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BAJA, MEXICO—APRIL 28-MAY 9, 2009


I did a trip with some friends where we flew into Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja Peninsula. We spent two days of land-based diving at Cabo Pulmo, followed by a liveaboard trip to the Revillagigedo Islands.
 


Cabo Pulmo is a pleasant little beach resort 60 miles north of Cabo San Lucas on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja. The area is a National Marine Park, so we saw lots of rays and fish schools as shown in the photos above. However, the water temp was in the low 70s and the visibility about 40 feet. I’m told the ideal time to visit here is around September, when both the water temp and the viz are much better.
 

We then returned to Cabo and boarded the Ambar III with our genial hosts Mike McGettigan & Sherry Shaffer, and crewman extraordinaire Edgar Cesena. Our destination was the Revillagigedo (rev-ee-a-hee-hay-do) Islands, 24 hours by boat and about 220 miles south of Cabo in the Pacific. This is an archipelago consisting of four islands and we visited three of them. While Socorro is the most well known, we only spent a day there due to poor water visibility, with our remaining time split between the two islands pictured above—San Benedicto and Roca Partida. As is apparent in the photo above left, San Benedicto had a recent eruption. It was in 1993—a blink of the eye in geological time. Roca Partida (pictured above right with the Ambar III) is just a pinnacle out there in the middle of nowhere, and we were blessed with the relatively calm seas and good weather needed to visit and dive this site.

 



Pictured above is The Boiler, an underwater seamount at San Benedicto that is a well-known destination for experienced scuba divers. It is one of only a few places where giant Pacific manta rays (Manta birostris) gather on a regular basis.
 

The Boiler attracts many kinds of fish, such as these blue jacks (Caranx melampygus) and bigeye trevally jacks (Caranx sexfasciatus), but mantas are the main attraction for divers.

 

The typical reaction of any wild sea creature regardless of size is to flee when divers approach. When divers see a manta in most places, about the best one can hope for is curious but aloof behavior—the ray glides by at a safe distance, and any attempt by a diver to approach results in the manta’s hasty departure. The mantas at San Benedicto do the exact opposite—they actively seek out contact with divers! It is not uncommon to enter the water with no mantas present, only to have them appear suddenly out of the blue, as if drawn by the sound of our bubbles. While they could easily disappear with one flap of their 20-foot wingspans, they frequently stay with divers for hours, circling over and over.


The Boiler is a “cleaning station” where mantas have been coming since long before the arrival of divers in order to be cleaned of parasites by orange clarion angelfish. One theory on why the mantas tolerate close diver encounters here is that the mantas may consider us nothing more than large cleaner fish. They particularly seem to enjoy the feel of bubbles from scuba divers on their skin. It’s fascinating to watch a manta come to a dead stop in the water to hover over a diver and have its belly tickled by exhaled air bubbles!

Most of the mantas travel with one or two gray remoras (Remora remora), which attach themselves to their manta host via a suction disc on the remora’s head. The remoras receive free transportation, while the manta may benefit from having these hitchhikers assist cleaner fish in keeping the ray’s skin clean of parasites.
 

The photos above show my friend Skip Stubbs, who organized and led this trip. Skip and I were buddies on most of the dives. As Skip films world-class underwater videos, and I also concentrate on photography during dive trips, neither of us was much interested in modeling with the mantas for the other.
 

I was on a dive trip to San Benedicto back in 1994, so fortunately I already had a number of “diver with manta” shots, such as the two above.
 

On our trips between the islands we often saw brown boobies (Sula leucogaster—photo above left) and frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens—photo above right). The brown booby, while rarely seen from the mainland shore, is common off Baja in the Pacific, and frequently follows boats. For some reason the frigatebirds were attracted to the two antennas sticking up from the top of the Ambar III and took turns diving down to bite the tips. Not easy to do when the antennas are whipping back and forth on a moving boat in sea swells! What’s up with this behavior? Target practice? Some kind of game? Or something to do with the electromagnetic waves the antennas send and receive?

 

The pinnacle called Roca Partida is mostly a sheer wall, but there are some small indentations. That’s Sherry Shaffer in the photo above left observing some resting whitetip reef sharks. I tried for a closer shot in the photo above right, but the current and swells made the approach difficult.

 

I had better luck with resting whitetips on another trip with Skip back in 2003 to Cocos Island (off the coast of Costa Rica). There the water was calm enough at one site so that I could approach from below and “pop up” for a quick close-up shot before the startled sharks came shooting out of the cave.
 

Roca Partida is famous for attracting pelagics not usually seen by divers on reefs. We had frequent encounters with schools of tuna & wahoo, but they hung out in the blue water, always staying just out of my range for a decent photo. My best photo opportunity at Roca occurred after I’d finished a dive. I’d deposited my tank in the inflatable and was just snorkeling around when I can upon this school of around 200 or more silky sharks (Carcharhinidae falciformis). They weren’t shy about my free diving down to them for a photo (quite the opposite!). However, I’d neglected to turn my strobes on, so in the above photos the sharks blend too much with the blue water background. Too bad, but still a memorable experience. Skip was still on Scuba and got some outstanding video footage of this school. 
 

While May is a tad late in the season for humpback whales to be out here, we saw (and heard them underwater) frequently. The “tail lob” shot (above left) was at Socorro Island. The calf shot (above right) occurred at Roca Partida, when all six of the guests on the boat snorkeled over to where a mom and baby were resting about 40 feet down. We observed for some time, taking care not to dive down and disturb them. Finally the calf surfaced for air, followed by the mom a bit further off, and then they performed a leisurely exit.
 

As usual on liveaboard trips, we were treated to some beautiful sunsets, and as usual with my trip blog posts, this is where I’ll end this one. Many thanks to Mike, Sherry and Edgar, as well as to Skip for arranging the trip. The Ambar III is a terrific, comfortable boat which takes only a third of the divers I was with on the boat I booked for my previous trip out here in 1994. I hope to be back on the Ambar III for another Baja trip soon!
 

Best to all, 
Ken
http://www.seaimages.org     

Manatees At Crystal River, FL — February 9-13, 2009




I spent three days in February snorkeling with manatees at Crystal River, FL. The town is easy to reach—only about 1.5 hours by car north of the Tampa airport—the only annoyance being the five $1.00 tolls you have to pay EACH WAY on Highway 589. Even the Golden Gate Bridge District (hardly considered a paragon of financial astuteness, since they still lose money even with a $6.00 auto toll) figured out about 50 years ago they you can cut costs and traffic backups by doubling the toll and charging ONE WAY.

 

Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostrus) are a subspecies of the West Indian manatee. They are an endangered species, with a population estimated at about 3,300 animals in the state. While adult manatees average ten feet in length and about 1,200 pounds, their metabolism is very low, so they don’t generate a lot of body heat. In the colder winter months, they move from the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast or the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast into rivers and the natural springs that feed them, where the water temperature is a constant (and warmer) 72 degrees. More than 25 percent of the FL manatee population congregates in winter at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. This is also one of the few areas where it’s legal to swim with them.

 



The two photos above were taken on prior manatee trips—it’s been about a decade since my last visit. I’d hoped for similar sunny conditions on this trip, because the ambient light really contributes to an attractive photograph. No such luck, however—it was overcast all three days I was in the water with them. Thus I didn’t get anything this time that was as good as these two shots.

 





Since there wasn’t sun, I tried for shots that included some of the animals’ reflections on the surface. In the lower-left shot above, you can see some of the “toenails” that manatees have on each flipper—they resemble what you see on the foot of an elephant, and that’s no coincidence. Manatees also have tough, grayish-brown wrinkled skin that’s similar to an elephant’s. Using genetics, scientists have determined that manatees are more closely related to elephants than any other living animal. It is believed manatees lived on land long ago and ate grass like elephants, eventually evolving to the aquatic life. They are the only marine mammals that are herbivores (vegetarians), often eating over 150 pounds of plants, grass and weeds each day.

 





Seeing a cow and her calf together is always fun. “So homely it’s cute” is definitely a phrase that applies to young manatees! At birth, manatee calves weigh 60 to 70 pounds and are three to four feet long. Calves nurse for nearly a year and stay with their mother for up to two years, since reproduction is slow (one calf about every 3 years).

 





Manatees at Crystal River are acclimated to people and very friendly. It can be a tad disconcerting to be taking a photo of one, while another swims up behind you and starts nibbling on your shoulder, but they are quite harmless. A manatee will swim up to you expectantly, and if you rub under the flipper it will often roll over to have its tummy scratched, as shown in the lower-right photo above. Just like your dog at home—but these guys can top 13 feet and 3,000 pounds!

 

Snorkeling with manatees is a lot of fun and can be experienced by just about anyone. I was in a spring within King’s Bay called the Three Sisters, and there were people in the water who had never put on a mask & snorkel before! SCUBA diving is prohibited, since the air bubbles can disturb the manatees, and even free diving down using a snorkel is discouraged (although you are permitted to “sink” down—I was able to do this with just one four-pound weight while wearing a five mm wetsuit). Too bad about the lack of sun—guess I’ll just have to come back next winter!

 
Best to all,

Ken

http://www.seaimages.org

 

Elephant Seals At Piedras Blancas, CA — February 2-4, 2009



I spent a few days in early February checking out the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) that migrate down to CA beaches each winter. They come from as far north as Alaska for the females to give birth and the males to fight for mating rights to produce next year’s generation. You can read many pertinent details about these animals and their remarkable comeback from near extinction if you scroll further down to the blog post I did after visiting this same area in early 2006.

 



This is a popular elephant seal haul-out site—a beach just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse (a few miles north of the Hearst Castle). It’s also a popular spot for tourists, as a fenced-off boardwalk has been built here up on the bluff so the seals can be easily observed.

 


The very helpful docents who belong to a group called Friends of the Elephant Seals told me that most of the serious fighting among the alpha males for choice beach space and harems takes place in December as they arrive. While disputes over mating rights continue until the seals depart around March, I only observed a few instances like those in the two photos above.

  



With the lion’s share of the fighting in December and births peaking in January, most of the mating occurs in February. The peak of mating activity (fittingly enough) is mid-month–around Valentine’s Day.

 


As I was photographing elephant seals from the observation boardwalk, I noticed a lot of these California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi) running around in the scrub brush on the bluff. They are very acclimated to people and didn’t mind posing. The above shot, with the out-of-focus ocean background, was my favorite of the trip. You just never know when a good photo opportunity will present itself….

  


While most of the fighting action was over by my visit, the weather was beautiful with sunsets to match. I didn’t notice the human standing on the cliff at the top right of the above photo until after I’d taken it.


Best to all,
Ken


http://www.seaimages.org

 

Steller Sea Lions at Hornby Island, BC—JANUARY 12-16, 2009


Dive in Canada during January? Well, maybe not as crazy an idea as you might think. Our destination was Hornby Island, which is about 80 miles NW of Vancouver—the “Miami Beach” of Canada. Or so it was described to me by my friend & photo pro Jon Cornforth, http://www.cornforthimages.com, who invited me to accompany him. Jon then got me a great deal re: some shares on a bridge in Brooklyn, but that’s another story. Seriously, Hornby has a great attraction this time of year—the Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus) that migrate here each winter from as far north as the Bering Sea to feed on herring, which are gathering to spawn in early March. Stellers are listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and I had never photographed them.

Hornby is about 200 miles north of Seattle, so I flew there to overnight, and Jon (a Seattle resident) picked me up for the drive at 10:00am the next day. We arrived safe & sound at Hornby by 7:00pm that evening. The drive—other than ubiquitous rain & fog and a border crossing (gotta remember to bring those passports now, “eh?”)—was uneventful. Much of the nine hours lapsed time was due to coordinating with schedules of the three ferry rides needed to get there—one to Vancouver Island, a second to Denby Island, and a final one to Hornby Island. I called my wife after our arrival that evening, and (since I’d left the house for the airport at noon the previous day) her comment was, “You get to Indonesia faster than that.”

We stayed with our very genial hosts Rob & Amanda Zielinski of Hornby Island Diving, http://www.hornbyislanddiving.com. The lodge is two floors of modern, comfortable living space, with private bedrooms and shared large bathrooms on each floor. We had three delicious home-cooked hot meals each day, and there was even a sauna. The lodge can accommodate 16-24, and the usual clientele comes on weekends. We were a special “midweek” private charter that Jon arranged (diving Tuesday thru Thursday), and there were only four of us. Since we were all underwater photographers and thus space pigs by definition, we luxuriated in all the open areas we could clutter up!
 

The Stellers hang out at a place called Norris Rocks. We got there in five-to-ten minutes from the dock (which was less than 100yds from the lodge) in a beamy, 32-foot aluminum dive boat with twin 225HP outboards. While the area can get some nasty winter storms, we had calm water and no rain or snow during our visit. However, we never saw the sun, just overcast skies or fog. This is normal, but too bad, because behind those sea lions and shoreline in the photo above are some really picturesque snow-clad mountains.

Steller Sea Lions are lighter in color than the CA Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus) I’m used to, and much larger. A male Steller can grow to 10 feet and 2200lbs (a ton!), while bull California will max out at 8 feet and 900lbs.

The F 45 degree water temp (F 37 degree air) dictated diving in drysuits. Until I looked it up after the trip, I hadn’t realized it’s been over ten years since I’d used my drysuit—I’ve really wimped out on tank diving in my native northern California! Fortunately, I experienced no leaks or other problems. I need to wear 39lbs of lead with my drysuit (20 on the weightbelt, 8 each in two pockets on my buoyancy vest, and 1.5 on each ankle), which is 15lbs more than I wear diving with a thick wetsuit. But we never had to venture too far from where we entered the water—the Stellers were more than happy to find us.

Sometimes we’d be buzzed by a single, curious individual.

This was the more common greeting, however, especially when we’d first get in. You can see pro photographer Paul Souders (http://www.worldfoto.com) trying to take a picture in the photo above left, but about all you can make out of him in the shot above right is the yellow backup regulator. Oh, and they would BITE, trying to figure out what we were—fins, arms, hoods, hoses and strobe cords were all fair game. Not hard enough to do any damage, but a tad disconcerting when you’re trying to photograph them.

Here are a few group shots I managed to get. We found that if you backed off a few feet after the first mob rush, they would pause briefly before resuming, which allowed us to get in a shot or two. These were all juveniles, but some were in the neighborhood of 600lbs. While we were immediately aware when one of the big bull males swam by because of their size, they didn’t deign to play. Good thing–a bite from something that weighs a ton would no doubt have been a more serious matter!

The shot above didn’t work, because my strobes didn’t recycle to fire in time, making the photo too dark and also soft from the slow shutter speed. I included it because of the interesting behavior. That’s a bull CA Sea Lion playing (getting bit) by the juvenile Stellers. Male Californias migrate the “wrong way” up to southern BC in winter from CA & Mexico, also for the herring gathering.

Usually I’m trying to get closer to my underwater photo subjects—not the case with the Stellers! This one was trying to eat my dome port, and even though I had a +4 closeup diopter on my 24mm lens, nothing is in focus.

I did better with the “head shots” when they gave me a few inches of breathing room. They seemed to enjoy looking at themselves in the dome port, when they weren’t trying to bite it.

We frequently noticed this “bubble blowing” from the Stellers, but it didn’t seem to denote the aggressive behavior I’ve experienced in the past with bull CA Sea Lions when I ventured too close into what they considered their territory.

Well, maybe this one was a tad aggressive, but fortunately it was one of the cute smaller Stellers. I obviously had no time to “compose” this shot—it was a point-and-shoot photo opportunity, and one of my favorites from the trip.

While there wasn’t much sunlight, we were fortunate to have calm water on each diving day, and being “mugged” by Steller Sea Lions has to have been one of the most interesting dive/photo encounters I’ve experienced. A great trip!

Best to all,

Ken
http://www.seaimages.org
 

BOSQUE DEL APACHE, NM–NOV 29-DEC 3, 2008



I accompanied friends Skip Stubbs and Phil Colla to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for a few days starting in late November. Bosque del Apache means "woods of the Apache" and was named by the Spanish who observed Apaches routinely camped in the riverside forest there. Bosque is slightly more than an hour by car south of Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande Valley in Socorro County, NM. It is located on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, with an elevation that ranges from 4500 to over 6200 feet above sea level.

Why would a photographer of "marine-related" subjects go to the desert?
While over 300 species of birds and many other animals can be photographed there, I was concentrating on two species of large marine birds that migrate from the north to Bosque in the autumn and winter months–sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and snow geese (Chen caerulescens). A count taken the day before we arrived indicated about 5,000 sandhill cranes and almost 33,000 snow geese were there–as well as over 26,000 ducks.

I'm not a "bird photographer" and lack the typical birder's lens–a 600mm f4, with a 1.4 or 2X teleconverter. At peak times (sunrise & sunset) there might be 40-50 photographers around, most with a camera setup like that or something similar. I was using a 300mm f2.8 and an 80-400mm zoom. So most of my shots were of the "scenic" variety, rather than tight shots of individual birds. Fortunately we had great weather (cold–one dawn was 26 degrees–but very clear) and loads of scenic photo opportunities, so I managed to contain my lens envy. Logistics were also easy. Bosque was only a few miles from our hotel in the town of Socorro, and each photo site had parking and adequate space for setting up tripods and cameras.

Sandhill cranes can reach a height of four feet, with a wingspan approaching seven feet. My favorite shots were of cranes flying back for a landing in the ponds, with the golden light of sunset.

With that sunset light in the background, stationary shots of the cranes were also worth taking.

We'd get to Bosque before dawn for the sunrise, rest at mid-day, then go back in the afternoon for the sunset. When the sun was well up in the sky, there were opportunities for sandhill crane reflections and "takeoff" shots.

Snow geese approaching as the light turns golden at sunset.

The snow geese would look very tranquil, such as the scene above left, then something would set them off…

Sunrise, at least for me, was not as productive as sunset–the birds had a tendency to fly away from, rather than towards us. Still, it was worth watching.

A fun trip, and relatively easy to do compared to a lot of my other journeys!

Best to all,

Ken
http://www.seaimages.org

Kona Cost — September 13-20, 2008



Back in August, I realized I hadn’t done a dive trip this year (snorkeled with sailfish & whale sharks in Mexico and took surface shots of humpbacks in Alaska, but only one tank dive all year). So I booked a week on the Kona Aggressor–a liveaboard dive boat which operates off the Kona Coast (west side of Hawaii–the Big Island). When I told this to one of my experienced diver friends, she asked one question: "Why?" It’s not an unreasonable question from divers who travel quite a bit, as fun as a week diving in Hawaii might sound.





The reefs in Hawaii (above) are far less colorful then other locations further west. Fish, especially large schools, are not plentiful.




I had two main reasons for deciding to go there. First, I hoped for more photo opportunities with green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) at a site called Turtle Pinnacle, which is a cleaning station where the turtles allow the reef fish to remove algae and parasites from their shells. Unfortunately, the turtles didn’t show up at this site during our dive there–the two shots above were taken my on last visit to the Big Island in 2003. The second reason was that a trip to Kona from my home near San Francisco represents one plane flight each way for me. This might sound like a trivial reason, but on each of my last three trips by air (coming back from Mexico and both going and coming from Juneau) my first flight was delayed and I missed my connecting flights. We all know air travel is much more of a hassle now, and minimizing Things That Could Go Wrong was a factor in my decision.




The photos above are of Holly Ong–my dive buddy for the week. Holly lives just south of San Francisco, and we are both members of the No. CA Underwater Photographic Society–but we didn’t know each other prior to meeting on this trip! We both have SCUBA certification cards so old (early 70’s) they don’t have individual numbers on them. She is one of those "been there, done that" divers, and an excellent buddy–always aware of where I was (versus my tendency to wander away with my face stuck in the viewfinder), and we have similar rates of air consumption. She is also very cheerful and upbeat–always an asset in the close confines of a liveaboard dive boat.



The photos above are two of the tiny critters we saw. The shot on the left is a Black White Spotted Crab (Lissocarcinus orbicularis) which is about the size of a dime. It lives on the Black Sea Cucumber (Holothuria atra) and does no harm to its host. The photo at right is of a Wire Coral Goby (Brianinops amplus) which is less than an inch in length. The goby tends to hide on whatever side of the wire coral you are not on, and with the coral itself moving back and forth, this is not an easy subject to photograph!





Here are a few of the reef denizens we saw. The photo at top left is of a Whitemouth Moray Eel (Gymnothorax meleagris), which is one of the most common eel species (and there are many!) in Hawaii. Top right is a Guineafowl Puffer (Arothron meleagris) which occasionally hovers in place on the reef so you can grab a photo. Various members of the Scorpaenidae family can be hard to distinguish, but (I think) the photo at bottom left is of a Titan Scorpionfish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus), which is endemic to Hawaii. At bottom right is a Leaf Scorpionfish (Taenianotus tricanthus). They come in a variety of colors, are small and hard to find. I actually found this one myself–VERY unusual, as I’m one of the worst critter spotters. Most of the smaller subjects in my photos were pointed out to me by someone else.





A dive photo trip to Hawaii wouldn’t be complete without frogfish (Antennariidae sp.) photos. These four photos are of two frogfish that were right next to each other. I think you can probably make out the frogfish in the two photos on the bottom above, but good luck with the two photos on the top if you don’t have experience seeing these guys! Well, here’s a hint–click on the photo at top left to enlarge, and find the mouth of the fish on the top right side of the photo. From about the middle of the mouth, proceed back to the left, about a third of the way and hopefully you can make out the eye. You can probably see the mouth of the fish in the photo top right (near bottom of the photo), but the angle makes finding an eye more work than its worth.




The Kona night dives with manta rays (Manta sp.) were an unexpected highlight. The mantas feed on the plankton attracted by lights provided by divers and the nearby airport. These dives are world-famous in the diving community and immensely popular. There were 10-12 boats and 40-50 divers present for each of the two night dives we did here. I’d declined doing them during my last trip, because I feared all the divers would be mucking up the visibility and getting between my camera and the mantas. The mantas, in feeding mode with their mouths open, come so CLOSE that it’s still possible to get good photos.


Another interesting aspect of this night dive was the appearance of these eight Oval Squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana). Naturally this attracted a lot of attention, but I just waited until late in the dive when most of the other divers had gone back to their boats.




I then tried for some shots with both the squid and a feeding manta, but I didn’t follow the "get close" part of the photo mantra ("get low, get close, shoot up") to get a good enough angle for a decent shot. Too bad–the photo opportunity was certainly there.


Despite my apprehension about doing the manta night dive because of all the people, this shot above with the divers and manta turned out to be my favorite of the trip. You might notice none of the divers are wearing snorkels. We were prohibited from doing so, because the mantas swoop down so close a snorkel could scrape and harm them. So I learned my lesson, and pass it on to you–if you’re ever diving in Kona, DON’T neglect to do the manta night dive!



Best to all,

Ken

http://www.seaimages.org

One Day On The Water In SE Alaska

Technically, we were on the water for three days, but all the images you see in this blog post were taken on Sunday, August 10th. I was privileged to be invited to spend a week with pro photographers Jon Cornforth (www.cornforthimages.com)
and Stuart Westmorland (www.stuartwestmorland.com) on Jon’s boat, cruising the waters of Alaska’s inside passage. We flew up to Juneau on Friday evening, provisioned and gassed the boat Sat am, and motored 40-50 miles that afternoon. We photographed on Sunday, but late in the day Jon learned that while his wife and daughters were running errands, their house in Seattle had been severely damaged by fire! So we came back to Juneau on Monday and flew home Tuesday morning.



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We were there to photograph the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that migrate up to the coast of southeast Alaska for summer feeding on krill and small schooling fish such as herring and mackerel. We spotted whales feeding near the small town of Tenakee Springs (above). This was the only town for many miles around, but the fish must have been there, because the whales stayed close to the town for a good portion of the day. 




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Our primary goal was to get shots of the whales’ inventive technique known as “bubble net feeding.” This is a form of co-operative feeding behavior that is almost unique to this species (see my earlier post from a February 2008 trip on how sailfish do something similar). The humpbacks dive beneath a school of fish and encircle them in a “net” of bubbles that the fish won’t swim through. The whales then swim up through the bubble net, surfacing with their mouths open and their throats engorged with fish, which they swallow in one gulp. A recent article in BBC Wildlife Magazine described bubble netting as “…one of the most extraordinary displays in the natural world…” and having now witnessed it I would certainly not disagree with that assessment. The above shots of this behavior are from a fairly typical vantage point–since these are marine mammals in U.S. waters, you must keep a respectful distance and use a long lens (I had an 80-400mm zoom).




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These three shots were from a single encounter where the whales popped up suddenly, much closer to the boat. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. We usually tried to be on the bow when the whales surfaced. When this one happened, I was still inside the boat and had to just poke my camera through the portside window. Needless to say I was fortunate to get these shots, helped by a camera shutter speed of about 1/1000sec and image stabilization technology in the lens.





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Some other humpback shots. We didn’t have good light, but the Alaska background was nice.

 




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Since the Olympics had just started, I decided to add this shot from the "Synchronized Fin Wave & Bird Landing" event. The whales have their pectoral fins aligned pretty well, but those birds look like they need a bit more practice!




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Oh, and there are bears in Alaska! Because Jon’s boat is a compact 22 feet, we were able to motor up a stream and do some land-based shots of this young grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) trying to catch salmon beneath a waterfall.




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As I mentioned, we didn’t have much in the way of good light–those overcast skies in the photo above left were typical. As shown in the photo above right, we did get some shafts of sun for “golden light” during the long twilight (it didn’t get truly dark until around 10:00pm), but we weren’t able to get the uncooperative whales properly aligned with the setting sun. Hey, no complaints though! Considering the six days we’d planned to be out there photographing had been cut down to one, I was more than happy with the results!

Best to all,
Ken


http://www.seaimages.org

Whale Sharks Off Isla Holbox, Mexico — July 8-15, 2008

I went to Holbox Island (say "hole-bosh"–the "x" in Mayan is pronounced "sh") to snorkel with whale sharks. The sharks are there from mid-June to early September each year to feed in the plankton-rich waters. This was somewhat similar to my last trip in February in that it was land-based from an island, and I flew into Cancun (on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula) to get there. And while both trips included a ferry ride, this one was preceded by a two hour van ride to the town of Chiquila. So if you’re coming from the San Francisco area–it’s a long travel day (I overnighted in Cancun).


Holbox is located 40 miles northwest of Cancun and is about seven
miles long and a mile wide. There is only a fishing village on the
island–also called Holbox. There are no high-rise hotels, only
"boutique" ones mostly built in the past three years to accommodate
the growing tourist business. An article in the May 2004 issue of
Islands Magazine was the first in a major travel magazine about Isla
Holbox, and more visitors have been coming each year since then as
the word about the whale sharks spreads. Only snorkeling is
permitted with the whale sharks–no scuba diving–so just about any
tourist regardless of experience level can try it.


Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the world’s largest fish (NOT a
whale), attaining lengths that can exceed 40 feet. Despite their
size, they are harmless to humans, filter feeding on plankton,
krill, small fish and squid through the huge mouth at the front of
the head that can be more than four feet wide. They are found in
warm oceans worldwide. I’ve seen them at Isla del Coco (Costa Rica)
and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), and sightings are also common
at Ningaloo Reef in northwest Australia and near Thailand.
 




The tour leader for our trip was Jacqueline Russell (http://www.WildOceanAdventures.com). She has done this trip many times, and capably handled the transport, lodging and snorkel operator details for our group of six guests. The Mawimbi Hotel where we stayed (outside area shown above) had nine rooms, all with AC. The staff took some effort to keep things clean, though it was hard since we guests were constantly tracking in sand from the beach. The boat we boarded each morning was anchored here, so you had a walk of only about 100 feet from the hotel–hard to get easier access than that, unless you’re on a liveaboard!









Above are some shots of the whale sharks and snorkelers from the boat. The sharks were feeding about 35 miles offshore, which was an hour each way from Holbox. Only two guests were allowed in the water at a time (a good rule), along with a licensed guide. While there were many tourist boats out there, the whale shark population at this time of year is such that there was no problem finding a shark of your own to swim with. As you can see, we were blessed with flat, calm water. While I was told such ocean conditions are common for this time of year, please note that Hurricane Dolly blew through northeast Mexico and the Texas gulf coast about a week after I left–whale shark season here is also hurricane season.





The problem with trying to get a "full body" shot of an animal this big is that you need better water visibility then we generally had. The viz was poor because of all the ‘lil critters in the water that the sharks were there to feed on. So poor viz kinda goes with the whale shark territory here. The shot on the left will give you some idea of how big these sharks can get (this one was estimated at about 38 feet), as you can make out our dive guide just above its head. The shot on the right shows a snorkeler with a juvenile about 18 feet in length.













I had better luck with my photos when I got in close. What some call the "first rule" of underwater photography applied here: "Eliminate the water between your camera lens and the subject." With my zoom lens set at its wide angle maximum of 17mm, I was VERY close in the first four photos above!



At one point, I had just photographed a whale shark as it swam by, and as I turned around, this manta ray (about 15 feet across) also passed right next to me. We saw many of the filter-feeding mantas, as they were there for the same reason as the whale sharks.





The beach in front of our hotel on the island’s north side faced into the gulf and gave us nice sunset photo opportunities as well. This was an enjoyable trip–close (compared to many of my destinations), and whale shark encounters are pretty much guaranteed!

Best to all,
Ken


www.seaimages.org

 

Sailfish Off Isla Mujeres, Mexico–February 9-17, 2008

I was “land-based” for this trip–on Isla Las Mujeres–about a 15 minute ferry ride from Cancun, on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Every year around January-March sardines migrate north from off the coast of Brazil to feed on an upwelling of plankton about 40-50 miles from shore at the Isla Mujeres bank, and the sailfish arrive to feed on the sardines. The sailfish work cooperatively to “herd” the sardines–behavior only observed in billfish, dolphins and whales among all the marine animals in the world. The feeding sailfish were first filmed here only a couple of seasons ago for the Discovery Channel’s “Planet Earth” series, so for underwater photographers to get shots of it is still fairly unique.

 


We left the dock every morning at dawn, and usually got back just before sunset. We’d pass this schooner every day going out and coming back–never saw anybody on it–looks like it’s waiting for the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” flick to be filmed. During my time there the sailfish action happened to be located about 50 miles north and 14 miles east of our boat dock–which meant we had a daily three-hour commute EACH WAY to get to it and back.




These two photos were taken by the organizer of our trip, Amos Nachoum. That’s our “team” for the week on the left–don’t know why I look so grim–perhaps contemplating the bumpy three-hour ride back to the dock that day. Our boat was the 30′ long and 12′ wide “Lilly M”–while the “commute” was long, this boat sure beat the rubber inflatables I’m usually on when trying to film big marine animals! The photo on the right (of me) shows how it worked–we’d locate a sardine baitball by watching for formations of frigate birds bunched closely over the water, and then roll in with cameras in hand, and snorkel to the baitball as fast as possible. We had SCUBA tanks on board, but didn’t use them because of the “need for speed.” Fortunately, everything usually happens pretty close to the surface. Sailfish have been clocked at 68mph–the fastest fish in the ocean–so the action was quick, brief (the small baitballs didn’t last too long), and hard to capture.

 


These are the Brazilian sardines (Sardinella brasiliensis) that migrate more than halfway up the east coast of South America to feed in this relatively small area of the Caribbean Sea. If the sardines in that close-up shot on the left look nervous, they have reason to be!




And here are the Atlantic sailfish (Istiophorus albicans) that are attracted by the sardines. It was hard to focus on individual sailfish, as they moved so quickly. They usually range from six to nine feet in length. That may sound like a large subject, but you had to be pretty close to get something that was more than a small part of the view shown by your wide-angle lens.







The photos above show the sailfish “herding” the sardines to the surface and into baitballs to feed. We found the easiest thing to do was focus the camera on the baitball, then wait for the sailfish to come in. The “sail” is the dorsal fin and it often covers the entire length of the fish’s back. It’s folded down and to the side when the fish swims normally, but is raised when the fish is threatened or excited, to make it appear much larger than it actually is. Groups of sailfish raise their sails to help “herd” the fish schools into baitballs. The baitball moves quickly (so would you if you were a 10-inch fish chased by an 8-foot predator). The photo opportunities were usually when it either moved in your direction, or (infrequently) the baitball might hang out with or beneath us in an attempt to hide.

 



We chartered the boat for seven days, and were able to get to the sailfish on five of them–pretty good, given that it was winter and how far we had to travel. On one of the other two days when the weather didn’t cooperate, we snorkeled with manta & mobula rays in the open water less than an hour from the dock. The rays were feeding on the plankton-rich water, so they stayed around, but that also meant the visibility was terrible–like trying to take photos while swimming in soup (which it actually was–to the rays!) In the above shot at left, the giant manta ray (Manta birostris) was doing an upside-down “barrel roll” while feeding. The shot looks “soft” not because of the focus, but due to the cloudy water. The water looks cleaner in the photo above right, only because I was about two feet from the ray. You can just make out a snorkeler with his camera, above and behind the ray–gives you an idea of the relative size of the manta (they grow to in excess of 20 feet), and also how quickly the visibility decreased if you weren’t VERY close.

 


While the mantas were solitary feeders, the mobula rays (Mobula sp.) liked to hang out together. Often mistaken for mantas, mobulas are much smaller, rarely over ten feet.
 


On the other day that we were weather-challenged, we put on SCUBA tanks for the only time that week and did a reef dive. I hadn’t heard much about the reef diving around Isla Mujeres, and now perhaps I know why. I was first in the water, and surfaced five minutes later, convinced I’d missed the reef. No–I was on the “reef”–it just didn’t look like what I think of as a reef. Once in a while we’d see an aggregation of fish or a solitary sea fan as above, but not often.


Trip Leader Amos Nachoum obligingly modeled for me at one of the few spots of color we encountered on this dive.


If the weather is uncooperative and the mantas aren’t feeding, I’d recommend a day trip to the beautiful Mayan ruins at Tulum in lieu of a reef dive. No hike through a jungle is involved–you can picnic on the beach and/or frolic in the warm Caribbean Sea at the same spot. (Note: I visited Tulum and took the two photos above on a different trip)



As usual, I’ll end with a sunset. I knew this trip was a “roll of the dice” because so many things have to go the right way to get the photo–calm seas, sun for ambient lighting and fast shutter speeds, water visibility, subjects present, close and cooperative (or at least preoccupied enough to ignore you), and so on. It was definitely not one of those “Go down the anchor line to the barrel sponge and the frogfish will be just on the left” kinds of trips–so I was happy to get some sailfish images.

 

Best to all,
Ken
http://www.seaimages.org

 

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