Stuart Cove and I have been friends for longer than either of us cares to admit, and in that time we have collaborated on dozens of commercial photo projects. Given the easy proximity of Nassau, and the guarantee of clear water and sharks, this has been one of my primary "go-to" destinations whenever I've had to get a shot done quickly. With a history of providing support to the movie and commercial photography industry, Stuart and his staff have always been able to facilitate any pro photographer's project in an easy, professional, and "fun" kind of way. But oddly, until this year's Shark Shootout I'd never been involved with bringing a group to the island or conducting any kind of an event under the auspices of Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas.
I was flattered to have been invited to be the guest photographer for the 2nd Annual Shark Shootout, but have to admit I had some concerns about the project at the outset. Not that I doubted for even a moment that Stuart's crew could deliver sharks on demand, but I wondered if it could be compelling enough a subject to occupy a group for six shoot-days.
To that end, we structured the event as two separate modules. The first was called "Stuart's Sampler", intended to showcase the diversity of the dive attractions off the southwest end of New Providence Island. This would give us an interesting mix of the contemporary shipwrecks of Steel Forest, shallow corals along Southwest Reef, and some of the older and more colorful shipwrecks like the Willaurie and the Bond Wreck. There would even be the wide-angle potential of old movie sets like the Vulcan bomber from "Thunderball". So, our intent was to do three days of general diving, and then power through the second module, the "Full Immersion" shark photo specialty later in the week.
That was the plan anyway. The reality was that this group was comprised of gung-ho Shark Shooters, all of whom were very skilled divers. Most of the group was experienced underwater photographers as well. After watching their enthusiasm surge with their first shark encounter on the first day, it was obvious that sharks were the marquee attraction here. If they wanted sharks, we'd give them sharks. What follows is a day-to-day review of what became an intense shark photography symposium.
Participants of the 2nd Annual Great Bahamas Shark Shootout
Friday, November 7, 2003
This was a travel day for most, significant only in that it is so easy to get to Nassau. For me, it is only a 45-minute flight from Miami, but for anyone on the East Coast it is very convenient as well. Our California guests had a bit harder time of it, but because there are so many outgoing flights on so many carriers, everyone was able to connect in a single day. The host hotel was the South Ocean Golf and Beach Resort, and all participants stayed in the beachfront units, thereby offering easy access to the dive shop and docks.
The event sponsors, Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas and Rodale's Scuba Diving, put together a generous goody bag for the participants, including event T-shirt, poster, and my favorite souvenir, an oversized black towel embroidered with the Stuart Cove event logo. This became my very own "digital darkroom", quite handy for creating a dark environment for editing digital photos on the boat between dives. After a nice welcome cocktail party and a chance to meet/greet, we all retired semi-early to get our strobes on charge and o-rings greased.
Saturday, November 8: Willaurie & Runway Arena
The Willaurie is an island freighter that ran up on the New Providence ironshore in the late 1980s. At least that's how I remember it when Stuart and I stood on a bluff overlooking this ship as it sat high and dry, wrecked on the rocks below. Stuart had already sunk one ship to be used as a movie set for the James Bond thriller "Thunderball" and he saw this one as an opportunity to begin building a portfolio of shipwrecks off the southwest end of the island. Clearly it worked, for now there are the three new shipwrecks at Steel Forest, the Bahama Mama, a Defense Force cutter named the Edward Williams, and the newest addition, the Ray of Hope. I'd say his dream has reached fruition.
The Willaurie is one of my favorites because it is so nicely encrusted with colorful sponge. The starboard propeller in particular is a riot of color, and the ribs of the deckhouse provide refuge for schooling jacks and other reef tropicals. Plus, it is large enough that our group of shooters could spread out, get their buoyancy and camera systems in control, and basically enjoy an easy refresher dive in 80-degree water with 100-foot visibility.
The second dive was to an area of sand rubble nearby the wall at a site called The Runway. Years ago this was an impressive cleaning station for Southern stingrays, but when shark feeds began to become popular at the site it seems the stingrays decided a less hazardous location might be preferred for their personal hygiene. At any rate, this site is only about a mile offshore and typically offers great water clarity and lee protection from the prevailing winds.
Our group followed the direction from the dive staff and politely kneeled in the sand forming a semi-circle around the feeder, Tohru Yamaguchi. Tohru was protected with chain mail over his arms and legs, and wore a protective helmet. He would stab a bit of bait with a short polespear, and then the sharks would swarm in to try for the bait. All the sharks were Caribbean reef sharks, Carcharhinus perezi, except for a single nurse shark that would brazenly appear now and again at the Runway.
As this was the first of our shark encounters for the week, there was a bit of trepidation and caution from the group, but nevertheless there were plenty of close encounters and significant images even from that first day. I found my best shots came from lying down in the sand near Tohru and shooting at an upward angle. That gave me the advantage of showing the white bellies of the shark and the business end of their impressive teeth. Actually shark photography is all about teeth mostly, and to a lesser extent the eyes, so staying low to the bottom gave a nice perspective and hopefully kept me out of the picture for the other shooters.
This day's routine would mirror our schedule for the rest of the week:
- Meet at the dock and classroom in the morning to prep cameras
- Leave the dock at 9:30 to dive two locations, lunch on board
- Stuart Cove's Fin Photo would process film, digital shooters would download and process digital files
- Classroom session in the late afternoon to project the day's results, both film and digital
- A group dinner, typically at one of the restaurants in the Cable Beach area
Sunday, November 9: Edward Williams and Runway Arena
Last summer I was in Nassau to charter the live-aboard Aqua Cat and I'd come in a day early to dive with Stuart. He took me out to Shark Wall and instead of doing the normal shark feed suggested we put the bait box up on the bow of the Edward Williams, a Bahamas Defense Force cutter intentionally sunk as a dive attraction at the site. Recalling how good the shark action was without even pulling the bait out of the box, I figured this would be a great spot for a shark feed. The forward section of the ship is long enough so we could all spread out along the port and starboard rails. Once the bait box was tucked into bow, the sharks came as if on cue. They did nice passes so that everyone was able to nail their "fish ID" shots while the water remained clear. But once Tohru settled down on the deck and began the feed, the action amped to a new level as bits of bait and general detritus mixed in a swirl of frenzied sharks.
Pretty cool in general, and I'm sure it pumped our collective adrenaline. But, photographically we'd learned a lesson. Many of our best shots happened before the feeding began, and as the week progressed we would extend that part of the dive longer. Without the bait we could still get extremely close to the sharks, yet keep the bottom from being stirred up by swarms of sharks competing for the bait. Yet, we were also motivated to get the "bite" shot, which would only happen once the feeding began, but then again once the bait was gone, the shark interaction was essentially finished. So, we evolved a pace and rhythm that really provided extraordinary access to these sharks.
Tohru immediately understood our strategy and waited for the signal to begin. He also understood the importance of making sure all the shooters had equal opportunity, making a point of directing the sharks both to his right and left. The sharks of course don't care about democracy. They go where the bait is.
By controlling the direction of the action, Tohru made sure everyone got as close as they wanted to. As it turned out, most wanted to get very close. It was interesting for me to note that the caution that happened around the sharks on the first day quickly evaporated. First it was obvious that the sharks were there to eat the bait and not us. But still, being in the wrong place at the wrong time could get a person hurt, so caution is a good thing.
However, these were very motivated underwater photographers and we all know closer is better in terms of resolution and color. As they looked at their images n the classroom critique I think all deduced that to get a world-class shark shot meant getting up-close-and-personal. So long as no one was wild, reckless, or selfish with their photo-ops, the Shootout staff was happy to let the group push the envelope. And push it they did over the course of the week, with each day's images better than the day before.
Monday, November 10: Cage and Ray of Hope
Much of what we used for photo opportunities evolved from set-ups that had successfully worked for me in the past. Recently I was involved in a commercial shoot that had to sell "danger", and the hook was to use a shark cage floating in the mid-water, tethered to the seafloor with ropes. The bait box would be hidden from view on the roof of the cage, and the feeder, in this case Stuart, would bring the sharks to the cage. Unlike a cage scenario with great white sharks, where the photographer is protected inside; in this set-up the shooter would be outside the cage photographing the sharks as they circle about for their chance at the bait. When I last shot this, I counted more than 30 sharks in a single wide-angle frame and it ran as a two page spread in the December issue of Rodale's Scuba Diving. So I knew it could work for our group as well.
Unfortunately, the visibility this day was not wonderful because the green water from the Bahama bank was flowing to the Tongue of the Ocean on the outgoing tide. In fact, to be diving at all was a miracle of geographic serendipity, for the winds were blowing 20 knots and most of the diving offshore of the Florida coast was getting blown out. The prevailing winds in the winter are from the southeast, and with the diving located on the southwest coast, a protective lee occurs. Obviously if we were to go too far offshore leeward protection would go away, but rarely do they lose days of diving in this region.
Despite marginal visibility, the group managed to get plenty of dramatic in-your-face shark shots with the cage in the background. Event organizer Pam Christman and Fin Photo manager Claudia Pellarini were willing and able models, inside the cage and on shipwreck feeds that became a significant part of our week. Like our next dive at the Ray of Hope.
The Ray of Hope is in the Runway area, adjacent to another popular shipwreck known as the Bahama Mama. On our first shoot day we had seen some sharks in the vicinity of the wreck, and got a few casual shots with the wreck in the background, but this dive the plan was to actually set the bait box on the bow like we'd done on the Edward Williams. But since this is a much larger ship it provided more interesting deck paraphernalia for backgrounds. As it is dived far more often, the algae and general detritus, which were problems for us on the cutter, were not really issues and backscatter was significantly alleviated. Tohru again was democratic in terms of directing the action to both the starboard and port rails of the ship so everyone had a chance at the bite shot.
A Note About Fin Photo
I run an underwater photo studio in Key Largo, so I can appreciate how much work it is to process a couple of dozen rolls of E-6 film in only a couple of hours. But to then deliver it mounted and in slide pages to the classroom in time for the afternoon projection critique is a Herculean task. They managed to do so on a daily basis.
They also set up the classroom so that we had broadband access to check e-mail while on location, and set out drinks and snacks each afternoon. In addition, by week's end they had burned a "week-in-review" CD and made a souvenir group photo printed to 8x10 for each participant.
Claudia was with us on the boat every day, assisting with photo questions and modeling. Nina was on board to help move the cameras on and off the boat and to provide in-water assistance. Plus, the behind the scenes Fin Photo staff who gave us priority service made for a wonderful event.
The boat, a 46-foot Newton, was great; and the shark wrangling extraordinary. All things considered, Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas clearly understood our needs as underwater photographers, and delivered beyond what was expected in every category.
A Note on Film Production at Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas
As an aside, during the time we were doing the Shark Shootout underwater filmmaker Pete Zuccarini was on location at Stuart Cove's doing scouting for an upcoming Hollywood feature film called "Into the Blue". Primary shooting will commence in January, but it was interesting that Pete was here essentially for the same reason we were--consistently clear water, sharks, and a dive team able to deliver the photo ops. Of course their demands will be greater than ours, including sinking a DC3 as an underwater set! It is interesting to see the snapshots along the "Wall of Fame" inside the Fin Photo building to get a sense of the variety of filmmakers and "talent" that pass through Stuart Cove's in the course of the year. For supermodels like Heidi Klum and actors like Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan (and of course their directors and photographers), Stuart Cove's is the happening place for underwater film production.
Tuesday, November 11: Bahama Mama and Ray of Hope
The past few times I'd visited Stuart Cove's and mentioned diving the Bahama Mama they kind of discouraged it. It had been hammered in passing hurricanes, and besides the bigger/better Ray of Hope was only 50 yards away. But we were game for something new, and found we really liked the Bahama Mama for shark photography. First of all, it was a much smaller wreck, so having the bait box tucked into the bow concentrated the shark action in just one area. In addition, the smaller superstructure in the background made the sharks appear larger and more impressive in comparison. With the rails so near to the feeding action, all shooters got a very close vantage and the wheelhouse gave Claudia several different set-ups to model with the sharks. All things considered, the Bahama Mama is a terrific background for shark photography, and one we used very successfully throughout the week.
The Ray of Hope as a second dive worked very well too, but at the end of the day I was surprised to hear the consensus from our group giving a slight nod to the Bahama Mama as their preferred wreck-and-shark platform.
Wednesday, November 12: Bahama Mama and Runway Wall
By now everyone had plenty of shark ID shots, and had covered these critters in a variety of backgrounds. So, in many ways the heat was off because they had good shots in the bag. But in another way, the pressure was building because we only had two shoot days left, and the images that remained in the mind's eye had to translate to "media". (You can't say "film" anymore, because 60% of this group was shooting digital. From the ultra high end housed D-SLRs like the Canon EOS 1DS, Nikon D100 and D1X, and Fuji S2; through prosumer point-and-shoot systems. There were Nikonos RS, housed SLR, Nikonos V with 15mm and 20mm lenses, as well as a plethora of digital imaging systems. Most shooters had multiple systems, and it was not unusual to see half a dozen cameras sitting in the sand awaiting use.)
By this time of the week the "hot shot" was teeth, and most of us were going for the critical instant the shark bit into the bait. Any timidity that might have happened earlier in the week was long gone by now, and our shooters were doing what they had to add drama to their images. The forced perspective of the wide-angle lens made these already impressive sharks seem even larger, and the photographic challenge was to hold detail in the white of the shark's belly and time it so the teeth were shredding bait. If the nicotating membrane was closed on the shark's eye, that was an additional bonus as it help illustrate "predation". Many of us were bumped, but none were bitten--gratefully.
Some of the other shooters saw this as a good time to get away from the group on the Bahama Mama and concentrate on the sharks as they passed by in clear water and solitude. Creative upward angles and silhouettes were looking very good on the screen in the daily projection sessions, so this was a high priority as well.
As a further homage to that theme, we chose to do the second dive along the coral reef very near Runway Wall. This gave us a different background than we'd been using all week, and provided the dual perspectives of dozens of sharks swirling about the bait box, or single/double sharks in environmental portraits. Unfortunately, by now the cold front that was pounding Florida was giving us overcast conditions. It was still quite calm and clear, but without that ball of sun illuminating the reef; our backgrounds were dark and dreary, and our silhouettes boring. Still, when reviewing the photos the potential was obvious, so this was a set-up we needed to revisit on our final day.
Protective Dress for Shark Photography
While Tohru dressed in protective chainmail and wore a helmet, that's because he is handling the bait and is likely to get swarmed by the sharks. Even in this scenario it is unlikely he'd ever get bitten on purpose, but an accident could change his life. And since he does this every day of his life at Stuart Cove's, a bit of caution is only prudent. I wear a chainmail sleeve myself when photographing Caribbean reef sharks, but that's because I handhold my strobe and sometimes the erratic movements of my left arm, combined with the electrical impulses from the strobe, have made certain sharks overly interested. A couple of small lacerations over the years made me a bit cautious in this regard. But for the most part, the best advice is to make sure you don't look like bait if you intend to be close to the bait. When a bunch of sharks are milling about, competing for fish, you want to take care you don't flash white through the melee. Like a fish. Wear a wetsuit for sure, and I also suggest a dark hood and light gloves as well. The less skin exposed, the better.
Dining and Evening Entertainment
When doing a project as intense as this one, we really didn't have discretionary time to be sitting around waiting on food service or taxi cabs. To this end, it was wonderful that Stuart and Michelle Cove provided one of their large buses so the group could get off the hotel property for dinner at several different local restaurants. Those who wanted to visit the casinos were able to do so, and we were all able to enjoy some Nassau nightlife without extreme time investment. This was just one further example of how the Stuart Cove group organized the event to maximize our efficiency, convenience, and fun.
Thursday, November 13: Cage and Runway Wall
We were all eager to try the cage shot one more time, and since the wind had abated we were able to run back out to the Tongue of the Ocean and Shark Wall. I tried something I hadn't before, and worked the first 15 minutes of the shoot inside the cage with my camera just to the outside of one of the built-in square camera portals. As Tohru led the sharks directly to my dome I got some extreme close-focus-wide-angle shots, and coincidentally provided a different model perspective for the shooters outside. However, realizing that Claudia would make a far more appealing underwater model than I would, we soon traded places.
On the way home we stopped along Southwest Reef for some lovely snorkeling amid the fire coral and seafans that dominate this lovely shallow reef. We found one particularly scenic stand of elkhorn and Claudia graciously posed as several of the group took turns photographing the scene. Surface interval and lunch out of the way, it was time for one more shark set-up before calling it a wrap.
Gratefully the sun was shining so we went back to the reef along Runway Wall for some more "environmental" scenics. Of course there was a very frenetic shark feed too, so our photographers had the choice of individual sharks with nice coral reef background away from the feed, and those still in pursuit of bite shots could move closer to the action.
All too soon our week of shark photography was through, but our final night's audio-visual proved that this was an amazing photo opportunity, exceedingly well executed by all our shooters. While I may not have known what to expect going into this event, I left with the knowledge that this is a very special imaging opportunity, delivered with deft organization and professionalism by all.
So much so in fact that Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas and Rodale's Scuba Diving will be presenting the 3rd Annual Shark Shootout September 18 - 26, 2004. I'll be baaack. Check in with www.stuartcove.com or www.waterhousetours.com for more information as it becomes available.
For those interested, you may wish to remember that this is a limited participation event, which sold out early this year.