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What's the secret to photographing big creatures of the open ocean? Hint: Go where the buoys are.
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
Because of their nature, open-ocean creatures are almost always encountered by chance. You may see pelagics passing near the coral reef on occasion, but it is a far less dependable event than spotting a moray eel beneath a coral crevice. While finding pelagics is challenging, capturing them on film requires preparation, the right equipment, skill and a fair bit of luck.
Open-Ocean Encounters | Reef Encounters | The Right Equipment | Free-diving Skills | Stealth
The most important component of pelagic photography is to go where the creatures are. Knowing where and when to go clearly puts the odds in your favor:
- Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Spotter planes are used to direct dive boats to intersect with whale sharks that congregate here during the seasonal coral spawn. Although this is an open-ocean experience, the probability of encounter is quite high given the sophistication of the spotting methods.
- San Juan Islands, Washington. The resident pod of killer whales is another case where a network of spotters greatly increases the probability of encounter. Commercial dive boats that "subscribe" to the network learn where the pod might be at any given time via private calls to their cellular telephones from spotters perched on nearby hillsides equipped with high-power telescopes. However, these are primarily topside encounters. The most reliable in-water encounters are presently above the Arctic Circle, in Norway's Tysfjord.
- AUTEC Buoy, New Providence Island, Bahamas. Silky sharks are part of the food chain attracted to the shelter of this open-ocean buoy. A mere half-mile away from the buoy, the sea will appear barren and photographically unproductive. But the buoy provides an oasis of life where a dozen or more silkies join with dorado, blue runner and occasionally blue marlin or even oarfish. Dive shops off the southwest end of New Providence make the 10-mile run to the Shark Buoy regularly.
- Silver Bank, Dominican Republic. Here, humpback whales gather from January through March to mate and give birth, providing outstanding opportunities to observe topside action such as tail-slaps, spyhops and breaches, and allowing snorkelers to see and photograph mothers and calves from a close vantage under water. They also swim near Grand Turk and Salt Cay on their way to and from the bank.
- Grand Bahama Island and Bimini, Bahamas. Spotted dolphins can reliably be found here. Dive operators have made a cottage industry of providing open-ocean encounters with these graceful and gregarious mammals.
- San Diego, California. Area dive boats have made a science of reliably attracting blue sharks to cages suspended in the open ocean.
Some pelagic creatures frequently make forays near the coral reef to feed, mate or even sleep. It is possible to have a chance pelagic encounter off any coral reef, but some areas of the world are far more productive than others.
- Schooling hammerheads - Costa Rica's Cocos Island, or Wolf and Darwin Islands in the Galapagos.
- Manta rays - Socorro Islands (several hundred miles off the west coast of Mexico), Yap, Tobago or the night dive off the Kona Surf Hotel on the Big Island of Hawaii.
- Great white sharks - South Africa or South Australia.
- Caribbean reef sharks - Dive operators in the Bahamas, especially off Freeport, southwest New Providence, Walker's Cay and Long Island.
- Green sea turtles - Extremely common at Sipadan Island, off the northeast coast of Borneo. Closer to home, loggerheads are frequently encountered off West Palm Beach, Fla.
The Right Equipment
Although some photographers have done innovative work with tiny current-borne pelagic creatures, for most of us, pelagic photography means large animals captured with a wide-angle optic.
- Nikonos 15 mm. If I had to choose just one lens for pelagic creatures it would be the Nikonos 15 mm. With its 94-degree diagonal coverage, large marine mammals like whales and dolphins can be rendered as full-body portraits. Plus, the 15's extraordinary depth of field makes focus nearly irrelevant. Even at f/5.6 it is possible to preset the lens to be sharp from 3 feet to infinity. You can also use the 15 mm to shoot wide-angle closeups - isolating the eyes, fins or mouths.
- Nikonos 20 mm. Sometimes marine life is too shy to fill the frame with the 15 mm. Take the scalloped hammerheads of the Galapagos, for example. You're usually lucky to get within six feet of these skittish creatures. In this case, the Nikonos 20 mm lens offers good depth of field, yet you avoid losing the primary subject in the frame when close approach is impossible.
- Full-frame fish-eyes. Sometimes the marine life is so large and so approachable that even the 15 mm seems to be too tight. On a recent trip to the Socorro Islands, I found manta rays that enjoyed having divers scratch their bellies. But trying to capture the whole manta with the 15 mm forced me to be at least six feet away, decreasing the efficiency of the strobe and degrading resolution. Instead, my best full-body shots were taken with a Nikonos RS and the 13 mm lens or a housed Nikon N90S with a 16 mm. Both are full-frame fish-eye lenses capable of approximately 180 degrees diagonal coverage.
- Strobe. Whatever camera system is employed, a strong flash with a rapid recycle time is crucial. Because many pelagics are skittish, greater power is necessary to penetrate a water column that may be six to 10 feet (beyond 10 feet, underwater photography is essentially available light anyway). And since pelagic encounters are often fleeting at best, the odds of getting more than one shot are substantially enhanced if the strobe recycles quickly. Ideally, the strobe should take no more than five seconds to recycle at full power and should pump out at least 150 watt-seconds of light.
Some pelagic species are best encountered on snorkel, including the whale sharks of Ningaloo, the humpbacks of the Silver Bank and spotted dolphins in the Bahamas. Not only do the animals dislike the sound of exhaust bubbles, scuba diving may be against the rules of a marine park. Therefore, a good low-volume mask, powerful fins and an efficient snorkel can be nearly as important as film. A friendly mother and calf humpback whale, for example, might be found on the surface, in which case a very slow, non-threatening approach might gain you proximity. Sometimes pelagics are found resting near the bottom, and since that can be 80 feet deep, good free-diving skills are extremely helpful.
Dolphins seem to prefer active swimmers. Dolphin kicks, pirouettes, somersaults and even dive scooters can engage these creatures, although when your objective is to capture them on film, such extraneous antics may be counterproductive. It should be noted that the aerobic approach that works with habituated spotted dolphins does not work with wild pods of bottlenose dolphins. Mere eye contact with bottlenose dolphins in the wild may scare them off. The most effective strategy may be to remain motionless in the water and let them approach.
Being stealthy is perhaps the most difficult job of the underwater photographer. With open-circuit scuba, each breath is a noisy announcement of our intrusion. It is our job as underwater photographers to communicate that we mean no harm. To do so:
- Cool it. Don't swim aggressively toward your subject. Even a bold predator will often bolt when a diver swims directly toward it.
- Wait. It is far better to let marine life approach, or to take a tack to intersect its probable path.
- Duck and cover. When on a reef, try to blend with the surroundings, much like a hunter would in a blind. In areas where sharks are known to swim close to the reef to be cleaned, the most effective technique is to find some rocks along the reef face to hide behind and wait until they come in near enough for a photo.
- Get some elbow room. It is better to spread out a group of divers so that noisy exhaust bubbles are less localized. Of course, the photographer without discipline who swims after a shark, leaving the "blind," will ruin it for everyone else. Remember depth and air are limiting factors, and if you scare the sharks off for just 15 minutes it may mean no one will get a photo.
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