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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Above, Below And Beyond: Capturing The Annual Sardine Run

Every year around June, a mass migration takes place along the southern and eastern coasts of South Africa that draws an unprecedented abundance of predators of fin, fur and feather

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Gannet action is always frenetic, and it's simply awesome above and below the water. If you want to get images of gannets hitting the water, a suggestion is to focus on a patch of water known as "the gate"—the churned-up white area above the shoal of fish caused by dozens, hundreds and occasionally, thousands of gannets entering the water at roughly the same place. It's not difficult to see where this is, and by focusing on this general area as a wave of gannets falls, simply fire away and sooner or later, it will yield a pleasing result. Selection of the best spot on a vessel is key for getting crisp images on a boat. Typically, I tend to jam myself into a corner so I can concentrate on shooting and not my balance. Usually, the stern of the boat where the engines are is less likely to be bumpy than the bow. On our vessel, we've custom-designed the boat to allow dramatic water-line shooting opportunities as my guests can lie down almost flush with the water line while still staying dry. This angle allows the height and athleticism of any breach to be shown to the maximum. On any really flat calm days, it's also a good idea to have your wide-angle handy between feeding bouts, as dolphins will often bow-ride with the boat. By using a polarizer coupled with a graduated filter, you can get beautiful shots of dolphins cruising just below the surface by lying on the bow of the boat. (Be careful to avoid your reflection, and be aware of the typically large difference of exposure between the dark water and the bright horizon, hence the suggestion to use graduated filters or bracket your exposures.)

Even penguins are welcome participants in the Sardine Run, as you can see by these African penguins off of False Bay near Cape Town. Other frequent fowl include petrels, shearwaters, Cape gannets and albatross.
When it comes to shooting action underwater, a lot of different rules and suggestions apply. First, the action can be intense, and a cool head goes a long way, not only to getting the shots, but also staying safe. I equate being next to a sardine bait ball as similar to standing next to a herd of wildebeest crossing the Serengeti with lions and all other predators closing in around you. It can be dangerous if you don't pay attention. If you're lucky enough to get an active bait ball, don't crowd it too tightly, as often the gannets will stop diving and then the sharks will disperse and finally the dolphins will leave. It's easy to tell when this is happening so, be respectful with regard to your impact on the action.

When the gannets really start piling in, it charges the whole scene up several levels. Sharks appear from everywhere, and it's at this time that they may give you an exploratory bump, so it's always a good idea to look behind you once in a while and watch your diving buddies to warn them, if you can, when a shark approaches. Hopefully, they will do likewise. One of the key things to remember is not to swim to the action too aggressively, but let it come to you and, invariably, it will at some stage. Don't allow yourself to be caught up in the ball, as this is when accidents can, and do, happen. Sharks, on occasion, charge through the ball with mouths agape, and most exciting is when a Bryde's whale lunges through the ball with a mouth like a 747 freight plane with its cargo door open. It's not difficult at a time like this to imagine how Jonah was said to have ended up inside a whale.

A bronze whaler shark and several other species intermingle beneath the waves.
If you're diving with other photographers or group members, it's a good idea before you go under to discuss what you're wanting to achieve. If all divers surround the ball, this can make very frustrating shooting conditions when you have divers who are opposite you in every frame. It's a good idea for all to start off by shooting with the sun and light at your back, and doing so in a semicircle if there are more than two of you. As the action underwater sometimes takes place in a large area with multiple species, you generally want to shoot very wide since you're ultimately telling a story about a mass-feeding event. To do this, I've shot with a Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fisheye and the newer EF Canon 8-15mm ƒ/4L fisheye. Currently, I shoot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II in an Aquatica digital housing. I still use my trusted Ikelite DS125 strobes. Don't forget to take a crack at split- or water-level shots, especially between dives. Gannets falling, dolphins charging and seabirds resting can be very interesting if shot from a low perspective.

The Sardine Run is one of the marine world's greatest events, seldom predictable and always changing, but when you hit the home-run shot while it's all going crazy, there can be few events as exciting to be part of than this one. When planning your trip, make sure you choose a reputable and experienced operator. Ask if they have worked with photographers before, see if they understand the local sea conditions, and ask if they can adapt to capturing other wildlife on any given day if the sardine action isn't happening.

For more information on Apex Shark Expeditions Sardine Run trips for 2013 or general advice on shooting this event, visit www.apexpredators.com.


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