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Dive Photo Guide


Targeting Pelagic Animals in Underwater Photography
By Jeff Milisen, March 31, 2017 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

Oceanic sharks, such as this silky, can be much more inquisitive than their reef-dwelling counterparts. Always keep an eye over your shoulder in case a shark swims through the area

Our passions underwater take us to some very special places. Those who love mind-bending diversity go for lush tropical reefs. Wrecks cater to the history buff in each of us. Muck diving is a lot like a biological scavenger hunt. Cold water suits those who like a little extra challenge. But if the ultimate goal is to leave the water with veins overflowing with pure adrenaline, the pelagic ocean is your game. Yet finding open-ocean life in a watery desert can be a big challenge. Blue-water photographers must learn to use scant clues to point them at the action.

The term “pelagic” refers to the open ocean, as opposed to neritic water that is over a continental shelf. Here, we focus on Kona, Hawaii, primarily because it slopes off at a rate of about 1,000 feet for every mile you travel offshore. The magic seems to happen in waters exceeding about 3,000 feet deep. Pelagic life is within a 20-minute boat ride. Blue-water scuba for big animals is a bulky, clumsy affair that puts the shooter behind the action. Multiple drops and fast action calls for efficiency, so snorkeling is the preferred activity unless in a special situation.

Sharks such as oceanic whitetips frequently follow mammals looking for a free handout


Finding Life

It should come as no surprise that animals travel together and cohabitate. From pods of whales to schools of fish, safety in numbers is a key ingredient to survival. These groupings tend to also attract other animals that benefit from the association, often interweaving to create whole ecosystems such as coral reefs and kelp beds. So symbiosis isn’t limited to the cleaners on a coral reef. As we move offshore, these relationships often serve different purposes. Larger animals tend to produce resources that provide for other animals. Salps, for example, often house hitch-hikers in the form of amphipods, fishes, and octopods. Sharks commonly follow pilot whales and dolphins sometimes work with tuna to hunt similar prey.

Mammals are easy to find because they have to surface to breathe. So as you cruise along the ocean, always look for blows or fins and you will find the other fish living in association. Getting in with marine mammals alone can be exciting, but pelagic odontocetes (toothed whales) often have trailing animals that demand your undivided attention. In Hawaii, pilot whales often associate with oceanic whitetip sharks. No matter how distracting the whales might seem, always keep an eye on your backside. This is where an experienced guide is a priceless resource. They are familiar with animal behavior and, importantly, will know when it is time to leave.

Hammerheads form schools during the day to aid in sexual selection and conspecific communication. They are highly predictable at some islands and seamounts, but off Kona, they show up in early spring in isolated locations along the coast. The only indication of the sharks might be an errant fin tip breaking the surface

Photographing traveling communities of animals means you have to be ready to move. Speed and efficiency is paramount when prepping gear. And because action happens fast, you need to be ready to shoot as soon as you splash. Unless you are an abnormally powerful swimmer and highly efficient with camera settings, I recommend removing bulky strobe arms and shooting in an automatic mode like Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority. The advantage of Shutter Priority is you can set your shutter speed to something fast (like 1/200s) and forget about it. Aperture Priority in high-energy situations takes just a little more attention.


The open ocean is essentially a huge, blue desert with little oases of life sprinkled throughout. While some of these oases are masses of traveling or migrating animals, some are focused around nothing more than a drifting palm frond. Drifting objects like logs, Styrofoam, and buoys can serve as nuclei seeding rain clouds of oceanic life. Smaller critters will use objects to hide on. Larger fauna might hunt those smaller ones. But not all of the creatures are there for the buffet. Sometimes, the animals swimming through an endless sea of nothing might simply be looking for something to associate with while others use them as a gathering point. Flying fish use floating objects to lay their eggs. Regardless of the why, floating objects are often the most productive oceanic habitats. And with such an array of animals utilizing drifting objects, it is a waste to pass them up.

Active floaters can be anything from a soda bottle to a buoy or a fishing net. This derelict boat hull was a victim of the 2011 tsunami in Japan and had been floating around the Pacific for six years before it showed up offshore from Kona. The life that had accumulated around the hull included lots of smaller fish, a baitball of tuna, four silky sharks, and a marlin

One of the silky sharks from the derelict vessel above

A blue marlin comes in for an investigatory pass

It is a good idea to assess the floating debris before entering the water so you know what to expect. Productive debris will have a cloud of fish underneath. Mahi and other game fish associate with floaters and are much more fun to shoot with a camera than a speargun. Most pelagic animals are highly aware of eyes and avoid a diver that is looking straight at them. When shooting mahi and wahoo, I often find it advantageous to avert my gaze and even swim away for a bit, taking a peek over my shoulder for when I should turn and nab my shot. As always, whenever you are splashing in blue water, always keep a sharp lookout for large predators.

The important step when approaching floating debris is in the initial assessment. A particular debris pile may be empty of life, and maybe your time is better spent looking for something else. Before leaving what should be a productive debris pile, have a close look on the debris itself. Young octopus, small fish, seahorses, and the famed sargassum frogfish are common on floating debris. It pays to be ready with a wide angle, but always keep a macro option handy if the situation presents itself. I keep my macro lens and port in a pelican case on board in case I want to do a quick swap.

Gamefish such as these mahi-mahi are most frequently found around floating debris. Use evasive tactics to gain their curiosity without spooking them

When the bigger megafauna doesn’t show up, sargassum frogfish can often be found hiding among the debris


Fish Aggregation Devices

That brings us to anchored fish aggregation devices (FADs), stationary buoys that various entities anchor offshore for a variety of reasons. Open-ocean fish farms, oceanographic buoys, and oil rigs all provide a gathering point for oceanic fishes. Fishermen have caught on and often install their own buoys offshore. The big advantage of these is that they can be found time and again; the disadvantage is that fishermen can find them time and again. The aggregating impact can affect the ocean life around the installation for a radius of a mile or more.

In addition to big lurking predators that can come from behind and surprise you, also be wary of fishermen. They don’t necessarily appreciate divers annoying the fish they wish to catch. I’ve been told that the fish dive when swimmers get in the water. Whether or not this is rational thinking, it is a big ocean. Carry a dive flag and give them a wide berth. Generally speaking, the majority of life will usually either sit up-current from the buoy or ride in the eddy just downstream. The captain will need to be ready to maneuver the vessel to avoid contact with the structure.

As far as shooting a FAD, be ready with a wide-angle lens. Be sure to enter the water far enough upstream to allow some time for test shots before the action starts. Once you are in the fish, the current will carry you through pretty quickly, so you will only get a few moments to take a photo. The first few passes are usually the best, so it pays to be ready.

Finding pelagic life in an open ocean is a challenging proposition. But by employing these techniques, you should better be able to peek under the vast blue cover to find that toe-curling, mind-exploding encounter—and leave with a full memory card.

An oceanic whitetip swims up to greet the new visitors to an offshore aquaculture installation


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