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Caught on Camera

written by Chris Fallows

Posted on Friday, 10 February 2012

Persuading large gamefish to take a lure or well presented bait can be difficult at times. Now try getting close enough to these turbo charged machines without hooking them to take a photograph and you will find that this becomes an even more challenging.

Spending in the region of 150-200 days per year in, on or around the ocean, our chosen profession of taking images of marine predators has taught us a few tricks to make life under the water a little easier. 

Whilst many would believe attracting a large shark close enough to get a full frame image would be easy, the truth couldn’t be more removed. Sharks, as with most species of gamefish, don’t often encounter humans underwater and when they do we represent something foreign to them, a large awkward creature with unknown capabilities. Perhaps we could be prey but equally we could also be the hunter and thus these fish are for the most part understandably cautious.

Our main focus whilst on the open ocean is to photograph big tuna and pelagic sharks. 

The tuna, especially the albacore and yellowfin, always seem to be going somewhere, moving with speed and purpose seldom allowing you to get a good focusing opportunity. To slow them down we employ the same techniques used by game fishermen in our African waters.

If there are no large commercial vessels around such as stern trawlers or bottom long liners, which inadvertently attract and condition tuna into waiting for discarded bycatch and are thus easy to bait up to a boat, we then employ more conventional methods. 

Upon getting a strike on the backline lures, such as Halco’s or tuna runners, we immediately cut the engines and throw handfuls of bait to keep the shoal. We then turn on the sprayers which send a fine mist of spray onto the water imitating a small bait fish’s panicked pattern on the surface of the water. The tuna now race to the surface and if the chunking is done correctly the tuna can be kept swimming around the boat for a protracted period. 

Once the fish are in the slick we slowly slip into the water constantly having someone chunking with baits on the boat. Initially when underwater we do not break the shape of the boat but rather allow the tuna to get used to our presence in the water as one with the boat. After a while when the fish have settled and become bolder we drift away from the boat  and try to place ourselves in the position which allows for the best lighting of our subjects as they race to snatch the baits from their shoal mates.

It is always a good idea to wait for the best moment before entering the water in order to allow more than one or two fish to compete for baits. Not only does this create more competition amongst each other when numbers swell but it also makes them less wary of us in the water. Tuna, particularly yellowfin will stay with a boat for a extended period even once chunking has stopped. They tend to mill under the boat swimming in large circles and upon a few chunks being thrown into the water race upwards and once again compete with each other. Cranking a silver spoon or jig from deep can also be a good way to once again raise a shoal.

In order to get sharp images of racing tuna you need to predict where your subject will be when you plan to shoot rather than trying to track a fast approaching missile.

This can be achieved by focusing on the baits as they filter downwards and trying to keep a constant distance from those baits.

That said the yellowfin often move so fast that even when you know the course they are taking you still miss the shot and are left with a blurred tail. Big yellowfin, 50kg upwards are so powerful that when they race by very close to you the wash from their bodies can be easily felt often pushing you around underwater. The big tuna are usually found in the true blue open ocean water whereas the smaller fish 5-30kg are often on current lines and in cooler greener water. 

Dorado can be an entirely different matter. Often chunking will bring these beautiful gems of the ocean into a chum slick. Once accustomed to a diver they will take baits at arms length allowing for many shooting opportunities. The risk when chunking is always that too much chunking may quickly satiate only a couple of fish making them less likely to stay with a boat, whilst too little chunking will make a large shoal loose interest. The most effective way to note your success is to constantly keep a rough count of the fish in the slick and watch behavior. If the fish are competing with vigor and numbers are constant or increasing then you are doing fine. Strangely enough even when one of their own kind may be hooked yellowfin and albacore will continue to feed unabated in a slick as long as chunking continues.

Photographing large sharks, particularly Open Ocean sharks pose new issues altogether. Tuna after all are unlikely to inflict serious injuries if you don’t pay attention to them!

We attract the sharks using conventional chumming methods of a burley bag, a tuna bait, a surface marine oil slick and low frequency sound making what we believe is a fairly good combination of attractants that should help the sharks to find us.

Water temperature, colour and weather conditions all play a vital role in attracting sharks.

Mako sharks prefer water between 17 and 21 C whilst blue sharks are comfortable down to 14 degrees and can be found in water 27 and higher although far less common. Silky sharks and Oceanic white tips however only come into the picture in water 23 C or higher and open ocean dusky sharks tend to prefer 21 C upwards based on our experiences.

When looking for any pelagic shark you are faced with a considerable challenge. The open ocean is basically a beautiful blue dessert and finding sharks can be equated to searching for a lion in the middle of the Sahara Desert. 

Important indicating factors for us are for current lines, temperature breaks, colour lines and then obviously bait fish or game fish. Not to often a dead giveaway is an area in which you see your target species free jumping. Mako’s and thresher sharks are the most common acrobats of the open ocean and from a distance a mako can be told apart from other sharks by the cart wheeling motion virtually all free jumps have . 

When a suitable area is selected we start chumming. It is also possible to troll for mako’s but as we don’t ever hook sharks purposefully we prefer to set up a chum slick. If you were to troll, large orange Rapalas or Halco’s can be successful. 

 

Sadly, nowadays we have observed that the waiting period for open ocean sharks to find our boat has increased dramatically. This is quite simply due to the rape of our oceans apex predators by shark finning and longlining boats.

The open ocean is basically a beautiful blue dessert and finding sharks can be equated to searching for a lion in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

In South African waters we have noticed a 90% decrease in pelagic shark sightings in the last 6 years based in no small way on the LEGAL shark longlining and ridiculous bycatch percentage that the government allows. 

In 1999 it was not uncommon for us to have in the region of 100 blue sharks around our boat, today if we see 10 it is a great day. Adult makos also used to be fairly common but now a 2.0m mako is considered a good sighting and a 3.0m specimen an exceptional one.

When a shark does arrive up at the boat we need to be quick in getting in the water as in the case of mako sharks they are not predictable in how long they will stay with us. Some stay for a few moments whilst others have stayed with us for the entire day so this does vary from individual to individual.

In all of our open ocean shark work we do not use cages nor do we wear any form of protection. This is not because we think we are hero’s or that we are being reckless but rather have found that the sharks usually show little interest in us and  are far more interested in the baits we put out to attract them.

We do however respect the sharks at all times and always allow them free access to the bait, always make sure the bait is the first object in the water that they encounter and never have more people in the water than what can easily be watched and accounted for. We also do not scuba, as often the bubbles seem to make sharks stay a little further away and as such all diving is done on snorkel.

When a shark approaches me I try to keep dead still underwater, not changing my posture. The reason for this is sharks like familiarity, they do not like new obstacles or quick movements and you need to plan in advance what you wish to shoot and then position yourself in the most appropriate position to capture this. Often if you remain dead still sharks will come right up to you and on occasion even mouth the lens to see what it is.

As with certain gamefish color plays a part in attracting sharks .Oceanic white tips for example are attracted to bright orange floats and many active sharks are said to find yellow a color worth investigating. Perhaps they are curious, who knows? All I can say is that I have a bright yellow wetsuit, a yellow mask and bright yellow fins and sharks certainly seem to pay me a lot more attention than fellow divers. I know I look like a giant banana but who cares as long as the sharks are curious!

Blue sharks and oceanic white tips will take pretty much any bait presented to them, be it fresh or a little on the old side. Makos on the other hand definitely prefer fresh baits.

Blues tend to take baits in a far more gentle way than Makos, White tips or Silkies. Makos in particular really thrash a lot when tearing baits, probably as a result of their dentition which is more suited to grasping than tearing. Young makos swim with very rigid posture underwater whilst adults move a lot more like Great White Sharks with effortless ease. 

Having dived with makos on more than 100 occasions as well as all the other well known pelagic sharks I can honestly say that I have never felt openly threatened by any of them and the few tense encounters that have occurred have all been as a result of me pushing the boundaries.

To be able to view these magnificent creatures underwater is a true privilege. Do not fear the open ocean, put a mask on and have a look at the great hunters that call it home. It will change your perspective on them forever.Just remember to always respect the potential of the shark and at the same time stay within your limits be they physical or mental.

For anybody that has to catch a shark remember to release them alive, the ocean is so quickly losing these top predators that every single shark is important.

It is no longer a great achievement to kill one but rather a great feat to save one.   

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Marine Life, Cape Point - Cape Town

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