From time to time British marine life throws
up a phenomenon that captures the attention of divers, underwater
photographers, the national Press and thereby the public at large.
Last year you may recall reports of massed mating spiny spider crabs
(Maja squinado) covering an area reportedly larger than a
football ground off the Dorset coast.
During May 1998 it was the turn of the
Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus). Having just acquired a
protected status from the World Conservation Union, they appeared to
celebrate with a mass gathering along the south coast of England.
Colin Speedy, a Basking Shark expert and collator of sightings for
this area, reported over 500 sightings from reliable
Opportunities such as this require an
immediate response if successful pictures of these events are to be
forthcoming! Three hours after hearing the news, I had rescheduled my
work commitments and shanghaied my dive buddy, Alan Mildren, from his
current building contract. We were on our way to Porthkerris Dive
Resort on the Lizard. Here the friendly staff had agreed - not for
the first time - to provide us with all necessary boat handling
facilities, accommodation, and food, all at very short
Over the next two days we experienced no less
than forty two Basking Shark encounters. Alan Mildren and I finned
here, there and everywhere for many hours each day as we learned the
pitfalls and Do's and Dont's of successful Basking Shark encounters
and photography. By the afternoon of the second day we were getting
quite experienced at timing our entry, slipping quietly into the
water and matching our boat handler's skills at predicting the
Basking Sharks' direction. This can be quite vital as these huge fish
plough though the water at around two knots and can complete a full
turn within their own body length if disturbed.
The results achieved during this exercise
proved to be critical in several ways.
Firstly, while the fish were feeding within
the richest plankton soup, image quality was always going to be
affected by loss of contrast owing to the volume of plankton-filled
water between lens and subject. We learnt to intercept the fish just
before they entered individual plankton clouds that could be seen
moving along and perhaps formed by the tide-line created by Block
Secondly , pictures of fish taken during
cloudy conditions lost contrast owing to darker water conditions per
selected and the sharks' natural dull colouring. We took advantage of
several short cloudy spells to take rest periods or to survey other
possible locations along the coastline.
Perhaps most critical of all was the need to
achieve a position where the sunlight entering the water was from
behind the camera as the sharks swam towards or passed you. The
effect of this natural lighting angle upon these huge fish was to
vastly improve mouth and gill raker colour and details, and to
include pleasing wave-refracted light patterns and surface
reflections on and around the sharks in the calm conditions that
prevailed during this exercise.