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On July 10th, 2004, a group of eight photographers boarded the M/V Shear Water at Riviera Beach, Florida for the first ever organized Wetpixel trip. On board leading the trip were well-known dive operators Jim and Anna Abernethy, who have been running shark and dolphin trips out to the Bahamas for many years and are considered two of the world's experts on wild shark encounters. Alexis and George claim that I had been selling the trip as a "Dolphin Encounter" trip, but I just checked my records and at no time did I ever leave the word "Shark" out of the title. :) Our goal for the trip was to observe, interact with, and photograph sharks and wild dolphins, and our special (non-standard) itinerary even included a day at Tiger Beach, a shallow (13') sandy area where tiger sharks are frequently seen. During the trip, the more experience photographers were available as resources for anyone who had technical or artistic questions about how to get better underwater images. Let's just say that many of us spent a lot of time in front of the computer. :)

On July 17th we all returned to Palm Beach with great images of reef sharks, tiger sharks, hawksbill turtles, Atlantic spotted dolphins, and Bahamian reefs. What I heard over and over again on the boat was how special this trip was; I know of no other operation that makes it this easy to interact one-on-one with so many sharks, dolphins and turtles in such perfect conditions.

Special thanks to Dan Baldocchi and Light & Motion for supplying us with two demo Light & Motion Nikon D100 housings complete with ports and port adapters!

Comments? I'd love to hear from you!

Trip participants:

Alexis Tabah

Young French doctor. Shoots with Ikelite-housed Canon Digital Rebel, dual Ikelite DS-125 strobes.
Anna Abernethy Staff: Dolphin girl. Shoots with a Sea & Sea-housed Canon D60, dual Sea & Sea YS-120 strobes.
Captain Zach Nolan Staff: Hearty, contagious laugh, and very mellow in the water.
Christopher White Professor at LSU. Shoots with an Ikelite-housed Olympus digicam and an Ikelite DS-125 strobe.
Deb Fitzpatrick
Can deliver some pretty good lines from her special brand of humor while maintaining a sweet surface veneer. Loves to talk about George's "snapshots."
Douglas Ebersole
Floridian Cardiologist. Shoots with an Sea & Sea-housed Canon Digital Rebel with dual Sea & Sea strobes.
Eric Cheng What does Eric do "for a living?" No one knows. Shoots with a Seacam-housed Canon 1Ds with dual Ikelite DS-125 strobes.
Gordo the Cook Staff: Our young cook.
Jim Abernethy Staff: The legend himself. Shoots with a Sea & Sea-housed Canon D60 with dual Sea & Sea YS-120 strobes.
Kimberly Ebersole Our youngest participant. Celebrated her 200th dive by being hung upside-down off of the boat while holding a bait crate. Shoots with a Sony PC 120BT in a Light and Motion Mako housing.
Lena Goh Attorney from London. A FILM SHOOTER! Can you believe it? :)
Paul Ng Attorney from London. Shoots with an Aquatica-housed Nikon D100 and a housed SB28 strobe.
George Vincent George loves to shoot "snapshots" while sprawled out backwards on the sand. He shoots with an Aquatica-housed Nikon D100 and two Ikelite DS-125 strobes.

palm beach diving

blue heron bridge

reef sharks

tiger sharks



reef scenes

sugar wreck

night dives

people underwater


July 11 - Dive Sites: Anna's Reef, Sugar Wreck

The first organized Wetpixel trip to the Bahamas is off to a great start! At my request, Jim Abernethy obtained a cooler full of juvenile loggerhead turtles rescued after being unable to crawl out of their nests. Jimmy releases literally hundreds of baby turtles a year, finding patches of sargassum out in the open ocean as release locations. Although survival rates even for rescued baby turtles are extremely low, any survival is better than none at all.

In the late morning, we dropped into the water at Anna's Reef, which is a beautiful 50-90' (deep) pinnacle in white sand. We had a rare south current and spent the dive looking at the beautiful reef and at Charlotte, very friendly local hawksbill turtle. Charlotte swam right up to us as soon as we were on the reef and peered at us, her head only inches from our masks. When she approached me, I was floating with my legs out in front of me (fins up). Charlotte swam right in, stuck her right flipper out, and rested it on my left fin until Anna "encouraged" her to move on! I suspect that she might have been happy resting there for a long time. :)

In the evening we did two dives at Sugar Wreck, a shallow shipwreck literally covered with life. The schools of fish were so dense that I was unable to see anything through them. Large barracuda patrol the surrounding area, occasionally approaching a *bit* too close for comfort, and dozens of large purple sea fans extend upward, filtering the gentle current for food. The gorgonians here are also covered with beautiful flamingo tongue cowries. At night, we dodged roving sting rays as we photographed orange ball corallimorphs, a large octopus eating a lobster, basket stars, flamingo tongues, sleeping parrotfish, crabs, shrimp, and countless other subjects.

Alex ended the day by telling Jimmy, "I don't think there are any sharks in the Bahamas." I think he may be getting some extra attention from Jimmy in the coming days. :)

July 12 - Dive Sites: Mt. Olympus, Jewfish Mountain, Afternoon and Night Dolphin Encounters

We started the morning early with a pre-breakfast dive at Mt. Olympus, a beautiful reef with ridgelines whose tops run at about 60' in depth. One side of the reef structure drops off into the depths. Speaking of depths, Jimmy, Anna, Alex and I dropped down the wall looking for some sort of rare pastel coral that we are told is only found in a few places here in the Bahamas. Narc'ed out of my mind, I snapped a few photos of the delicate orange-ish soft coral at 178' before returning to shallower depths. It really is difficult to operate a camera (breathing a normal air mix) at those depths! Even though the offshore tide made for slightly snotty water, the site was beautiful. I hope to go back there again when the water is clearer. There is a gorgeous purple tube sponge down there with many long cylinders radiating from its center that I'd like to have more time with.

After a hot breakfast, we moored at Jewfish Mountain ("The Motherlode," Jimmy calls it) and dropped into the water. The crew had already placed two bait crates filled with snapper heads and other fun fish parts next to a beautiful red and purple sponge formation around 80' down, and between 8-12 Caribbean reef sharks greeted us immediately as we descended. A few members of the group had never been face-to-face with any sort of real shark (read: nurse shark != real shark), and after a few hours, everyone popped back into the galley with huge smiles on their faces. Many nice shark portraits were taken today. There were also a few Nassau grouper milling around, and a large goliath grouper (jewfish) with a hook in its mouth continuously followed us around the site. Just before leaving, Alex and I wandered out into the sand (82' deep), our Nitrox mixes enabling us to stay down at that depth for nearly an hour. It is really... peaceful to relax out on white sand during sunny days, and having sharks and a friendly hawksbill turtle down there made it even better.

The afternoon and evening was spend free-diving with Atlantic spotted dolphins and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Alex and George are claiming that I billed this trip as a "Dolphin Encounter" trip, but I just went back to my original advertising blurb, and it clearly states, "Sharks and Dolphins." :) The dolphins were wonderful, but our particular pods today were not as playful as past groups have been. Still, we spent literally hours with them, and large pods did make a few passes that were fantastic opportunities for group shots. I had even more fun playing with the dolphins at night. Night dolphin encounters involve Shear Water floating along in the Gulf Stream (800' deep) with its lights on, which often attracts things like flying fish, squid, and other tastly dolphin snacks. The dolphins come in, and we humans slip into the water to watch them feed. At night, dolphins typically are busy catching food and may not want to play the same way they typically do during day encounters. But they do zip around at incredible speeds while they catch their prey. Slow, regular clicking will turn into a stream of rapid-fire clacks and squeals as the dolphins track the fish (the dolphins make similar noises when we chase them -- which is nearly always futile. :).

Almost everyone immediately passed out upon surfacing from the night dolphin encounter. We've had a very long day. :)

July 13 - Dive Sites: El Dorado, Barrels of Fun

A new procedure called "de-worming" has been established for cleaning up divers returning from night dives. At night, vast swarms of some sort of aquatic worm congregate just below the swim step, ready to attach themselves to us as we attempt to scramble back onto the boat. I can remember vividly the feeling of dread I felt while hovering just below the seething mass of squirming red, delaying the inevitable for just a few minutes more. Yeah, I'm being dramatic, but it really is gross. The non-dramatic version of the story is that everyone gets hosed off when they get back on the boat.

The night dive at Barrels of Fun (a 25-40' shallow reef surrounded by sand) was truly a barrel or two of fun: we saw many lettuce sea slugs (the green morph), a couple of feeding octopi, a good-sized squid (only Alex saw it), and much more. 50 minutes into the dive, I turned around (alone), switched off my lights, and drifted with the current back to the boat. One of my favorite things in life is underwater bioluminescence; tonight in the pitch-like darkness, I sat down on the sand and blew bubbles, watching their turbulent ascent throw off hundreds of small blue-green sparks. A few minutes later while hanging on the anchor line for my safety stop, everything attached to me -- including limbs -- left a similar trail of sparks as the current blew on by.

As planned, we awoke in the morning anchored at Tiger Beach, but for the first time this year there were no tiger sharks (!). And so, we went to El Dorado, a beautiful reef inhabited by all the regular sharks that are seen here during every shark trip led by the Abernethys. Photographing reef sharks at El Dorado is great because the same sharks make close passes over and over again, giving photographers the opportunity to try new techniques each time. I've seen some of the shots that the folks on board are getting, and they keep getting better and better.

July 14 - Tiger Beach

You know when you're up late at night watching the Discovery Channel and you see a special on safaris in Africa, and they show that shot of zebras paired up with one another, each almost literally resting his chin on another's back? They do this to confuse predators and so each pair can see in all directions at the same time. I discovered today that humans pretty much become zebras when placed in certain situations.

About half an hour before sunrise, Jimmy walked in, shook my shoulder and whispered excitedly, "they're here!" Instantly awake, I crept out of my bunk, walked out to the stern, and saw in the clear turquoise water the clear outline of a nine-foot tiger shark wandering slowly in and out of the boat's shadow. We decided that a tiger shark's presence warranted waking everyone up for an extra-early briefing on underwater tiger shark etiquette. Properly educated, we hit the water (quietly) before eight o'clock, and before sunset most participants had spent nearly five hours hanging out on the sandy bottom with at least three female tiger sharks, the largest probably measuring around ten or eleven feet in length (this is relatively small in the tiger shark world). A small group of bottlenose dolphins even buzzed on by us a few times. As the hours passed, what shark enthusiasts refer to as "magic hour" eventually crept on by without anyone really thinking about it. "Magic hour" is that time around sunset when many sharks suddenly start to behave differently. Anecdotal reports describe the change as "adding the unexpected" into how sharks might normally behave, and some sharks have been known to completely switch into a more aggressive feeding mode. The late afternoon dive started out with more than 70 minutes of nearly nothing but blue water and white sand. George was so bored that he took some beautiful photographs of ribbons of light streaming through gaps in the swim step. But less than ten minutes later, all of the divers were out of the water. Apparently, magic hour had arrived; one of the tiger sharks took an extreme interest in one of the bait crates, and no amout of discouragement would make her veer off. People on the boat saw strobes firing wildly for a bit before the decision was made to surface.

So what did I do after all of this? I got in the water with Jimmy, of course. It was already pretty dark, so I attached a modeling light to my camera to make sure that it would be able to acquire focus. And this is when the two of us became like zebras. Both of us were on our stomachs in the sand under the boat side-by-side, facing in opposite directions to make sure that we would be able to see all possible approaches by the tigers. There were at least two tiger sharks in the water with us, but only one of them would come in -- and come in she did, virtually ignoring us while she poked around for scraps in the sand. I had a great time down there and was very happy to have shared the experience with a good friend like Jim Abernethy. It takes trust in your buddy to dive with a tiger shark in the dark. :)

July 15 - Tiger Beach, Garden of Eden, Jack Jungle, Dolphins

What a day! We woke up this morning to find two tiger sharks still in the water around Shear Water, but we were unable to get them interested in us after we jumped in. A few of us ended up entertaining ourselves by photographing flounder, crabs, and humans during the time on the sand under the boat. We then dove Garden of Eden and Jack Jungle, which both are wonderful dive sites. Jack Jungle is a shallow reef (40-80'), and the water was so clear that I felt like I was in a large aquarium complete with little reef sharks swimming around. I enjoyed: the swim throughs (which the sharks also used), the huge sponges and gorgonians, the white sandy areas with lots of jawfish living in their little holes, the little reef sharks, and sitting on the sand blowing air rings up into the water column. So far, Jack Jungle has been one of our favorite dive sites. It was Kimberly's 200th dive (which is very impressive for a 15 year old girl!), and in celebration, I hung her by her feet directly under the boat, gave her a(n empty) bait crate, and took a photograph of her. Gotta attract those sharks somehow. :)

The afternoon was spent with a large pod of very playful dolphins. Everyone is really, really tired now -- including me. I'm so tired that I can barely type this. But ... huge smiles are all around. We had a great time today.

July 16 - Crystal Palace, Mini Wall, El Dorado

We had yet another wonderful day of diving and collecting nice images; the sky was a clear bright blue, and the clarity and color of the water were close to perfect. I spent much of my time underwater today just sitting in the sand, enjoying the ribbons of light dancing around me. Gordo cooked fresh fish for an early dinner, so we were able to have some fresh carcasses to use as bait for one more shark dive at El Dorado. Immediately upon bringing the bait crate down into the water, a dozen or so reef sharks were so interested in Jimmy -- who was attached to the crate and had smelly hands from cleaning fish -- that they drove him out of the water for a bit! But with the bait crate in place tied to the anchor line, the sharks calmed down and settled into a nice holding pattern about 25' from the surface. I ended up having one of the best reef shark dives I've ever had here in the Bahamas. The clarity of the water was amazing, and the sharks went about their business, allowing us to swim right up to their faces to take photos.

A thunderstorm and 3-4' seas forced us to cancel our planned night dive at Sugar Wreck, but no one seemed too disappointed. After all, we've already had many, many great experiences and photographics opportunities during our week of diving with Jim and Anna.

Photographic Notes

One thing that we experimented a lot with this week was custom white balance (if you shoot in RAW, you can set the white balance during image processing). In the images I've posted here on, you'll see the WB vary tremendously from image to image. The trick is to try to pull some "natural" color back into the image without making it look fake. All of us are still learning how to reach that balance, but some of the images we managed to pull out of strobe-less shallow-water shots are pretty spectacular. At tiger beach, I shot (sometimes) with a red filter, which can help bring some red back into ambient-light shots.


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