Sharks, Cage, Camera – Action!!

I have been diving with sharks in public aquariums for over ten years now and no matter how big or small the exhibit, I never get tired of having guaranteed visibility topped off with exciting predator encounters.  There is nothing quite like descending into an exhibit and coming face to face with a predator usually only seen on the Nat Geo TV channel or in a dive magazine.  One of the most exciting things for me whilst diving in an aquarium is seeing a large shark swim directly for me and veer off at the very last second.  This invokes a feeling of respect and admiration within me every time.  I have had many memorable encounters in my career but I will never forget the day that the Dubai Aquarium and Al Boom Divers invited me to try out their brand new PADI Specialty Course; Dubai Aquarium Specialty.

Not knowing what to expect, I arrived at the mall and received a warm greeting from the Al Boom team.  My tutor for the day was Ryan and as I had never dived at the Dubai Aquarium before my first presentation session was to be the exhibit induction course.  During this presentation I learned all about the characteristics of the exhibit, the animals that reside in it, the rules and regulations involved and most importantly diver safety.  Initially, looking in from the outside of this exhibit one feels slightly intimidated, especially with a cave full of sand tiger sharks and a couple of giant groupers thrown in for good measure.  After the introduction session I was ready to dive and felt totally at ease with what to expect.

With equipment donned and a buoyancy check completed, Ryan and I descended into the exhibit without my camera for my orientation dive.  Down at eleven meters and the first of many encounters during this dive is a young leopard shark followed by a closer than close inspection by one of the recently introduced hammerhead sharks.  Making our way over to the shark cave and I find myself thinking about the many photographic opportunities that will be available to me on the next dive.   At around eight metres I looked down into the darkness at nearly all thirty-two sand tiger sharks in the caved area and I find myself thinking about how to get this almost impossible shot.  It was not long before Ryan was signaling to me that it was time to make our way back and as we ascended I felt satisfied that I was ready to jump in with my camera and get the shots I wanted.

Back on the surface and the second presentation with Ryan was to be all about taking photographs within the Dubai Aquarium exhibit and how to get the best results.  During this presentation Ryan covered photography basics such as pre and post dive camera maintenance and different types of photography such as macro and wide, with or without flash.  All the time Ryan used visual examples to remind me of the environmental challenges such as, moving subjects, light limitations and suspended particulate interference to ensure that I recognized the choices available to me to get the right shot.  Once the presentation was finished I checked my camera and with a new cylinder hooked up I jumped into the water and the dive supervisor handed my camera to me.

Once I descended down the shot line Ryan gave me ample time to focus on getting the camera set up.  After firing a few test shots I signaled to Ryan that I was ready and we steadily maneuvered to the bottom of the tank.  One of the most important keys to successful aquarium photography is to be patient.  Sharks and large fish are generally curious and so by waiting patiently in one spot you can pretty much guarantee that it is not too long before an inquisitive critter comes in for a closer look at you and your camera.  If you chase your subject the chances are that you will not get your shot.  It did not take long before one of the giant groupers came in for a close inspection.  Taking into consideration the rules regarding flash photography shooting distances, I waited until the fish had moved off slightly and then took the photograph.   While waiting for the next subject to come and check me out I looked around the rockwork and corals next to me and I didn’t have to look too far to find another subject, a Wobbegong shark lying perfectly still hoping not to be seen.  Eventually we moved to another section of the exhibit and as we waited patiently in our next spot; hammerheads, grey reef and nurse sharks all came into shooting range.  Suddenly Ryan signaled and pointed upwards and as I looked up I saw hundreds of trevally circling the glass-bottomed boat while visitors inside it fed them from the surface.  Making a quick visit to the dark cave full of sharks, I tried a few different options with strobe light, ISO, aperture and shutter speeds but as suspected my attempts were unsuccessful; it was just too dark to get the shot I wanted.  Making my way to the surface I thought to myself that there was still one dive left and another opportunity to try and get the sand tiger shot that I was hoping for.

After a quick shower to warm me up I reflected on the previous dive and as I thought about my experiences I realized that this is one of the few laid back aquarium exhibit dives I had ever done.  Most of the animals seemed totally relaxed with the presence of divers and this was most certainly down to the diving and feeding protocols set in place by the curatorial team.  With the grand finale looming there was just 25 minutes of the third and final presentation to go before the cage dive – SHARK FEED!

With a combination of safety information from the first presentation and ways to achieve the best photographic results from the second, Ryan guided me through what to expect from my last dive.  During this presentation he covered the introduction of shark ID photography and using an ID chart showing how each of the thirty-two sand tigers sharks had individual markings.  With unique markings to each of these sharks, Ryan explained that the goal was to observe, photograph and note the number of fish consumed during the shark feed.  At the end of the dive ID photographs taken would then be compared with their chart so that a log of the fish consumption could be made.  Ryan also covered the importance of the regional dive community involvement in the up and coming Sharkwatch Arabia initiative.  I thought that this concept was an excellent training tool and extremely beneficial to anyone attending the course showing how any diver can add to scientific research in the region. (read more on page ** – Diving for a Cause)

Climbing down into the cage I couldn’t help but think about Richard Dreyfuss as he climbed into that cage in the movie classic ‘Jaws’.  Armed with my camera I knelt on the clear acrylic base of the cage and as I positioned my strobes in the distance I noticed a large sand tiger surrounded by trevally heading directly for me.  Swimming right up to the acrylic, the shark explored the surface with its nose, exposing its many rows of jagged teeth and while it passed by I took my photographs.  Meanwhile a whirlwind of trevally had developed and as they circled the cage, other sharks attracted to the activity joined me.  Looking down through the acrylic base of the cage I could see a large group of aquarium spectators staring up from the safety of their tunnel waiting for the shark feed to begin.  After a short wait I am joined by the husbandry team and equipped with a bucket of fish, they bait their feeding poles stirring the fish into a frenzy.  Out of nowhere a large six foot nurse shark joins us and as it surveyed the cage trying to work out how to get inside I continue to get great close up opportunities.  Suddenly, appearing from behind the masses of trevally, a large sand tiger homes in on the bait and as it stops centimeters from the cage, the bait is offered and within a millisecond it is grabbed from the pole.  Drawn in by the drama unfolding outside the cage, golden pilot fish take advantage of the opportunity and nip at the bait while we wait for the next shark to approach.  Next to visit the cage is a young leopard shark and while we are all distracted by the crafty pilot fish trying to steel the bait, the young shark slips inside the cage hoping not to be noticed.  Calmly the husbandry team direct the brave little carpet shark out of the cage and as the team send it on its way with a fish, I take more photographs and continue to enjoy the whole experience.  It’s not long before the husbandry team signal to me that the food is finished and as we all slowly ascend I can’t help feel a tiny bit disappointed that the experience is over.

Back at the surface and as Ryan wraps up the specialty he mentions that there is an annual photographic competition and that I should submit my best photographs; I could win!  With cameras rinsed, the team say goodbye and as I leave I mention that I will definitely be back soon.

Final thoughts – Being used to working with animals within an aquarium environment I am fully aware of the risks involved when introducing guests into a tank full of potentially dangerous marine creatures.  However, this carefully managed program allows divers a privileged opportunity to dive safely in an amazing aquarium exhibit with the additional bonus of being able to photograph the creatures within it.  As an experienced photographer I also found the program offered a great deal of useful information to ensure that I had the best guidance in order to take good underwater photographs within this aquarium.  The most memorable part of this PADI specialty for me was the many close encounters I experienced in the shark cage and I will definitely try it again.  The experience offers a totally new perspective to underwater photography within the UAE, which promotes shark conservation and teaches you how to take photo ID shots for scientific research within the region; this is an experience not to be missed.

For more information on the PADI Mall Aquarium Specialty contact Al Boom on 04-3422993 or email: dives@thedubaiaquarium.com

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