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Dive Photo Guide


Photographing the Oceanic Whitetips of Cat Island
By Ellen Cuylaerts, August 5, 2013 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Early in May, I signed up for a photographic expedition to Cat Island, the latest shark hotspot, where eight-foot oceanic whitetips come right up to your dome port without any hesitation.

I have dived with and photographed Caribbean reef sharks on a regular basis at my home port of Grand Cayman, but this experience would prove far more intense, challenging and rewarding. Looking back on the week spent with the whitetips and the fine folks at Epic Diving, I am very happy I participated.


Oceanic Whitetip Sharks

Oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus) are slow-moving sharks with long white-tipped rounded fins, which spend most of their time in the upper layer of deep open water. The wide spread fins & stocky body (dorsally bronze and ventrally white) makes them also very photogenic.

It was “slow-moving” I liked.



Photographing Oceanic Whitetips: The Basics

Because of the novelty of Oceanics and pelagic shooting, I decided to get in the water shooting ambient light for the first day. I did attach my strobes, two bulky YS-250's as a buffer against the sharks, which proved very efficient and needed!

Tip 1: Don't leave your strobes at home.

The first day Debra and Vincent Canabal of Epic Diving wanted to check out our behavior when in the water with the sharks, and brought us in, on snorkel, one by one. It becomes tricky since you're in the open and the elements rule: The boat gets pushed away by the wind, but you need to stay close to the boat and stay with the group.

That means finning in a controlled manner the whole time. Finning calmly is important for two reasons. If you fin frantically, the visibility around you gets bad and a shark could mistake you for a struggling fish. Reason two is that you want to stay friends with other photographers and not be the cause of permanent bubbles forming on domes.

Tip 2: There's no way you can prevent bubbles on the dome, so make sure you wipe them away with your gloved hands constantly.



Adjusting on the Go

You also need eyes everywhere. Keeping eye contact with sharks is one of the basic rules of shark diving and although oceanic whitetips are slow moving, they sense when you're concentration weakens or shifts to another shark. A very quick approach can follow, mostly from behind, of course.

Instead of checking your shots’ exposure, shutter speed, ISO during your time in the water, it's better to shoot on various settings while you're in—I call it manual bracketing—and use the time out of water to review and adjust. You’ll need the dry time to hydrate and get that heartbeat back down (it really is a workout).

Tip 3: Take some time to get yourself back on track, physically and photography wise, in between sharks sessions. This will benefit your pictures.



Adding Strobe Light

The following days I experimented with strobe use on the sharks. All encounters were by snorkel or freediving during my trip, which gave me opportunity to practice reflections at the surface. I shot all my pictures with a fish eye lens (Sigma 15mm), since the sharks come really close and create “close focus wide angle” opportunities. By coming up to you so close, you might be bothered by long strobe arms.

Tip 4: Bring different sizes of arms and make them as short as possible for your configuration. It makes adjusting your strobe placement while watching the sharks easier.

We also encountered nervous juvenile reef sharks snapping away, elegant silkies, mahi mahi and even a marlin.

Final Tip: Always keep your eyes on the sharks and on the blue. You never know what nature might bring you. Happy shark shooting!




Richard Apple
Aug 5, 2013 9:34 AM
Richard Apple wrote:
Well done, Ellen! I hope to join your group next year . . . color me 'green' with envy!

Richard Apple
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