How do they get those sardine run shots? We bring you a weekly selection of interviews from the photographers who snap the baitball action and the skippers who get them there.
2. JEAN TRESFON
Jean Tresfon is fast becoming one of SA's top underwater photographers. Based in Cape Town, he has become hooked on the sardine run and is counting the days to the 2011 season.
How do you prepare for a day on the sardine run ?
The day actually starts the night before with all camera & strobe batteries being put on charge. Memory cards are downloaded and then formatted and housings are checked and prepared. Then its up early, cards and batteries into the cameras, cameras into the housings, batteries into the strobes and then most importantly fire off a few test shots to make sure everything is working. The all important breakfast and sea-sickie tabs are mandatory then grab the gear and go. It is also important to have all cameras and gear not inside housings kept inside watertight cases as the launch can get interesting.
Left: Mark Van Coller hovers over a baitball, the surface of which undulates to mark his progress
Right: A common dolphin with a remora still attached jumps right in front of Tom Peschak and his D3...
Are you looking for a single image or is it opportunistic ?
On my first run it was all opportunistic, but with the benefit of having done it before there are definitely certain images that I keep in my minds eye. The action is so quick and fleeting that it is almost impossible to get a decent shot by opportunity alone. You have to decide beforehand what to shoot. Are you looking for a shark, dolphin, gannet or do you want a wide angle showing all the action. Setting up for a particular angle, exposure, focus and then getting into position and waiting for all the elements to position themselves in the frame definitely increases your chances of getting THAT shot. You can and probably will get lucky, but all my best results have been from premeditated shots.
how important is understanding the animals and their behaviors come into taking an image?
Understanding the animals behaviour is critical to find the action and the answer in that regard is to use a good skipper. Once in the water you need to understand the behaviour to be able to shoot safely and not get bitten. In terms of actually taking an image it is like any other wildlife shoot, knowledge of what the subject is going to do next vastly improves your chances of being in position to capture the action. It is no accident that the very best sardine run images are always produced by guys that have been there before and made the effort to do the research.
Left: A lone bronzie patrols the top of the baitball in search of any stragglers.
Right: The dolphins work the bottom of the baitball.
Where you ever worried about so many sharks?
Of course! But just not like most non divers would think. It is not a knee-jerk emotional response that they are going to eat you! The sharks are there to eat the fish, just like all the other predators. They really are not interested in the divers and if you follow the rules it allows for a magical and fairly safe environment. So what are the rules? Don't flap your hands around. Wear gloves (those pale white hands look very much like something worth eating). Keep your hands on your camera grips or keep your arms folded if you have no camera. Move through the water quietly. No thrashing around and splashing about on the surface. Stay out of the baitball and don't snorkel above a baitball in dirty water. Do not keep your eyes glued to the viewfinder and keep looking around... good spatial awareness is critical, you must know what is going on around you. (I have had a Brydes whale will make a pass just behind the divers on a baitball and they where not aware of it at all). If the action is intense it really helps for the operator to have a safety diver to watch over the clients and warn them if they are not paying attention. On our last trip some of the divers where so worried about the sharks prior to the trip that they had some wooden poles made up to prod the sharks if they came too close. After the second dive they poles stayed in the boat. The sharks are no threat if you use common sense, its just unfortunate how often this is not applied in the quest to get the shot.
How do divers and boats effect the animals ?
The boat needs to drop divers and then move off the shoal, otherwise the shoal hides under the boat and the birds stop diving. Snorkellers also tend to put the birds off and in fact there are some operators that won't allow snorkelling for this reason. The sharks are generally the first predators to leave when more that one or two divers arrives in the water and thereafter its just the dolphins and the gannets. There are no hard and fast rules, it depends on the baitball size and level of intesity. I have spent the whole day chasing small baitballs and the action has lasted all of 30 seconds once the divers arrive underwater. I have also been on a large baitball with around twenty people in the water including divers and snorkellers and the action was going ballistic with sharks, dolphins, gannets and even a Brydes whale feeding with an intesity that was astounding. It is also important for the divers to work as a team and not completely surround the baitball leaving no access for the predators. Also if a diver swims into a baitball they can disperse the action, not to mention getting into everyone else's frame. I have been fortunate to work with some seriously professional people on my last sardine run and our teamwork was like a beautifully choreographed dance. As the baitball moved we all managed to get our shots without intefering with each other and without disturbing the predators.
How hard is it to get a good image on the sardine run ?
It is not difficult to get a good image. It is very difficult to get a great image. It involves a high degree of watermanship (it goes without saying that you need to be a competent diver), a thorough knowledge of your camera kit and a little bit of luck. But once you go on the run and come back with some good images you will be hooked. And you will go again. And again.
Left: The boat approaches the baitball
Right: Seen from the top, a gannet dives at the baitfish which immediately splits into a circle.
What lenses / kit are you using and what would you improve on ?
The first year I used a fisheye lens and while I did get some nice shots showing the extent of the action the lens was too wide for the kind of shots that have real impact. The ideal lens is a zoom that covers a range of around 17-35mm (full frame). Strobes need to be able to recycle really fast and last awhile without changing batteries. Memory cards need to be high capacity and high speed to cope with bursts of action on motor-drive. I missed a few opportunities last time around because my strobes could not keep up with my camera on motor drive and subsequently I have bought some faster strobes. Bottom line is that you don't need hugely fancy kit, but you have to be intimately familiar with it as you don't have time to be figuring it out on the run... the action is super quick and you will miss it if you are busy trying to figure out how to change a setting on the camera.
If you had to give someone about to go on their first sardine run just one piece of advice, what would it be?
The run is a very physical activity. You may have to jump in and out of the boat many many times during the course of the day, quite often with the action disappearing the moment you hit the water. I have seen many people get tired and make the decision to sit out a few jumps. My advice is don't! Do every single jump. You are only there for a few days and the jump you don't do could turn out to be that special encounter. Try to set a goal of being the first person in the water for every jump, you will be amazed at how much more you will see. Unless of course you are on my boat, in which let me go first...!
1. STEVE BENJAMIN
You may not have heard of Steve Benjamin but he is the man behind the photographers, bringing them to the animals and action, helping them get the shots.
Who are you?
I’m a marine adventure guide operating in the waters around Cape Town. I come from a scientific background with a degree in Zoology from UCT and Ichthyology Honours degree from Rhodes University. I absolutely love sharing my passion of the marine environment with others. I do this through my small charter business - Animal Ocean.
Left: In between jumps, Mark Van Coller on the left looking frustrated at the fleeting nature of the interaction.
Right: Chasing from both the surface and the bottom, the common dolphins surround and tear into the baitfish.
Give a little history to the sardine run
I have only been involved with the sardine run for the past 3 years but from what I know about the run is has been photographed and documented since 1997. The pioneers of which were film maker Peter Lamberti and marine expert Mark Addison. The event was made even more popular worldwide by the BBC’s Blue Plant in 2000 and David Doubilet images in the 2002 National Geograpic article “South African seas”. The run has been taken to the biggest screen of all with IMAX’s Wild Sea’s. It continues to be documented and photographed each year
It has become extremely popular amongst the most adventurous of recreational divers despite the fickle and sporadic nature of this natural event. Divers flock to Port St Johns and Mboyki in the hopes of diving in a bait ball, not everyone achieves this.
So how do you go about finding these baitballs?
For me it’s about two things, the first being a strong network of people on the coastline who can tell me what’s happening. All the current information one can get comes together to create a picture of what is going on along the coast.
It’s also important to share this information so everyone can deliver the best result for their clients. It’s a give and take situation with most operators playing ball. Some operators have aerial support in the form of micro lights which can direct their boats to the action from the air
The other source of information is the animals themselves. Animal behaviour is extremely important in pin pointing exactly where that ball of fish is. A single dolphin jumping or a gannet diving can give away the shoals position.
Sometimes however you just have to go with dumb luck, head in a direction and hope for the best, sometimes it pays off.
Left: Drew and crew admire the magnificient scenery.
Right: Tom Peschak photographs a gannet with a broken beak. The bird collided with a diver's cylinder while diving at the baitball.
Do the boats and divers affect the bait balls?
Absolutely, it is immediately obvious that just by having a boat near a ball that the animals behave differently. One needs to drop the divers near a ball and get out of there. The gannets don’t like having a huge hard moving object in the area where they are diving, a collision will kill them and they know it.
If a group of snorkelers floats above a bait ball the gannets will stop diving, who could blame them. If divers surround a bait ball there is no space for the common dolphins to corral the shoal, the ball will breakdown and swim away. Similarly if divers enter the middle of the ball they put them selves at risk of a collision with a shark. Feeding sharks cant see divers in the middle of the ball and collisions can occur.
Divers need to be sensible underwater and not interfere with the animals or the show will quickly end. However there are no hard and fast rules, this year we had a ball that continued despite having 20 plus divers and snorkelers around it. That was the ball when Jean got those great Brydes whale images.
Do you worry about a diver getting bitten by a shark?
As long as they stay out of the middle of the balls and respect the sharks they should be fine. In general the sharks are after the fish and view divers as part of the system, not as food. There has been the odd occasion when bigger sharks have confronted divers but these are the risks a diver has to take and most importantly know how to deal with. By being observant, keeping ones distance and quick acting one can avoid any threats. Also if there are too many over confidant or interested sharks them we’ll get out the water, we’re not there to cause trouble or get in their way.
Left: A Brydes whale lunges up through the baiball engulfing a huge mouthful of fish.
Right: Happy photographers celebrating a great day in the water.
A quick tale of our best bait ball from last year
We arrived in that small ball of sardines at around 8am in the morning. We weren’t the first boat to arrive so we held back and after their divers had gotten out. The action at that stage wasn’t great there were a handful of dolphins feeding continuously. It was a far cry from the big scale action we had had the previous day. There wasn’t anything better to go to so I stayed. This ended up lasting all day, it was amazing. This ball of fish was staying static and the dolphins fed all day. I called various skippers and told them what we had, they came looked and mostly moved on. Over lunch we watched the sardines swimming under the boat as Jean and Mark played with shooting different angles.
At about 2 pm it was as if all the sharks and gannets got hungry and knew that this was the only shoal of sardine around. The ball of fish was small, this meant that the action was incredibly focussed with all the predators feeding front of the photographers. Watching from the boat was amazing, the gannets, glowing orange from the setting sun as they flew in their flight paths towards the dive zone. As the action heated up Mark and Jean climbed on the boat scratching for any cylinders with air in them. They filled all their memory cards and drained their batteries. Ill never forget Mark Van Coller’s massive grin as he surfaced. A whole days bait ball action and the very best was in the dying minuets of the day.
Photographs by Jean Tresfon