SUN KING
English Channel / Cornwall


The clouds hung heavy over the south-western reaches of the UK. The damp, energy-sapping air swirled thickly, quashing my enthusiasm for a dive.
My mood, as I looked over the shore dive at Porthkerris, was as heavy as the sea washing across the rocks.
I wasn’t enthused about going diving in that sea at that moment. My buddy Andy Howell, skipper of the charter-boat Obsession, stood next to me and felt the same.
One of us had to make the decision, but neither wanted to, so we compromised. We would go in, but not on the normal shore-dive.
We’d go around the corner into the calmer water where fishermen usually go, and which I had never dived before.
The place was deserted. Fishermen, it seemed, liked rain even less than divers.
The precipitation beat down, sending the sea into a frenzy. Falling into the water cheered me up a bit, however. The vis was OK, and the temperature would not worry a bunch of brass monkeys.
Beyond the kelp, we came to a small boulder ridge that followed the coastline and was dotted with snakelocks anemones. We found a cluster of three that were a decent size, so I tried to emulate those pictures from the Red Sea of a diver looking at a clownfish-filled anemone. The fish aren’t there, but I don’t think my effort is too bad.
Carrying on, I heard Andy squealing like a little girl, and turned to see him pointing at a large common octopus hiding in a hole. I backed off, and the cephalopod emerged a little, but obviously it wasn’t used to divers and stayed well back.
We decided to head along the ridge and return towards the end of the dive.
I spotted a cuttlefish on the sand, and moved off to photograph it. Once done, I turned to locate Andy, but saw nothing. He had gone.
I swam back to the ridge and still couldn’t see him, but I did see the octopus at the mouth of its hole, and squeezed off a shot before it retreated again.
I then turned to see if my flash had caught Andy’s attention. It hadn’t, but movement further out caught mine.
My flash had attracted something, and it was big and moving towards me.
Out of the gloom came an oceanic sunfish. It was only a juvenile, but it approached and circled me three times.
I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a stone’s throw from a Cornish beach, looking at a creature I would be prepared to travel to Bali to see, and no one else was around to witness it!
As the fish swam off I had to clear my mask. I was smiling like a child who had been given a new rocket-powered bike for Christmas.
I was shaking with excitement as I swam along the ridge until I found Andy. I showed him the image on the camera’s screen, and I can now say that I’ve seen a real man’s eyes pop out cartoon-style.
He shouted something though his regulator that sounded like ”clucking bell”, but I may have misheard.
After clearing my mask again, we headed back along the ridge. On a patch of sand we found a half-buried cuttlefish that refused to move, convinced that I was photographing something else as it was too well camouflaged for me to see.
I, of course, had evolution on my side. No amount of chromatophores could hide it from my eyes. The sole next to it, on the other hand, was doing a much better job until it moved to munch on a shrimp. I hadn’t noticed it until then.
It suspected that its cover was blown after my third shot, but being on the sloth side of energetic it wriggled a bit to cover its topside with sand, and then sat still. Either it was confident that I couldn’t see it or realised that it had just done the equivalent of a model smearing her make-up. The subject was now useless to photograph, so I moved on.
I surfaced elated at what was stored in the camera. This was my first octopus in Cornwall; my first sunfish ever; and the best display I’d had from both cuttlefish and a sole. After 17 years’ diving, I know that such dives are rare in the UK, but it goes to show – never turn down a dive.

TOUCH & GO
Red Sea / Big Brother Island


I don’t like touching marine life. Whenever somebody talks about it, I always envisage blown-up pufferfish so stressed that they die, or swimmers holding onto a whale shark.
Sometimes, however, it is impossible not to touch an animal. Not because it is irresistible to reach out and feel them, but because they are so close that I can count the parasites under their chin.
And when that animal is an oceanic whitetip shark, a gentle nudge with my camera port is more a necessity than a privilege. I found that out while floating off Egypt’s Big Brother Island.
The dive had been a standard Brother Island dive. There was coral, fish and seafans. It had been enjoyable, but I had no idea that within five minutes of surfacing the dive would go from ordinary to epic.
The RIB ride back to the liveaboard took a couple of minutes, and that’s when it happened. One of the deck-crew was pointing into the water and shouting.
So I got the boat to stop, grabbed my gear and camera and slipped back in. A dive is not over until you are back on the liveaboard – this dive was far from over.
At the edge of visibility I could make out the shimmering pectoral fins of a Carcharhinus longimanus.
I hung motionless, hoping that the shark’s inquisitive nature would overcome its wariness. It edged closer as it swam in wide circles around me.
When the shark was about 10m away she (no claspers) she stopped circling and headed straight for me.

I WAS SUDDENLY very aware of my Adam’s apple, and my heartbeat kicked my sluggish survival instinct in the gonads and told me to be on my guard.
I pulled up my camera, looked through the viewfinder and started to shoot when the shark filled the frame. Unfortunately, I was using a fisheye lens, so when the shark filled the frame she was within arm’s length, and she kept coming.
She bumped my camera, forcing it onto my mask. The sudden jolt made me jump and I instinctively pushed back, but I went backwards. The shark circled me and I span round to keep her in direct eye contact, which enabled me to retain some control of the experience we were having.
Below the shark was a squadron of pilotfish that desperately tried to remain in formation, like a pack of cartoon WW1 biplane pilots. It wasn’t easy for them as the shark turned and twisted.
I had the feeling at one point that she was trying to offload a few of the fish onto me, and that this was the point of the encounter, but apart from the odd remora detaching and trying me out, she failed in that regard.
Word of my encounter must have got back to the boat, because a couple of other divers joined me. In a moment my close encounter melted away, and the shark went back to being aloof and wary.
My exhausted adrenal gland and satiated adventurous spirit ganged up on my resolve and I headed back to the RIB and went back to the liveaboard with a smile so wide that it took a day to fade.

A FINE LINE
Mediterranean /Greece


I’m not the biggest fan of diving in Greece. Algae-covered rocks with a scattering of fish and the odd amphora is the most many hope for from a dive. So I wasn’t particularly enthused when my guide said that he would take me somewhere special.
The dive started ordinarily enough. The rocks were algae-covered, the fish were sparse, and behind a rock I could see the broken top of an amphora. I yawned.
We carried on swimming and swimming. Just as I was beginning to think that I should change my name to Dory (you know, Finding Nemo), we dropped into a steep-sided gully.
I expected to sink to the bottom, no doubt to look for another amphora. However, we stayed about halfway up, and the guide stopped and pointed at nothing.
I edged closer, not wanting to nudge the side, because the gully was as snug as two Great Danes in a basket.
I could just make out an old algae-covered monofilament fishing-line reaching from one side to the other. Then something small and dark in colour caught my eye, perhaps because it was almost at the end of the guide’s finger, and it dawned on me why he had stopped. In front of him was a nudibranch restaurant.
There are divers who think that anything smaller than a fishing-boat is not worth bothering about under water. If it hasn’t got a rudder, what’s the point
I’m not one of those divers. I like my action of a diminutive nature. If it’s as big as a little fingernail, it has my attention.
That one length of fishing line provided instant fascination. There were nudibranchs all over it. Most were a species called Flabellina pedata and its close relation Flabellina lineata, and they were feasting on hydrozoans growing on the algae.
For a sea-snot lover it was a fascinating experience – for a photographer, it was out of this world.
You see nudibranchs, known as sea-slugs, slither across the underwater landscape, so their delicate shapes and colours merge with the seabed.
This monofilament line was in midwater with nothing behind it, giving me the perfect opportunity to photograph the nudibranchs with a black background and thus pick out their colours, shapes and even their internal parts. I have never experienced anything like it since.

THE CLOSER
Indian Ocean / Aliwal Shoal


There are images of me that my mother will never see. Not because they are embarrassing, but because even I can see the shockingly bad decisions my sluggish self-preservation gene ensures that I make.
One example is footage of me with my hand and camera so close to the mouth of a 5m tiger shark that even I wince when I see it. The shark was picking up a massive grouper head from the seabed close to Aliwal Shoal.
This was at a time before tiger-shark diving became a thing. I was on a bit of a trip into an undiscovered country, and had no idea how the shark would react. I had been with the same shark for several days and was pretty confident of how she would react, but as a wildlife photographer I know that wild animals are unpredictable.
I was with South African underwater film-maker and shark expert Mark Addison. We had planned the dive and obtained the grouper head as bait from local fishermen who would have discarded it. It was about the same size as my chest, but well within snack proportions for the shark we planned to entice.
The animal was a resident of Aliwal Shoal, a massive area of fossilised seabed about six miles off the South African coast. Diving here is awesome.
I’ve had some of my best dives on Aliwal and the Protea Banks a little further south, but this dive stands out not because it scared the hell out of me, but because of the powerful grace of the natural world.
There are so few places on Earth where a human can come face to face with such a large predator without it fleeing or attacking. This shark ignored me as a tree does a passing dog.
We started in the protection of a small overhang, with the grouper head tethered to the seabed a little way in front of us.
The shark announced her arrival by blocking out the sun. She lurked at the edge of visibility, knowing that there was a tasty treat on the seabed but sensing the strange creatures nearby that must have bristled her electrical sensory ampullae of Lorenzini, thanks to the cameras, flashguns and video lights. It was akin to a human walking past a funfair in thick fog.
Her stomach overcame her reticence, and she moved to investigate the bait. She was huge, and I was like a five-year-old staring up at a dinosaur.
Her cavernous mouth opened, and she sucked the grouper head in and grasped it between her cockspur teeth.

THE TOUGH ROPE kept the bait in position, however, and she couldn’t swim off, so she dropped it, swam around and came at it the other way.
She tried again and this time, sensing the calmness of the scene before me, I inched forwards and got to within a hand’s width of her snout. The shark vacuumed the fish-head into her mouth, and this time she moved it around and got it into a position where the rope balanced precariously on a tooth.
Then, with a swipe of her head, she ripped the rope as if it was a piece of cotton. I heard the tear, and detected a hint of satisfaction from her as she swam away, victorious.
Back ashore I reviewed the footage Mark had taken of me, and was shocked at how close I had been, but to dive with such an elegant force of nature left me humbled. And that is why it ranks as one of my best dives ever.