My experience with sharks and underwater photography

First of all, I am not an underwater photographer. I have had opportunities arise that allowed me to dabble with it here and there. This is my take on this very unusual photographic experience. 

When I was 16 my family and I went to the Great Barrier Reef through a prize I won for winning a National Geographic Kids photographic competition (an incredible moment that gave the momentum required for my serious hobby to become my obsession). At that point in time, like many, I was petrified of sharks. The thought of seeing one while in the water scared the bejesus out of me! But all that changed as soon as I saw a black tipped reef shark in the distance while snorkelling, before it effortlessly glided off into the deep blue, despite my best efforts to try and excitedly swim towards it. 

From that point on my whole mindset towards sharks changed. Moving on from the Hollywood and news-enforced thinking, which so many of us have, to the wonder that surrounds sharks. 

Though on that occasion I didn’t photograph any sharks I did have the opportunity to get my first taste of underwater photography with a very obliging green turtle.

Turtle-2 Turtle

My next experience of taking my most prized item and putting it underwater was at the end of my Cairo to Cape Town expedition before starting university. A cage dive with great white sharks! The visibility was awful, (which made the experience all the more dramatic as a five metre long predator suddenly appeared a metre away from you) which meant that the light was poor so I had to use a flashgun. This was mounted onto of the camera as I used a EWA-Marine universal underwater housing, which offered a great way for me to explore the underwater world without spending a small fortune for a specialist housing. In murky water this lights up all the particles that are between you and your subject which can ruin photographs. These photos aren’t very special, you can tell I’m not an underwater photographer (and that I was full of adrenaline at the time), but they are reminders to me of how immense the experience was.

GWShark-2 GWShark-6 GWShark-7

My most recent experience occurred much closer to home off the coast of Penzance, England about ten miles out at sea. A few of my university friends had planned a trip to go snorkelling with blue sharks and they very kindly let me join them. 

As I was using the same EWA-Marine housing I decided to not even put a flash in the bag after what happened with the great white shark pictures. For my previous experiences I had used a Canon 30D and 1D4 respectively and as awesome as they were, the Fujifilm X-T1 that I used this time round has been the best of the bunch for my underwater photography. The reason for this is the fact that there is difference in auto focus speed when using either the EVF or the LCD. This meant that I only used the LCD screen for the entire trip, that allowed me to more accurately see the composition through my mask. Another advantage of this was that it meant I didn’t have anything blocking my peripheral vision, meaning that I could see if anything was coming up to me so I wasn’t caught unawares. Furthermore, the combination of the X-T1 and the 10-24mm lens was ideal for the situation and allowed me to change perspective without having to change lenses and/or open up the housing. 

Blue sharks are a completely different kettle of fish (excuse the pun) to great white sharks, and such we were snorkelling with the blue sharks without a cage. I thought that this might be initially daunting but as soon as I saw the shark mutual curiosity took over and I didn’t think anything of it. One of my friends came out with the brilliant quote “sharks are the spaniels of the seas” this quote was perfect for this blue shark (see below). The experience showed the intelligence and curiosity of the shark, with no Hollywood malice at all. 

The conditions were pretty good, but I knew that shooting underwater would result in slower shutter speeds than on the boat so I used ISO1600 and 3200 to give me a bit of freedom with apertures and shutter speeds. This along with the flexibility of the zoom meant that I was able to get a few ‘different’ shots.

 

10mm

Blue Shark trip

24mm

Blue Shark trip-6

 Despite this flexibility I was generally using the 10mm end for the shark to try and keep all of the shark in the frame as it came in for a closer look. 

Blue Shark trip-4 Blue Shark trip-8 Blue Shark

Blue Shark trip-5

The cartoon-like eyes made the blue shark much more relatable compared to the dark, scary figure of the great white shark. This makes this particular species far less scary.

Current estimates are that 100 million sharks are killed annually, generally for the shark fin soup trade, this has to gain the same amount of media attention as elephant, rhino and tiger poaching. The reason why it doesn’t is probably due to the widespread fear of sharks. However, between 2006-2010 there were only 3 fatalities off the USA coast. 3! Sharks maintain a top-down control on the food chain and where there are sharks, there is fish and generally a healthy ecosystem. If only more people could spend more time with these wonderful creatures; then hopefully this perception of the mindless killing machines of the sea can be abolished and efforts to conserve these vitally important predators can gain more momentum. 

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