Monthly Archives: September 2015

  • A Review of 'Shark Bytes'

    A Personal View from a Veteran Shark Diver.

    Diving with sharks, which began in earnest after the Second World War with pioneers such as Cousteau and Hans Hass. It has evolved over the years. In the early days the trail-blazers really were being brave as there was no sensible information (as opposed to myth and sensationalism) to fall back on.

    Since then there have been two basic ‘advances’ in human/shark interactions underwater. Subsequent ‘shark divers’, motivated by an interest in the natural history of these majestic animals and a determination to take decent underwater photographs of these, to date, very poorly photographed subjects, slowly but surely increased the quality and variety of their shark portfolios. Twinned with this was the growing tendency of scuba operators (especially in the tropics) to offer shark feed dives for their clients. Through the '80s and '90s more and more divers got to see more and more sharks in ever more situations and, in the vast number of cases, safely. Gradually, and despite the damage done by Speilberg's film Jaws (1975), divers began to realise that it’s quite difficult to get bitten by a shark._SSC9934

    The third, and frankly often ugly stage of shark diving is upon us. The advances in underwater photographic equipment mean that getting fantastic photographs in reasonable conditions is almost guaranteed. While there are plenty of responsible dive operators offering superb shark dives to genuinely interested divers, a considerable number of attention-seeking types have emerged who, seeking to use sharks to make themselves famous, indulge in ever more vulgar and irresponsible stunts for the sake of the camera – stunts that soon appear all over the Internet, and beyond. The perpetrators inevitably claim that their antics are for the benefit of the animals. Sharks that were previously thought to be extremely dangerous (bull, tiger, great hammerhead) are now being fed, hand-fed, handled and posed with. (So too is the great white by those foolhardy enough to leave the safety of the cage.) Elbowing each other out of the way for the limited limelight, these divers must come up with ever more idiotic stunts; one ageing ex-model recently posed naked among circling sharks as her own contribution to shark conservation. Little wonder this genre has been labelled ‘shark porn’.

    John Bantin’s new book Shark Bytes spans the many years of his own shark diving with a very wide variety of sharks and is grounded in the common-sense approach of a serious veteran diver. Thankfully, indeed refreshingly in this age of narcissists and social media, there is none of that ghastly look-at-me-posing-with-sharks approach as he clearly enjoys the thrill of shark diving for its own sake. Nor does he shy away from an occasional, though thoroughly deserved dig at those whose claims could do with deflating (for example the multi-bitten, self-proclaimed shark behaviour expert)._SSC9921

    John Bantin used to write for the UK’s Diver Magazine and his easy-flowing and informative style is present in this text. There is no information overload, nor does he treat his reader as an ignoramus. Neither is he not too proud to include some of his own trials and tribulations when diving – things every diver knows about but would rather not mention.

    Scalloped hammerheads on a cleaning station at Malpelo (Columbia) Scalloped hammerheads on a cleaning station at Malpelo (Columbia)

    An accomplished underwater photographer, John Bantin’s text is adorned with lots of sumptuous underwater photographs of sharks. The Bimini great hammerhead photos are most impressive though my personal favourites would include the oceanic whitetip with the sun behind it on page 76 and the pair of scalloped hammerheads on page 148.

    An ocean whitetip shark in the Red Sea. An ocean whitetip shark in the Red Sea.

    These are the sort of haunting natural history photographs that bring back memories, for me, of diving with these magnificent animals: no humans getting in the way or cluttering up the background, no ghastly intrusion of scuba bubbles, just the animals at home in their own otherworldly world.

    Despite the title, Shark Bytes  (ISBN 978-1-909911-45-1) is not confined to sharks. There are encounters with dugongs, dolphins, manta rays and – perhaps most intriguing – truly gigantic groupers.

    The author constantly stresses how, when combining healthy respect and common sense, shark diving can be safe. Though never entirely safe. He mentions being picked up and carried away by tiger sharks – twice!

    Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch.

    J. Stafford-Deitsch was author of Shark - A Photographer's Story, a best-selling book published in 1987. (ISBN 0-742-7996-9)

  • Shark Bytes - A New Book

    Front PIeceThis week my latest book entitled Shark Bytes was published and is available from many different sources including the Ocean Leisure shop on the Embankment in London's Westend, as well as on-line. It is not an encyclopedia or identification book on sharks neither is it a book that specialises in their natural history, although it does deal with both subjects along the way. Its text is very descriptive and it it punctuated with my own photographs taken over a long period of time.

    It is more a book that is anecdotal, reflecting on experiences I have personally had with sharks, diving and photographing them over a period of almost three decades. However, I don't offer myself as an expert regarding sharks. There are plenty of ichthyologists and taxonomists specialising in that subject. I simply offer myself as a shark-witness and in Shark Bytes I delve into the way my own attitude to and understanding of sharks has developed during the intervening years. It's how I grew to love diving with sharks.

    _SSC9925 Scalloped hammerheads in the Eastern Pacific.

    This is not a book about how brave I am to swim with sharks! I used to be frightened by sharks but now I am merely wary! I am not a shark-hugger by any means - they are not 'pussycats'. By and large, they are powerful animals armed with a lot of teeth and we are only able to get into close proximity to them by entering a hostile environment - the water - which is their home territory. A shark bite can be very serious.

    _SSC9926 While I was photographing this tiger shark, another grabbed me from behind. I was not hurt, not that time!


    My own attitude has changed. Many years ago I had experiences when I thought I had 'nearly' been attacked by a shark. More recently I was actually grabbed by a huge tiger shark and swum off with. This has happened more than once but years of experience has allowed me to be much more sanguine about it. As it happened, I was not injured but some others to whom this has happened have not been so lucky. You'll need to read the book to find out more. That chapter is entitled Tiger, Tiger.

    I have added quotes within the book from some eminent shark people, not least Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel  JAWS, and Mike deGruy, a natural world television producer and presenter who was once mysteriously yet severely injured by a shark, both of whom are sadly no longer with us. Also Rob Palmer and Chris Allison, both also no longer with us. Others that have contributed quotes include three members of the Cove family - Stuart Cove, Graham Cove and Michelle Berlanda Cove - and Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch, all people who have helped me enormously get good pictures of sharks in The Bahamas. Other experts include George Burgess, Lesley Rochat, Mike Neumann, Gary Adkison, and Marty Snyderman, the last who offers sage advice about being close to "Mr Big and Might be Dangerous". Finally, whole chapters were supplied by Pete Atkinson and Bret Gilliam, both excellent wordsmiths as well as very experienced shark divers in their own right.

    I cover experiences with many of the sharks you might meet whilst scuba-diving. From the enigmatic wobbegong of the Far East to the ubiquitous little tropical whitetip reef shark (triaenodon obesus) that can turn into a voracious nighttime predator, a spectacular event if you get to see a vast number hunting. _SSC9929

    The whaleshark is a gentle giant, roaming the ocean and hoovering up plankton and small fish. From Malpelo to the Philippines and the Maldives, you can meet them in any tropical or sub-tropical sea and I've met a few with varying photographic results but there’s always a story to tell afterwards, including the one that was towed by a freighter for almost of 150 miles and the one that a park ranger in the Galapagos did an unspeakable stunt with.

    I describe diving with oceanic whitetip sharks (carcharhinus longimanus) and explain why the special circumstances of their food-source in the Red Sea can give divers close encounters without the need to bait them with dead fish and I also explain my theory, so linked, as to why five unfortunate swimmers were savagely attacked by one off the beaches of Egypt's Sinai back in 2010. _SSC9924-2

    Unlike Amazing Diving Stories, a best-selling diving book that I wrote in third person, this is a first hand description and it describes diving with and photographing sharks as well as some related subjects such as manta rays, which are in fact of the same animal group - elasmobranchs. I have tried to give as balanced an account as possible with little sensationalism and a rational view of how sharks are essential to the eco-system we call Planet Earth. Throughout I have illustrated the book with my own photographs (apart from one instance). I hope you choose to buy a copy. I'm sure you will enjoy reading what might well be a slightly different take on the subject of diving with sharks. My intention is that it will be enjoyed by as many non-divers as divers and that it would make an interesting Christmas present._SSC9921In Shark Bytes the rights and wrongs of shark-feeding for the purposes of photography are dealt with and the penultimate chapter is entitled Is The Only Good Shark a Dead Shark? and examines the plight of sharks with an ever diminishing population thanks a to industrialised shark-finning and the dangerous effect that is having on our Planet's environment.

    A very dangerous animal swims alongside a Great hammerhead shark. Not what it seems - a very dangerous animal swims alongside a Great hammerhead shark.


    It's had some great reviews. Here's one:

  • Does Flash (or Strobe Lighting) Hurt the Animals?

    A recent blog of mine was about photographing seahorses and, despite the reference to the research work of Dr. David Harasti in that blog, I received a protest from one reader that a photographer's flash will stress and kill them. All wild animals are paranoid. They are continually stressed. You only have to watch a bird or a squirrel feeding in your garden to be aware of this. Constantly facing the possibility of attack by a predator, wild animals are always alert and ready for flight. Flight or fight – but fighting usually happens only between males of the same species competing for territory, or is the last desperate attempt of an animal, attacked by a predator, to save itself. Man has conditioned domesticated animals to some of the excesses of his activities, but they still have an underlying paranoia too. A horse might rear, a cat might scram, a pet parrot might fly up into the rafters. When I was an advertising photographer, I photographed animals, from dogs, cats and horses to chickens, chameleons, toucans and chimpanzees. All needed time to become accustomed to the new surroundings of the studio or special location in which they found themselves, but once this had been achieved, the huge output of light from the amount of flash commonly used in a studio in those days seemed to be ignored. Thanks to the technology available at the time, we needed to use around a thousand times more flash output than is produced by a typical underwater flashgun or strobe. I present a long-running poster campaign for Whiskas cat food as my first item of material evidence, and the relaxed cats portrayed as my first witnesses.

    Whiskas cats look relaxed despite a vast amount of flashlight used to photograph them. Whiskas cats look relaxed despite a vast amount of flashlight used to photograph them.

    Animals with quick responses see the flash as a slow pulse of light. Most animals have quicker responses than we do. For example, a saltwater crocodile has a reaction time 60 times quicker than ours. It may be disturbed by you, but it certainly isn’t startled!

    Saltwater crocodiles have fast reaction times. Saltwater crocodiles have fast reaction times.

    Approaching a wild animal under water, we are both intruder and possible predator. However, in the marine world we are so far removed from what animals are expecting that they usually tend to ignore us unless we get too close. We are simply big, dark shapes vibrating with noise as we breathe. My experiments with bubble-free closed-circuit equipment tell me that it is our noise and our movement of which animals are wary. We are not invisible, but keeping as still as a rock and making no sound will give you the best chance of a skittish scalloped hammerhead shark coming close. So what happens when we take photographs? First of all, to be closely approached by a huge dark shape will alarm any smaller creature.

    Batfish do not retreat despite repeated flashlight exposures. Batfish art Puerta Galera do not retreat despite repeated flashlight exposures.

    There seems to be a rule under water that size matters. Small animals are eaten by larger ones. It’s a war zone down there. Everything is eating everything else, or at least trying to. A big dark animal is a threat. A well-known marine wildlife photographer based in the USA is famous for his yellow wetsuits. They may look garish on the aft deck of the boat, but he believes that they are less disturbing for the animals he photographs. Each animal has a strategy for survival so your very presence will be alarming, and it will take time for an animal to forget about your sudden arrival. The seahorse will turn its back, and the turtle may swim off in a hurry. Luckily for us, most marine animals have a short attention span, so if you stay still long enough, they will eventually ignore you. Of course a large number of these dark shapes, all moving in different ways, will be exponentially more alarming. Large numbers of divers crowding round a single hairy frogfish must be very frightening for it. It frightens me! What happens when you approach closely with a camera? The big eye of the camera looks down at the creature. All animals are tuned to know when they are being looked at, which is why hunters wear masks. It is disturbing for them to be watched, but if they are not equipped for a high-speed escape, like, for example, a jack, they stay put and soon get used to the fact that they haven’t been eaten. The camera is fired and two things happen. It makes a noise, and there is a pulse of light from the flash.  (To put things in context, the pulse of light from a typical underwater flash is probably equal to one-thousandth the amount of light that I used to photograph those cats for Whiskas – 20 joules of light as opposed to 20,000j.) As my next witness, may I introduce the octopus. The octopus is an intelligent mollusc and it has a variety of strategies for use when threatened by a possible predator, including camouflage, diversion by way of an ink cloud, and finally flight, using the jet-propulsion of its siphon. The octopus also has a complex eye, which I suspect allows it to see well what happens when the camera is fired. I use a big camera, and at the moment the eye of the lens opens and shuts, there is a loud clatter as the mirror mechanism works, and the flash emits a pulse of light. Under these circumstances the octopus usually appears to flinch, clearly indicating that it is disturbed. But what is actually disturbing it? My experiments lead me to believe that the octopus reacts firstly to the close approach of a large dark object – my body – and secondly to the vibration of the camera mechanism operating.  However, after a few of these moments the animal either settles down and decides that there is no threat, or it will attempt to flee.

    These mating octopus were not disturbed by the camera's flash light. These mating octopus were not disturbed by the camera's flash light.

    I have spent more than 45 minutes with two octopuses that were courting, and my noisy camera, dark body and light-emitting flashgun had no obviously detrimental effect on the course of events. I was able to take hundreds of close-focus wide-angle pictures of the whole procedure, from beginning to end.

    A green turtle is undisturbed in its daytime roost although it sleeps with its eyes open. A green turtle is undisturbed in its daytime roost although it sleeps with its eyes open.

    Similarly I have spent long periods with turtles that have simply got used to my presence and allowed me to take multiple flash exposures from very close indeed. It may be different if you have a constant light source shining in their eyes, as when shooting video. If an animal decides it is not under threat of predation, it will simply tolerate you. Of course, an animal that is nocturnal will not enjoy being lit up by a bright light. Fitting a red filter over the aiming light of a flashgun when photographing animals at night appears to mitigate this problem. Some continuous light sources come with a red light function too. The pulse of light from a flash is either too slow to disturb those animals with very quick responses or, I suspect, with lower life-forms too quick to evoke any response at all. It’s annoying that when you line up a camera on a macro subject such as a pygmy seahorse, or any seahorse for that matter, it tends to turn away shyly. This is because predators detect the presence of prey often by the existence of its eye. Many coral-browsers have developed a defence strategy of displaying a false eye on a less vulnerable part of their body.  The eyes of the seahorse must be kept hidden when the animal feels threatened – but don’t think it only does this to photographers!

    The sea snake approaches the camera relentlessly despite having its photograph taken The sea snake approaches the camera relentlessly despite having its photograph taken.

    So do we stress the animals? The immediate answer is, yes. Just as the marauding jack stresses the anthias, fish stress the browsing octopus and the whitetip reef shark stresses the little fish hiding among the rocks at night, so all divers stress the animals by our sudden arrival. Slow movements and plenty of patience go a long way to getting good pictures. Fish are not frightened by big rocks, and I have noticed that a still group of divers huddled together in an area of sandy seabed, testing regulators for example, can actually attract some sedentary predators such as frogfish, which see the black shape as a useful dark place to hide. Does the camera’s flash disturb animals? I have serious doubts. As my last material evidence, I’d like to present my picture library, with hundreds of sequences of pictures of animals that did not take the option to retreat in a hurry.

    A collection of cats undisturbed by 20,000joules of flashlight. A collection of cats undisturbed by 20,000joules of flashlight.
  • Photographing Seahorses and Pygmy Seahorses


    DSCF0562 Full-size seahorse photographed in Manado, North Suluwesi, Indonesia.
      Everybody loves a seahorse. Maybe it's because of their equine faces. They can be found in both temperate and tropical waters. Studland Bay, off the coast of Dorset, is known to have a population clinging to its weedy seabed. They are jealously protected from intrusion by underwater photographers but a voluntary body calling itself the Seahorse Trust. Elsewhere, I've photographed seahorses as far apart as St.Vincent in the Caribbean and South Leyte in the Philippines.
    Caribbean seahorse. Caribbean seahorse. (St.Vincent)
    Although sedentary by nature and seeming only to use prevailing currents to drift from location to location, they are quite difficult to photograph because they tend to shy away from cameras. It's as if, childlike, they think that if they cannot see a perceived threat it won't be able to see them. At around 10cm tall, you can get good pictures of them with your compact camera set in macro mode, but you need to be patient. Sometimes it means concentrating on your subject for many minutes, constantly allowing the camera to refocus, until the charming little animal has forgotten that you are there and turns back to face you. Then you grab the moment! Even when diving at night and discovering a seahorse clinging to some coral or maybe a sponge, it can be just as challenging because your light will disturb it. A good trick is to use a red filter over your focussing light or one that has a red light mode and they surprise the animal with the sudden pulse of white light from your flash, capturing its image while it is unaware. Most marine animals cannot see red light so that they are undisturbed in this way.
    Seahorse photographed under a pier or jetty in South Leyte  at night. Seahorse photographed under a pier or jetty in South Leyte, Philippines, at night.
    The Latin name for seahorse is Hippocampus which means ’Horse Caterpillar’. They without doubt a type of fish, they breathe through gills and control their buoyancy by means of a swim bladder like other typical fish. There are many sub-species but they all tend to live their lives in the same way, clinging to fixed points near the seabed with their long prehensile snake-like tails. They hunt for food by sight and their long thin snouts allow them to poke into nooks and crannies, sucking up tiny crustacea. Seahorse have excellent eyesight and can work their eyes independently so that they can look forwards and backwards at the same time, but they are poor swimmers, relying on their dorsal fins to propel them forwards while their pectoral fins, positioned either side of their head, are use for stability. They move into deep water to avoid rough seas. There are up to forty different species. Sea horses have exo-skeletons and are unusual in that it is the male of the species that carries and broods the eggs. The female passes the eggs to the male and he fertilises them within his pouch so its a sort of reverse pregnancy
    Searching for pigmy seahorses on a seafan. Searching for pygmy seahorses on a seafan.
    If you visit and dive in Eastern Indonesia, the Philippines and area to the East, you will notice dive guides searching among the gorgonia or seafans. They are looking for pygmy seahorses. This species has been discovered only in recent times but has proved to be a popular subject with underwater photographers. However, you need sharp eyes to see them. They are often only a few millimetres tall but look like perfectly formed animals - only in miniature! You need a powerful macro lens and good contrast lighting to record good images of these charming little beasts. Usually you will need to add a macro wet lens to any camera other than an expensive DSLR that might be equipped with suitably close focussing prime macro lens.
    Pigmy seahorse photographed in Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi, Indonesia. Pygmy seahorse on a red gorgonia. (photographed in Lembeh Strait in North Suluwesi, Indonesia)
    Even then you might think of adding a suitable wet dioptre lens too, but you don’t need a top-of-the-range camera to get good seahorse pictures, even it they are so tiny. You can fit a powerful plus-10 dioptre macro wet lens to almost any camera housing that has a 67mm thread to its front port. Even if you have a proprietary plexiglass underwater housing with a rectangular front port you can usually obtain an adapter that will allow you to fit bayonet-type wet lenses. You can even stack these macro lenses to enable you to photograph the smallest subjects. You can even get something similar for your GoPro. Not only can you fit a wet lens but, because the camera is so close to the subject when you take a picture, it’s one time that the in-built camera flash might give you a satisfactory result. This will rely on fitting the light diffuser that originally came with the housing. However an off-board ancillary flashgun or strobe will be more controllable. You could use a video light but remember that although it will be close enough to your subject to give a good exposure, it might also fry it! It will certainly disturb it. Come in to Ocean Leisure and discuss what you might need to photograph seahorses.
    Pigmy Seahorse photographed in the Philippines. A tiny pygmy seahorse photographed in the Philippines. It is clinging to the gorgonia (sea fan) and has adopted the same colour as a method of disguise. (Photographed in the Philippines)
      THE EFFECT ON SEAHORSES In 2009, marine scientist Dave Harasti completed a study in Australia that looked at the direct impact of flash photography on seahorses. “One of the reasons why I did the study was that I was tired of hearing or reading that flashes kill seahorses, when there was no scientific proof,” says Dave, who is using the study as part of a PhD thesis on seahorse conservation. Dave has been studying threatened marine species for the past 10 years. A keen underwater photographer, he has also won several major competitions in Australia. “Part of my research is the use of photo IDs,” he explains. “I photograph a seahorse, look for any distinctive marks and use them for future individual identification. I have taken a lot of photographs of individuals and, given that they are still currently alive and in the same spot where I first found them, I consider it very unlikely that flash photography is having an impact on them. “A good example is my ‘Grandpa’ seahorse, which I have been photographing for three and half years. He’s still alive, currently mating with a real hot (in seahorse eyes) gold female, and is still found in the same spot. This says to me that flash photography does not cause seahorses to die or migrate from their location. “The work I have been doing is on the White’s seahorse (Hippocampus whitei) and to a lesser extent the pot-belly seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis), so I can’t say that flash photography doesn’t impact on all seahorse species. However, some work we did in PNG involved photo ID of the pygmy seahorse (Hippocampus bargibanti), and there was no impact on this species either. “I found that flash photography had no significant impact on seahorses’ behaviour, movements and longevity. In my humble opinion, photography poses no harm to seahorses. However, photographers touching and moving seahorses and their habitats is a completely different story!”      

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