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“THIRD ANNUAL” BAHAMAS SHARK (AND DOLPHIN) FEST


May 3 -11, 2006
Hi folks! I went back to the Bahamas last month to take shark images for the third time in three years with the same dive operator, and while all these trips have been very good (hence my repeat visits), this one was the best trip yet! The weather was great (the best they had experienced up to that point in ‘06), the “usual suspects” showed up (lemon, cribbean reef, bull and tiger sharks), the visibility underwater was excellent, and we also had photo opportunities with several other subjects, including dolphins.



#1

This is Jim Abernethy, the guy who makes it all happen. Jim is the owner of Jim Abernethy’s SCUBA Adventures Inc., and it’s truly one of the very best operations I’ve encountered for delivering GREAT photo opportunities. I do not praise dive operators lightly (some of you are probably rolling your eyes as you read this, knowing what a vast understatement it is), but anyone who is interested in shark photography should give Jim and his excellent staff a try. You can find out more by going to http://www.scuba-adventures.com , sending an e-mail to info@scuba-adventures.com or calling 561-842-6356. I can offer no greater endorsement than to say I’ve already signed up for my “4th Annual” in 2007.



#2 and #3

Jim Abernethy likes to get “up close & personal” with his photo subjects. That’s Jim in #2 above using this photo technique on a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta). You can see from Jim’s photo #3 on the right above that he gets some really dramatic, world-class images this way (I’m malingering in the background), but he’s too busy with his dive operation to really market them very much. Oh, and his “up close…” photo style DOES have an occasional disadvantage, such as when he uses it on tiger sharks…..



#4

Yup, that’s Jim’s housed camera in the mouth of a tiger shark they named Notcho. I’m grateful to Paul Krupela (pkrupela@earthlink.net; 949-492-1136) who took photo #4 above on a trip prior to ours and allowed me to use it in this blog post. Jim was able to retrieve his camera rig and actually has an image taken by Notcho when it bit down on his camera housing’s shutter release, but I didn’t include it here because–frankly–it’s not very good. It’s a vertical shot of sand & water, but there’s no central subject, the line dividing the sand & water is not straight, and….oh, I could go on, but since Notcho is a novice photographer, it’s probably not fair to offer too much criticism at this point…..



#5 and #6

Photos #’s 5 and 6 are a couple of other images Jim Abernethy took of me with a tiger shark. Some of you might recall the close encounters I had on the "2nd Annual" last year with a tiger shark they call Emma, who seemed to be attracted to my yellow snorkel (scroll down to the first two posts at the start of this blog for more on that). I wisely divested myself of that snorkel after a couple of days with sharks on this year’s trip, until close to the end when I needed it for snorkeling with the dolphins.



#7

Photo #7 shows a “day at the office” for the location called Tiger Beach. You can see a half dozen or so 8-9 foot lemon sharks in the foreground and on the left, a tiger shark just to the right of the crewperson holding the bait basket, and there are two more tigers in the background on the right, though they may be hard to see in this blog image. The point is–this is a REALLY hot spot for shark photography! Three changes I noticed about this location from my prior visits are: (1) the visibility was MUCH improved–we had about 10 feet of viz two years ago; (2) the sharks seemed to come around much sooner and in greater numbers (and yes, we consider this a good thing…..); and (3) Jim has found some spots here that are not just sand bottom–there are also small gorgonians, corals and so forth, which improve the photo opportunities.





#’s 8, 9, 10 and 11

These are lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) at Tiger Beach. Note how the growth on the bottom keeps the sharks elevated off the sand, allowing underwater photographers to follow the Golden Rule for positioning of the camera lens vs. the subject: “get LOW, get CLOSE, shoot UP!” Lemons have scary-looking teeth, and my fish ID book says they are “considered dangerous” and “can be aggressive” but we tended not to worry much about them, due to the number of tiger sharks that were there at the same time. You know, like when Butch told Sundance not to worry about drowning because the fall was probably going to kill him…..



#12

I noticed the above behavior in #12 on the part of lemon sharks about 4-5 times during this trip. The shark would move away from the main group (which generally would stay close to the bait baskets), settle down in the sand and open its mouth, allowing the sharksuckers (Echeneis naucrates–Remora family) which are usually attached to the shark to swim into its mouth and clean it. The shark becomes its own “cleaning station!” I only got one “grab shot” of this behavior, but you can make out one of the smaller sharksuckers exiting the mouth of the host shark.





#’s 13, 14, and 15

These are Caribbean reef sharks, at a place Jim calls the Mother Lode. Jim provided invaluable help in positioning me to get the shots of these sharks with the eel in #13 and the sponge in #14.



#’s 16 and 17

These are also Caribbean reef sharks, but at a different location we visited–Walker’s Key. As you can see, the water was green and the viz therefore limited. I included these images because in #16 the shark looks like it has either recently eaten very well or is very pregnant, and #17 shows the shark acting in a way that usually means you should exercise some caution–the pectoral fins are down, which we call “hunched for lunch” behavior.



#18

We did some dives with bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), but like last year, they tended to be cautious and keep their distance, which made for limited photo opportunities.

We had some excellent tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) encounters at Tiger Beach–I spotted five tigers at one time, and that means there were more, since you never see them all at once. Jim & the crew kept cautioning us to stay near the stern of the boat on the bottom (only about 15 feet deep) and face outward, keeping the sharks in front of us and in sight. This proved nearly impossible, however, as the boat was often swinging in a long arc, and there were just too many sharks to always be aware of what might be coming up behind you. This had not been a problem on my prior trips because we had never encountered this many tiger sharks at one time. That’s Jim in #21 above (probably trying to tell me I’m not where I’m supposed to be). This was a literal “got your back” situation, and we eventually became pretty good at signaling fellow divers when a tiger was approaching from behind.



#24

I used to have fun playing “peek-a-boo” with my daughters–I of course would get bored before they would. We haven’t played it recently though, since one is now 27 and the other turns 23 this month…… Anyway, playing this with a tiger shark was maybe not quite as much fun–but it definitely kept me from getting bored!



#’s 25 and 26

A couple more shots I took of that loggerhead turtle Jim found.





#’s 27, 28, 29 and 30

In addition to the sharks, large groupers were attracted to the bait baskets placed on the reef at the Mother Lode dive site. I THINK #’s 27 & 28 show a yellowmouth grouper (Mycteroperca interstitialis), #29 is a black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci), and #30 is a nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus).



#31

We dove a site called the Sugar Wreck, which had many nice schools of colorful fish swimming over the remains of this boat. These are french grunts (Haemulon flavolineatum).










#’s 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40

We spent our morning on the last day of the trip snorkeling with Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis). My prior trips were both in February, which is not the right time of year to look for dolphins in the Bahamas. The month of May not only offers the probability of better weather (after winter, before hurricane season), but the opportunity to have encounters with these loveable marine mammals as well.



#’s 41 and 42

At left is a shot of several members of our group taken by Jim Abernethy. We saw many nice sunsets such as #42 above. The swim step at the stern of the boat was a bit hectic during sunsets like this, as several folks who were more adventurous than I attempted to get this shot with a tiger shark biting the bait line in the foreground. Oh well, that’s something to “shoot” for on my “4th Annual” in ‘07……..

That’s it folks! My next trip (June 19-July 10) is to try and shoot the sardine run on the east coast of South Africa. This one is a real roll of the photographic dice, but if I get something you’ll see it on my next blog!

Best to all,

Ken
www.seaimages.org

ELEPHANT SEALS AT PIEDRAS BLANCAS


January and February, 2006
Hi folks! In January and February I took a couple of three-day trips with friends Skip Stubbs and Phil Colla to Piedras Blancas, CA to visit a rookery of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) and observe the annual birthing/breeding season. Piedras Blancas is located about eight miles north of San Simeon, and about five miles north of Hearst Castle.


This was our destination–the beaches just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The elephant seals start showing up here in November, and the height of the birthing/fighting/breeding season is in February. Except for short periods during April-August when the females, juveniles, subadult and adult males return at different times to molt, elephant seals spend the rest of their lives in the ocean, ranging as far north as the south coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The can dive to a depth of one mile (a distance only exceeded among air-breathers by sperm whales) in search of squid and other deep water prey.



Given all the bad news we’re constantly hearing about the environment and the negative impact on our wildlife, elephant seals are a remarkable exception. These animals were slaughtered in the 1800’s for the oil from their blubber. By 1892, only 50-100 individuals were left. In the 1920’s they were protected by Mexico and the U.S. Today, the population has rebounded to approximately 160,000, about 14,000 of which populate almost four miles of the coast at Piedras Blancas. A parking lot and large boardwalk has been built in one section which offers close viewing (although a long zoom lens is recommended).



Births of the black pups start in mid-December, and peak around mid-February. The mother will vocalize, bonding her voice and scent with that of her pup, so they can find each other if separated as the population grows on the beach.


The mothers nurse their pups on fat-rich milk for 28 days. During that time the pup, which weighs about 60lbs at birth, will quadruple its weight. The black coat fades to brown as the pup matures, at which point the pup is called a weaner. The weaner will remain at the rookery for about two months after the mother stops nursing, living off its fat reserves as it learns to swim and forage.


A flock of gulls hovering over the seal colony usually means a birth has occurred, as the birds clean up the afterbirth.





Hard to believe those cute little pups can mature into males that reach 16 feet in length and can weigh 5,000lbs! The females are considerably smaller, but still can reach up to ten feet in length and weigh one ton. Adult males are awesome behemoths, with the long noses that give elephant seals their name.


After her pup is weaned, the female comes into estrus and is ready to mate again. Each alpha-male “beachmaster” has an established territory and may assemble a harem of 30-40 females. The alpha-male expects to breed multiple times with “his” females, and the mating season, which peaks in mid-February, is when the males are often seen fighting. Since the males are too busy breeding and fighting to feed, I guess it’s no wonder they can lose up to 2,000lbs (40% of body weight) during the Nov-Feb period when they are on the beach! Is it just me, or does this female seem to be saying, “Hey! What about foreplay?”



One of the small coves at Piedras Blancas has a “bachelor’s beach” where younger males congregate. Since there are no females, there are also no alpha-males present to chase the young males away. They are often seen practicing the fighting skills they will need to learn in order to carve out their own territory and harem when they are older.



The boardwalk area has a nice background for sunset shots, if you are fortunate enough to get a couple of males arguing in the foreground.



And when you don’t have elephant seals in the foreground of your beach sunset shot, there are always shorebirds. Too bad there wasn’t an oak tree around, or I could have captured the majority of clich├ęd nature shots at one location…..

That’s it folks! I’m returning to the Bahamas for sharks and dolphins in May, and I promise to be more punctual about my next blog post from that trip!

Best to all,

Ken
www.seaimages.org

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