Swimming with Sharks
The first question non-divers usually ask is, “Have you ever seen a shark?” If you answer yes, they want to know if you were scared. Well, for most divers, seeing this majestic animal is a thrill. To be able to see dozens at one time is an experience most divers dream of. One does not have to travel far to realize this dream. In the Bahamas, on New Providence Island in the city of Nassau, you can swim with dozens of gray reef sharks. Nassau is less than a three-hour flight from New York City. The island is merely 178 miles from Miami, Florida. Nassau is known for sandy white beaches, calm blue water, casinos, resorts and gift shops. There is enough to do to keep any tourist happy. Vacationers come to this island by cruise ship, airplane and private boat, to relax and party. But if you want adventure, you should venture beneath the Bahamian waters to see the numerous reefs, walls and shipwrecks teeming with marine life.
In Nassau, Stuart Cove is the dive operation to use. Stuart was a captain of a dive/snorkeling boat for Club Med. During the summer of 1977, he landed a job as a stunt safety diver for the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only.” From that point on, Stuart worked on many feature films as an underwater coordinator, shark wrangler, and instructor. In 1983, he certified Sean Connery and Kim Bassinger so they could complete their roles in "Never Say Never Again".
Besides working for the movie industry, Stuart and his wife, Michelle, have an operation with 15 boats to take experienced and novice divers, as well as snorkelers, to experience Nassau under water.
Besides reef and wreck diving, the Coves offer a unique shark adventure. On the first dive, you swim along a wall followed by a number of gray reef sharks and other marine life. The second dive is a shark feeding in an area they call the arena. This is in only 40 feet of water, and the sandy bottom has a number of rocks in a circle. The Stuart Cove staff instructs all the divers to get into the circle and to stay still. Our shark feeder was Chang Sien Chin. Once all the divers were in place, Chang swam down with a container of fish. Chang would place a fish on a skewer and wave it through the water. The sharks would sense this motion and know it was time for a snack. Chan does wear a one-piece chain-mail suit, just in case a shark mistakes one of his body parts for a fish.
Chang has been doing this for seven years, and knows what he is doing. Creating exciting images takes planning. Chang and I talked before the dive. He would go around the circle and feed the sharks in front of each diver. He knew where I would be, and made sure the sharks would get close.
The few days I was in Nassau, we did not have luck with the weather and sea conditions. It was rainy, the seas were rough, and visibility was low. I was told it had been years since the conditions were this bad. Here is a perfect example of how diving and shooting in the low visibility and harsh conditions of the Northeast pay off. You never know when conditions will be bad, but you still want to come back with interesting images. The basic rules of underwater photography are even more important in bad vis. First of all, you need to be close. If you are more than a foot away from the subject, there is no sense in pushing the shutter button. So to be this close to these six-foot animals, wide-angle lenses are key. I shoot with the Olympus E-620. I use the Olympus 7-14mm f/4.0 Zuiko wide-angle zoom lens, but I always use the lens at the widest 7mm setting. With Chang’s help, I had these impressive animals inches away from my lens.
The next problem is lighting. Because of the high seas and the fact that the arena is on sand, there were many particles in the water. In order to get decent results you need two strobes spread out to the side on long arms. I use Olympus ULF-2 strobes with diffusers. They are mounted on Beneath the Surface ball-joint arms. I use 8” and 10” sections on each side. This allows me to extend the lights to the side. Even with the diffusers, you want to use the soft outer edge of the light beam, not the center. So I angle each strobe away from the subject. This way, only the edge of the light hits the sharks. I make sure the edge of each strobe overlaps with the other. This way I still get even lighting. By the time we did this dive the rain had stopped, and there was a fair amount of natural light at 40 feet. I needed to set my shutter speed so the available light would not overpower my strobes, but I still wanted a nice blue background. I used a shutter speed of 1/180 with an f/stop of 5.6 for the shark feed.
Once the camera was set, it was time to shoot as many images as possible. The action was fast, with sharks coming from all directions. Because the water was cloudy, sometimes you did not see the large fish until they were in front of your face. When photographing a shark feeding, it is important to stay calm and to visually simplify this hectic environment, creating interesting compositions. It is also important not to lose a finger or any other body parts.
Larry Cohen is a past president of the NYC Sea Gypsies, and a founding member of The New York Underwater Photographic Society. He also crews on the New Jersey dive boat, the John Jack. When not underwater, Larry spends way too much time at a desk at B&H Photo. During that time, he can answer your underwater-camera questions in Live Chat, or you can email him at uw[at]bhphoto[dot]com. See his other work at www.liquidimagesuw.com
Beneath the Sea, America’s largest consumer dive show, will be at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in New Jersey Mach 23rd, 24th and 25th. Larry will be among the many distinguished speakers. Here are his presentations.
Saturday 03/24 at 11:30
Shipwreck Photography from New York's Wreck Valley to Truk Lagoon:
Saturday 03/24 at 3:30
Panel Discussion on Cold Water Diving Trends, Safety and Tips: Larry will be talking about coldwater photography
Sunday 03/25 at noon
Images of Alaska, Both Below and Above the Waterline