Underwater Photographer On Swimming With Sharks

Updated March 8, 2005

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Charles Maxwell is an underwater cinematographer based in Cape Town, South Africa. A keen diver and lover of the marine environment for 35 years, Maxwell has made documentaries for the National Geographic Society and the BBC. He talks about his life's work and shares some of his favorite underwater images.

How did you get into the field of underwater videography?

I started diving in 1968 and soon became interested in underwater stills photography. This was before the days of reliable underwater strobes and the guys on the dive boat would complain as they had to follow my path underwater, retrieving the used flash bulbs as they popped to the surface at regular intervals.

I became very interested in underwater cave exploration and in 1987 I was invited to lead a diving team to explore Dragon's Breath cave. This is the largest underground lake in the world and is located in northern Namibia, a sparsely populated country neighboring South Africa. During this expedition I met Swiss filmmaker Gerald Favre, who was producing a television documentary about our adventure. We became good friends and I assisted him with the complex problems of underwater lighting in the cave environment. Immediately on returning to Cape Town, I purchased an 8mm video camera and housing, in those days accepted as "broadcast quality."

I was very excited when my first underwater video job came up. It was for a South African Television environmental slot covering a damaged marine sewer outfall pipe. So my first job was filming raw sewage. Things could only get better from there and, thankfully, they did.

What formal training did you do for this profession?

I am a qualified professional diver. Underwater photography and videography started off as hobbies that eventually overtook the other professional diving work as my most important source of income. That is one of the good things about my profession, there is no substitute for hands-on experience.

What marine life have you specialized in filming?

What I film is largely dictated by what sells. Luckily, what sells is also my passion: sharks, whales, seals, and dolphins. When I first started off in this field I was involved, in one way or another, with about 15 or more white shark productions a year. I thought that this market would quickly become saturated, but I was wrong. There are always new angles, techniques, and stories to tell about these magnificent animals and the work keeps coming.

I have also specialized in filming subjects like the annual KwaZulu-Natal sardine run, tiger sharks, ragged tooth (sand tiger) sharks, and southern right whales. Living in Cape Town I am lucky to have white sharks, southern right whales, Cape fur seals, and African penguins on my doorstep.

What kind of equipment do you use?

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