Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White Sharks, Part Three: Into The Cage


So there I was, a 3+ metre white shark prowling the bait tied off from the boat, a diver in the cage already, and me suited up and ready to join him.  Was I nervous?  Hell yes.  I'm nervous anywhere my cameras get near water.


The gear I'd brought for the dive was relatively inexpensive: My 10 MP Canon Powershot G12 and the Canon WP-DC34 housing. I did have a Dicapac splash bag just in case I wanted to get my DSLR's under water, but I'd recently replaced the crappy plastic port for good quality glass and hadn't had time to leak-test it thoroughly. It was mainly there if I wanted to get some off-camera light from a flash and optical slave unit, or for wet topside shooting.

My underwater rig

The great thing is, there's such a range of good affordable underwater point and shoots or point and shoot housings that anyone can do this and get great shots now.  This is the 21st century version of big game hunting.  Print and frame your trophy picture and put it on the wall for all to see, while the animal lives to thrill you another day.  The light was dull, so I had my ISO set to 800. Skipper Mike clipped on the hose for my air supply, and in I got.


I was expecting a shock of cold water but the suit seals made it quite a painless experience. The hardest part was to keep from bobbing up to the top of the cage as the buoyancy of the 7.5 mm suit meant I was still a little under-weighted. Thankfully Mike had tied some rope to the bottom of the cage for foot holds. They were sorely needed, as the swell was shaking the cage like a cheap cocktail. With one hand on your camera, it's not easy to stay steady and line up shots.

It's rough in there IMG_0814.jpg

I expected my heart to be racing by now. Maybe it was, I didn't notice. I was focused on breathing steadily, keeping an eye out for the shark, and getting my camera in position. Actually, my first impression was "Bugger, the visibility isn't as good as it looked from above". A week of bad weather had put quite a bit of sediment into Stewart Islands usually clear waters. So while the shark wasn't in sight, I got a picture of my cage companion, Ulrik Olsen. At least I think it's Ulrik. Hard to tell under all that gear. Could'a been the gimp for all I know. Over in the cage I call the cheese grater, Mike Bhana was ready for some 3D action.

Workplace safety measures

Here's my tip for shooting wildlife: Keep one eye out for the critters, and keep another on your companions, especially the more experienced ones, since they're likely to see your quarry before you. They just know how the animals behave and where they'll be. By the time I'd steadied myself to get a decent shot of Mike in his cage, I figured out he was actually filming back in my direction. Well not exactly my direction. He was aiming slightly off to my right, straight out from my cage. I turned to look, and here's what I saw:



Now a sane person might get a shock to see this and to be honest, before I became such a photo nut, I may well have been looking at a serious bill for de-fouling the wetsuit. Instead, I just thought "Damn, maybe I need to get out and get my 7D in the splash bag with the 10-22mm EF-S wide angle lens if he's going to be this close". True. My next thought? "If I use flash, all I'm gonna get is a curtain of murk".

I know wildlife and conflict shooters get this focus when they're looking in the viewfinder that makes them master that healthy fear of risky situations. It's what gets them the shot. It has also gotten a few of them hurt or killed, but the good ones preserve a tiny percentage of their awareness for self preservation too, and they're my heroes. The closest I've come to that focus was shooting priceless works for an art gallery. I was so focused on moving in to re-frame, I walked into my ladder and nearly sent it crashing into a Goldie and a Rita Angus self portrait (that's what public liability insurance is for, children).

Anyway, here I was, in the cage, in the zone, and watching this beautiful fish glide around us, in heaven.


Seriously, this was not a monster, just a beautiful, powerful animal.


I think I saw two or three different animals. It was hard to tell, being so obsessed with just trying to frame them up in the rocking cage. But they weren't acting aggressively at all. Just inquisitive, occasionally testing the bait or the seal decoy with their teeth.


I was a way off getting prize-winning shots but I always knew this was going to be a learning trip. It takes experience to deal with all the complications of the underwater environment and moving animals before you can think about things like composition and including other objects for scale. But to give you a better idea of the size of this beauty, that's a 3m rigid bottom inflatable he's behind.


15 or 20 minutes into it - it could have been longer, I wasn't looking at my watch - and I was cold and cage-tossed enough to get out and let someone else have a look. As I climbed back on deck and dumped the weight harness, I remember having a little reality check. What did I feel? The only word I can find is: Serene. Excitement came a little later. The look in Mike Bhana's eyes pretty well sums up our spirits, although this was a fairly typical day at the office for Mike, lucky bugger.

Mike Bhana

We'd all been in except for Lemuel, who didn't dive and was happy to see the beasts from topside.  No pressure from us.  Then reality set in: we'd been adventuring all day on light snacks.  Time for real food, so the fishing rods came out.  Not sampling Stewart Island's abundant table fish equates to the sin of sloth when you're down there.  I got a barracuda (fail) a dogfish (fail) and finally, a blue cod.  Lemuel caught most of the cod, and soon enough, Skipper Mike had us anchored in the calm bay at Port William, had fired up the BBQ, and we engaged in the much more worthwhile sin of gluttony.

Beer began to flow. So did the conversation. James's fine single malt scotch Whisky was produced, and in celebratory mood, I stood on the deck with a glass of Australian tawny port and a Cuban cigar (which I never inhale and only indulge in about once a year, kids). Spirits were high, but we were mindful not to overdo it. After all, we had another day's diving ahead of us.

Especially young Lemuel.

More in the pipeline.

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