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|Stephen Frink’s Web Log: 2005 Shark Shootout at Stuart Cove’s
November 5-12, 2005
Sponsored by Stuart Cove
Text and Photography by Stephen Frink
Bring your digital camera...
I’m an admitted shark junkie, always eager to travel the world to find the best shark imaging opportunities, wherever they might be. Yet, the best Caribbean reef shark opportunities ... let me amend that to be more emphatic ... by far the very best imaging opportunities for Carcharhinus perezi are just an easy one-hour flight from Miami on the Bahamian island of New Providence. Best known perhaps for its capital city of Nassau, or world-class destination resorts like Atlantis on Paradise Island; New Providence also offers extraordinary scuba adventure off the southwest end of the island.
Blessed by consistently clear water, the vertical walls of the Tongue of the Ocean, and a leeward orientation protecting the reefs from the most common prevailing weather patterns; the natural advantages of the underwater experience have been significantly enhanced over the years by the addition of dozens of shipwrecks, intentional and otherwise, and the evolution of shark feeding into an art form.
Of course, feeding sharks wouldn’t be such a popular phenomenon if there were massive quantities of sharks that are willing to respond to bait, and that doesn’t happen easily or automatically. To understand how that became such an integral part of New Providence dive adventure, let’s set the Wayback Machine to the summer of 1977 when a young man named Stuart Cove was hired to work as a stunt/safety diver on the James Bond feature film For Your Eyes Only. He gained great experience as shark wrangler there, a talent that fully matured by the time he was called upon to coordinate the shark scenes for Never Say Never Again. However, even Stuart would not have been able to predict how intimately intertwined his life would be with sharks in the very near future.
New Providence had long been recognized as the place Hollywood liked to come to film their underwater sequences, mostly because of the clear water and easy air access, but even in the very early years of underwater filmmaking New Providence was known as a good place to find sharks. John Ernest Williamson actually chummed a shark to the front of the camera as long ago as 1915. His script for Thirty Leagues Beneath the Sea called for the diver to fight a shark to the death, killing the shark with a knife in the process. Unable to find "talent" to perform the stunt, Williamson put the camera on an underwater tripod and rolled film while he stabbed the shark himself.
More recently, by 1965 the producers of the James Bond films came to realize the southwest end of New Providence was the best place to go for reliable sharks, even though at the time no one really knew for sure how dangerous these sharks might actually be. In Thunderball, there are several underwater scenes when Sean Connery is scripted to encounter sharks, and the preproduction meetings called for clear plastic panels to be in place to protect him during close-ups. However, apparently no one sent the memo to the sharks, and as the plastic panels were only 3 feet high, the sharks simply swam over and around the barricades. So, when Connery is "emoting" fear during the pool fight in Lago’s mansion, where alter-ego Bond encounters sharks and Connery was supposed to be protected by barriers, director Terrance Young contends it was genuine terror. To learn more about the long tradition of underwater filmmaking on New Providence, and Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas significant contributions, visit www.underwaterhollywood.com.
Knowing what we now know about diving with sharks, going back to watch Thunderball again is kind of camp, but this really broke new ground in the 1960s in terms of underwater filmmaking, and does speak to how very "sharky" southwest New Providence was at the time. Incredibly, in an era where our shark populations are threatened worldwide, they may be even more plentiful today off New Providence today.
To a great extent, this impressive shark population is directly attributable to Stuart Cove and his staff of dedicated shark enthusiasts. In the 1980s, really just about the time shark diving was just getting popular, a longline fishing boat came through the region and killed many of their sharks overnight. It was really a quite horrific event, and immediately Stuart and concerned dive media spearheaded a campaign of outrage and education that led the Bahamas government to outlaw this destructive and indiscriminate fishing practice in their waters. Even so, legislation is no good without enforcement. Gratefully, the Stuart Cove dive boats are out there every day, diving with these sharks. If a rogue longliner should try to ignore the law, and go for a quick score, the dive staff would see the boat and report it to the Bahamian Defense Force immediately. With protection in place, and lots of food from the daily shark feed dives, these schools of Caribbean reef shark have grown to be really quite impressive. On many of our feeds during Shark Shootout we had 30 sharks at a time, and not necessarily wimpy, "view-from-a-distance", sharks either. These are big/healthy/bold fish; quite willing to bump and thrash their way to the proffered bit of bait from the feeder.
We had a concept in mind when we conceived Shark Shootout, that being shark photography is best done with controlled, intimate access and limited numbers of people. Anyone can book a dive package with Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas and be in the water with sharks. It is a hugely popular activity, and one they deliver quite professionally. However, the most discriminating underwater photographers will realize the benefit from being with a very few of their peers, with a talented feeder totally attentive to their personal goals and photographic strategies. Clearly, this will bring many advantages to Shark Shootout, including:
We added one more element to the mix this year ... and going forward ... Shark Shootout was restricted to digital image capture. This provided the advantage of greatly increased capacity, no more swimming back to the boat to change film after just 36 shots. There was so much shark action the whole week that those who came to the event with just 2 GB cards felt disadvantaged! Each of the dives was an hour or more, and then when we were doing surface intervals, we were feeding and photographing sharks off the back of the boat. Anyone shooting a high-resolution camera like the Canon EOS1DsMKII or Nikon D2X (and their were several of each aboard this year) were probably capturing up to 8 GB of data per day.
The only other proviso was a ban on cordless slave strobes. Nothing is more irritating than to frame the perfect shot, only to have a blinding hot spot from another diver’s cordless slave being triggered simultaneously!
The Shark-Ops: The Runway
The Runway has the advantage of being the shark locale closest to the dive shop, only about a mile offshore. But, more significantly, because it is so close this is where the sharks are fed every day, several times a day, and there are LOTS of them. Just motoring to the mooring ball will bring them to the surface, and since there is so much chumming being done at this location, there are huge schools of yellowtail snapper at the surface as well. This provides the unique visual of Caribbean reef sharks swimming to the stern of the boat, with a large school of tropical fish parting at the last moment as if torn between the logic of "safety in numbers" and "whoa ... that shark is getting too damn close". The Runway is near the Tongue of the Ocean, so pelagic life is always a possibility. For any Stuart Cove shark event, whether a Hollywood production, a fashion shoot, or a Shark Shootout, the Runway is always a prime venue.
The normal Runway photo-op is where the shark feeder (clad in chain-mail suit and helmet, for good reason as we learned) swims to a sandy area in the reef and brings the divers into a circular pattern surrounding. The feeder uses a short pole to take the bait from the aluminum box. The shark takes the bait from the end of the pole, although rarely is it as controlled as the words imply. There is a lot of competition from the sharks, and sometimes it is hard to even get the bait out of the box without the feeder being swarmed. We found it to a great extent depends on the kind of bait being used and how much feeding has been going on recently.
The first few days of Shark Shootout we found the sharks to be kind of rowdy, and certainly impolite, rarely waiting for their turn in line. However, after a few days of pretty intense feeding, not only from the Shark Shootout group, but from other diver’s in-house, the action mellowed out a bit. We were able to better choreograph the shots and Tohru, our fearless and talented shark wrangler, was better able to lead the sharks to the front of our domes to capture the elusive "bite" shot.
The Ray of Hope
This 200-foot freighter was intentionally sunk as a dive attraction on July 13, 2003 and now sits in proximity to Runway. This proved to be one of our most productive shark venues because we could stage feed session of the bow or the stern, actually alternating between them when one or the other would get stirred up from the feeding action. The ship offered the advantage of being much cleaner than the sand bottom of the Runway, and we were in shallower water as well, allowing more generous bottom time. The stern was a bit tricky because the sharks have to navigate some railings, and occasionally they’d get a bit frenetic if it seemed they might get stuck. The bow was wide open, with some interesting deck gears and windlass to provide compositional element. Both Stuart and Tohru conducted some extraordinary shark feeds on the bow of the Ray of Hope during Shark Shootout, with stunning bite shots from each of the shooters as a result.
The Shark Cage
The traditional use of a shark cage is to protect a diver behind the bars while bait is used to bring a shark near. The traditional way a shark cage is deployed is tied off from the stern of a boat. However, Shark Shootout is all about doing things in creative nontraditional ways, so had the shark cage tied off to the bottom, with air in its buoyancy tanks to keep it floating in the midwater. This kept the scene free of stirred sand causing backscatter. We put the feeder inside, while the shooters moved freely about outside the cage to shoot the action. Besides the obvious, 12 divers wouldn’t fit inside the cage and we didn’t need protection from these sharks, if provided a nice sense of scale. Every so often, one of us would pop inside the cage to get the shot of the shark taking the bait from the feeder’s perspective. This particular photo-op is a Stuart Cove exclusive, typically accessible only to commercial film projects, but gratefully, it was made available to us for Shark Shootout.
The Treasure Wreck
Among the many Hollywood projects to come to Stuart Cove’s was the underwater filming of Into The Blue, starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. There was a wooden treasure ship built as an underwater set, also near the Runway, and this too proved a good shark venue for us. Tohru worked his baitbox along the center of the boat, and we situated ourselves in a 360 around him. The heavy timbers kept the sharks off the bottom and kept the water clear, and the background was more interesting than open sand and gorgonia. Tohru was able to control the sharks so we each got some close action. And when the sharks weren’t being coaxed to our domes we could swim around and get some excellent shark portraits with open water or silhouette backgrounds.
Shark Wall is about a 7-mile run offshore, with a far more decorated coral bottom and usually even better visibility than one might experience at Runway (I’d say we had an average of 60 to 80 foot visibility on all of our dive sites during Shark Shootout, but it probably was a little better on Shark Wall). The sharks here don’t get fed as much as they do at Runway, but that doesn’t mean they don’t remember they like it! On the contrary, the sharks here were pretty aggressive, not to us shark shooters of course, but Stuart and Tohru got bashed around a fair bit. On our Shark Wall dive we had the idea to bring 2 feeders and two baitboxes, thereby working with even smaller groups of shooters and more intimate access to the "bite sweetspot". This system worked so well it is a feature we'll definitely add to Shark Shootout 2006. Running back from Shark Wall also provides the opportunity to dive Southwest Reef, a gorgeous shallow reef rich with elkhorn, seafans, and fire coral; all in only 10 to 15 feet of water. Our group was a little too shark-intense to spend time on "just" a beautiful coral reef, but its nice to know it is there, and certainly worth a visit.
Actually, this was probably one of the significant highlights the highlight of Shark Shootout 2005, and one we had never done with a group previously. We baited the sharks (and yellowtail) to the back of the boat while we were doing our surface interval between the first and second dive. The boat was fully catered, so all food and drinks were aboard and we did not have to go back to the dock for lunch. That gave us the luxury of time, in the mid-day light, to try over/unders with sharks hitting the boat, topside shots of dorsal fins cleaving the surface, and polecam shots of the sharks just under the surface. The most fun I had all week was to strap on a pair of chain-mail legs and gloves, belt myself to the dive ladder, and ask the crew to bring the shark right to my dome so I could try over/unders and subsurface shots. Of course, I would have felt a bit more comfortable if those chain-mail pants would have had crotch protection as well, but hey, anything for the shot.
This is the second Shark Shootout I have been invited to coach; and I have to say I was pretty amazed at the progress that was made by our shooters during the week, the images they recorded, and their creativity in finding bold new ways to redefine shark imaging. The bar has been raised for sure, but Stuart and I have some new ideas to make Shark Shootout 2006 even better.
Event Information for Shark Shootout 2006:
Dates: October 21-28, 2006
Event announcement by Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, December 2005: When we created this event our goal was to maintain a small ratio of guests to pro-staff. We feel that the best way to ensure your success is to limit participation and give you access to the most successful photographer in the industry. Your commitment to bettering your photographic skills shall be rewarded by working in our intimate and productive photographic environment.
Fin Photo Hours of Operation
During Shark Shootout the photo shop will be open daily from 8:00 AM until 5:00 PM. Claudia will be working exclusively with the shootout, so if you have a need and the photo shop is already closed, please speak to her and she will be glad to assist you.
This is a digital shootout, and you should be shooting a digital camera (you are welcome to bring a 2nd system that is film). We anticipate that you will bring a laptop to download your images. However there will be one or two computers set up in the classroom for those of you who don’t have a laptop to bring with you. Also, arrangements can be made in the photo lab to burn a CD-Rom of your images for a small fee (est. $3 each).
Fin Photo has Sea & Sea DX3000 and DX5000 digital cameras for rent. If you will need a digital SLR for the event, that may be arranged as well. Please contact Pamela (firstname.lastname@example.org) in advance so that we can make arrangements for you as we do have a limited amount of equipment available.
Guests in the program are welcome to store assembled camera equipment in the storage room of your classroom at night so that you will not need to be moving it back and forth to your hotel if you so desire. Large bags and travel boxes will need to be stored in your hotel room. There is also guest gear storage for your dive gear. Stephen makes the observation he is more comfortable carrying his most expensive gear with him back to the room for nightly maintenance and recharge tasks anyway.
Your diving package includes the boat charters and the use of tanks, weights, and weight belts. All other equipment is available for rental.
Due to the nature of the dives we will be doing it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that each participant dive with a dive computer.
The Shark Dive is the only dive where we have equipment requirements. To follow the safety guidelines established by Stuart Cove’s, each diver must wear a full wetsuit or skin on this dive. The suit must have long sleeves and long legs. Ideally, the suit should be black or a dark color and have minimal use of bright or fluorescent colors.
In addition, while not required, an additional safety precaution would be for divers to wear lightweight hoods and gloves. Once again, black is the recommended color. Gloves can be lightweight that still allows finger dexterity. The hood recommendation is highly recommended for divers who have blonde, white, gray hair or facial hair. Stephen finds a level of comfort in wearing gloves and hood while working around Caribbean reef sharks, specifically so that a flash of white from exposed skin does not get mistaken for a baitfish. No shot is worth the possibility of getting hurt.
The overall safety goal here is not for thermal protection (water temperature will likely be about 80 - 81 degrees), but to eliminate the color similarity between our lightly colored skin and bait used to feed the sharks. Don’t worry - shark diving is safe when we are prudent and adhere to the safety guidelines established. Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas has hosted scores of commercial shoots involving sharks, and brings tourists to interact with sharks on a daily basis. Their staff will have final and absolute control over all safety procedures.
We highly recommend you click here to read Stephen’s article on shark photography. Should you wish to print this trip bulletin, the text only version may be found by paging down to the end herein.
Shark Shootout Schedule Outline
Below you will find what we have tentatively outlined as our day-to-day schedule. In general things will be run "loose" so that we can remain flexible and adapt to weather conditions and other events that may crop up during the week. Our event has their boats dedicated to them all day. So there is no rush. The goal is to take our time and capture the best possible images during our dives.
Photographic Advice for Shark Photography
One of the most impressive fish in the sea, and the one most misunderstood and threatened, is the shark. Decimated by indiscriminate longline fishing, misguided sport anglers and the unspeakable devastation of the shark fin industry, sharks worldwide are in big trouble. In fact, some species are on the brink of extinction.
One of the most ecologically sensitive actions an underwater photographer can take is to picture the beauty, grace and majesty of these creatures in order to dispel the myth that sharks are out to get us and to educate people about their plight. In addition to promoting awareness, shark photographs are just cool. Here are some tips for bringing home the perfect shark shot.
Go Where the Sharks Are
In the wild, sharks generally keep their distance from divers. We are big and noisy, and we must look very clumsy to them.
Given that successful underwater photography happens with a primary subject within three feet of the lens, we have to go where the odds favor getting a shark that close. Typically that happens where local dive operations have conditioned the sharks to come close by offering a bit of bait as reward.
The way the bait is presented may be different in various places, but the result is the same. For example, when it was open, Walker’s Cay in the Bahamas pioneered the use of a "chumsicle," a conglomeration of fish and seawater frozen inside a large garbage can. The chumsicle is tethered in midwater while dozens of ravenous Caribbean reef sharks race in to grab a bite. Off the southwest end of New Providence Island in the Bahamas, Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas shows up at the site with a bucket of bait and the sharks start swirling. The frenzied activity offers the opportunity for awesome shots with more than a two dozen sharks in a single frame. The last time I shot at Shark Wall, the sharks were so eager, we didn’t even have to pull bait from the bucket to get the ultra-close shots we wanted.
Both of these are well-established shark feeds at specific reefs where a population of sharks has been safely interacting with divers for more than a decade. Other shark dives are newer, yet no less spectacular.
In Tahiti, the currents on an incoming tide race through the atoll channels, and gray reef sharks by the score are commonly sighted. Silvertips have likewise been conditioned to hand feeding by local divemasters and come quite close.
But the premier shark photo-op has to be for the apex predator, Carcharodon carcharias. The great white shark is now the target of photo safaris in diverse locales. Now that great white sharks are protected from sport fishing, the shark encounters are getting reliable again off South Australia. South Africa offers a higher density shark population off Dyer Island and excellent above-water viewing, as well as cage dives. Lately, live-aboards have been visiting Guadalupe Island, Mexico (about a 20-hour steam from San Diego), to photograph a resident population of up to 100 great white sharks in very clear water.
Other sharks, like the scalloped hammerheads found around the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, do not respond to food and require a stealthy approach. Operators in these waters have learned where the sharks are and how to get close to them. Professional wildlife photographers know that one of the best ways to find out how to get close to them is to ask locals.
Listen to the Shark Wrangler
If you’re trying to photograph a species that responds to food, get close to the bait. Hand-feeding methods vary substantially according to shark species and dive operator. The operator will tell you how to participate safely in their particular shark program, and while under water, watch the shark wrangler for direction.
If you want to get close to a species of shark that requires a stealthy approach, pay attention to the strategies the operator says will get you close. If they tell you racing after the shark won’t work, believe them. Every week they see divers ruin potentially good encounters by being too aggressive. If they say tuck into a rock crevice and control your breathing so the shark comes near, follow their advice.
Use the Right Tools
Most shark photography is wide-angle. The fish is usually five feet long or bigger and often moves relatively quickly. Getting a tight head shot with a lens used for reef fish is possible, but the extreme depth of field of the wide angle makes life much easier. Also, wide-angle perspective distortion can be used to make a large fish look even more impressive, especially if teeth are involved.
For Nikonos shooters, this probably means a 15mm lens. For those using housed cameras, a wide-angle zoom is often the best choice, usually with at least 20mm (94 degrees) at the wide end of the zoom range. The digital SLRs are perfect for shark photography, especially because there are so many frames possible beyond the standard 36 film exposures. But beware of any camera that has shutter lag. When photographing sharks, you want to capture peak action, and the shutter delay from some consumer digitals is frustrating. For Nikon D-SLRs I recommend a lens arsenal that includes a superwide (10.5mm), wide zoom (12-24), and a 60mm macro. A medium zoom like a 17-35mm is also very useful. Canon shooters will find the 15mm and 17-40mm perfect for full frame sensors, and the 10-22mm for those shooting 20D and Digital Rebels in housings. Canon has a new 60mm macro for the 20D and D-Rebel as well, while those with the MKII series cameras will prefer the Sigma 50mm lens for tight headshots of the sharks.
A wide-angle strobe, with diffuser, is necessary as well, but make sure it recycles quickly. Five seconds is an eternity when a shark is in your face and you’re waiting for your strobe to power up.
Use the Right Technique
A wide-angle lens preset to about three feet will handle the focus for most shark photography, but exposure and creative lighting can make all the difference between the magnificent and the mundane in photographs of sharks.
I like to hand-hold my strobe so that as the shark gets closer, closer, closer, I can move my strobe back farther, farther, farther. When the shark is in the shoot zone, I don’t have time to play with apertures or to re-aim a strobe arm, so my instinctive adjustments in strobe-to-subject distance fine tunes both the angle and amount of light striking the shark. As the shark turns its white belly more toward the camera, exposure likewise changes. I find simply being nimble with the strobe position can accomplish a significant range of exposure adjustment.
Another problem photographers must contend with during shark feeds is the inevitable detritus, either from divers stirring up the bottom or from sharks shredding the bait. If the strobe is too close to the lens, backscatter can be a problem. Creative lighting is fundamental to successful shark photography.
Bottom time or the number of available exposures may limit you, so timing is important. During most feeding dives, the sharks will be tentative at the outset. It often takes one brazen shark to hit the bait before the activity ratchets up and the best photo-ops occur. Don’t waste your shots on the sharks in the distant blue when they’ll be up-close-and-personal later in the dive.
With schooling hammerheads, getting close-ups may be more difficult because you do not control the pace; they do. All you can do is position yourself where they are likely to be, and be ready. You’ll see the bottom time clock ticking, and you may never get the shot. But when it does happen, give yourself extra points for degree of difficulty.
Some shark feeds can get rowdy. Sharks may be shy, but when there is lots of food in the water, they can get aggressive and make mistakes. In turbid water, a white arm might look like the flash of a fish, and while the shark wouldn’t necessarily eat that arm, a sample bite will change your life. I dress in black wetsuit, hood, booties and even gloves when in the midst of a shark feed. The shark wranglers may opt for chain mail protection, but that’s because they’re holding bait or immersed in scent. For the shooter, choosing wardrobe that lets the shark know you’re not the bait is a good idea.
Finally, if the feed gets uncontrolled or dangerous at any time, simply move away from the bait. They are there for the bait, and being immersed in the scent and slime ratchets the risk factor exponentially. Photographing sharks is fun and tremendously exciting, but that hot shot on your light table or monitor isn’t worth sacrificing your safety.
See the original article at www.stephenfrink.com.
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