its pure enjoyment and therefore more closely associate their images with creative or fine art. Your photographic intent is generally to draw attention to some of the finer things in life, for example the sleek lines of dolphins and sharks or the exquisite geometry, shapes and symmetry in a big fish school. Your images are communicating extraordinary things and good photographers develop this clear intention to communicate. To portray something rather than just record what they see. The difference is subtle, but vital. To communicate, you need to understand a little about aesthetics, which people define differently, but which I like to think of as perceiving and feeling. I always feel the undercurrents of emotion when I see certain spectacular things underwater, but also when I see some of those beautiful images that successfully capture it.  It is easier to remember this idea of perceiving and feeling if you think of anaesthetic, which is something to stop you feeling.

This emotional response from a viewer is what you’re looking for; a genuine appreciation of your work in the eye of the beholder. But here’s our first problem, because I deliberately avoid the word beauty, which is so often associated with aesthetics. Unfortunately, beauty has been a contested concept since the time of Plato, who demonstrated that it was paradoxical, illusive and complex. And many successful underwater images can depict quite ugly things, albeit in a way that still holds the attention of a viewer. So this will be how the book starts: a little bit of philosophy to understand why aesthetics are so important. But the book will then draw on contemporary scientific research to understand exactly how people look at and think about images. From these starting points, it will develop a new model of composition specifically for underwater photographers.

If this subject interests you, please follow this blog to see the story of winning images unfold and to learn more about the book launches in London.  For those that I have not already greeted in 2014, I hope that it is not too late to say Happy New Year to you and the very best of fortune with your own photography!

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Photography workshop Jan-Feb 2014: Iconic Cuba


Cuban waters brim with life: sharks, crocs, turtles & colourful sponges

Cuban waters brim with life: sharks, crocs, turtles & colourful sponges

It is quite a while since I’ve been completely enthralled by new photographic opportunities.  And so after my recent fabulous experience in Cuba, I readily agreed to host a photography workshop there during one of The Scuba Place’s excursions, from 23 January to 6 February 2014.  I regularly shoot with both SLR and compact cameras (the embedded images are a mixture of both), so I can provide just about any kind of support that people need, from full-on instruction for beginners with compact cameras through to occasional tips for experienced SLR users (I am an accredited INON UK underwater camera instructor).

The diving in Cuba is diverse, but this trip will focus on some real excitement that beckons in the Jardines de la Reina, a marine reserve off the south east coast.  But it is also right to dwell a while in the capital and not rush headlong into the diving.  Havana is awash with iconic images and a photography-rich environment.  1950-vintage classic American cars by the street load.  And an amazing colonial architecture that harbours cottage industry rum and tobacco houses amidst the rhythmic pulse of salsa music floating from vibrant bars.  Soak it up!

Havana's pulse of life: classic cars & salsa bars, amazing people & and colonial architecture.  Hemmingway loved it...

Havana’s pulse of life: classic cars & salsa bars; amazing people; and colonial architecture. Hemmingway loved it…

A fast transfer boat from Jucaro will get us aboard the floating hotel/barge live-aboard la Tortuga in the Gardens of the Queen.  The efficient and affable crew will then get you to the dive sites daily using fast skiffs.  Day-end post-diving rum cocktails will put you in a pleasant frame of mind for highly-sociable and (for the photographers) educational evenings.

For those who love shark diving, or for people just yearning to see these magnificent creatures up close for the first time, the over-used adjective is the right one.  It’s awesome.  Diving with reef and silky sharks in big numbers is genuinely awe-inspiring.  Although such activity inevitably has a frisson of excitement, which sustains a healthy respect for these apex predators, for the greatest part you will just see these sharks swimming in their graceful, carefully-ordered sinuous ballet, giving divers a respectful distance, whilst still providing photo opportunities a-plenty.

above water treats: fast skiffs to see hermit crabs, jutias & iguanas in the mangroves, with gorgeous sunsets every day.

above water treats: fast skiffs to see hermit crabs, jutias & iguanas in the mangroves, with gorgeous sunsets every day.

With frequent sightings of goliath groupers and some delightful trips to the fringing mangroves and islands to see juvenile saltwater crocodiles, hermit crabs, iguanas and a cute little rodent called the Jutia, for me the experience is as good as diving gets.  For more information or to make a reservation call or email the Scuba Place sales director John Spencer-Ades (020 7644 8252, john@thescubaplace.co.uk).

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