Charles Maxwell
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Going Wet and Wild with a Camera

Dec 9

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Thursday, December 09, 2010  RssIcon

South Africa is one of the sharkiest coasts on earth”: Sir David Attenborough in his narration for the BBC’s “Shark Coast”

In the Beginning

In 1987 I had the privilege of leading a team of divers to explore Dragon’s Breath in Namibia, the largest subterranean lake in the world. It was in this mysteriously magical place that I found “a world within a world”, bringing back childhood memories of reading Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre on the Earth”.

Here I met Gerald Favre, a Swiss filmmaker, who was producing a documentary on the cave. After assisting him with underwater filming and lighting in the challenging cave environment, I was hooked. On my return to Cape Town, I purchased a video camera and housing. My first filming job for television was most unflattering: filming raw sewage being discharged into the sea off Green Point for local current affairs programme “Carte Blanch”. From then on things could only get better.

Dragon’s Breath Subterranean Lake

It Seems so Easy, but

Only a few years ago, as long as a cameraman could set up a camera, pop in a tape and get a reasonable frame, all was good. Now we are becoming more computer operators than camera operators. Its all about frame rates, compression codecs, bit rates, chroma subsampling and the like and, just as you think you have it all worked out, it changes. Recently, I sent what I considered to be my technically up-to-date gear list to a production company only to be told that they were shooting in 3D. Talk about shifting (and costly) goal posts.

White Sharks: A True Apex Predator with Attitude

What struck me most on my first encounter with a white shark was its slow and effortless swimming style. This magnificent beast moved through the water with no perceivable movement of its large and powerful tail. Later, I was to witness another side to the white shark’s character: a ferociously wild show of absolute power as it launched itself clear of the water, clutching a seal in its powerful jaws.

White sharks are often deceptively cautious, lulling one into a false sense of security. They will circle you for a long time, keeping a good distance from you and then suddenly, with not obvious reason, turn hard and speed in with a purpose. A good example of this was when I was filming Nicolas Hulot, legendary French Television presenter and Laurent Ballesta, a marine biologist, swimming with white sharks near Dyer Island. We had spent many hours underwater but the white sharks, while ever present, had never come sufficiently close for that critical shot. As we were about to leave the water, a large white shark suddenly turned sharply and sped towards us. Fortunately my HD camera was on standby with iris and focus set, so my first reaction was to hit record. As I swung the large camera housing to frame the shot I realised that the other two were unaware of their predicament. It was one of those moments where one experiences a “time warp”. In that split second that seemed like minutes, while I was deciding whether I should hold the shot or warn the other divers, Laurent spotted the shark and grabbed Nicolas’ arm. Less than a metre from them, the shark, possibly sensing that the divers were now aware of his presence, veered off and swam into the setting sun (literally). We had the shot.

Breaching White Shark

Into the Blue

Cape Point is situated at the southernmost point of the Table Mountain National Park. This impressive sandstone headland, sculptured by the sea over millions of years, represents the theoretical boundary between the cold Atlantic and temperate Indian Oceans. Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman to round the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Point) in 1580, described this unforgettable sight thus: “This Cape is a most stately thing, and the fairest Cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”.

While the inshore water is typically a cold and greenish 12 degrees C, the water only 40 kms offshore is often 22 degrees C and blue, thanks to the Agulhas Current that sweeps southwards from the tropics. At the interface between cold and warm water is where much marine life is found. While famous for tuna and other gamefish, this area is also ideal for filming mako and blue sharks, seals, dolphins, orcas, pilot whales and sea birds. The variety of sea birds off Cape Point is astounding and includes penguins, gulls, cormorants, gannets, sheerwaters, various albatross and petrels. Little wonder that bird lovers from far afield come here to place more ticks on their bird lists.

I often work near the “Cape Canyon”, an area where the water depth quickly drops to 500 metres. Once the bait is set and a chum slick is going, the sharks arrive quickly. I love being in this deep, blue water, surrounded by mako and blue sharks, tuna and the odd seal. The yellowfin tuna are the largest and most colourful, some with sickles so long as to almost circle back to touch their backs.

Blue sharks are more common than makos and sometimes we loose count after 50. On such occasions they are everywhere you look, randomly dispersed, streamlined and agile. The stunning blue back goes to the silver of the belly. They are active and, like all oceanic sharks, apparently fearless, often bumping into the camera or cameraman. However, when a mako shark appears, the pace goes up a few notches. These are the cheaters of the sea, the fastest shark in the ocean, propelled by a large tail and caudal keel. Always looking hyped up, they swim up from the deep directly towards you at full speed.

Blue Sharks off Cape Point

Mako Shark: Note the large powerful tail

The Tiger Shark and the Turtle

While on a shoot for German Television in Kwa-Zulu Natal, I was discussing how great it would be to have a dead turtle as bait. We had a single tiger shark working actively at the bait drum with the occasional glimpse of others. Then an amazing call came through. A large turtle carcass has been found on the beach close to where we were working. Before long we had the turtle on our boat that smelt as if the “sell by” date was long past.

Once in the water, a sole tiger shark swam up to the carcass a few times, giving it a tentative bump. Finally it took a bite at a fear flipper and swam off with the carcass. I battled to keep up with the action but got some good close up sequences. In spite of the fact that the carcass was quite old, an impressive volume of blood seeped out of it. This excited the tiger shark that started shaking the turtle, creating the illusion that it was still alive.

The current was strong and, by now, the action was fast. As a result I was unable to position myself correctly and was now up-current of the action. In other words, I was working in the chum slick. I was so engross with the filming I was only vaguely aware that more tiger sharks had arrived. The introduction of turtle blood into the water had a rapid and impressive affect on the sharks’ behaviour. The first thing that I noticed that the tiger sharks were turning fast and with purpose back onto us after being pushed away. This reaction was very different to their normally relaxed behaviour.

I felt myself being pushed forward. I was told afterwards that a large tiger shark had my diving cylinder in its mouth. At the same time another shark was taking a great interest in my camera. Not wanting to scratch my expensive glass dome port, I turned the camera around to hit the shark side on. When reviewing the footage later, that movement revealed Mark Addison, my safety diver, kicking and hitting a third shark that was going for both of us. It was impossible to work safely in these condition so, wisely, we made for the boat. My final clip of the sequence was taken by hanging over the side of the boat as a tiger shark swam away with the badly mauled carcass in a cloud of blood.

The amazing thing about this encounter was that, in the space of a few minutes, one relaxed tiger shark became nine very hyped up tiger sharks. Evidently sardines in a bait drum are rather boring compared to a ripe turtle. During all of the previous days on this shoot we had never had more that a few tiger shark around the bait. How quickly things change when the right stimulus is used: rather like introducing whale blubber to white sharks.

Tiger Shark vs. Turtle

False Bay: As Good as it Gets

Why, however much I travel and dive in exotic locations, do I love to return to the often cold and murky waters of False Bay? It is a place with which I never tire. It may be the fact that I learnt to dive there many years ago or the amazing reef biodiversity or the fact that I can see anything there from white sharks, dolphins, seals, orcas and whales to intense baitballs. The kelp forests, that dominate the western shore of the Bay, support their own unique and complex ecosystems. Here may be found large sevengill sharks, almost prehistoric in appearance or small catsharks that roll into a ball, putting their tails over their eyes when held by a diver, thereby getting the local name of “skaamhaai” or “shyshark”.

The reefs of False Bay may not host the colourful fish of the tropics but the vivid colours of the sea fans, sponges, sea urchins, sea anemones, nudibrachs etc more than compensate for this. Simply drop a hydrophone into the water and listen to the crackle of the reef. This is often punctuated by the mournful songs of distant whales, the squeaks of dolphins and the characteristic grunts of cape fur seals. The reefs of False Bay can be noisy places.

Seafans in False Bay

Recently I was privileged to be close to a pod of 6 orcas in False Bay, including a baby. The pod’s alpha male swam protectively about 50 metres behind the rest, his massive dorsal fin standing high above the others. I was in my favourite bay, Cape Point in the background with the ocean’s most impressive predator. Things don’t get better than that.

A Pod of Orcas with a Calf near Cape Point

The Full Cycle: What are we Doing to Our Planet Earth?

I was filming another sewage pipeline off Hout Bay for an environmental programme recently. While the unpalatable sight of spewing sewage was not dissimilar to that off Green Point nearly 25 years ago, the equipment that I was using, downloading files at a rate of over 20 MB / second, could not have been contemplated, even by someone with the most fertile imagination, back in 1987.

Raw Sewage Marine Discharge

2002 Emmy Award
Winner for Outstanding
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