• Photographing Sharks

    It’s easy to impress your non-diving friends and neighbours with the photographs you might take of sharks. Shark encounters come in a number of types: Chance encounters such as you might get ocean-roving oceanic white-tip sharks, encounters where currents attract requiem sharks that enjoy surfing on the flow, encounters with bottom feeding sharks such as nurse sharks and leopard sharks that like to lie up and rest during the day, and where sharks are feeding.

    The normal rules of underwater photography apply, in that it’s best to use a wide-angle lens and get as close as possible. Reduce the amount of water between your camera and the subject.

    Oceanic white tip shark Ocea-roving oceannic white tip shark


    Ocean roving sharks tend to be close to the surface so it’s quite possible to get reasonable pictures without an underwater strobe or flash but these are ambush predators so designed as to offer a low contrast image to intended prey. A correct flash exposure can give contrast and add drama.

    They tend to swim around 6m deep, constantly investigating anything that might be the source of a meal. That is why they approach divers, often only to turn away at the last moment when they consider us to be animals too big for them to take on. Sharks appear to judge size by height rather than length so if you want a shark to come close, present as small a frontal area as possible by being horizontal in the water. Go vertical and you will almost certainly scare off such a shark.

    Those sharks that lie about during the day such as nurse sharks can be approached with caution so as not to disturb them and you will have time to get more than one exposure adjusting the lighting and exposure to suit. The same can be said of white-tip reef sharks, although these are much more skittish. They lie about on the seabed during the day because they are able to force oxygenated water through their gills without forward motion like most other requiem sharks, but be aware that because they are grey and again designed for ambush, they need careful lighting just the same.

    Scalloped hammerheads at a cleaning station Scalloped hammerheads at a cleaning station

    Then there are the cleaning stations. Find out from the local dive guide which fish are the resident shark cleaners and find where they are aggregating. Then you just need to be patient, keeping as still as possible, waiting for the sharks to approach for a visit to the manicurist. It’s the only way to get pictures of scalloped hammerheads because they are so skittish. You need to sort out your overall exposure so that the background is reproduced an acceptable blue, adjusting the power of the flash (or strobe) to suit the foreground shark.

    When it comes to feeding sharks, things become a lot more frenetic. You need a fast shutter-speed but you will be limited to the fastest speed with which your camera will allow you to synchronise your flash.

    Sharks feed in two distinctly different ways. When chasing live prey they become very agitated and it’s best to keep clear at this time, even exiting the water. Sharks have more senses than we do but it’s a fact that they have a nictitating eyelid that covers their eyes to protect them at the moment of biting so that they virtually do the last part of an attack with their eyes closed. Mistakes can happen. Anyone who has attended a night dive at Manuelita Island near Cocos will attest to the fact, it can be chaotic, and that’s when it’s only little white tip reef sharks start hunting small fished by the light of the divers torches. Bigger sharks can explode with energy when they sense a live prey.

    White tip reef sharks competing for live prey at night. White tip reef sharks competing for live prey at night.

    On the other hand, when sharks sense there is a meal of carrion to be had, they are much more leisurely in their approach. There are no vibrations of injured or dying fish to excite them or ring their dinner bell, just the odour of an easy meal wafting on the ocean currents. So they tend to swim round in an orderly manner.

    Staged shark feeds such as they often do in the Bahamas and some parts of the Caribbean will give any diver witnessing the event that sharks, although impressive beasts, have a pecking order and act in an orderly manner so that they do not risk injuring each other. They still move quite quickly so you will still need to choose the fastest shutter-speed you can, in order to get sharp pictures. If you do not, the flash will record a sharp image but there will also be a less sharp ghost image due to the daylight exposure being too long.

    Using twin flashguns can also be counter-productive because those guys in the grey suits need a bit of contrast to light them up with plenty of shape and contour. It’s one occasion when the single flashgun reigns supreme.

    Caribbean reef shark at a staged shark feed. Caribbean reef shark at a staged shark feed.

    With plenty of sharks attending a staged feed, you won’t be able to judge where any are at a given moment. You’ll need to take a lot of pictures because inevitably one animal will obstruct your view of another, many times when you release your camera’s shutter. If you shoot RAW files, you’ll be able to adjust these after the event and not have to keep adjusting your flashgun’s output to account for sharks being at different distances from the camera.




  • Shark Feeding – Right or Wrong?

    Whenever I have written an article about sharks for the mainstream media, they have invariably illustrated the item with a picture of a Great White shark, its head staring toothily out of the water. For most people there is only one type of shark and that is the type portrayed in Peter Benchley/Steven Spielberg’s JAWS. This means we all grew up with an innate fear of sharks and it certainly took me a few years scuba diving to get over it.

    There are some very diverse opinions about whether it is good to bait sharks (as in shark feeding by divers) in order to get close encounters. People don’t let personal experience get in the way of their opinion forming processes. Sharks are often believed to be dangerous undiscerning predators that enjoy hunting man. It's easy to believe that shark feeding must be dangerous!

    I was amazed and dismayed by the vitriolic response to underwater photographer Michael Aw posting a picture on FaceBook that revealed he had sustained a bite during such an event, even though it was ironically from a little grouper that was waiting in the hope of getting some crumbs form the sharks’ table.

    Sharks come in as many diverse forms as there are opinions about this subject and I confess that I am not a shark-hugger and not someone who insists that they are like pussycats. They are feeding machines with a lot of teeth and very much at home in their own environment.

    Where can you see sharks? Some sharks can be encountered where there are fast currents. Most requiem sharks need a flow of water over their gills so they either have to keep swimming or let the natural flow of a current do the job instead. Some sharks are nocturnal feeders, hunting at night, and can be found resting during daylight hours. Tawny nurse sharks, leopard sharks and white-tip reef sharks fall into this category. Be aware that nurse sharks are implicated in more attacks on scuba divers than any other species probably because divers are prone to interfere with them while they are resting. Their mouths can suck with up to one-thousand pounds of pressure.

    A good place to encounter sharks and other elasmobranchs like manta rays is at known cleaning stations. Check with the local guides as to which species of fish tend to do this important grooming task locally and look out for aggregations of them. It you wait patiently and quietly you may get a close encounter. Those with close-circuit rebreathers enjoy a stealth advantage for this when seeking to get close to sharks - provided they keep still and don’t give away their position.

    The function of most sharks is to rid the ocean of ill and injured fish so that there are no epidemics of disease.  They also feed on carrion. The oceanic white-tip roams the oceans of the world, seeking carrion and opportunistic meals at or near the surface. In the Red Sea, the narrowness of the busy shipping lanes to Port Suez and the fact that most galley waste is tossed over the side from the very many freighters passing through it means that this particular population of oceanic white-tips have learned that the noise of engines and the sound of splashing indicates a meal. It rings the dinner bell for them.

    The advent of very large liveaboard dive boats making the same noises and furnishing seductive splashing sounds by divers entering the water, at the same time visiting reefs close to these busy sea lanes, means that these predatory animals will investigate divers in shallow water who get a fleeting if high-adrenalin encounter from time to time. To my knowledge no diver has sustained an investigatory bite but avoid snorkelling at the surface or you will be asking for trouble. An investigatory bite can be catastrophic.

    So putting these cases to one side, the best way to see other sharks close-up and personal is to join a dive where there is organised shark feeding. (There needs to be some benefit to the sharks or they will stay away.) Is it right or wrong to do it?

    Well I have attended many such feeds in different parts of the world and seen them done in very different ways. Some are safe, some are incredibly safe for participating divers and some are less so.

    I’ve witnessed sharks being fed with bait dispensed with an unprotected hand from a plastic bag. This invites the shark to grab all of the bait with consequent danger to the person holding it. I’ve witnessed sharks being fed with pieces of fish held in a bare hand, the pieces cut from the head of a mahi mahi held under the arm. I’ve also seen the hand of someone feeding in such a way receiving the multiple stitches needed afterwards.

    I’ve seen people spearing live fish to use as bait. The behavior of sharks when they sense carrion in the water is entirely different to that when they sense the vibrations from an injured fish. In the first case they are relaxed and circle round. In the second case they enter a frenzy of excitement that could be hazardous for those divers in close proximity. Similarly you should keep well away from anglers. Reeling in a dying fish at the end of a line encourages a shark to chase them and because a shark closes its eyes with a nictitating eyelid when it distends it jaw to bite, it can be less than accurate and other people sharing the same water have been injured. Any shark can make this mistake.

    Some dive centres employ a frozen chumsicle of fish that is suspended in mid-water. The sharks circle round feeding from it as the bait thaws and divers can choose to get as close or stay as distant as they like. The sharks treat the divers like any other big predator there for the meal.

    On Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I’ve been shepherded into a cage to watch while little grey reef sharks are brought to a frustrated frenzy by being denied the bait contained within a ventilated steel container so that they lived up to the expectations of watching divers who believe that sharks are undiscerning will bite anything. Of course, it was impossible to take pictures under such circumstances since the bars of the cage were too close together but it was incredibly safe from the sharks.

    It seems to me that the safest and most visually effective way to feed sharks from the human perspective is to strictly control the bait as it is handed out. This is normally done either with a short spear or a gloved hand. Nowadays many such shark feeders wear full chainmail suits and helmets to protect themselves from sustaining an accidental bite although they are not immune to injury. One chainmail-clad feeder got a shark caught in the links of his suit and it broke all of the bones in his hand, his arm and his shoulder, in the struggle to get free. He wasn’t bitten though!

    Bahamian Caribbean reef shark feed Caribbean reef shark feed on a wreck in the Bahamas.

    What happens if someone does get bitten? The underwater environment is no place to be injured in such a way and there has been one case of someone dying from blood loss before they could get medical attention. On the other hand, in the days before they used full chainmail suits, a young shark-feeder, Michelle Cove, made the mistake of diving into an accidentally upturned bait-box to preserve the cuts of fish that spilled out from the competitive sharks and got accidentally bitten in the head for her trouble. Head wounds bleed profusely, so much so that the captain of her boat fainted when she climbed on board, but it precipitated no feeding frenzy. Sharks are very choosy eaters!

    With some sharks, like tigers and lemons, it is only necessary to dangle a bait-box in the water so that it lets out a seductive scent trail. Great hammerheads look for their prey under the sand so that is where the bait must be buried.

    So what about the well-being of the sharks?  Some say it causes abnormal aggregations of sharks but I can tell you that the channel of Bikini Atoll swarmed with sharks back in the ’nineties even at a time when few humans had been there. (Bikini Atoll was the site of more than sixty atomic and hydrogen bomb tests from 1945 to 1960.)

    Some say that it causes the sharks to lose the ability to hunt. I’m told a typical shark needs to eat around four per cent of its body weight each day. That means that at a typical Bahamian shark feed, the feeder would need to carry around twenty kilos of bait when in fact the sharks get little more than a canapé and many attending sharks get nothing at all. Some sharks disappear for weeks before returning to a staged feed.

    Some say that it causes sharks to associate food with humans. I’m no expert but I would offer that sharks associate food with food wherever it is. The human influence is purely incidental. Does it cause them to be more ready to attack humans?

    Florida, where shark baiting in order to view them is illegal, has more instances of shark bites than anywhere else in the world. To put things in perspective, in 1996, 43,000 Americans were injured by lavatories and thirteen by sharks. You are more likely top get killed by a falling coconut or a faulty toaster than to get bitten by a shark. In 2014, twenty-four were injured by sharks off Florida’s beaches while only two instances were recorded in the Bahamas where shark-feeding dives have become a big industry.

    So what have sharks done for us? They maintain the health of the oceans and the fast disappearance of sharks in some parts of the world, thanks to industrialised shark-finning, has resulted in mass fish die-offs recently. How can we counter this?

    Some people are appalled that anyone should try to run a business and make a profit from shark feeding dives. It offends their sensibilities yet they would happily pay to visit an aquarium or dolphinarium. Well, we are all aware that the Dollar is king. By increasing the Dollar value of a live shark it provides the animal with financial protection. Those nation states that have taken steps to prevent shark-finning fleets operating in their waters have all got a vibrant scuba diving industry. That’s no coincidence. A live shark in the Bahamas is said to generate more than 250,000 US Dollars in tourism during its lifetime whereas a dead shark is worth only a tiny fraction of that. Do the mathematics!

    One final bit of advice: If you are worried about meeting a shark whilst you are diving just be aware that if you don’t interfere with it, it will ignore you. Sharks have evolved to eat their particular prey over millions of years and, quite simply, we newcomers underwater are not on the menu.

    If you would like to read about some of my own personal experiences whilst diving close to and photographing sharks over a thirty-year period, read my book Shark Bytes, published by Fernhurst Books and available from the Ocean Leisure book department.


  • What's a Reef Hook For?

    We recently received a FaceBook message from a very happy customer to Ocean Leisure, who told us what a godsend the reef hook we had suggested was. He had called by on his way to the Sudan and equipped himself with all the underwater photography equipment he needed as well as a lot of new scuba diving equipment. As usual we asked him where he was going and on hearing that he was joining a member of the Cousteau family on a trip we suggested he took with him a reef hook.

    A Reef hook with braided line and clip.
    The water that forces itself over the deep water tongues of each reef in the Sudan can be forced to speed up just as the air over the top of an aircraft's wing has to increase its velocity resulting in often strong currents. Places like Sha'ab Rumi are famous for this phenomenon and that is what encourages the sharks. Requiem sharks need forward motion to force water through their gills in order to breathe. If they find a place with a strong current, they can relax in the flow letting the forces of nature do the work for them. It's not unique to the Sudan. Water forces its  way into the channels of the Maldives, through the passes of the Tua Motos in French Polynesia and between the islands of Indonesia as tidal differences in the ocean affect the height of the water within the lagoons of atolls of the water levels in the minor seas to the north of the Indonesian archipelago. Among many other places, Palau has some powerful current points like that at Pelelui Cut and Blue Corner too. We should not forget the diver's flavour-of-the-year, the Dampier Strait in Raja Ampat, either.
    Grey Reef Shark in the Maldives Grey Reef Shark in the Maldives
    It can make scuba diving arduous but many divers think it's worth the effort. Why? Because once you have swum down and located yourself at the point on the reef wall where the action is to be found, you merely need to cling on and watch the show. Of course, clinging on to a coral reef is to be discouraged thanks to the damage it does. Even if you were able to cling on to bare rock as one can in the waters of Cocos or the Galapagos, you'd need a strong pair of leather gloves if your hands are not to be torn. Gloves more often used by sailors are appropriate. Neoprene diving gloves get ripped to pieces within a few dives.
    Enjoying a strong current at Rangiroa in French Polynesia. Enjoying a strong current at Rangiroa in French Polynesia.
    Better still, why not avoiding touching any surface altogether? That's where the reef hook comes into its own. You simply hook in to a suitable area of rocky substrate and allow yourself to be pushed back by the flow of water. The reef hook is at the end of a length of line that is hooked to a strong part of your BC such as a suitable stainless steel D-ring. A little bit of air added to the BC gives to enough buoyancy to fly like a kite above the reef and you hover there comfortably while you watch the sharks and other fishes putting on a show.
    Flying like a kite with a reef hook to enjoy diving in a channel in the Maldives. Using a reef hook to enjoy diving in a channel in the Maldives.
    When it comes to time to go, you simply pull yourself down the comfortably braided line and unhook, not forgetting to dump that buoyancy air from your BC before you are swept back into the channel behind you or into the lee of the reef. A reef hook is an inexpensive item of kit that is stowed in a BC pocket forgotten until you need it. If you are going anywhere that currents are featured, we certainly recommend it. If you've enjoyed reading these blogs, you will enjoy reading Amazing Diving Stories by the same author.

  • The Joys of the Bahamas

    The Bahamas are only a single flight away from the UK and represent some fabulous scuba diving and snorkelling opportunities. Even if you are a non-swimmer you can experience its underwater world courtesy of a bubble-sub operated by centres on New Providence, the home to the capital of the Bahamas, Nassau.

    Enjoying a ride in a Bubblesub. Enjoying a ride in a Bubblesub.
    The Bahamas are famous among divers for its shark-feeding dives, where diver can get close-up and personal with its Caribbean reef sharks. Diver's are never in any danger and he sharks are only turn up for the free hand-out of food offered. It's an educational experience when you discover that these are not the undiscerning and voracious predators so often portrayed by the sensation-seeking media. In fact thousands of divers have attended these shark feeds near New Providence without anyone being injured although more experienced divers are now visiting other parts of the archipelago in a quest for greater thrills with tiger sharks and oceanic white-tips.
    Caribbean reef sharks pass close by divers in the Bahamas and yet nobody feels in the leas bit threatened by them Caribbean reef sharks pass close by divers in the Bahamas and yet nobody feels in the leas bit threatened by them
    Divers are fully briefed before they enter the water where they take up position as instructed and wait for the shark feeder to arrive with a box full of bait. The sharks are used to this and will follow the feeder rather like a flock of over-sized pigeons. Once the feed begins the sharks circle round in an orderly manner while the feeder passes out cuts of fish on the end of a short spear. The sharks are careful not to get in each others' way and subscribe to a definite order of priority. While they are circling in this way it makes for a great photo-opportunity.
    Cave Diving within a Blue Hole
    If you really want to seek out hazardous circumstances under water, the islands of the Bahamas are riddled with prehistoric cave systems that flooded once sea levels rose after the last Ice Age and these tidal caves so formed (often called Blue Holes) can represent some of the toughest diving conditions in the world and are only suitable for visits by carefully trained cave divers. However, on the island of Grand Bahama it is possible to get a carefully supervised introduction to this sort of experience. You'll need plenty of reliable lighting equipment and we can help with that at Ocean Leisure. Notwithstanding that, there are plenty of other great scuba diving opportunities in the waters of the Bahamas. Many of the reefs are still in pristine condition and make for very pretty dives.
    Theo's wreck off Grand Bahama Theo's wreck off Grand Bahama
    The outer islands have immaculate conditions with reefs heavily populated with fishes while around New Providence and Grand Bahama there is a plethora of shipwrecks waiting to be visited. Most of them have been intentionally sunk for the benefit of divers ad some of them have been used as underwater sets for famous Hollywood films. Sanctuary Bay on Grand Bahama is home to a colony of dolphins that have been rescued from circuses and dolphinarium throughout the world. You can pay for a dolphin experience and go out to see with one of these human-friendly mammals.  You pend around forty-five minutes in the company of the best breath-hold diver you will ever encounter. On your part, it's breath-taking!  You would certainly regret not taking a camera with you to record the experience.
    A human-friendly dolphin from Sanctuary Bay, Grand Bahama. A human-friendly dolphin from Sanctuary Bay, Grand Bahama.
    These are Atlantic bottlenose dolphin and they represent very big animals. It'd amazing to watch how effortlessly they can move in their home environment yet they are never tempted to stray from home because they are regularly fed there and are clever to know a good thing when they see it. What do you do in the Bahamas when you are not underwater? Did we mention the warm sunshine, the fabulous food, the white sandy beaches, the clear turquoise water and the friendly people? Remember to get your diving equipment serviced in good time before you make any dive trip.
    Did we mention the turquoise water and the friendly people? Did we mention the warm sunshine, the clear turquoise water and the friendly people?

  • Shark Feeding - The Rights and Wrongs?

    Bull shark in the Bahamas with Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch
    It seems that many modern-day divers have very mixed feelings about methods to get close-up and personal with sharks. They want to say they have dived with sharks but many don’t want them close enough to see properly or for them to feel it’s they that have been seen by the sharks. Dive guides in the Red Sea will protest that they get plenty of close-up interaction with sharks without baiting but these are Oceanic White-tip sharks that are ocean wanderers and opportunistic feeders. They will make a close pass of anything including a diver to check out if it’s a potential meal. Interactions are exciting but brief in the extreme.
    Oceanic White-tip Shark in the Red Sea
    These sharks are regularly fed because they follow the busy shipping movements on the Red Sea, a main route between Asia and Europe. All the trash is thrown overboard from these vessels. They’ve been doing this for more than 100 years. The bigger diving liveaboards that are now in evidence make the same noises and ring the dinner bell for these animals. On the other hand, the big populations of grey reef sharks and other reef species have, in the main, long since gone from Egyptian waters. Most sharks are cautious. That’s how they get to grow old in a shark-eat-shark world, and size matters. Divers are usually bigger in comparison to most sharks and sharks usually prefer to stay away from them rather than risk injury from what might be another large predator.
    At a Caribbean reef shark feed in the Bahamas
    Of course, there are many different ways to attract sharks and I’ve witnessed shark-feeding techniques in many parts of the world. Bearing in mind that sharks tend to be big animals with mouths full of sharp teeth, my opinion of the different methods I have seen is quite variable from the orderly method using one piece of bait at a time at the end of a short spear as developed by Stuart Cove, the famous shark-wrangler to the movie industry, to the rather risky methods I witnessed in French Polynesia. There, the dive guide carried a severed mahi-mahi head under his BC and would cut bits of with a knife, offering it in his bare hand to passing hungry sharks. I questioned if this was not just a bit too risky? I think he finally agreed after he had his hand sewn back together later. We hear all sorts of arguments along the lines of how sharks lose their ability to hunt naturally if they are fed. I would suggest that the amount of food offered at a typical shark-feed is tiny in proportion to the number of sharks present so it represents nothing more than a free snack. Sharks have a hierarchy and defer to larger sharks. None want to get injured by another shark so that when dead bait is offered there is little sense of competition among the animals. Sharks are not the undiscerning predators depicted by the media. Stuart Cove will tell you that he uses different types of bait for attracting different species of shark. For instance Caribbean reef sharks love grouper heads whereas Great Hammerheads look for stingrays in the sand. In the absence of any stingray cleanings being available, he’ll use barracuda parts. For an expedition to photograph oceanic white-tips, I saw him buy 500lb of bonito, and so on. We also hear opinions that shark-feeding encourages sharks to associate humans with food and yet there are no facts to back this up. There are far more shark attacks off the coast of Florida where shark-feeding has been banned for years than almost anywhere else in the world.
    If you want dramatic close-ups, like this Great Hammerhead shark, you've got to get close!
    At the same time Mike Neuman, owner of Beqa Adventure Divers in Fiji says he is against the ‘shark huggers’, that’s to say, those people who say that sharks are harmless and need our affection. I think we can all agree with him in that requiem sharks generally have a mouth full of sharp teeth and if you want to get close to them you should be aware of that but if you want good pictures of sharks, you've got to get close – very close!

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