THE FIRST THING THAT STRIKES YOU when you arrive by air into Gibraltar is the overwhelming sense of shipping activity in the water, coupled with the sensation of being able to see not only the southern beaches of Spain and the northern tip of Moroccan Africa but British Gibraltar all in one scene.
Gib is small, and precariously balanced on the edge of Europe.
It harks back to former glories of the Battle of Trafalgar, World Wars One and Two, not to mention Buster Crabb and the other mysteries of the Rock. This aside, Gibraltar is placidly resplendent in its own version of a Britain weve forgotten since the mid-1970s, while the residents speak Llanito, a heady blend of Andalus Spanish and Estuarine English.
Si pero, I digress...
Ive joined the 2nd Annual Expedition organised by Steve Warren of Ocean Optics, to spend 10 days freediving and transom-perching in the presence of pilot whales and occasional orca pods.
All these creatures congregate around the annual Tuna Run, which spreads itself out over July and August as these giant fish make their way from Mediterranean waters to the Atlantic.
They are joined by a flotilla of pilots; scavenging orca; fiestas of bottlenose, striped and common dolphin; sailfish; turtles; sunfish; African, Spanish and Gibraltarian fisherman, whale-watchers and a small group of freedivers - eight of us, spread over two small motor cruisers to dive alternately and safely as pairs.
Some of the worlds largest ships pass through here, so just because you can get a nice shot does not mean you want to be in the water with the Boca Negra bearing down on you at 30-40 knots a mile away.
For all of us who devote time to seeing amazing animals, patience and companionship play a key role.
Waiting for a pod of pilot whales, then intercepting and gently executing a water entry and hoping they appear, does involve a lot of flukes and cool blue water passing over you, but when it all works in your favour, or they stop to rest (with sex in mind), its a truly magnificent moment of which to be part.
Sitting on the transom with these animals at arms length, slipping effortlessly out of and into the water, is one of the best feelings I have had without getting wet.
The excitement of seeing them surround your vessel, tempting you in to fill your camera with images, leaves you debating their higher intelligence, but not their beauty and speed.
Slipping from the boat, you leave the Saharan-baked surface and enter the piercing cold and light of the Atlantic mouth of the Straits.
The contrast shows on the camera as bubbles form, and condensation wreaks havoc with even the most lovingly prepared cameras.
This is the first thing to remove from your dome port. You will have either landed right in front of the animals or nowhere near, so a port-cleanse and visual scan is good practice, ensuring that a three-minute encounter provides at least one good shot.
Every remarkable animal encounter I have had, be it with mountain gorillas or pilot whales, involves searching and, for me, the pleasure of their approach.
It makes my neck-hair stand up just thinking of it, and it allows me to consider my picture, as opposed to grabbing what goes past.
From a light point of view, there seems to be a pattern. Morning provides a greenish-blue mood light from which the pilots appear. The afternoon is brilliant blue with extraordinary shafts of light, reaching up from 1500m below to create ultra dapple which makes your heart race.
All the while sonar clicks fill your head, and the water pressure of a pod can be felt as the pilot whales pass by, or signal their recognition of you with a flip of the fluke.
I alternated between my Gates EX1HD wide-angle housing and Subal CD1 (with well-abused 1ds MK II + 17-40mm), and found that once I had my basics in order, the shooting was free and easy.
I opted for fast speeds all round, and settled back to enjoy the moment.
It would be fair to say that this was one of the best encounters I have had, and that includes Cocos night-diving, mangrove-diving in Tanzania, Sipadan at 5am and the Maldives in season.
Its not scuba, and it is only 2.2 hours away from the UK, but this is a world-class event.