I took the shot back in April of 2011 in San Diego, California, where we live. We had booked a charter to Wreck Alley, where we were planning to shoot the Yukon and the Ruby E, both gorgeous shipwrecks covered with growth. But it was an overly friendly sea lion who turned out to be the the star of the day…
The conditions on that morning were pretty amazing, especially since April in San Diego’s waters is known for dense, greenish-brown plankton blooms. The sky was overcast, but underwater, we experienced blue water with 40-foot visibility. We dived the Yukon first, and while there were some sea lions on the surface, we didn’t see any underwater.
When we moved to the nearby Ruby E, we noticed that some of the sea lions seemed to be following us on the surface. About 20 minutes into our dive, we started to hear barking, and we noticed a group of three adolescent sea lions swimming over the small wreck. The largest one was a 5-foot-long male with a scar over his right eye, and he seemed to take exception to our presence.
He began swimming towards us repeatedly, becoming more and more aggressive. When we ran out of bottom time, we ascended the anchor line to decompress at 15-20 ft. The male sea lion followed us, and he began dive-bombing us over and over, giving us incredible (if somewhat scary) and repeated displays of defensive behavior.
Shooting California sea lions is a balancing act. Perhaps the worst conundrum is deciding on a shutter speed—sea lions move incredibly fast, but the water here is commonly too dark to shoot at anything faster than 1/125th. Also, there is almost always particulate in the water, so foreground exposure relies more heavily on aperture than it would in many other locales. Too much strobe light in these parts can result in unmanageable amounts of backscatter!
I set my camera to slow continuous shooting, and I turned my strobes, Sea and Sea YS250’s, to 3/8 power so that they could keep up with the camera. I opened the aperture up to F7.1, but I left the shutter speed at 1/125th, which was a bit slower than I’d normally use for such fast-moving animals. I pulled my strobes out to about 1 foot to each side of my port and ensured that they were behind the housing to minimize the chance of flare in my shots.
And then? I let loose with the highly sophisticated, time-honored “Spray and Pray” method, familiar to wildlife photographers the world over. Every time that sea lion came barreling towards me, I clamped down on shutter and hoped my strobes would keep up. I shot until I had a cramp in my right index finger. I shot until my dive buddy ran too low on air and ascended.
Then, I stayed under the boat on my own and shot some more. After a few very, very close passes, I began to feel a bit intimidated, so I ascended and climbed back onto the boat. When I began scrolling through my photos, this shot stood out as the best of the bunch.
Plan Your Adventure >