A Digital Imaging Event with Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas
The evolution of the digital imaging event known as "Shark Shootout" probably, informally, began in the early 1980s when I was sent on assignment by Skin Diver magazine to cover a small (at the time) dive operation at the Southwest end of New Providence Island in the Bahamas. There I met a charismatic young man by the name of Stuart Cove. At the time his enterprise was a only a couple of small boats and a compressor based in the upscale residential community of Lyford Cay, but he had something special that probably links all of the most successful entrepreneurs in the dive industry today ... a spark of passion for the adventure of scuba diving. Today that spark has grown to a bonfire; one that Stuart and wife Michelle stoked to become what is probably the busiest scuba center in the Bahamas and Caribbean.
We became close friends, collaborating on numerous editorial and advertising projects over the years. It helped that in the course of his business he developed an amazing shark encounter program. Sharks have always been part of the Stuart Cove formula, initially working as a marine coordinator for a long series of James Bond movies, going back as far as "Thunderball" and through the upcoming release of "Casino Royale" (Hollywood film work also includes "Into the Blue", "Flipper", and "Splash"; see http://www.underwaterhollywood.com/ for a partial credit of the many print and film productions staged at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas).
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
More recently, they have provided shark encounters for sport divers visiting Nassau. Fortunately geography works in their favor. They have clear water, generally a consistent lee weather pattern, and most importantly, LOTS of sharks. Mostly Caribbean reef sharks, Carcharhinus perezii, but also nurse sharks, silkies, tigers, and even the occasional spotting of a great hammerhead. In close cooperation with the Bahamas government they protect their sharks from the predations of long-liners, and encourage the presence of masses of reef sharks by feeding them daily, often multiple times each day in fact.
The most recent still photo shoot Stuart and I worked together on was for Rolex. Fashion shooter Russell James brought in a different supermodel each day for 5-days, the concept being these gorgeous women wearing flowing gowns in the sea, all of course wearing Rolex watches. My job was to shoot underwater backgrounds, and Stuart's job was to deliver the underwater sets and marine coordination. Russell shot the portraits of the girls and their Rolex watches, and the entire campaign first ran as a12 page ad insert in French Vogue. You can view some of the images from this shoot, and even download a lovely screensaver of the project at http://www.rolex.com.
But, I digress. The point is that it occurred to Stuart and me that there was a special something that he provided to all these film producers and professional still photographers that a normal tourist visiting Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas can't experience, that being "Extreme Access". We wanted to create a program where enthusiastic amateur underwater photographers could enjoy the same close encounters with Caribbean reef sharks that we did as professional shooters. Our friends at Scuba Diving Magazine agreed to sponsor the event, and in 2003 we had the template for the first Shark Shootout.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
Each year seems to get a bit more extreme, in fact. We have refined the shark encounters so that our guests get far closer access and as a result, have the ability to come home with far more dramatic images. Integral to the Shark Shootout concept is the fact that shark photography is best done with controlled, intimate access and limited numbers of people. We have limited Shark Shootout to just 14 participants, and further ensure intimate shark interaction by bringing two shark feeders on most of the sites. This is a far more expensive way for Stuart Cove's to operate, both in terms of the amount of bait expended per dive and in staffing expense, but this permits the shark wrangler to target an individual shooter and bring high voltage shark action to within a few inches of their dome port.
The Shark Shootout has become a totally digital event. Actually, it is open to minimally experienced photographers with digital cameras as well, but the reality is that shark photography is about a frozen moment in time. I call it "predictive previsualization". We present the shark encounters in such a way that a shooter will know when the action will be near enough to photograph effectively. We try to choreograph the shark action so that a photographer can be preset with the right strobe power and aperture setting for the proximity of the shark. However, the photographer has to react at the exact decisive moment.
A point-and-shoot camera with significant digital lag will not be competitive in this arena and will be incredibly frustrating. Just ask our shooter Mike Christie. He arrived on location with a housed point-and-shoot, actually quite a nice system for most reef photography. But, after the first day he knew it was far too limiting for the world-class shark opportunities he was getting and he rented a Nikon D50 in a Sea and Sea housing from Fin Photo on location at Stuart Cove's. With a little tutorial from photo pro Sally Thompson, Mike started getting better and better images, and in fact was the first place winner in one of our categories of competition. I'm not trying to say you have to be a D-SLR shooter to participate in Shark Shootout, but with this style of photography you will perform better with the right equipment.
In trying to create an event where our shark shooters come home with far better Caribbean reef shark images than ever before, we knew we had to assure them some very specific advantages:
The sharks will inevitably stir up the bottom when they are swirling around the feeder, but having inexperienced divers with marginal buoyancy control can create problems as well. Shark Shootout is limited in terms of the number of participants and to the greatest extent possible was vetted to assure that participants were experienced divers with ample diving skill. Also, I direct the feeders. When there is too much detritus in the water we simply stop and move on to another spot, maybe only 15 yards away, but where the water is free of suspended particles in the water. I may move the action 4 or 5 times on a single dive, but we assure far clearer photos this way. Also, having two separate feeders working with smaller groups in different locales really helps to minimize backscatter and maximize quality access.
Underwater photography is ideally conducted at near distances. Water is 600 times denser than air and minimizing the water column is essential to achieve optimal resolution and color in underwater photos. To that end, Shark Shootout participants were invited to enjoy much closer shark interaction than is possible in a normal shark feed. This is what we mean by "Extreme Access". Unless you were there, you could never really understand how VERY close these shooters were to Caribbean reef sharks. I'm talking inches away. Actually, I'm talking "bump your dome" close.
In fact, this year we had a film crew along with us for three days shooting a pilot for the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. I think they were pretty amazed that so many were working so close to these sharks without incident. Well, without significant incident anyway. Adrenaline overload was part of our day, but no one got hurt, and I was the only one who really lost gear as a result of the shark action. I had one of my strobe synch cords bitten in two, but several of us had pinholes in the cords from shark bites. Shooter Deano Cook had a lot of new tooth marks on his dome shade and strobes, but I think those will be a badge of courage for great stories on many dives to come, so knowing Deano, I doubt he was much concerned.
Nowhere in the diving world offers so many different ways of interacting with these Caribbean reef sharks. Part of it is a function of the Hollywood culture constantly pushing the boundaries of what Stuart Cove's shark wranglers have been able to coax these sharks to do. But, a great part of it is what we have been able to invent in Shark Shootout year after year. We learn what we can do safely, and benefit from seeing the amazing images that our guests produce. Gratefully, the shark wranglers are always game to try something new if it means a better or more novel way to capture these sharks on media.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
With the general tourist visiting Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas there is a traditional scenario of the feeder kneeling on the sand bottom with divers in a circular array nearby. But, we go far beyond the "traditional" during shark shootout and photographed sharks on the bow of a shipwreck, from both inside and outside of a shark cage, and even on the surface as they swarmed our dive platform. So long as it was safe, and could yield great shark images, the staff the Stuart Cove staff was willing to let us give it a try. That alone was a massive advantage to our week of shark photography.
While I was at Shark Shootout to serve as an instructor, I think my role more evolved to be "coach". The shooters were talented and experienced, but hadn't necessarily had a great deal of time in the water shooting sharks; and certainly never before with the kind of access we would provide this week. They weren't so much interested in sitting in a dark classroom discussing the "theory" of shark photography, but were very motivated to jump off the back of the boat into a swirl of two dozen sharks just to see what kind of images they could bring home. They helped each other, learned from the images we would all project back in our classroom after the boat hit the dock. In the end they broke some new ground. For sure, every one of our shark shooters captured the best shark images of their lives.
We were also favored by having the services of extraordinarily talented shark wranglers. Tohru Yamaguchi is a truly an artist in this unique niche activity. He totally understands not only the shark, but also our needs as underwater photographers. He led the sharks directly to our domes for the ultimate "bite" shot, and was very intuitive about our need for clear water. Sally Thompson, director of Fin Photo, was amazing as well. Giving generously of her time all week to assist with Photoshop and other post--production tasks, as well as rolling a high-def underwater camera for our "Shark Shootout - Extreme Access" television program. Special thanks also to shark wrangler JJ Gilbert for the stellar photo-ops he provided the group.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
For the first few days of Shark Shootout we were fortunate to have two of Scuba Diving Magazine's advertising staff along with us. Andrew Wiens and Ashley Bringman are both friends of the Bahamas and were eager to experience Shark Shootout. Gratefully, they were both willing to model for us and provided excellent diversity to our image portfolio. One the first day we worked the Willaurie shipwreck, just to fine-tune our wide-angle cameras and lighting techniques. Andrew and Ashley provided the perfect model touch for our participants, and some truly exceptional images resulted. My strobe crapped out that dive (bad cord) so I missed what was a very significant photo-op for everyone else, but even shooting available light, the graphic lines of the Willaurie successfully combined with the superb buoyancy control and talented intuition of our models.
Ashley went the extra mile by modeling in her bikini among the sharks on the surface. The first day we tried this was pretty controlled, but on the second day the combination of bait in the water and possibly the electrical charge of so many quickly recycling submersible strobes going off around her (my theory) got the sharks a little too amped and she actually came near having a serious mishap. I was on the dive platform shooting topside at the time, but I clearly heard her blood-curdling scream and feared the worst.
Click here to view the 2006 Shark Shootout contest gallery!
While Shark Shootout is really all about getting the very best shark photos possible, safely; our shooters are a competitive bunch who appreciates being recognized for their talents. To that end, Shark Shootout 2006 was sponsored by Storm equipment cases (www.stormcase.com), Henderson wetsuits (www.hendersonusa.com) and Atomic Aquatics (www.atomicaquatics.com).
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
Actually, this is a very righteous bunch of prizes for a shark photography event, recognizing we have to get our gear to a travel destination safely and within the weight limits imposed by the airlines (Storm cases). Then we have to dress safely for shark interaction. That's where Henderson comes in, for they provide the hooded vests we used to protect our heads and faces from flashing white around the sharks, and provided the wetsuits for thermal protection on dives that could last up to 80 minutes in the 40 to 50 foot depth we were working many of these encounters. In fact, we would often wrap the dive and them jump right back in the water to shoot the sharks swirling around the back of the boat, so we were spending 6 to 8 hours a day in our wetsuits. Mine was a Henderson Instadry, which I can say from experience is apparently not a flavor a shark likes to eat, gratefully! Atomic provided masks as prizes for the competition, appropriate especially because the Atomic UltraClear is emerging as one of the world's most popular "shooter masks", appreciated for it's low profile and black skirt (to minimize extraneous light hitting the viewfinder); but also notably for the optimal visual acuity provided by the high quality glass. I'm certain this allows better vision for the digital photographer, making it easier to read the small type on the command menus and not so incidentally, optimal vision when a shark is very much up-close-and-personal.
The categories of competition and prizes were:
- Black Atomic Mask - winner Craig Kinder
- Clear Atomic mask - winner Mike Christie
- Henderson Hyperstretch wetsuit - winner Mike Storm
- Henderson Gold-Core Hooded Vest - winner Bob Gleeson
- Storm case 2200 - winner Deano Cook
- Storm case 2200 - winner Mark Chapman
- Storm case 2500 - winner Jeff Ing
- Storm case 2500 - winner Jeff Hartog
- Storm case 2500 - winner Ana Maria Avila
Photo by Stephen Frink
Digital Only- We added one more element to the mix last year, and no surprise, will make it so from now on ... Shark Shootout is restricted to digital image capture. This provided the advantage of greatly increased capacity, no more swimming back to the boat to change film after just 36 shots. There was so much shark action the whole week that those who came to the event with just 2 GB cards felt disadvantaged! Each of the dives was an hour or more, and then when we were doing surface intervals, we were feeding and photographing sharks off the back of the boat. Anyone shooting a high-resolution camera like the Canon EOS1DsMKII or Nikon D2X/D200 in RAW capture mode were probably capturing up to 8 GB of data per day.
The only other proviso was a ban on cordless slave strobes. Nothing is more irritating than to frame the perfect shot, only to have a blinding hot spot from another diver's cordless slave being triggered consistently simultaneously!
The Shark-Ops - While we seemed to refine the particular photo-opportunities daily, the general venues included the following:
- The Runway - The Runway has the advantage of being the shark locale closest to the dive shop, only about a mile offshore. But, more significantly, because it is so close this is where the sharks are fed every day, several times a day, and there are LOTS of them. Just motoring to the mooring ball will bring them to the surface, and since there is so much chumming being done at this location, there are huge schools of yellowtail snapper at the surface as well.
For any Stuart Cove shark event, whether a Hollywood production, a fashion shoot, or a Shark Shootout, the Runway is always a prime venue. For general tourism, the normal Runway photo-op is where the shark feeder (clad in chain-mail suit and helmet, for good reason) swims to a sandy area in the reef and brings the divers into a circular pattern surrounding. The feeder uses a short pole to take the bait from the aluminum box. The shark takes the bait from the end of the pole, although rarely is it as controlled as the words imply. There is a lot of competition from the sharks, and sometimes it is hard to even get the bait out of the box without the feeder being swarmed.
There are subsets of "Runway" venues. One is The Treasure Wreck. Among the many Hollywood projects to come to Stuart Cove's was the underwater filming of "Into The Blue", starring Paul Walker and Jessica Alba. There was a wooden treasure ship built as an underwater set and this too proved a good shark venue for us. Our shark wrangler worked his bait box along the center of the boat, and we situated ourselves in a 360-degree perimeter around him. The heavy timbers kept the sharks off the bottom and kept the water reasonably clear. The background was more interesting than open sand and gorgonia of the normal Runway bottom.
We also did a series of images where the sharks were elements of composition with gorgonia fans in the foreground. The Runway was good for this kind of set-up because are several high profile ridges that offer colorful foregrounds. And, there are so many sharks swirling about the feed that it didn't take very long at all before a willing subject swam by. The environmental portraits had the further advantage of being removed from the frenzy of the feed so that water tended to be cleaner, with less potential backscatter.
- The Ray of Hope - This 200-foot freighter was intentionally sunk as a dive attraction on July 13, 2003 and now sits in proximity to Runway. This proved to be one of our most productive shark venues because we could stage feed session of the bow or the stern, actually alternating between them when one or the other would get stirred up from the feeding action. Truthfully, the bow was far better though. The stern had more silt to stir up, but also had several rails that a shark could get momentarily trapped between. These sharks don't have a reverse gear, so if they lodge between a rail they have to struggle to extricate, or a feeder has to stop the action to push them back out. The bow was a more photogenic and less stressful venue, and because the upright wreck provided significant profile off the 45-foot bottom, we had ample bottom time and light.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
- The Shark Cage - The traditional use of a shark cage is to protect a diver behind the bars while bait is used to bring a shark near. The traditional way a shark cage is deployed is tied off from the stern of a boat. However, Shark Shootout is all about doing things in creative nontraditional ways, so had the shark cage tied off to the bottom, with air in its buoyancy tanks to keep it floating in the midwater. This kept the scene free of stirred sand causing backscatter. We put the feeder inside, while the shooters moved freely about outside the cage to shoot the action. Obviously, a dozen divers wouldn't fit inside the cage, and equally obviously we didn't need protection from these sharks. Yet, using the cage provided a nice sense of scale. Every so often, one of us would pop inside the cage to get the shot of the shark taking the bait from the feeder's perspective.
One day we were treated to the youngest shark wrangler ever to serve Shark Shootout. Stuart brought his 10-year-old son Travis to do his first shark feed ever, behind the safety of this cage.
- Shark Wall - Shark Wall is about a 7-mile run offshore, with a far more decorated coral bottom and usually even better visibility than one might experience at Runway (I'd say we had an average of 80-foot visibility on all of our dive sites during Shark Shootout, but it probably was a little better on Shark Wall). The sharks here don't get fed as much as they do at Runway, but that doesn't mean they don't remember they like it! On the contrary, the sharks here were pretty aggressive, not to us shark shooters of course, but Tohru got bashed around a fair bit. In fact, it was far more frenetic and less predictable at Shark Wall. We tried it twice during the week, but I'd have to say the better photos typically came from the Runway area and especially the bow of the Ray of Hope.
- Surface Action - Actually, this was probably one of the significant highlights the highlight of Shark Shootout 2006, and one we worked every day during our lunchtime surface interval. The boat was fully catered, so all food and drinks were aboard and we did not have to go back to the dock for lunch. That gave us the luxury of time, in the mid-day light, to try over/unders with sharks hitting the boat, topside shots of dorsal fins cleaving the surface, and polecam shots of the sharks just under the surface.
This is an example of "Extreme Access" that is absolutely not available to general tourism. The whole mindset of these sharks change when they are competing for bits of bait, not only with each other but also with the clouds of yellowtail snapper that come to the surface. The speed of approach is much faster, and because there are no restrictions to the pathway a shark might take to hit the bait, the pattern less predictable and more random. Every day I shot this action I was grateful for the robust mineral glass dome on my Seacam housing, for I was bumped repeatedly. I think the 9-inch diameter was just a little too big for the sharks to eat, but they did chew completely through one of my synch cords and damage two others. Several of our guests diving plexiglass ports came home with scuffs to their ports and tooth marks on their sunshades.
|Photo by Stephen Frink|
While this level of action may not be comfortable for all, just shooting it from the comfort (and safety) of the dive platform was very productive, and exhilarating! For those who wanted to shoot the action in-water, but with a little less extreme access, simply working the periphery of the action, away from where the bait was being deployed was several steps backwards on Adrenaline Road. Truly, shooters could take their own path in terms of how aggressive they wanted to be in terms of image capture, simply by choosing how near they chose to be to the bait. For these sharks, access is all about proximity to bait, and as quality UW photography requires proximity, Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas served proximity to the max!
It was done responsibly, and with significant knowledge of the behavior of these sharks. And, it was this willingness to allow our shooters to push limits that to a great extent defined the success of this week's event. Just look at the image portfolios from our shooters to recognize what fantastic photo-ops we all enjoyed during Shark Shootout Extreme Access.
This is the third Shark Shootout I have been invited to coach, and by far this was the best in terms of access provided and images rendered. At the beginning of the week I don't think either Stuart or I were sure we would continue the Shark Shootout tradition. It is a lot of work for us all, and significant time and resources are invested to make this event happen at this level. Yet, this one was just so much fun we've agreed to do it again, for next year anyway.