So Proud

I was so proud of my staff and interns as they came to the end of the highly successful June internship program in Scottburgh near Durban. I spent over a week with them at the beginning of June, kicking off the program, and I was very sad to leave- what a great group of people they were. I was lucky to spend time with everyone again on the Sardine Run late in June, and to hear how much they had learned. One of my staff, Ariane Robinson, has been keeping a wonderful diary of some of the things they did , Together with some of their pictures I hope this will give a good idea of what a typical month on the underwater photography internship in Scottburgh, looks like. Over to Ari. Here she is with her man Pepe- who is, very ably, training my students.



Week 1 The underwater photography internship has just started and we have 6 students from all over the world ready to learn more about the oceans and how to photograph them- and have some fun while doing so. We have Shawn from Singapore, Rosa from Mexico, Lauren from New Zealand, and Amanda, Grant (better known as Alan) and Colton from the States. During the first week Fiona and Pepe (the new course director for this program) taught the students how to set up the dSLR  cameras in their housings; how to take care of them and gave them an introduction to the new techniques they will use during this month.Pepe is quite a find for Fiona! He is a young photographer from Mexico City who has won national competitions in his country; competed on an international contest in Cuba, and has published his pictures and articles in well known mexican magazines. He is very passionate about the ocean and loves teaching, so the students are for sure in good hands. Pepe gets help from his girlfriend Ari a dive instructor, with many years of experience to give the students the best attention they can.The first dive in the ocean was a check-out dive so that Fiona and Pepe could suss out their students dive skills, especially the skill of buoyancy. Neither instructors wanted there to be any reef damage! On the way to the dive site they saw hundreds of dolphins jumping around and mantas at the surface so they jumped and free dived with 3 of the mantas. Not a bad start! Of course- this only generally happens when you don’t have a camera to prove it. During the dive they also saw leopard rays, ragged tooth sharks (raggies), marble rays, a couple of potato bass and much more. The next day the students practiced in the pool and played with the settings as they had never used dSLR cameras underwater before. Everything changed for them,  even their buoyancy- which is getting better and better as the course proceeds.

On Tuesday the students did their second dive of the program, the day was perfect and they were using the cameras for the first time in the ocean

The first thing they saw was a turtle and there were so many fish. The students were using macro lenses so everybody was looking for small stuff. It was very funny seeing ragged tooth sharks (sand-tigers) passing next to them while they had their heads buried in rocks. They did manage to find some cool nudibranchs, a scorpion fish, small starfish and all kinds of tiny fish to practice their new skills on. The current was a little bit strong so it was a bigger challenge for them to take good pictures but next time “will be a piece of cake” (I hope those aren’t famous last words).
During the afternoon the students reviewed the pictures with Pepe and talked about the techniques learned. During these sessions the students learn a great deal about what worked and what didn’t. We always discuss here- what could make it work next time! After a very productive day we watched a movie together and went to sleep.
Week 2
The practice for today was in tidal pool just 2 meters deep. There is lots of tiny marine life here and no current so these are just perfect conditions for everyone to play with macro lenses to their hearts content. Here’s some great photos of life on the program and of the students working and learning-  getting ‘ down and dirty’ – just what I like to see.
The tidal pool was perfect to gain some confidence and to master the skills with macro lenses. After that, the results were completely amazing and the proof of that is the pictures they took on their first open water dives with this setup.During the week we had bad weather so we went to uShaka marine world, because if we can’t go diving we still want to see some fishies even in our days off. We learned about the responsible consumption of seafood and how to make choices for a healthy ocean. We also were able to see some of Durban and we even experienced a traditional Zulu dance in downtown.The next day the weather conditions were not the best either to go diving but we visited a reserve near Durban area called Tala private game reserve. This was perfect to keep practicing the photography skills; we were lucky to see giraffes, impalas, zebras, three rhinos and some hippopotamus hiding underwater.We took a tour with a local guide and he explained to us the differences between males and females, identification of species and behavior, we learned a lot from him.
On our way out of the reserve, we saw that the rhinos were not far away from us so we asked permission to drive closer to them to take a couple more pictures; the light was perfect so we stayed there for a while, we stayed close to the lake and suddenly all the animals decided to drink water at the same time, so we had our private parade of impalas, wildebeest, hippos showing up their heads and even the rhinos came, so we were all excited and came back very happy to be lucky enough to see all that.We made a Braai on the weekend- Braai is a traditional South African barbecue. Odette, the manager from Blue Wilderness dive shop and Muller, our dive master, are the best on making a perfect  Braai. We ate together the delicious meal and talked about everything we saw on our first weeks on the program, so many sharks, nudibranches, awesome visibility and, did somebody say whales? YES! Two humpback whales on the way to our dive site waved at us and showed us their beautiful tails and a bunch of dolphins jumped around to make our day even better.
Week 3
On this week the students changed their macro lenses to wide angle for the first time. Using wide angle is a little bit more of a challenge than macro, and requires a lot of practice to get the perfect shot.
To practice this skills we went for our first ocean safari of the program. We launched from Blue Wilderness dive shop, Odette, the manager gave us a full briefing about our first encounter with wild sharks. She explained the behavior and safe practices to snorkel with them.We had the option to use a shark cage to see them but all the interns result very brave and we decided not to use it. The sharks that are normally seen here are black tip reef sharks, the Dive Master Müller de Jager , is passionate about the ocean like us. Muller attracted them with sardine bait and fish oil and when there were enough fins in the water we got ready to jump in, yes in and not out! Most people think this is crazy but we love sharks and to be with them face to face is a unique and wonderful experience.The first five minutes are the most stressful ones because you don’t know how they will react but once you understand that sharks are really not interested on eating humans you get relaxed and enjoy every second with them.
The interns achieved beautiful pictures by the end.
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We also practiced our free diving skills that combined with photography always produces amazing results. As can be seen from the photo at the head of this blog. A lovely image taken by Shawn Tan- of Victoria freediving with a friendly blacktip shark.
The interns had the option to go to East London to do the famous sardine run, this wasn’t part of the program, but being close by and in the right season to do it, they decided not to miss this incredible opportunity.
We just went for a few days as it takes about 9 hours to get there and we still had to do more dives at Aliwal Shoal.
We stayed on a beautiful place called Santa Paloma reserve, they received us with a delicious Braai and we went to sleep early as the next day we had to be up at 5am to try to find the sardines.
The whole group of us with Fiona and Finn at Santa Paloma
The whole group of us with Fiona and Finn at Santa Paloma

We have Shawn from Singapore ( in the green hoodie ), Rosa from Mexico ( in the denim jacket ) , Lauren from New Zealand ( next to Rosa with long blonde hair ) , and Amanda ( stroking the dog ), Grant (a.k.a Alan) ( grey top in the middle ) and Colton ( resting his chin on Rosa’s head ) from the States. During the first week Fiona ( bottom right with her son Finn on her lap )  and Pepe ( extreme right top holding up the bamboo !)

Next morning we enjoyed the sunrise from the boat and got ready to see one of the most beautiful shows on Earth.Early in the morning, Pepe spotted the gannets, this marine birds are the predator species most closely associated with sardine presence, at the same time we saw thousands of dolphins, this are responsible for rounding up the sardines into bait balls, we were all happy, screaming and some of us crying just a little bit, this moment is one of the best in my life. It’s was a unique moment and a beautiful show to see.When the skipper told us to jump, we didn’t hesitate and put our face in the water, we saw many of the dolphins swimming next and under us, we could even hear their beautiful singing. To be honest with all this excitement believe it or not, all the interns left their cameras on the boat, but luckily we had Fiona on board to provide us with a picture of our magical day.


We didn’t see the bait ball but we chased a couple of humpback whales and managed to see the tail of one underwater. We were cold, sunburned and tired after 8 hours on the boat but we would do it again without thinking about it.
The wind was too strong the next day to do the sardine run and we explored Santa Paloma reserve, we saw some cebras, friendly horses, wildebeest and impalas jumping around.
We finished the day playing Ping Pong and watching Rugby next to the fire and came back the next day ready to dive a lot.
Week 4
Last week was about virtually living under the sea. We were doing two dives a day and it was the best week ever because we got to see the best dive sites at Aliwal Shoal and the interns could master their photo techniques. The ocean conditions were perfect, with good visibility and no current. We did a deep adventure dive with the open water divers to be able to dive two of the most famous wrecks of the area.
The first wreck called “The Produce”,  was about 31 meters deep and we found the biggest brindle bass inside, he was about the size of a car and two of his brothers hiding behind him. The second wreck is called the Nebo, we love this one because it was full of life everywhere, we saw a devil ray on the safety stop and hundreds of scorpionfish on top of the wreck.
There were Raggie sharks everywhere and a huge and the most kind and friendly potato bass came to say hi to the cameras. A devil ray, moray eels, turtles, marble rays, colorful nudibranches and fish everywhere inspired the interns to create the most amazing pictures.On our last ocean Safari the ocean gave us the most amazing gift, two humpback whales breaching far away, the skipper tried to get close and we kept quiet, when we saw them close enough we all jumped into the water and swam with them for a few seconds, this was one of the happiest days of my life, we all celebrated and sang the famous lion king song- Hakuna Matata on our way back. You can imagine the scene!
It was a pleasure to spend this month with people so passionate about the ocean, they put all the effort to learn and to make the most of their time in South Africa, they will be missed, no doubt about it.
And I thank the Universe everyday for letting me live in this paradise full of life, this Africa unpredictable that can’t stop impressing me.
Excerpts of the Original Post by Ariane Robinson, July 5th 2016
This posting by Fiona Ayerst on 11 July 2116
Here’s an album of some of the photos shot by our talented bunch.