Dive Adventure

Incredible dive adventure articles, dive stories and marine life encounters from oceans around the world.
Analyzing depth, light and camera angles for Caribbean reef sharks based on a digital dive profile
By Brent Durand

Anatomy of a Shark Dive

Brent Durand
Analyzing depth, light and camera angles for Caribbean reef sharks based on a digital dive profile

Shark diving attracts bubble blowers from all over the world. These seasonally timed dives can almost guarantee seeing at least one or two sharks in close proximity - a far more exhillarating experience (albeit less natural) than crossing a shark during a traditional dive.

Baited shark dives take two forms. The first is using chum to attract sharks, who linger based on curiousity of a meal or promise of an easy snack. This is a great way to support shark tourism and resulting benefits without shifting the sharks' behavior much. The second is shark feeding, which is popular with larger species and presents photographers with some high-adrenaline photo opportunities.

Shark diving is new to me. I've had some spine-tingling natural encounters with sharks while snorkeling and freediving, plus regular scuba encounters with whitetips and blacktips, but had never jumped in the water with reef sharks baited in via chum. Our Caribbean reef shark dives in Bimini, Bahamas during Bluewater Photo's recent small group photo trip certainly changed that. Sure, these aren't great whites or great hammerheads or tiger sharks, but they're still very impressive and majestic fish capable of radical behavior changes.

Our first reef shark dive was on a windy day that kept us away from dolphins north of Bimini, so we didn't have excellent vis and were shooting through big shifts in light as clouds passed overhead. I took a COSMIQ dive computer down on the dive and later paired the log with my photos in the Deepblu dive log and social app (via bluetooth) to share the data you see below for each shot.

 


The Gear:

Bluewater Photo's rental Canon 7D Mk II and housing
8" acrylic dome port
Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens
Dual Sea&Sea YS-D1 strobes


 

The Shark Dive Begins

Shot: Dialing in the settings as I observed the sharks' swim patterns. I wanted some shark-on-the-reef shots to show the slow-swimming peacefulness of the sharks.

Position: Near the bottom, away from the boat/bucket with sun to my right.

Settings: 14mm focal length, ISO 200, f/8, 1/200

 

Shot: Still working on shark-on-the-reef shots away from the group. This shark came in from the side on a high line, allowing me to shoot up and capture some of the ocean surface.

Position: Near the bottom away from the boat, sun above left.

Settings: 14mm focal length, ISO 200, f/8, 1/250

 

Shot: The sharks stopped swimming laps where I had been, so I moved close to the boat to work on some portraits using a slightly closer focal length. The sun is behind cloud cover in this one, resulting in dark water.

Position: Near the bottom, with boat and chum bucket on left, sun roughly at my back.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 200, f/8, 1/250

 

Shot:  Hanging in the water column now to try and take advantage of the sharks swimming closer to surface while making some very close passes.

Position: Mid-water, shooting away from boat for clean background.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 200, f/8, 1/200

 

Shot: Another portrait shot. I try to take advantage of divers in the frame, but can't take credit for not clipping the diver/shark. Notice the monotonous tone of the water - the result of a cloud passing in front of the sun again.

Position: Back near the bottom to try and shoot up at the sharks.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 320, f/8, 1/250

 

Shot: This shark was making a close pass so I took a shot even though the perspective was downward. The trick was to wait to fire the shot until the shark was at the closest point with tail photogenically curved.

Position: Mid-water column again to intercept the sharks' swim patterns.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 320, f/8, 1/250

 

Shot: Working on depicting the full scene, telling the story of the dive. Still shooting dark water because of cloud cover. I opened up the exposure a bit in order to shoot at a downward angle.

Position: Shallow, mid-water near the chum bucket.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 320, f/6.3, 1/200

 

Shot: Another shark portrait away from the boat. Notice the cloud cover and bland water again. I was still trying to shoot the big picture, but had to take advantage of this close pass framed out into the blue.

Position: Mid-water, facing away from the boat.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 250, f/6.3, 1/200

 

Shot: Another storytelling shot, intentially shooting towards the boat and bucket as the shark reached its closest point of the pass (while still at approach angle/perspective).

Position: Mid-water under the boat. Sun is overhead and at my left. *Note: never dive under the boat unless very comfortable with buoyancy skills.

Settings: 17mm focal length, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/250

 

There we have it. Our second Caribbean reef shark dive was a couple days later in much nicer conditions, but I'll save those photos for another time.

Want to join a group dive trip or photo workshop?  Check out our full dive trip schedule.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image-maker from California.
BrentDurand.com   |  Facebook  |  Instagram

Brent is the editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and leads several photo trips and workshops for Bluewater Photo (see below).  Email Brent at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Bali & Lembeh Strait Workshops (Sept '16)   |   La Paz Big Animal Photo Trip (Oct '16)   |   Sri Lanka Wrecks & Reefs OR Whales & Dolphins Workshops (Feb '17)   |   Alor, Indonesia small group Photo Trip (Oct '17)

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


Go behind the scenes on our Philippine Siren liveaboard workshop
By Ron Watkins

Inside Look at a Philippines Liveaboard Photo Workshop

Ron Watkins
Go behind the scenes on our Philippine Siren liveaboard workshop

After several land-based dive trips to the Philippines, it was exciting to be leading the Bluewater Photo Workshop aboard the Philippine Siren on a 12-day special itinerary designed to dive the best the Visayas Sea has to offer and maximize photography opportunities.  Prior to this trip, I received numerous questions from people about what lenses they should bring and my advice was, “No regrets! If you have it, better bring it.”

This trip featured the smallest critters (baby frogfish, skeleton crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs, seahorses) to the largest fish (whale sharks) and amazing reefs and everything in between.  So the hardest choice of the day for many of us, after deciding which way to have your eggs prepared, was which lens to use for each dive.  But the fact that we would hit some of the best sites multiple times made this decision a little less stressful, as did the advice of the dive masters. The trip included an available 40 dives (typically 3 day / 1 night) at sites around Balicasag, Cabilao, Oslob, Dauin Coast, Apo Island, Moalboal, and Malapascua, which took us completely around the large Island of Cebu in a clockwise direction.



Check out Ron's photo gear:

Nikon D800, Tokina 10-17mm, Sea&Sea D800 housing, dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes


 

Cabilao

“So what are you waiting for?”

This was not only the mantra of the Philippine Siren crew; they used it when the food was ready to eat and after the dive briefings to get everyone moving and in the water.  We dove off of the ship's 2 inflatable skiffs in three groups, which intended to spread things out at the dive sites and make for less chaos on the dive deck.  Our fist day was spent diving at various sites at Cabilao just off the island of Bohol.  The sites around Cabilao, like most of the sites, are great macro sites because the reefs are teaming with critters and fish. Sites like Gorgonian Wall and Lighthouse have incredible walls and reefs covered with large soft corals, sponges and sea fans making for terrific wide-angle photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo left: A stealthy scorpionfish patiently waits in this purple on the side of a wall at Cabilao. ISO 200, F/16, 1/200
Photo right: The healthy soft coral of Cabilao. ISO 200, F/16, 1/250

 

 

Balicasag

For the next two days, we called the waters around Balicasag home and dove sites called Sanctuary, Black Forest, Turtle Point, Diver’s Heaven, and Rudy’s Rock.  Black Forest and Turtle Point were green sea turtle paradise with large fields of turtle grass like an all-you-can-eat buffet.  These were some of the healthiest and largest turtles I have ever seen.  If you approached them slowly and looked down and pretended to eat grass like them, you could get very close to the turtles.

But turtles weren’t the only star of Balicasag.  The surrounding walls and reefs were teaming with purple anthias, fang blennies, schools of long jawed mackerel and jacks, lionfish, snake eels, several varieties of nembrotha and chromodoris nudibranchs, and various crustaceans all over.  There was a reason we did two full days of diving here and dived some of the sites multiple times.  Our dives at Balicasag made it difficult to choose a lens when not diving in the turtle grass, so I added a section on shooting macro with wide-angle lenses to my workshop.  No need to pass up on that fish behavior, the new nudibranch or other small critter just because you didn’t have your macro lens on.

 

 

Oslob

The town of Oslob on the Island of Cebu is a unique opportunity to dive with whale sharks.  Several years ago, the local fisherman had problems with whale sharks getting caught in their nets so they decided to throw handfuls of shrimp in the water away from the nets.  This resolved the net problem but they found the whale sharks hung around their boats waiting for a free meal.  So the Oslob locals decided to set up eco-tourism to educate people on the whale sharks and to support research.  This form of eco-tourism is somewhat controversial because of the modified behavior of the whale sharks, but their research has shown that only a few sharks have continued to frequent the shallows of Oslob regularly and that most only hang out for a short time as they pass by the area.  And by noon, the whale sharks typically leave the area and travel to the waters off of Cebu for the majority of their feeding.  We received an educational briefing on the whale sharks and then set out at the crack of dawn to scuba dive with them.  Typically, people actually snorkel with them and are not permitted to scuba dive with whale sharks.  This was a unique experience and for those on the trip that had never seen a whale shark, it was quite exciting and presented a different opportuity for photographs.

 

 

Dauin Coast

The Dauin Coast, also referred to as Dumaguete because of where you fly into, is critter heaven and home to some amazing muck diving.  Every dive is like a scavenger hunt and you never know what strange little creature your DM is going to point out.  When we were there, everything seemed to be mating, have eggs, or were newly born babies.  This is the exact reason that Bluewater scheduled a photo workshop at the land based Atmosphere Resort and Spa immediately after the Siren cruise ended.  This also why our Siren itinerary had three days in the area for muck diving and nearby Apo Island.  On one dive we saw 9 baby frogfish ranging in size of a small pea to the size of a quarter.  Night dives are also a treat here with frequent octopus, flamboyant cuttlefish, decorator crabs and other critters out hunting in the safety of darkness. 

 

 

Apo Island

Apo is a small little island a short distance from Dauin, and we dove three times at the Island.  Apo is known for its pristine hard coral gardens and resident population of turtles and sea snakes.  A typhoon hit Apo a few years back but it is amazing how quickly the corals and marine life have recovered where we dove.  The north side of the island is still in a protected status because it got hit the hardest and has not recovered as fast.  Visibility at Apo was not ideal the day we were there, but we were still able to enjoy the diving at Coconut Point, Chapel and Rocky Point West.  Coconut Point was a swift current dive in the beginning with several spots that were protected so that a diver could duck behind a the reef for reprieve.  The corals are very healthy along the wild ride and we saw a large school of jacks and barracuda in addition to at least a dozen sea snakes and turtles fly by.

 

 

Moalboal

The two days spent diving around Moalboal were a real treat with incredible photography diversity.

Pescador Island has a massive cavern called the cathedral that has a very eerie silhouette opening and is often full of schooling fish.  Several of us dove it twice after doing a special workshop on ambient light photography and silhouettes to improve our opportunity to capture the essence of the cavern.  The shallow reefs surrounding Pescador Island were alive with marine life and several people spent their entire dive in the shallows.  The Siren crew planned our afternoon dive at Panagsama Beach, where a resident school of over 7 million sardines resides.  It is a must-dive spot.  This was an amazing site to photograph, video and just watch the mesmerizing flow of the school.  The school was so thick at times that when it passed overhead, day became night with the eclipse.  We also dove at Sanctuary for some great macro and later a small airplane wreck at 90’ that the siren had never visited but two of our guests had previously dove.  The plane provided a great backdrop for some creative photographs with the help of our experienced and brave diver Dan McGanty.

 

 

Malapascua

If you are a big animal photographer and you hear "Malapasqua," you immediately think of thresher sharks, as it is one of the only places that you can consistently see them at a cleaning station.  I dove with the thresher sharks of Malapasqua several years earlier and they were one of the star attractions on this itinerary that people wanted to see.  Unfortunately after two early morning dives to 90ft on the cleaning station the illusive sharks proved that wildlife is just that, wild and free to roam.  It was very rare that they did not make an appearance, but actually had not been seen for several days, so we will need to return and try our luck another time.  But we were all treated to several friendly spotted eagle rays near the surface, which is a treat.  Malapasqua also has good macro diving and lots of soft coral, so we took advantage of the great photo opportunities that Mother Nature presented.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo left: A graceful spotted eagle ray swims below (Converted to B&W in Lightroom). ISO 1000, F/8, 1/125
Photo right: Cuttlefish on night dive. ISO 200, F/20, 1/125

 

 

 

Fo more info on diving the Philippines, where to find the best animals, photo encounters and best dive resorts and liveaboards, visit Bluewater Travel or email bookings@bluewaterdivetravel.com.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. More of Ron’s photography may be viewed at www.scubarews.com.

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


Find out why the Galapagos Islands should be your #1 destination for underwater photography and videography
By Scott Gietler

5 Amazing UW Photo Encounters in the Galapagos

Scott Gietler
Find out why the Galapagos Islands should be your #1 destination for underwater photography and videography

When I visited the Galapagos Islands in late January 2016, I was unaware that I was about to have a trip of a lifetime. I was hoping to see some big animals underwater, but I was unaware how extraordinary these encounters would be. Please allow me to share them with you, along with some tips on how to capture these types of underwater photos.

Hammerhead Sharks

Wolf and Darwin Islands offer close, intimate encounters with hammerhead sharks. Over and over and over again. The trick is to sign up for a trip that is going to *really* focus on hammerheads - # of dives, where you are going to dive, and being with a group that will "follow the rules" for close hammerhead encounters.

A lens with a little reach is essential, as is constantly doing practise shots, using a setup you are very familiar with, and using gear that can focus fast and shoot fast. Jan - June will offer clearer water for better quality photos.

Be prepared for a shot as you enter the water, because there will often be hammerhead sharks shallow where you drop in the water, and you may have 5 or 10 seconds to get a couple of shots before they decide to leave the area. Turn on your camera & strobes and set your strobe power correctly right before dropping into the water.

To photograph hammerheads, do not swim towards them, or swim in the water column, or away from the reef. You must hide behind a rock, and hope that they will swim over the rock near you. In a sense you are "hiding" a little bit. It helps if there have not been any divers swimming around blowing bubbles around your rock in the previous 20 minutes.

Galapagos hammerhead shark

Hammerhead shark underwater photography tips

Galapagos hammerhead shark underwater

Schooling hammerhead sharks

Schooling hammerhead sharks

Rays - Eagle, Manta and Mobula

The Galapagos is full of rays - stingrays, manta rays, mobula rays, marbled rays, you name it. A good ray photo is carefully composed so the shot is taken when the wings are in the optimal position. Background exposure is also important to bring in the necessary amount of ambient light. Cabo Marshall is a great area for photographing rays, but it may take several dives to get the right conditions. Don't be afraid to swim "off reef" into the blue a little bit, as that as where a ray or group of rays may appear right in front of your eyes.

Galapagos Manta Ray

Eagle Ray

Mobula Rays

Mola mola - Oceanic Sunfish

The Mola mola were the highlight of my Galapagos trip. Group dynamics are key, because it only takes one diver to scare away the Mola mola. Doing a custom photo itinerary will allow you to do more dives looking for Mola mola than a regular Galapagos dive trip will permit. Punta Vicente Roca is where we saw them.

Mola mola Galapagos

Oceanic sunfish

Birds - Galapagos Penguins & Flightless Cormorants

There is nothing that can compare to the first time you see a bird underwater. They are fast moving, fish seeking missles that sometimes act like they really don't care that you are around. "Catch me if you can", they say.

Flightless cormorant

Galapagos Penguin

Red-lipped Batfish

The red-lipped batfish is a strange looking, deep dwelling fish that just begs to be photographed. The can move swiftly and don't like posing for photos, so getting a good shot can be more difficult than you would think. This is the one dive that I decided to switch to my macro lens.Red-lipped Batfish

Bonus encounter: Yellowfin Tuna

One of my favorite encounters in the Galapagos was with a pair of yellowfin tuna at Wolf Island that continuously made close passes to myself and my dive buddy, following us from a 20ft safety stop, down to 60ft, and thern back up to 20ft, looking at us the entire time.

Yellowfin tuna

Yellowfin tuna underwater photo

Equipment Used

In the Galapagos, I used the Nikon 16-35mm F4 lens almost exclusively for my underwater photography. The lens was the perfect choice, and I will be publishing a full review of the lens soon. The exception is the red-lipped batfish, where I used a Nikon 60mm macro lens behind a Zen 4-inch glass dome port. I used a Sea & Sea Nikon D810 underwater housing, with twin Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes.

What boat did I use

I was on the Galapagos Master, an excellent boat with nice cabins, a large comfortable lounge, and a safety conscious crew. Other great choices are the Humbolt Explorer, Galapagos Sky, and the Galapagos Aggressor. If you are thinking about a trip, email me and I can advise you the best time to go, and I can usually get you a special deal on a group or personal trip on one of the 4 boats I mentioned, through my dive travel wholesale company. I am also running more trips to the Galapagos in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Well I hope you enjoyed this article. If you want more information, or wish to see some land animal photos and underwater video - you can read my complete Galapagos trip report. - Scott

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Gietler is the owner of Bluewater Photo, Bluewater Travel, and the Underwater Photography Guide. Bluewater Photo, based in Santa Monica, CA is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious underwater camera stores, serving many thousands of customers each year, where nothing is more important than customer service. The Underwater Photography Guide is the world’s first website to feature free tutorials on underwater photography, and has become the most trafficked resource on underwater photography worldwide. Bluewater Travel is a full-service dive travel wholesaler sending groups and individuals on the world’s best dive vacations. 

Scott is also an avid diver, underwater photographer, and budding marine biologist, having created the online guide to the underwater flora and fauna of Southern California. He is the past vice-president of the Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society, has volunteered extensively at the Santa Monica aquarium, and is the creator of the Ocean Art underwater photo competition, one of the largest underwater international photo competitions ever held in terms of value of prizes. He lives in California with his wife, newborn girl and scuba-diving, photo taking 4 year old son.

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


Photo adventure through the Mexico cenotes, including the best cenotes for photography, photo tips, travel advice, natural history and more
By Brent Durand

Diving the Mexico Cenotes

Brent Durand
Photo adventure through the Mexico cenotes, including the best cenotes for photography, photo tips, travel advice, natural history and more

The Mayans believed that the cenotes where entryways into a sacred underground world. The dwellings of the rain god, Chaak, cenotes openings were used in special rituals and sacrificial events that coincide with a complicated celestial calendar.

Today there are still communities practicing rain ceremonies, however many more have learned just how special the cenotes really are. Divers from all over the world descend into the cool blue waters to explore the expansive system of caverns, tunnels and secret rooms lit by stunning sun rays under the jungle canopy.

Research buzzes in the cenotes as well, with discoveries of ancient skeletons up to 13,000 years old and even the bones of a mastodon.

 

What are the Cenotes?

Cenotes, aka sinkholes, are the upper portion of an expansive network of underwater cave systems in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico that expand all the way into the mountains of Belize. And while the cenotes are not all connected, many feed into vast local cave networks.

The cenotes were formed many years ago as tectonic plates shifted, raising coral reef systems above the surface of the ocean. Over time, this coral limestone was slowly eroded by rainwater, creating the caves and chambers of the cenotes. The rise and fall of water levels helped create the magnificent stalactites and stalagmites that divers see today.

Many of the cenotes are deep enough to connect to the water table, which in turn connects to the ocean. This unique setup means that the freshwater sits on top of saltwater. The area where they meet creates a halocline, which can only be descibed as a hazy interface between the layers. Divers who are able to visit less-frequented cenotes will be able to see these layers in their natural state (before being disturbed by passing divers), where even a slight frog kick twitch will send a burst of hazy water spiraling into the layer below.

 

A diver swims through a halocline in Eden cenote. Sony a7R II with Sony 28mm + fisheye converter. ISO 6400, f/5, 1/30.

 

Sometimes the most unique cenotes are a bit off the beaten path.

 

A Typical Cenotes Trip

Playa Del Carmen is the ideal home base for visiting the cenotes, although diving can be also be done while staying in Cancun or Cozumel. There are many different operators who typically offer two dives per day with hotel/resort pickup and return, plus lunch. Our dive travel agency, Bluewater Travel, works with several excellent operators whose guides are fun, talented divers with full cave certifications. View our list of cenotes diving operators.

The most popular cenotes will generally have the best on-site facilities (bathrooms, changing rooms, tables for gear and even souvenirs), while the less popular and more advanced cenotes will feel more raw. Several cenotes, like Dos Ojos and Eden, offer snorkeling in the pools for non-divers.

One important note is that cenotes dives explore areas where an exit is always within sight, so while you are diving in an overhead environment, a full cave certification and tech-oriented gear is not necessary. Following the line and instructions of your guide remains critical to a fun dive, and the routes will occasionally feel like you're deep in a cave.

The cenotes water temperature is about 77F, so a good 3mil wetsuit is fine for most (5mil if you get cold easily). They can be dived year-round, with varying beams of light depending on time of day and season; fun times for photographers. Air temps are warm but mild in the winter months and hot with chance of mosquitos during summer months. Visibility is incredible in the cenotes.

Accommodation ranges from all-inclusive party resorts to quiet white-sand beach retreats. And with 26 different cenotes, divers can visit for an intensive dive week or just add one scuba dive day to their Riviera Maya vacation.

 


Book your Cenotes Trip!

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect cenotes dive trip, including excursions to Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and more. Visit Bluewater's Yucutan Scuba Diving page or email bookings@bluewaterdivetravel.com.


 

 

The Cenotes in Photos

These photos were shot during the Bluewater Photo small group cenotes & sailfish trip in late February. A huge thanks to our incredible guides (who have budding dive model careers ;- )) Cesar and Nico of Scuba Playa, based in Playa Del Carmen.

Gear used for these photos:  Sony a7R II, Sony 28mm lens + fisheye converter, Sea&Sea YS-D1 strobes. Shot in the a7R II's APS-C / Super 35 (crop sensor) mode.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gear used for these photos:  Sony a7R IISony 28mm lens + fisheye converterSea&Sea YS-D1 strobes.

 

Got questions about the cenotes or photography in the cenotes? I'm happy to share my experiences - just email brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image-maker from California.
BrentDurand.com   |  Facebook  |  Instagram

Brent is the editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and leads several photo trips and workshops for Bluewater Photo (see below).  Email Brent at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Bali & Lembeh Strait Workshops (Sept '16)   |   La Paz Big Animal Photo Trip (Oct '16)   |   Sri Lanka Wrecks & Reefs OR Whales & Dolphins Workshops (Feb '17)   |   Alor, Indonesia small group Photo Trip (Oct '17)

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


Schooling Silky Sharks are rarely seen - except in the waters surrounding a secluded rock in Columbian waters, known among regulars as "The Rock"
By Mikhail Kisin

Silky Sharks of Malpelo Island

Mikhail Kisin
Schooling Silky Sharks are rarely seen - except in the waters surrounding a secluded rock in Columbian waters, known among regulars as "The Rock"

Located in the tropical region of Eastern Pacific, three hundred miles due West of the Colombian coast, the Island of Malpelo sits well off the beaten path. Only recently has it evolved from a “what's that” curiosity into a bucket-list dive destination offering unique opportunities for big-fish encounters (see our Malpelo Dive Guide). “The Rock” is a marvel of nature in itself. Inhospitable and awe-inspiring, the vertical cliffs of the island are at the same time mysteriously relaxing. For the rapidly growing number of Malpelo fans, the Rock is not just a favorite place where they go to dive – it is more like a Cathedral where you go to worship.

The sense of solitude here is absolute. Only one dive boat, with no more than 16 divers on board, is allowed in Malpelo waters at any one time. This means that the divemaster is free to choose the best dive site for the current conditions without worrying about a crowd. This isn’t always the case with other ocean island in the eastern Pacific. The most convenient liveaboard for Malpelo is Panama-based MV Yemaya.

 


Book Your Trip to Malpelo Island

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect Malpelo Island dive trip.

 

Email bookings@bluewaterdivetravel.com for more info.

 

Liveaboard MV Yemaya in Malpelo waters.

 

The Fish

Malpelo is most commonly known for astonishing diversity of Pacific fish and year-round schooling hammerhead sharks. Gigantic whale sharks cruise the islands waters in summer, and moray eels are so abundant here that you can often see them free-swimming in the daylight. But the most emblematic Malpelo specialty is, of course, the schooling silkies.

The silky sharks, so named after their smooth skin, bear the scientific name Carcharhinus, which is derived from the Greek "karcharos" (sharp) and "rhinos" (nose) and fairly reflects the shape of the shark’s snout. Silky sharks are curious creatures, highly responsive to water splashing. This often lures them into the fishing nets and makes Silkies the most common shark bycatch in gill net fishing. 

 

 

Silky sharks are casual warm-water inhabitants. You can run into a large aggregation of silkies in practically all tropical waters, yet only in Malpelo do they school like the hammerheads. Classic schooling behavior includes swimming in the same direction, tightly packed together, and in a seemingly organized and coordinated manner. An organized pack of hundreds of sharks might sound frightening and, indeed, at 10 feet and armed with sharp teeth, silky sharks are potentially dangerous - but certainly not when they are schooling like this.

 

 

The Shark School

Shark schooling is still a mystery. Even for hammerhead sharks, whose schooling behavior has been observed for years, there is no firm consensus on the reason why the sharks amass in some special places in such big numbers. They do not mate, they do not feed, and they are definitely not aggressive when schooling. Another basic aspect of everyday fish life – cleaning – looks rather like a distraction from schooling than the purpose of the school itself. The benefit of swimming energetics, which is obvious for light-zipping tuna schools, is doubtful for relatively slow-moving sharks. Predator confusion and avoidance, so important for small anchovies and sardines, is even less an issue for sharks. Apparently, shark schooling is more advanced, probably social type of activity, so it is not accidental that the more sociable silkies often intermix with hammerhead schools while sharks mixing the other way around are quite uncommon. 

 

 

Silkies school in Malpelo’s waters during the summer season, from May to August. Interestingly, another place where schools of Silky Sharks have been also observed, though not on such a regular basis as in Malpelo, is another “Rock” in Mexican waters – the famous Roca Partida of the Revillagigedos (Socorro) Archipelago. Actually, both islands have a lot in common – both are solitary batholiths, protruding from the ocean abyss and serving – one of the guesses – as navigation points for big pelagic fish migrations. 

 

 

Despite being one of the highlights in diving Malpelo, schooling Silky Sharks are still rare, and encountering a school is by no means guaranteed. Four of my five Malpelo trips were scheduled during summer seasons but only the last one (the 2015 El Niño year) eventually brought me that opportunity. If you want to assure the success of your trip, pay attention to the divemaster blog on the MV Yemaya website. There, you will find the invaluable information about current conditions in Malpelo and prognoses for the rest of the season. And, finally, when you do see the school, how do you bring home that incredible photo?

 

Shooling Silky Sharks Photo Tips

As a photographer facing schooling silky sharks, the first and most important decision you have to make is if you want to capture the school as an entity or if you need it just as a backdrop for a solitary shark picture. Both options are readily available with schooling silkies. They are not as shy as hammerhead sharks and the encounter will most likely happen in the open blue water. For shooting portraits, you can move carefully and actually get inside the school. The main school will keep a little distance, but some most curious sharks will eagerly come in for a close-up, leaving the remaining sharks as a nice background.

 

 

Shark close-ups are very tempting, but remember to mix it up and shoot a variety of compositions. During my last lucky trip, we had schooling Silkies every day and on every dive, literally getting spoiled by the generosity of Malpelo Island. To my dismay, I found myself without the most valuable shot - the picture of the entire school. Think ahead and plan properly. For this article, we have included a classic photo of Malpelo’s schooling silkies taken by outstanding Czech photographer Tomáš Kotouč. 

 

The school. Photo Tomáš Kotouč, with permission.

 

Unlike schooling hammerheads, the warm water loving silky sharks usually stay in the top “blue” layer of the water column. This gives the fortunate photographer more ambient light as well as better overall dive conditions and provides more choices for shooting. Some choices, however, may be hard to make. One of the toughest decisions is whether or not to use strobes. The great visibility of blue water is often spoiled by the abundance of suspended plankton in the upper levels, and in this situation, avoiding the flash entirely might be a wise choice for shooting the full school.

 

More Schooling Fish

Though schooling silkies still somewhat rare at Malpelo, other schooling fish are generally not. Schooling Pacific barracudas and big-eye jacks are guaranteed in Malpelo, just like seeing some free-swimming Moray eels. Dense polarized schools of small snappers and grunts are also a common sight in Eastern Pacific. A site unique to Malpelo are the extraordinarily large schools of mullet snappers, which otherwise prefer swimming in pairs or in small groups of only a few fish. 

 

 

 

 

Also by Mikhail Kisin

Other Recommended Articles

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mikhail Kisin is a Russian physicist struggling to match his tightfisted vacation time to the generous travel opportunities of the New World. He writes for two Russian dive magazines. If your liveaboard is booked by Russians, blame him.

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Discovering a world of macro photo possibilities in a wide angle photography hot spot
By Mark Hatter

Never Leave Your Macro Gear at Home

Mark Hatter
Discovering a world of macro photo possibilities in a wide angle photography hot spot

At 96 feet I crept sideways to the incoming current, completely prone against the rubble bottom.  Like a starfish, I splayed arms and legs and used my critter probe like an ice pick in my left hand to hold position.  I was glad to have swapped my dome port for my macro rig; less buoyant and more streamlined, it was far less of a sail in the pushing tide.  My chin to the rubble, I scanned for my target in excellent visibility.  Then, there they were, a small colony of them scattered about over a square meter of bottom, perched and vigilant at the entrance of their hidey-holes.

I smiled inwardly and clicked away at the Banded Shrimp Gobies and Alpheus shrimp, the nearly blind commensal house-mates to the gobies, until the physics of compressed gas at depth forced me to leave.  My smile was not so much borne from finding the colony, but more from the irony of the guidance provided by the other divers before I left the U.S. for my trip to Fakarava and Rangiroa, French Polynesia. “Leave your macro setup at home,” they advised, “this trip will be all about large animals.”  Thankfully, I had elected to ignore the advice.

To be sure, the trip was fantastic, filled with all of the wide angle subjects promoted.  Indeed, I loaded memory cards with plenty of large animals - certainly enough to keep me busy for weeks in post-production work.  But I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be disappointed in bringing my macro gear at the chance of changing the game just a bit; and I certainly wasn’t.

Over the course of 10 days I had plenty of time to survey sites for macro opportunities between sightings of big animals.  And, there were a number of “filler dives” on off-tide cycles where just getting wet was the main objective; perfect dives to exploit the virtues of macro.  From Fire Dartfish to Blue Green Chromis, varieties of hawkfishes and butterflyfishes to coral polyps and feather duster worms, these dives had plenty to offer. 

Late in our trip in another bit of irony, I elected to shoot macro on a dive where the group had hoped to see a pod of dolphins.  My decision was purely based on the odds, for the previous week the dolphins had proved elusive to the groups of divers in search of them and, the reef was loaded with Pygmy Flame Angelfish.  I didn’t have the Flame Angelfish in my image collection and they are poor subject matter for anything less than one-to-one (macro) image shooting.

“You know what’s going to happen,” our group leader said to me as we rigged for the dive.  “The dolphin are sure to come and play because you are using macro!”  He was right!  The pod arrived almost immediately and was particularly playful with the divers.  And everyone got great images.  Well, almost everyone... but I nailed my Flame Angelfish image and was completely happy with my choice.

 

French Polynesia Underwater Macro

 

 

This was my main target, shot on an incoming tide at 96 feet at the bottom of Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.  I expected to find shrimp gobies in the rubble at the bottom of the pass and was not disappointed!

 

 

Oddly, I did not see a single Flame Angelfish in Fakarava.  However, in Rangiroa, they were literally everywhere below 60 feet.  Yeah, I missed the dolphins but nailed the shot of this beauty at 70 Feet in Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

Fakarava Atoll has some of the best coral coverage I’ve ever encountered; nearly 100%. Many species exhibited full polyp extension, even during broad daylight.  This Acropora species was no exception; I shot this coral on the wall at 40 feet in Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

While most hawkfish are easily approached, this species is exceptionally shy.  I had to work hard to get just a few images of this species.  In this image you can see a second Flame Hawkfish hiding deep within the coral head.  I shot this at 50 Feet in Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

Like the shrimp gobies, these fish like rubble bottoms in deeper water, I found them in the middle of the pass at depths below 60 feet.  This shot was taken at 65 feet in Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

Large stony corals often house feather duster or Christmas tree worms within their structures, I found this worm at 40 feet on a large stony coral in Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

One afternoon on an outgoing tide, we dived an expansive shallow plateau on the far side of Tuamotu Pass.  The reef abounded with many different species of butterflyfish.  I found this one at 25 feet; Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

I’ve seen plenty of trumpetfish in my journeys to different places around the world but never one this brilliant yellow.  This fish was hanging between two large bommies at 40 feet inside Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

The ubiquitous and colorful blue-green Chromis is always a camera friendly macro target.  These schooling fish were common above 30 feet everywhere in Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

Moray eels are generally one of the most macro friendly subjects on the reef when you can find them.  I found this one at 35 Feet in Tiputa Pass, Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia.

 

 

On a slack-tide dive in the pass channel right off the diving dock at Tuamotu Pass, Fakarava Atoll, French Polynesia, I found this octopus at 70 feet.  I only was able to capture a few shots before it slunk back into the reef.   

 

 


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Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Hatter has been diving and shooting underwater images since 1980. Although relatively new to underwater photojournalism, Mark has traveled extensively writing and shooting images for fly fishing publications for more than two decades.  His fly fishing images, including multiple cover shots, and feature articles have been published in nearly two dozen magazines titles.   

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An inside look at the diving, safety, photo gear and planning involved for American Crocodile photos
By Ken Kiefer

Photographing Crocs: Behind the Scenes

Ken Kiefer
An inside look at the diving, safety, photo gear and planning involved for American Crocodile photos

About a year ago, I started seeing pictures of saltwater crocodiles pop up every once in a while on social media.  And these pictures differed from the ones that I had seen in the past because they were from underwater.  Immediately I had another item added to my ‘Bucket List’.  The idea of being in the water with these toothy dinosaurs greatly appealed to me. 

This adventure is a bit off the beaten path.  Snorkeling safely with saltwater crocodiles begins with a flight to Cancun and a 6-hour bus ride to Xcalak, Mexico.   Xcalak, which I still have problems pronouncing correctly, is a small-secluded town near the border with Belize.  It is a wonderful relaxed area with beautiful beaches and almost virgin diving.  Anything we did not need for the 3 days with the crocs stayed at our hotel Casa Carolina, which was a great convenience.  We headed out early in the morning for Chinchorro Banks, with everything we needed for the 3-day adventure.  The boat ride from Xcalak to Chinchorro is a bit of a 2-hour rodeo, with plenty of bucking bronco training on the chop a bonus.  It’s definitely not a pleasure cruise J   Once we arrived at the outer reefs though, I forgot all about the bus and boat ride!  No boats in sight, and miles and miles of pristine coral reefs teeming with life!

 

 

American croc at chinchorro banks

 

American croc at chinchorro banks

 

About Chinchorro Banks and the Crocs

The Chinchorro Banks is a coral atoll, located about 30 miles from the Yucatan peninsula.  There are no permanent settlements on the atoll, so we would be staying for the three days in a fisherman shack over the water.  The Banks are designated a Biosphere Reserve, and permits are required to visit. 

The crocodiles at Chinchorro are American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).  In the past, crocodile populations were hugely decreased due to over-exploitation, habitat destruction, and illegal hunting throughout Mexico.  Luckily, the Mexican Government was very proactive once this population on the atoll was discovered, and has taken measures to ensure their protection.  The approximately 400 crocodiles at Chinchorro are the most pure strain of American Crocodiles currently in existence, primarily because of their distance from the mainland and any real possibility of interspecies breeding.  It is not known exactly how these crocodiles made their way to the atoll…

 

American croc at chinchorro banks

 

We had a small generator to charge batteries and brought everything else with us that we would need for the duration, including water, food, etc.  Pack light for this portion, with only what you are going to need because space is at a premium.

Besides my first time swimming with crocodiles, I also had a first time experiencing a compost toilet.  Gotta say… it’s better than a porta potty : )

 

American crocodile at chinchorro banks

 

 

Diving and Photographing the Crocs

lionfish scuba diving at chinchorro banksEach morning we would explore a new beautiful dive site on the reefs with scuba gear.  Besides enjoying the unspoiled reefs on these dives, we helped protect the area by harvesting the invasive lionfish.  After removing the poisonous barbs from the lionfish, we used their carcasses to keep the crocodiles interested in hanging out with us.

The guides from XTC wore many hats, and excelled at all of them.  At times they were our cooks/dive guides/ safety divers/ luggage handlers and much more. 

As the crocodiles were attracted and given some lionfish snacks, we observed each individual and paid close attention to their mannerisms and energy level.  2 divers and a safety diver were allowed in the water when the conditions were deemed safe to do so.  The other guides kept watch at all times to make sure no crocodiles approached unseen.  If the situation became questionable at any time, everyone was removed from the water until everything was under control.

 

diving with crocs at chincorro

 

The crocodiles are wild animals, and divers must utilize the knowledge from the experts and follow all rules that have been designed for safety.  Staying focused on the crocodiles at all times is a must. 

I would suggest being an experienced diver, preferably accustomed to being in the water with large animals before joining this type of expedition.  Also, the more comfortable you are with your camera equipment and settings, the better.  You will have to get out of the water any time you need to adjust your camera/strobes/equipment. 

 

diving with crocs at chincorro

 

diving with crocs at chincorro

 

 

Tips for Photographing Crocodiles

  • Be patient and follow the guide’s instructions closely.

  • Move very slowly and carefully – the silt on the bottom is very fine and if disturbed, it can cloud the water easily.

  • Bring a wide-angle lens.  The crocodiles range from 8 to 13 feet and will be close.

  • Pack lightly, but bring multiple batteries and memory cards.

 

Ken's Gear Profile

All images taken with Canon 5Ds or 5D Mark III in Ikelite housing with Canon 8-15mm fisheye and two Ikelite DS161 strobes.

 

American croc at chinchorro banks

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ken Kiefer is an underwater photographer that specializes in big animals and fashion/fitness shoots.  He uses his images of sharks to educate children about the realities of sharks –vs- media portrayal.  

View more of Ken's work at: www.kenkiefer.com.

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Essential tips for bringing home great shots when you have no resort or liveaboard home base
By Brent Durand

Photo Tips for Adventure Diving and Expeditions

Brent Durand
Essential tips for bringing home great shots when you have no resort or liveaboard home base

Bleary-eyed, I shifted into neutral and rolled the car to an open space between the trees. Coyotes howled at the new arrival. A horse kicked a bucket off in the dark beyond the fence. I looked up and saw a meteor streak across the sky before settling into my seat for a few hours of sleep on the long drive north.

This wasn’t even the start of the adventures awaiting our group of divers in Mendocino County, California. We kayaked to secluded beaches, freedived offshore pinnacles, scrambled down cliffs in heavy gear, scuba dived through massive sea caves and of course, ate amazing food every night at camp. As a photographer, I had my hands full trying to capture the action each day, as there are a lot of logistics and efficiencies that need to be dialed-in in order to capture some of the best moments of any “do it yourself” dive trip. Here are some tips to help on your next adventure dive or expedition.

 

1.  Do Your Research

This goes without saying. The basics are determining whether you are looking for unique critters, documenting your dive buddies in action or telling a story as a photojournalist. Once you know this, you can start doing more research on what would make an iconic shot (like an abalone or giant green anemone in Mendocino), the marine life of the area, access to dive sites and what gear you will take to get the shots in mind. Do you want a small dome port for close focus wide-angle or a large dome port for split-shots? Will you need to bring your video lights?  Is there a dive site you absolutely must dive to find a critter? The list goes on.

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

 

2.  Know Your Gear Intimately

Adventure diving and expeditions generally don’t allow for as many dives as an easy resort or liveaboard trip, which means that you have less time to get the shots. Knowing your gear inside and out will help you maximize time. What settings will you use for different conditions or photo styles? How will you pair down and streamline your gear for freediving off a kayak? Can you use a multi-purpose lens to shoot wide and macro? Make sure to bring tools in case something comes loose.

When you know your gear well, you’ll also be faster at daily maintenance, allowing you to enjoy more time with your non-photo dive buddies.

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

3.  Have a System

As underwater photographers, most of us have a very precise system for organizing various camera gear, chargers and accessories. Adapting this system to life on the move is essential for adventure diving. You may need to make quick lens and port changes out of your crammed car in windy or misty weather, or change batteries in a dusty parking lot. Finding running water to rinse your gear can be a joke. The last thing you want is to be stressed looking for that focus light clamp you put somewhere you swore you would remember, then finally getting into the water to realize you forgot your dive computer (no, phew, that didn’t happen to me).

If you keep your gear organized then all this “camera admin” (and housing maintenance) will be a breeze.  

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

 

4.  Prepare Your Level of Fitness

Being a photographer is tough work. Not only are you keeping up with the other divers, but you’re carrying your heavy camera, thinking about photo opportunities on the dive and often running or swimming ahead to set up a shot. Staying as fit (or more fit than) your dive buddies will make this hustle a lot easier while also making you a safer diver.

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

 

 

5.  Bring Two Cameras, Batteries, Memory Cards

 

When I'm shooting on the road and posting content online every day, there's no time to waste. Gear maintenance and editing often happen after others have gone to sleep. Here are a few tips to maximize time:

  • Bring Two Cameras:  Taking your camera in and out of the housing takes time and creates more opportunity for a mistake that could lead to a devastating flood. Plus, if you're on an exposed boat, kayak or other places where you shouldn't be opening your housing - you don't have to.

  • Bring Extra Memory Cards and Batteries:  If you're shooting the same gear configuration all you need to do is pop open the housing, swap card and batteries and close it back up. Now you can put the housing back away, ready for action.

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

 

Dive Expedition Photo tips

 

There we go - hopefully a step closer to an epic underwater photo adventure. Be safe out there!

 

Further Reading


Author's Gear Profile

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brent Durand is a weekend wanderer, story teller and image-maker from California.
BrentDurand.com   |  Facebook  |  Instagram

Brent is the editor of the Underwater Photography Guide and leads several photo trips and workshops for Bluewater Photo (see below).  Email Brent at brent@uwphotographyguide.com.

Bali & Lembeh Strait Workshops (Sept '16)   |   La Paz Big Animal Photo Trip (Oct '16)   |   Sri Lanka Wrecks & Reefs OR Whales & Dolphins Workshops (Feb '17)   |   Alor, Indonesia small group Photo Trip (Oct '17)

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What Photographers Need to Know about Diving Bimini's Hammerhead Headquarters
By Shane Gross

The Hammerheads of Bimini

Shane Gross
What Photographers Need to Know about Diving Bimini's Hammerhead Headquarters

 

In January of 2013 I saw Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center posting beautiful pictures of great hammerhead sharks. Like any shark lover and underwater photographer would in that circumstance, I immediately messaged them and asked how I could join the action. Three days later I was underwater with my absolute favorite shark. At the time it was a revelation; a new spot that promised what no other could. Fast forward only two years and the spot is famous in the dive community and countless divers have had the extreme pleasure of diving with these most amazing of animals. I have since been back and it is better than ever!

 

Bimini Hammerhead Shark

Bimini Hammerhead Shark and scuba diver

 

 

Great Hammerheads

There are at least ten different species of hammerhead sharks. The great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) is the largest, with some estimating they can grow to twenty feet in length. The ones we were diving with in Bimini were adults, mostly female, around 9-12 feet long – they are big sharks.

The hammer season runs from December through April with peak time in January and February. There are many operators offering to go there. I have been out with both Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center and Epic Diving. Both operators were fantastic in how they interacted with the sharks, helped me get the shot, used nice boats and provided great food. Both operators are land-based. The hammer site is only a 5 minute boat ride from any of the resorts or hotels and the site is on the lee side of the island (usually protected), however, the winter weather can still kick up, causing divers to miss a day or two of diving.

In 2013 the hammerheads took about an hour to show up, while in 2015 they only took about 15 minutes. They are generally only around in the afternoon, with boats leaving the dock around noon or 1pm, which frees up the mornings to see some of the other sites Bimini has to offer (see next section).

 

Bimini Hammerhead Shark

 

Bimini Hammerhead Shark

 

Bimini Hammerhead Shark

 

The dives are usually only in about 15-20 feet of water, so they can last well over two hours. The feeder (expert shark handlers only please!) will bring down a bait box with some fish chunks to bring the sharks in close and keep them interested. The guests will form a “V” shape letting the scent from the box go down the middle. The sharks follow the scent to the bait box and all the guests get a great view. Full, dark wetsuits and gloves are needed and if you get cold quickly, like I do, a hood would make sense.

The sharks are pretty well behaved; it’s clear they are only interested in snacking on the fish scraps and not on people. The first time I did the dive I was told that there is no record of any human ever being killed by a hammerhead shark and while I cannot confirm, I would not be surprised if it were true. However, they are large predators deserving of our respect, so follow the rules! If you do, it should be an extremely safe dive and I can attest that it is super fun. If you don’t come up with a smile on your face, well, you may be the first.

 

Bimini Hammerhead Shark

 

 

About Bimini

The two tiny islands of Bimini (North and South) in the Bahamas are located not too far from the Florida east coast. The Gulf Stream runs right alongside Bimini, which, among other reasons, means the diversity of life is huge. Get ready to wrap your head around this list:

  • Great Hammerhead Sharks in the winter. This is already enough to make it a dream destination.
  • Bull sharks in the marina. The Bimini Big Game Club has a cage off the end of their dock and you can have them fed in front of your face.
  • Baby lemon and nurse sharks in the mangroves. Not only in the wild, but you can visit the Bimini Biological Field Station (Sharklab) to have a tour and learn about these cute sharks and even pet them.
  • Seahorses in the mangroves. If you go deep in the mangroves at low tide you may be privileged to find bright orange or yellow seahorses!
  • Southern stingrays. Just south of Bimini is Gun Cay where, with a little bait, you can have stingrays literally sucking on your dome port.
  • Spotted Dolphins. I was absolutely blown away by how playful these dolphins are. They came up within touching distance, and stayed there, several times.

It’s a crazy cool list and I could keep going! Not only is the list impressive, but if you are lucky with weather you could see it all in a single week-long visit! If you go in winter.

 

atlantic spotted dolphin

 

stingray and underwater photographer

 

bahamas sea horse

 

 

Hammerhead Shark Photography

I went with a fairly basic setup. The Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens behind a big dome port proved the ticket because these large sharks come in really close. Another photographer was using an 8mm circular fisheye and filled the frame with teeth. That’s close!

It’s so shallow and bright on the sandy bottom that natural light shots can work really well. I brought my strobes, but turned them way down to try to just give a kiss of light to the underside of the shark. To avoid overexposing the sand I pointed my strobes up 45 degrees, which might look weird on other sharks, but we are talking about hammerheads here - weird is their middle name.

I tried to focus on shots that show off their hammer – from below or from above. In 2013 I took a lot of standard side-portrait shots and in many of them a lay person wouldn’t even be able to tell they were hammerheads.

I went with a fast shutter speed (1/250) to freeze the action and get the sharpest results. My Nikon D90 isn’t the best at high ISO so I keep it at 100 and then vary my aperture depending on the conditions.

I enjoyed shooting when the sun was getting low. The sun rays or sunset added an extra element of beauty. No matter what setup you bring, I would advise you to shoot lots and make time to review your images each day so that you can learn from them. The opportunities are so many that simply experimenting can lead to great results. Play around and have fun - just keep your head up and pay attention to the sharks too. Oh! And be sure to take a few minutes to yourself without worrying about the camera. These are such amazing animals. You are so freaking lucky to be there in the water with them!

 

Bimini hammerhead shark

 

Bimini hammerhead shark

 

Bimini hammerhead shark

 

 

Conclusion

Bimini is a world-class diving destination with much to see and photograph. If you choose to go, you will get hours and hours with the hammerheads and shoot all the angles you can think of. My advice is to make sure to seek out all the other amazing things Bimini has to offer. As they say “Go for the hammerheads, stay for the bulls, lemons, stingrays, seahorses and dolphins.” Well, they should say that, anyway.

As for the hammerheads we all owe a big thank you to those who found and developed the site. So thank you to the people of the Sharklab and Neal Watson’s Bimini Scuba Center. We all owe you one! Now it is up to all of us to respect the site, the sharks and not ruin a great thing.

 

Bimini hammerhead shark

 

 


Book Your Trip to Bimini

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect Bimini and Bahamas dive trip. Visit BluewaterTravel.com for more info.
 

 

 

Further Reading

 

Author's Gear Profile

Nikon D90, Aquatica housingTokina 10-17mm Fisheye Lens, dual SEA&SEA YS-110a strobes

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born in Canada, Shane Gross has been living in the Bahamas for the past three years working as a SCUBA dive instructor and freelance underwater photographer/writer. His work has been widely published in books, magazines, ad campaigns, etc. He is an outspoken conservationist and ocean advocate who wishes to inspire those around him to do their part.

www.grossphotographic.com  |  facebook.com/shanegrossphotography

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

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Why this Big Fish Hotspot Needs to be on Your Trip List
By Mikhail Kisin

Coiba: Fish Photography at Surprise Island

Mikhail Kisin
Why this Big Fish Hotspot Needs to be on Your Trip List

 

Coiba: Fish Photography at Surprise Island


Why this Big Fish Hotspot Needs to be on Your Trip List

Text and Photos By Mikhail Kisin

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

 

 
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The Eastern Pacific is well known as the top place for big-fish photography. What is less known – you don’t need to travel as far as Cocos, Malpelo, Socorro or Galapagos for a great shot. Save yourself two days of notorious ocean crossings and turn your attention to the lush Panamanian island of Coiba.

 

The Island

Coiba brings a lot of surprises. For me, the first one was the very existence of such an island – so close to my own California and so unbeknown here. On my first trip with liveaboard Yemaya, Coiba was a stopover on the way to Malpelo, but even a single day of diving there was so surprising that Coiba became my next exclusive destination that same day. Further research brought about the third surprise: it turns out that Coiba is the largest tropical island in the Americas and the biggest uninhabited tropical island in the world. In fact, Coiba is an archipelago. The main island with its huge territory of about 200 square miles is surrounded by three dozen smaller islets; together they comprise the Panamanian Coiba National Park. Coiba volcanic origin makes the island a natural part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, on par with Cocos and Galapagos, who both connect with Coiba through a chain of underwater mountains. Coiba is located exactly where that underwater ridge comes ashore in the Panamanian Gulf of Chiriqui. So, it is not a coincidence that on the other side of the Gulf of Chiriqui the American Continental Divide shoots up volcano Baru, the biggest mountain peak in Panama.

Coiba’s huge territory and extended shoreline guarantees diverse and plentiful diving, for which the island is aptly placed. Comparing to the more southerly located equatorial Galapagos Islands, which are cooled by the Humboldt Current from the Southern Hemisphere, Coiba receives much warmer tropical counter-current from Indo-Pacific. This current not only stabilizes the water temperature regime and mitigates the El-Niňo effects but it also brings an astonishing diversity to Coiba’s abundant marine life. Not accidentally, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute maintains its facility on Coiba’s Isla Rancheria. In 2005 Unesco declared Coiba a World Heritage Site. One of the reasons was extreme biodiversity of marine ecosystem counting more than 700 species of fishes, 30 species of sharks, and 20 species of cetaceans. In all Tropical Eastern Pacific only three places have been honored with that rank – Galapagos, Cocos, and Malpelo. Even Socorro, with all its fascinating mantas, has not been rated that high. Surprised? That’s what I promised from the beginning. Keep counting.

 

The Diving

I’ve never had so much fun as I did when diving Coiba's waters. Diving there can be utterly unpredictable; just see for yourself if it fits your concept of fun. During the same dive the clear blue water can turn green, or you can hit a California-style thermocline in a spot where on the previous dive you enjoyed the balm tropical bath. Strong currents bring into the mix even more surprises - not as much on Coiba’s shore reefs as on numerous underwater pinnacles located either offshore or in the straits between the islets. The pinnacles grant the best of Coiba diving, and tidal currents provide for real wonders in fish aggregation. Something similar I encountered only at “The Race” – a huge underwater ridge which spans the Eastern side of New York's Long Island Sound and blocks the water flow in and out of the Sound. Tidal currents at the top of The Race are enormous and slack window is practically nonexistent, so that the towering standing waves are raging the place in any weather. The Race is famous as an extreme spearfishing site due to abundance of a single (but remarkable) fish species - Atlantic Striped Bass. The variety of fish in Coiba is truly astonishing and strong tidal currents around Coiba's pinnacles bring about fish hot spots very similar to The Race – true whirlwinds of fish, though here you will find not one but numerous species. Even more spectacular is diving at the Hannibal Bank which is located farther offshore, due West, outside the Coiba National Park boundaries. The Bank is always included in the Coiba trip itinerary of the Panamanian-based liveaboard Yemaya whish is the best (if not the only) way to visit that region. Diving Hannibal Bank can be as tricky as any open-ocean diving, but most likely it will be the culmination of your trip. On my first descent there I was truly surprised to see a rug of kelp slowly swinging underneath, well below thirty (beware - in Panama we’re talking meters!), - which of course could not be true - before I realized it was an endless school of red snappers covering the whole reef. There is no point to go on with fish stories. The point is – Coiba is The Place for fish photography. 

 

The Fish

When I say “fish” I truly mean fish, not the big animals like schooling hammerheads or whale sharks; for those you’d better go to remote islands of Malpelo or Cocos. Of course, Coiba’s underwater world is as diverse as any Eastern Pacific destination, and you can get your big encounters here too, especially in Hannibal Bank, but still, in Coiba you want to concentrate on species, say, the size of a frying pan (pardon my hard-dying spearo attitude) – because there are so many! I would also skip the macro and of course all the invertebrates, though in some Coiba dive sites you can swim in nice dense groves of black corals and, indeed, in Coiba I saw my biggest ever frogfish, hardly the object for macro.

In my experience, “shooting” fish is very akin to spearfishing where the key for a good shot is not the rig at all but your fast reaction and thorough knowledge of fish behavior. Actually, the gear should be as simple as possible. This statement can be severely argued or even ridiculed. My only excuse is that all pictures in this article have been made with simplest point-and-shoot Panasonic camera, fixed shutter speed of 1/125s at ISO 200, single strongly dimmed external slave flash, and a little bit of luck... well, sometimes, with a big chunk of the latter. This style of shooting however requires a lot of torturous editing, mostly done by pressing the “delete” button. The beauty of Coiba is – you can easily afford such editing style here.

 

Fish'nd Tips

With some exceptions, the general advice for middle-size-fish photography translates into the simple “get closer” rule, and the basic advises can be copy-pasted from any spearfishing site: don't seek out fish – look for the fish spot; once there, wait; you don't find fish – fish finds you; don't move to the fish; don't look into the fish eyes... etc. . As for the last advice, I, of course, don't believe in that  nonsense and superstition. I just let them work for me.

Leaving aside the spearfishing rituals, once you get close – shoot away. If you neglect a bad shot you are at risk of not getting any. Even the most curious fish needs only a glimpse.

Fish do not need to be silvery to turn into sparkling mirrors under your flash. Dim the damn thing down... and then down again. In many cases, I turn my flash away and use the scattered or reflected light. Before I started using this trick, in many cases I just wasted the shot.  

Avoid frontal shots, they are rarely impressive. Fish should move either toward you or slightly away; this also helps cutting off the reflections. By the way, it is not the direction of movement which makes the composition – it is the direction of the fish’s eye. Good looks fix even the frontal shot.

And finally, always remember – all this is supposed to be fun. Do it this way and you will get your main and ultimate surprise. 

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

This is not what you come to Coiba for. Though they’re plentiful here (Whitetip reef shark).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

This is also not what you come to Coiba for. You can see them anywhere (Balloonfish).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

Even this is not what you come to Coiba for. And I would miss it anyway (Frogfish).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

That's it. The fish (Black Croaker).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

You can get any Eastern Pacific species of any age for your collection. Juvenile (Mexican Hogfish) ...

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… and adult (Mexican Hogfish, male) ... 

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… at cleaning station  (Redtail Triggerfish) ...

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

 …. and on a leisurely swim (Azure Parrotfish) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

 … alone (Leopard Grouper) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

 … or in jolly company (Purple Surgeonfish) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… in murky water (Pacific Porgy) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… or in the deep blue (Almaco Jack) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… which turns into deep green on the next dive (Greater Amberjack).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

Dimed strobe gives you color perspective (Jordan’s Snapper) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… and allows shooting against the sunshine (Bluestriped Chub) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

 … or look under the shady ledges while keeping the natural colors (Amarillo Snapper).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

The best way to get Scorpionfish without glaring reds is to turn flash away …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… but for Creolefish and Cardinalfish more red does not hurt.

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

You don't need flash at all for pelagics in Hannibal Bank (Wahoo) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… but deeper down a flash is the only source of light (Bluefin Trevally) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… which sometimes gives you the textbook identification shot (Pacific Red Snapper) …

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

… unless you hit the bottom and get some reflected light (schooling Red Snappers).

 

Coiba Island Scuba Diving

The ultimate Coiba prize – big but elusive Dogtooth Pargo. 

 

 

 


Book Your Trip to Coiba Island

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect Coiba Island dive trip. Visit BluewaterTravel.com for more info.
 

 

 

Also by Mikhail Kisin

 

Further Reading

 

 

About the Author

Mikhail Kisin is a Russian physicist struggling to match his tightfisted vacation time to the generous travel opportunities of the New World. He writes for two Russian dive magazines. If your liveaboard is booked by Russians, blame him.

 

 

Author's Gear Profile

Panasonic DMC-ZS6 Camera in Panasonic housing. Single Bonica Neon XP strobe.

 

 

Support the Underwater Photography Guide:


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Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


 

 
 
SHARE THIS STORY

SUPPORT THE UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY GUIDE:

The Best Service & Prices on u/w Photo Gear

 

Visit Bluewater Photo & Video for all your underwater photography and video gear. Click, or call the team at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!

 


The Best Pricing, Service & Expert Advice to Book your Dive Trips

 

Bluewater Travel is your full-service scuba travel agency. Let our expert advisers plan and book your next dive vacation. Run by divers, for divers.

 


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