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Basking shark encounters

by Alan James

Reproduced from in focus 64 (February 1999)

Basking shark Basking shark Basking shark
Basking shark Basking shark Basking shark

© Alan James

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 sources.

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 notice.

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 Head.

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.

Portfolio description

Basking shark

As with most photographic subjects, the mention of a Basking Shark kicked my imagination into overdrive. The image sensed was not a far cry from that of the first illustrated within the accompanying portfolio. A close head-on shot of a feeding Basking Shark using a camera angle to include full body details.

Basking shark The second shot shows the shark set high in the frame. It demonstrates the power of a feeding Basking Shark cutting through the water. The angle of sunlight has highlighted the five-gill raker slits in clear water.
Basking shark The third image shows a turning Basking Shark low in the frame so as to include surface details and reflections that are created by the angle of sunlight.
Basking shark

Shot number four concentrates on a rarely used downward camera angle to form close details of the Basking Shark's head, gill rakers and its flexible skin textures.

Basking shark

In picture number five are close details of the shark's fully-extended gills and rakers as it travels through the water at two knots. These gills are capable of filtering an impressive 10,000 litres of water an hour.

Basking shark

The last image is the parting shot seen as these awesome fish disappear from the photographer's view. Note the size and strength of the six-foot tail structure which will effortlessly and even gently cast you aside should you foil its chosen direction. What a wonderful fish!

Equipment used:

Camera: Nikonos 1VA, using natural light and manual control. Aperture setting of F5.6. Lens: Nikonos 15 mm F2.8 with optical viewfinder. Film stock. 100 ASA slide film Fuji Sensia.

Reproduced from in focus 64 (February 1999)


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