Thanks for all the fish
VOOOMPFF VOOOMPFF VOOOMPFF… Vooompff! The sound of gannets hitting the water was incredible. Beaks, wings, feet, all moving at breakneck speeds as they broke the surface. Gannets darted in and out of a maelstrom of bubbles in pursuit of fish. This was no ordinary view of a gannet’s daily life.
There is no denying that digital photography has both allowed many more of us to capture high-quality images and opened up a plethora of new photographic techniques.
But this has also made creating an image with a “wow factor” that stands out from the rest more of a challenge.
Gannets, in our case the northern gannet (Morus bassanus), are up there with the most popular seabirds.
Many images illustrate their precarious daily lives nesting on cliff edges or foraging at sea. But underwater stills of northern gannets had been lacking, and there we saw our niche. This is the story of how we got the images, and what it’s like to dive with gannets.
Shetland is home to two large gannetries and had the space and spectacular scenery to provide the backdrop to our project. It is also Richard’s home, so made perfect logistical sense.
One of the staple prey-species for the gannet is mackerel (Scomber scombrus). Mackerel arrive in the inshore waters around Shetland in late May or June, when the plankton blooms provide plentiful food.
Yet plankton can mean murky water – no good for photographers wanting to capture high-diving, fast-moving gannets. So we went earlier in the year for the clear water, though this meant that we had to provide the fish.
ON DAY ONE WE SET OUT in our small boat, having filled it with camera and dive kit and around 40kg of mackerel from a local supplier.
As we arrived at our site, a little way from the colony, we realised that it was not going to take long to bring the gannets in. Once a few had dived for the fish, hundreds circled the boat, hungry, noisy, ready and waiting for more.
Wanting to tell a complete story, we began shooting from topside. As the gannets’ confidence increased the closer they came, eventually diving inches over our heads with wings brushing our faces as they left the water. The scene was, quite simply, chaotic.
We got wetter and wetter, and so did the cameras. With each high-velocity incursion, out came the towels to dry the lenses. Chaos, but great fun! The fish were disappearing fast, so we took time out to think about the next step.
With fish off the menu, the gannets calmed down and began to lose interest in the small orange boat bobbing around in the North Sea. With cameras safe and dry in their underwater housings we tempted some fulmars with a few scraps. They proved good subjects for getting the underwater exposure settings right.
Not wanting to push our luck too far too soon, we began by hanging over the side, holding the cameras just beneath the surface. A diving gannet will hit the water at 50-60mph. Getting the shots was not easy; a fine collection of half-gannet-and-bubble images was the result.
Eventually, however, we started to time things right, capturing the gannets as they hit the water and raced to get the fish first. We ran out of fish very quickly, the whole experience lasting only half an hour.
We headed back to port, intending to get back as soon as possible, but our plans were thwarted by strong winds for several days. We had time to think about the next set of images and how we were going to get them.
The next calm day for working this exposed coast came a week later. It was sunny, clear and bright.
Thirty minutes after launching the boat, full of mackerel and dive-kit, hundreds of gannets were circling us again. They remembered us.
We had decided to get into the water with them this time, but this created several challenges. Strong currents meant that the diver had to stay in contact with the boat, and the deep water meant that he needed a visual reference to be aware of his position and depth at all times.
Photographing gannets diving had been tried in the past, but when the gannets could see these people under the water they would not dive. So we needed to hide the diver.
We did so by hanging a length of rope off the boat with a loop and weight attached to keep it vertical.
The diver could then hang on the rope, stay attached to the boat, maintain a constant depth and remain hidden from above.
First diver in, followed by fish. Nothing – the gannets wouldnt dive.
So in went the mackerel by the handful. Hundreds if not thousands of gannets were circling the boat, but it seemed that none was going to dive. Could they see the diver
One more go and, bang, a gannet dived. Then everything went berserk as the rest followed.
Within seconds chaos had once again descended around our small boat, as the gannets dived from all angles. Not just diving, however – they were coming close to the boat and close to the diver.
It was amazing to watch the gannets under water. The action was fast and furious, with a competition being fought out between gannets beneath the waves for the mackerel.
To our surprise they could also swim or “fly” under water, using their wings to propel themselves at speed into the depths to take the fish.
THE NOISE WHEN 20-30 GANNETS hit the water simultaneously was astonishing. It was extraordinary to watch these birds under water, and it allowed us to create some very beautiful and unique images.
Sometimes the gannets would be so close that they were almost touching the camera housing, but never once did we feel in danger of a bird diving into us.
Despite the scene it was organised chaos, and the gannets seemed very spatially aware. We never once saw them collide, even though they were chasing the same fish.
The sense of chaos was created by the pace of the action and millions of bubbles. From entering the water to running out of mackerel lasted little more than an hour, and more than 100kg of mackerel were consumed.
The project gave us a unique perspective on the diving life of a gannet, and allowed some exceptional and creative images to be captured.
It is difficult to describe how we felt, but to say the least it was a thrilling, extraordinary, memorable, stirring, rousing, sensational, breathtaking experience that still raises the heart rate thinking about it.