Thursday, June 23, 2011

White Sharks: Epilogue

Couple of things today.  Maybe three.

NIWA data logger buoy

First, a little coda to my White Shark cage dive trip.  The yellow buoy above is property of the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere. My best buddy Mike works for them, helping protect NZ's marine fish stocks. A few days ago an old documentary making friend of mine, Radio New Zealand National's Alison Ballance showed her partner my blog.  His name is Malcolm Francis and he works for NIWA too.  The buoy in the picture is part of a study he's undertaking of white sharks.

Malcolm got in touch and asked if I could show him any pictures of the tags on the sharks we saw.  See that one on the shark below - just in front of the dorsal fin?  I sent Malcolm a few topside pictures that show the colour banding, and despite the rippling effect of the water, he got a few useful data points for his study.  Malcolm let me know two of the sharks we saw are: Blue-red-red, a 3.3 m male tagged 2 April at Herekopare Is and Black-black-red, a 2.8 m male, tagged 29 March at Edwards Island. So in our tiny way, we helped further our knowledge of these magnificent fish.


Second, it's kind of fitting, when a picture I took while making a documentary about shark attacks got me into this whole photography thing in the first place.  TV tends merely to demonise sharks - that's how it attracts an audience.  It's good to add something actually useful to the pot, even if it's one datum of info.  I've come a long way in a short space of time though, thanks to that shot.

Thirdly, it's winter here in NZ, not just climatically, but there's a winter of the soul here for a lot of folks, with the economy, the ChCh earthquake, and the Highlanders' fall from form in the Rugby Super 15 competition.  My good friend Reatha, who moved her photography business to Wellington is feeling a little chill herself.  She was doing gangbusters down here, but despite her excellent Retro-style wedding, portrait and family photography (she's all class - shoots film on Hasselblad and Holga), Wellington is a little slow to discover her.  That's no surprise, it's not exactly wedding season, but it's time to book that spring or summer shoot now.  Do me (and yourself) a favour.  If you or anyone you know in the upper South Island or Lower North Island is looking to get some stylish engagement, wedding, family or portrait pictures done, check out her excellent work here, give her a call or refer your friends to her.  You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Please don't be offended...

Tutor on white.jpg
... if you see this cheeky youngster flipping you the bird around Dunedin over the next month or so.  It's another shot I did for Fortune Theatre for their upcoming production of  "The Tutor", written by Dave Armstrong and starring my old Broadcasting School buddy Phil Vaughan.

Dave Armstrong was one of the writers of the hit TV comedy "Bro Town" and Phil, apart from being an ex Big Wednesday presenter and drive time DJ, is a funny guy.

Should be good for a laugh.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

White Sharks, Part Four: Hooking a Lemuel

Dawn, Port William

Friday morning dawned beautifully at our sheltered anchorage at Port William, Stewart Island NZ.  We all roused in the darkness at 7.00 am and to my surprise, I had a tiny, tiny headache, possibly due to the several beers, the large scotch and the glass of celebratory shark-diving port I had had the night before.  I went up on deck to be greeted by the morning chorus of Kiwi and Kaka from on shore and knew it was going to be another great day.

_MG_7712.jpg_MG_7674.jpgThe first order of the day was breakfast for 13 hungry men.  Easy: Fried eggs, bacon, mushrooms, toast, baked beans and a mug of tea.  Headache dealt to.  Time for deckhand Johnno to haul up the anchor and Skipper Mike to guide us to the next dive spot, where he usually saw big female white sharks.  It was only 15 minutes away, just around the point from the spot we'd been at the day before.  Anchor down, cage in, and berley cast on the water, in about 20 minutes a smallish male arrived to check out the bait.  When I say smallish, that's still just over 3 metres.  It was looking good, until an unforeseen complication arose.

Undersea ExplorerThe Undersea Explorer, a semi-submersible vessel showed up about 200m away, and chucked down their own berley trail, tempting our shark away, and probably any others that were in the vicinity.  If there had been paying customers aboard it would have merely been rudely competitive, but it was only manned by a couple of crew, having a little fun before taking the boat over to Bluff.  Then they circled our position, adding to the confusing scent trail for the sharks.  Skipper Mike got on the blower and with much restraint, requested they ship out, which thankfully, they did.

Suddenly though, things went pretty quiet.  We waited at least another forty minutes and saw no more sharks.  Dark clouds were gathering, it was cooling down and our sheltered position was starting to feel the growing swell. With no sharks about, nobody was that eager to get into the water and wait.  So the Skipper decided to hop into the inflatable boat and scout the previous day's position for us, to see if the swell was affecting it.  He returned with the news that it looked like a better spot, and we moved there.

The skipper

Shark victimNot long after we had anchored up, it looked like the same male white shark had followed us there and started hitting the bait. His behaviour was different to the slow inquisitive passes of yesterday's sharks. He wasn't exactly aggressive, but he came and went in hunting mode, coming up unseen from the bottom every time, hitting the bait or decoy quickly, and disappearing again. He came so quickly one time, we didn't pull our seal decoy away in time and he bit a flipper off, which quite amused Craig.

Cage secure, it was time to dive again.  My mate James Hacon was having camera issues, so I lent him mine.  Little did I know he'd get one of the best shots of the trip on it, and then just to rub it in, he took a "who's your daddy?" shot of himself.

White shark and tuna bait

Mr Hacon

By now, Lemuel was starting to have second thoughts about just enjoying the action from topside. Nobody was applying any pressure, although we dearly wanted him to have the same experience we had of these wonderful creatures. I was thrilled when he decided to give it a go, and while he got some quick instruction from Mike, I suited up so there'd be a friendly face in the water with him.

Lem gets in

When we got in, it was obvious that Lem was enjoying the experience.

Thumbs up from Lemuel

Mike Bhana was in his cage alongside us, working with his 3D video camera (Mike's heading away around the Pacific filming a 3D underwater TV series soon) and I managed to get a nice picture of him doing a typical day's work:

Mike Bhana filming in 3D

White Shark White Shark

Tough guyNow I'm used to seeing Mike filming big predators underwater, often without a cage. He knows I'm not impressed any more. What does impress me is that he does it in this water without gloves. Now that's brave. But it's pretty hard to control a still camera underwater, never mind the intricate controls of a Hi Def 3D video camera. Gloves just don't work.

After about 20 minutes watching that male, I was done and so was Mike and the other guys. Plenty of pictures and tales to tell, it was time to get out of the cage, into a hot shower, and warm clothes for the trip home. We were all pretty satisfied and I think every one of us would do it again.  Lem confirmed it on the drive home.  He was hooked.

So my thanks to the team for their fine company and a great adventure: Skipper Mike Haines, deckhand Johnno, Mike Bhana, Clarke and Tony Gayford, Kaiser McCormack, Ulrik Olsen, Antony Wyborn, Jonathan King, James Hacon, Lemuel Lyes and Craig Cassidy.

The Shark team

Now if this were a fairy tale, this would be the end. But there was no monster here, just some wonderful wild animals; no heroes, just a boatload of blokes having fun and no moral, but a very nice consequence.

As soon as I started to tell this tale, someone saw my blog entry and something small but very cool transpired.

More in the pipeline.

We interrupt this programme...

There's more mileage left in my Great White Shark Cage Dive Adventure, but today I needed to pop into town and deal with a little copyright infringement.  Just a silly little thing, but one I didn't want to let slip.
_MG_2163.jpgIt all started last year when I shot the delightful Stewart family in some promotional pictures for St Clair Beach resort, at the request of my friend, hospitality expert, tourism consultant and new dive buddy James Hacon.  James paid for the pictures, and the deal was that I'd also supply the family with a set for personal, non-commercial use.  As in most cases, I retained full copyright over my images.  I don't sell my pictures, I give you a licence to use them, in whichever way we agree.

So the other day, some tweets from Sarah alerted me to the fact that a picture I'd taken of her beautiful daughter El had turned up on posters around town and on the web, advertising a local bar and cafe, most likely taken from El's facebook page. Clearly a case of unauthorised commercial use.

I didn't want to play the heavy, so I contacted the proprietor of said bar (who I'm familiar with) and politely explained the situation and more importantly, the solution.  First, I'd check with El that it's okay for the bar to use her image to advertise, and for a  very nominal fee, I'd not only licence the picture, but I'd provide a much better digital copy than the low-res, squished version used.

Offer accepted, problem solved.  But I couldn't get over my proprietor friend's ignorance of copyright issues in advertising the bar.  Just taking a picture off the internet to use commercially is no different to me walking in and helping myself to use of the venue for a night.  I think I'll just have to accept that people are going to do this - mostly out of ignorance.  Whatever their motives, it means I'm going to be a little more vigilant about unauthorised use of my work.

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.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

White Sharks, Part Two

Late update: Shark scientist Malcolm Francis of NIWA has seen some of my shark pictures from this trip and gleaned some useful data from them. That really does round this amazing trip off for me.

How much more can I pack in to just a few days?  Shark diving, a band gig and now a copyright infringement to be sorted.  More on that later perhaps.  This post is about our white shark cage dive trip to Stewart Island.

Dawn.  The Shark Cage.

At 7.00 Thursday, we slid out of our sleeping bags on board the Candice-Britt, to meet the full compliment from Auckland who had driven down from Christchurch at 2.00 am.  There would be no slap-up breakfast as we were all keen to get under way. Cage secured, boat fueled, a cup of tea and a cold pie, and we were out into the swell, crossing Foveaux Strait bound for the Titi Islands, off Stewart Island, NZ.

Ready for action _MG_7552.jpg

As it turned out, the swell had eased nicely and the crossing was a breeze, made easier by the fact that the Candice Britt is a nice powerful catamaran that cut through the waves faster than bad news spreads on Twitter. Not wasting any time, our deck hand Johnno got to work preparing some shark bait.

Bait fish_MG_7603.jpg

No boat on Foveaux strait goes unaccompanied. Mollymawks, or more properly, small albatrosses are your constant companions. We were tracked by Shy and Buller's albatrosses. Their soaring flight is just beautiful to watch, and fun to try and get a good shot of from a rolling deck. If you're not a gear-head, feel free to skip the next para:

I used my 100-400 f/4 L to good effect here.  Its image stabilisation is the best thing since autofocus, but there were times when the 24-70mm got some nice shots too.  I should add that most of my topside images were taken on my Canon 5DmkII or 7D, while I had my Powershot G12 and underwater housing along for sub-surface action.  Just for emergencies, I had a 450D and a splash bag with a 580EXII and 540EX flash and some optical slaves at the bottom of my sleeping bag, along with a small flask of whisky, a cuban cigar and half a bag of corn chips.  If you're serious about photography you really have to be prepared.

The good omen

About an hour after leaving Bluff harbour, we anchored off one of the Titi islands. The Titis are also known as the Muttonbird islands. For centuries, local Maori have been coming here to gather the Sooty shearwater, a local delicacy - although those with an uneducated palate would liken it to a tough, greasy, salty seagull - only not as appetising.

It was time to gather sharks and our anticipation was building although you might not have noticed. I think the excitement was tempered by the thought of getting into that cold water. It's certainly not for the faint of heart. This is the southern ocean, 11 or 12 degrees C on a good day. If you're lucky, you'll last about an hour without a wetsuit before hypothermia gets you, although there are tales of some hardy types actually lasting over 12 hours and living to tell the tale. But the water wasn't going to put us off. There was work to do: A berley trail to be laid, bait to throw in, and just to tempt the big predators a little more, a little seal pup decoy made from foam.  It made sense that the seal silhouette would attract sharks, but who'd have thought it would work on albatross too?


_MG_7671.jpgAs we waited for the guests of honour to arrive, Mike got onto the hydraulic crane and lowered the cages into the water._MG_7601.jpg

The shark cage

The main cage is nice and sturdy, with room for four divers. Mike Bhana's personal cage was a rather different affair however.

The filming cage Cage goes in.

Our skipper had whipped it up from aluminium tubing the night before. One man could easily lift it, and I was thinking one large shark could easily pop it apart. That is, if it didn't want to just poke its jaws in through the massive gaps in the bars and pull you out. You'd have to be nuts to think you're safe in that thing with a big shark around. Or you'd have to be Mike Bhana. Mike's one of the most experienced shark shooters (as in camera, not gun) on the planet and I've seen him fend off dozens of big sharks with his camera. If you didn't know him, you'd think it was some kind of crazy machismo combined with a death wish, but he has a real love of sharks, combined with years of experience. I'm sure he'd get out of the water if he thought he wasn't in control of the situation. I'm just not sure if I've seen him do it yet.

Once the cages were in, there was nothing left to do but wait for the sharks to show. Luckily for us our skipper Mike Haines (did I mention his business, Southern Aqua Adventures?) knows just the best spot to find large white sharks, and some showed up almost immediately.  This was the little one:

The little one.

Hitting the bait



Skipper Mike had done his part. Now it was time to do ours. I'm not sure if it was the sharks or the water temperature, but there was a complete lack of gung ho about the moment, as a few of the lads just shrugged and began to suit up. We were about to come face to face with one of the planet's greatest living predators. Sure I was nervous. I hadn't dived in a few years, and the last time I was in a cage I found it terrifying, waiting for a Mako shark to appear from out of nowhere. This time the sharks were right there, and they were huge - nearly 4m long and of massive girth. But to be honest, this time, I couldn't wait.  This was going to be my first chance to do some underwater photography, and it was with one of the most spectacular subjects I could imagine.  I had a challenge to face, and I was totally focused on that.  While the first divers went in, I prepped my camera and underwater housing, put on my togs, and suited up. My time had come.


More of this story in the pipeline.