One month underwater

Underwater Photography – June 2016

I was so proud of my staff and interns as they came to the end of the highly successful June internship program in Scottburgh near Durban. I spent over a week with them at the beginning of June, kicking off the program, and I was very sad to leave – what a great group of people they were. I was lucky to spend time with everyone again on the Sardine Run late in June, and to hear how much they had learned. One of my staff, Ariane Robinson, has been keeping a wonderful diary of some of the things they did. Together with some of their pictures I hope this will give a good idea of what a typical month on the underwater photography internship in Scottburgh, looks like. Over to Ari.

-Fiona Ayerst

Week 1

The underwater photography internship has just begun and we have 6 students from all over the world. They are all super keen and ready to learn more about the oceans and how to photograph them. I know that they are going to have fun while doing so. We have Shawn from Singapore, Rosa from Mexico, Lauren from New Zealand and Amanda, Grant (a.k.a Alan) and Colton from the States. During the first week, Fiona and Pepe (the new course director for this program) taught the students how to set up the DSLR cameras in their housings, how to take care of them and gave them an introduction to the new techniques they will use during this month.

To teach this year on the Underwater Photography Internship, we have Pepe Suarez. Pepe is quite a find for Fiona! He is a young photographer from Mexico City who has won national competitions in his country. He has competed in an international contest in Cuba, and has published his pictures and articles in well-known Mexican magazines. He is very passionate about the ocean and loves teaching, so the students are in good hands. Pepe gets help from his girlfriend (me), Ari Robinson, a dive instructor, with many years of experience. Pepe and Ari give the students the best attention they can and are really passionate about their job. It feels a bit weird to say it that way as I (Ari) am writing this post – but it really is the case!

The first ocean dive on this Underwater Photography program was a check-out dive so that Fiona and Pepe could suss out their students dive skills, especially the skill of buoyancy. Neither instructors wanted there to be any reef damage! On the way to the dive site they saw hundreds of dolphins jumping around and mantas at the surface, so they jumped in and free dived with 3 of the mantas. Not a bad start! Of course, this only generally happens when you don’t have a camera to prove it. During the dive they also saw leopard rays, ragged-tooth sharks (raggies), marble rays, a couple of potato bass and much more.

The next day the students practised in the pool and played with the settings, as they had never used DSLR cameras underwater before. Everything changed for them, even their buoyancy – which is getting better and better as the course proceeds. On Tuesday, the students did their second dive of the program. The day was perfect and they were using the cameras in the ocean for the first time. The first thing they saw was a turtle and there were so many fish. The students were using macro lenses, so everybody was looking for small stuff. It was very funny seeing ragged-tooth sharks (sand-tigers) passing next to them while they had their heads buried among rocks.

The students did manage to find some cool nudibranchs, a scorpionfish, small starfish and all kinds of tiny fish to practise their new skills on. The current was a little bit strong so it was a bigger challenge for them to take good pictures, but next time will be a piece of cake (I hope those aren’t some famous last words).

During the afternoon the students reviewed the pictures with Pepe and talked about the techniques learned. During these sessions the students learn a great deal about what worked and what didn’t. We always discuss here: ‘What could make it work next time?’ After discussing it with the group, we try it out again and there is always a vast improvement. After a very productive day, we watched a movie together and went to sleep.

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Week 2

The practise for today was in a tidal pool just 2 meters deep. There is lots of tiny marine life here and no current, so these are just perfect conditions for everyone to play with macro lenses to their hearts’ content. Here’s where the students get down and dirty – that’s what I like to see! The tidal pool was perfect for the students to gain some confidence and to master skills with macro lenses.

After that, the results were completely amazing and the proof is in the pictures they took on their first open water dives with this setup. During the week, we had a few days of bad weather so we went to uShaka Marine World. If we can’t go diving we still want to see some fishies – even in our days off. We learned about responsible consumption of seafood and how to make choices for a healthy ocean. We also saw some of the surrounds of Durban and we even experienced a traditional Zulu dance in downtown Durbs.

The next day the weather conditions were bad so we visited a game reserve near Durban called Tala Private Game Reserve. This was perfect to keep practising the photography skills. We were lucky to see giraffes, impalas, zebras, three rhinos and some hippopotamus hiding underwater. As you can see – water is always key for us. We took a tour with a local guide and he explained the differences between males and females and identification of species and behaviour. We learned a lot from him.

On our way out of the reserve, we saw that the rhinos were not far away from us so we asked permission to drive closer to them to take a couple more pictures. The light was perfect so we stayed there for a while. We stayed close to the lake and suddenly all the animals decided to drink water at the same time, so we had our private parade of impalas, wildebeest, hippos showing up their heads and even the rhinos came. We were all excited and came back very happy to be lucky enough to see all that.

The Underwater Photography Internship is not all about work and we made a ‘Braaivleis’ fire on the weekend. South Africans call this braai for short and it’s a traditional South African barbecue. Odette, the manager from Blue Wilderness dive shop and Muller, our dive master, are the best on making a perfect braai. We ate the delicious meal together and talked about everything we saw on our first weeks on the program. So many sharks, nudibranchs, awesome visibility and did somebody say whales? YES! Two humpback whales on the way to our dive site waved at us and showed us their beautiful tails and a bunch of dolphins jumped around to make our day even better.

Week 3

During this week the students changed their macro lenses to wide-angle for the first time. Using wide-angle is a little bit more of a challenge than macro, and requires a lot of practice to get the perfect shot. To practice these skills we went for our first ocean safari of the program. We launched from Blue Wilderness dive shop. Odette, the manager, gave us a full briefing about our first encounter with wild sharks. She explained the behaviour and safe practices to snorkel with them.We had the option to use a shark cage to see them, but after a short discussion, we all decided not to use it. The sharks that are normally seen here are blacktip reef sharks. The Dive Master, Müller, who is passionate about the ocean (like us), attracted them with sardine bait and fish oil, and when there were enough fins in the water, we got ready to jump in!

Most people think this is crazy, but on this internship, we love sharks. And to be with them face to face – it’s a unique experience.

The first five minutes are the most stressful ones because you don’t know how they will react. However, once you understand that sharks are really not interested in eating humans, you get relaxed and enjoy every second with them. The interns achieved their goal of taking beautiful pictures by the end. We also practiced our newly learned free diving skills that, combined with photography, always produces amazing results. Yes, we also learned how to hold our breath on this course!

The interns had the option to go to East London to do the famous sardine run. This wasn’t part of the program, but being fairly closeby and in the right season to do it, they decided not to miss this incredible opportunity. We went to East London for a few days, as it takes about 9 hours to get there and we still had to do more dives at Aliwal Shoal. We stayed on a beautiful farm called Santa Paloma Reserve. We were received with a delicious braai and we went to sleep early, as the next day we had to be up at 5am to try and find the sardines. Next morning, we enjoyed the sunrise from the boat and got ready to see one of the most beautiful shows on Earth.

Early in the morning, Pepe spotted the gannets. These marine birds are the predator species most closely associated with sardine presence. At the same time, we saw thousands of common dolphins. the dolphins are responsible for rounding up the sardines into bait balls. We were all so happy, screaming and some of us crying (just a little bit). This moment was one of the best in my life so far. It was a unique moment and a beautiful show to see.

When the skipper told us to jump into the water, we didn’t hesitate. We saw many of the dolphins swimming next to and under us, we could even hear their beautiful whistling and squeaking. To be honest, with all this excitement – believe it or not – all the interns left their cameras on the boat, but luckily we had Fiona on board to prove it happened with a picture from the magical day.

We didn’t see any massive bait balls but we got in the water with a couple of humpback whales and managed to see the tail of one underwater. We were cold, sunburned and tired after 8 hours on the boat but we would do it again without thinking about it. The wind was too strong the next day to go out to sea and we explored Santa Paloma reserve, we saw some zebras, friendly horses, wildebeest and impalas ‘pronking’ (jumping) around. We finished the day playing ping-pong (Finn’s fave game) and watching rugby next to the fire. After a great break, we came back to Scottburgh – ready to dive (a lot).

Week 4

The last week on the program was all about diving. We had loads of dives to still do and we were almost living under the sea. We were doing two dives a day. This was amazing because we got to see the best dive sites at Aliwal Shoal and the interns could master their photo techniques. The ocean conditions were perfect: good visibility and no current. We did a deep adventure dive with the open water divers to be able to dive two of the most famous wrecks. The first wreck, “The Produce”, was about 31 meters deep and we found the biggest brindle bass inside. This massive fish was about the size of a car and he had two of his brothers hiding behind him. The second wreck is called the Nebo. We love this one because it was full of life everywhere, we saw a devil ray on the safety stop and hundreds of scorpionfish on top of the wreck.

There were male raggie sharks everywhere on the reef during this week. A huge, and the most friendly potato bass came to say hi to the cameras. We were blessed with devil ray, moray eels, turtles, marble rays, colourful nudibranches and fish everywhere inspired the interns to create the most amazing pictures.

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