Underwater Photography: Playing it by ear

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Underwater Photography – July 2016

My name is Ari Robinson. Here is my report on the Underwater Photography Internship, run in conjunction with Blue Wilderness Shark Adventures and Africa Media.

This month is a little bit quieter than our June program. We have one lucky intern on our Underwater Photography Internship after a few last-minute cancellations. Meet Emily Keohane, she is from the UK and is studying photojournalism at college. Emily is very knowledgeable, creative, and loves to travel.

I have a very good feeling about Emily. I can see that she wants to learn a lot from this program and to make the most of the course. She has a lot of stories about her travels and very beautiful pictures, so I can’t wait to see her underwater photography.

Emily did her open water certification two years ago in Madagascar and she hasn’t been diving since then. She has only ten logged dives and she is a little nervous about it. We always want our interns to feel comfortable before going to the ocean, so I did a refresher course with her at the pool, to remind her about the basics of diving. All her skills were comfortably performed, she had no problem at all. However, the pool’s temperature was 13 degrees. In South Africa the term to describe how this feels is ‘Eish’… and yes, it was pretty icy! After that, the ocean felt nice and warm.

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I really must tell you how wild it is to go diving in Africa. Let’s begin with the launch of the boat. The first impression you get is that people living in Africa must be crazy. To begin with, we push the boat from the beach all the way into the ocean, then, when it is deep enough, the skipper asks us to jump in. It’s difficult to do this gracefully and also to help others, by pushing their butts or pulling arms and legs while the waves are moving the boat up and down. There’s nothing graceful about it, to be fair!

When everybody is aboard, we secure ourselves with feet straps, put life jackets on, hold on and be alert. Because once the skipper finds a gap between the waves, he speeds up and jumps the waves as fast as he can. This is the most exciting moment, because you literally fly up into the sky for a few seconds. I love this moment, it’s the best! After passing the waves, we usually have a relaxing ride to the dive site. Emily really enjoyed her first launch, even though it was a very windy day with lots of waves.

We all jumped into the water and started to descend. On the way down, Emily couldn’t equalise her ear. We tried for more that 10 minutes but it was impossible for her to go deeper than 4 meters and it was very painful, so she sadly – but responsibly – decided to get back on the boat.

We took her to the doctor and he gave her the OK to go to the tidal pool, as it is just 2 meters deep. There are many tiny creatures there and no current, so it is perfect to practice macro shots. Emily was desperate to go into the water again even though her ear wasn’t perfect, because she wanted to try the camera for the first time underwater. We spent about 2 hours finding nudibranchs, moray eels, crabs, sea urchins, tons of tiny fish and even an octopus hiding. We had a lot of fun.

On her first try with the camera, Emily’s buoyancy was upside down, she was rolling over and didn’t have any control of her body. After getting over her frustrations and learning from her mistakes, we came back to the tidal pool on day two and she was in control. She understood how important it is to use her lungs while diving and which is the better position to take a picture from. This is a learning process and we were really impressed on how much she improved from one day to the next. On day two, she created this picture of an octopus hiding. It is an amazing picture and I couldn’t wait to see more of her pictures after that.

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The next day, we were planning to go diving but Emily’s ear wasn’t feeling good at all, so we went to a different doctor to get a second opinion. The doctor said it wasn’t “a happy ear”. She had to be out of the water for a while. You can imagine how sad we all were about this, but then we realised that we were in Africa and there are loads of things to do. We starting looking for fun activities. We arranged to visit a game reserve called Lake Eland. The landscape is astonishing and we were able to see zebra, impala, wildebeest, giraffe and the awe-inspiring Oribi Gorge canyon.

Later, we went for a ride on the highest swing of the world – the Oribi Gorge canyon swing. This is located on the top of Lehrs Falls. The swing in the depths of the gorge is an arc of 100 meters and it takes only one jump. The ride doesn’t last more than a minute, but it gives you the most terrifying thrill. I think that this location is one of the most spectacular sights you can visit in South Africa. We would do it again in a (screaming) heartbeat.

After two doctor’s appointments and almost two weeks out of the water, we did Emily’s first dive of the Underwater Photography program in the ocean. After she passed the first 4 meters without any pain, we knew she was able to go down and we were all so relieved! On that dive, we saw more than ten “raggies” (ragged-tooth sharks), many species of nudibranchs, a huge green turtle and we heard whales singing for the entire dive. This is what I call a perfect welcome dive.

We kept diving for the following weeks. Little by little, Emily became a better diver and a better underwater photographer. She decided to do her advanced scuba course, so we did a deep dive adventure, drift diving, a wreck dive, navigation skills and – the most important speciality on this program – peak performance buoyancy.

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After practising some skills and putting all the lectures and tips into practice, Emily was very comfortable underwater and we could see how much she’s improved just by looking at her incredible pictures.

The time went by super fast after diving two times a day during the last weeks. The ocean gave us amazing dives with very pleasant conditions and loads of biodiversity.

On the last weeks of her Underwater Photography Internship, Emily learned wide-angle photography and had a lot of close encounters shark, turtles, a friendly potato bass and many ragged-tooth sharks posing for her camera, so it was easier for her to take beautiful shots of willing models.

By the end of the program, Emily left as an experienced diver and a wonderful underwater photographer. Pepe and I were so proud that she didn’t quit the first time and kept trying. Both of us view Emily as a true warrior who will be very successful in everything that she wants to do.

We said goodbye to Emily and the new friends we made this past two months in South Africa with a traditional braai. We will be forever thankful for everything they did for us and for the opportunity that Fiona, Fiona Ayerst Underwater Photography and Africa Media are giving us to be part of this program and being in Africa.

Here are some of my favourite pictures from the program. I will miss South Africa so much! Next adventure… Mozambique! We are all packed and ready to go. Wait for my next report from this paradise.

To join our Underwater Photography program, click here for more information.

Ariane Robinson
Africa Media and Fiona Ayerst Underwater Photography Field Specialist

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