Underwater Photographer On Swimming With Sharks
National Geographic News
|Updated March 8, 2005|
Charles Maxwell's Images
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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?
I am presently using mostly DVCAM cameras underwater as the resolution is still accepted for broadcast and the cameras are compact and inexpensive. I have filmed on 16 and 35 mm film cameras, but I personally prefer the convenience of video. The next step for me is the new HD format that should, hopefully, soon be available in a compact camera.
I try to keep up with the latest developments, not only in cameras but also lighting, housings, and underwater communications. I am presently using Amphibico housings and Kowalski Xenon underwater lights. I am fortunate to know a good marine technician who designs and manufactures all my specialized equipment such as a towcam that will be used to film white shark breaches for a National Geographic production that I am filming this winter. I have a storeroom full of weird and wonderful gadgets.
How do you combine your diving with videography as a business?
I believe that my success has been with my multidisciplinary approach to business and not overcapitalizing in a swiftly changing market. With my long established marine background, I have many contacts. Since 1987 I have added contacts in the production industry in a number of countries. As a result, I can offer services for such diverse industries as marine diamond mining and nuclear reactor diving as well as for television production. When I am not working on a specific production, I try to build up my image library, so I am never bored.
South Africa has some of the most unique and unspoiled coastal waters. What's so special to you about them?
South Africa offers an amazing marine biodiversity, from the cold water kelp forests of the southern Cape to the semi tropical waters of KwaZulu-Natal. This is due to two mighty ocean currents, the cold Benguela Current flowing northwards from the southern Atlantic Ocean along the west coast and the warm Mozambique Current flowing southwards along the east coast. These two currents meet and mix over the Agulhas Banks. The result is that, off the coast of South Africa, you can see basking sharks and southern right whales or whale sharks and coral reefs all in one reasonable small country.
This biodiversity manifests itself on land as well. The Cape Floral Kingdom near Cape Town has been described as "a global epicentre of biodiversity," covering an area of less than 90,000 square kilometers (34,749 square miles), it hosts 8,600 plant species, of which about 70 percent are endemic.
What are the closest/scariest encounters you've had with sharks?
My first and most special experience with a white shark occurred when I least expected it. It happened during a recreational dive in False Bay near Cape Town many years ago. I was diving with a friend of mine in clear water. I looked up to see a huge white shark cruising past me, only about 5 meters (5 yards) away. Before that day I had never really thought much about sharks other than that I ought to have been scared of them. My instinctive reaction surprised me. "Why did this magnificent animal not stay longer?" I thought. I never felt fear during that encounter, and from then on I was a shark fan.
Many years later I was filming a white shark out of the cage at Dyer Island. I was working with an animal that looked very relaxed and was swimming in large circles from the boat to me. My buddy was in charge of looking out for other white sharks in the vicinity. I do not know, to this day, what made me look to my right but, as I did so, I saw a second white shark less than a meter (about a yard) from my shoulder, mouth open, ready to bite. Instinctively I whipped around, hitting the shark with my camera. It spun around and swam off in a cloud of bubbles generated by its powerful tail. Best of all was that all the action was recorded on video.
One of my favorite sharks is the tiger shark. They are so beautifully marked and have a presence about them, much as the white shark has. One day I was filming a four meter (four yard) female tiger shark that we had nicknamed Barbara-Anne. She had been around for two seasons and was, according to KwaZulu-Natal boat operator Mark Addison, "a great shark to work with but a bit of a nipper." It was then that I realized that Mark was a master in the art of understatement. She circled me, cautiously at first, near the surface and then dropped to the reef 25 meters (27 yards) below. I followed her, camera rolling, and as I reached the bottom, she turned sharply and headed straight for me, trying to bite my camera lens. Thus began a passionate relationship between Barbara-Anne and my camera. She kept coming back and bumping the camera.
It was interesting to note how these sharks make fast vertical ascents and descents, thereby covering the entire water column in their search for food. Things were just settling down to a good afternoon's filming when a second, smaller tiger shark arrived on the scene. When this happens it normally results in the smaller shark backing off. However, in this case both stayed, exhibiting a strong interest in the divers. The competition appeared to make them more active and aggressive. Then the second shark took half of our bait, a two-meter-long (six-foot) sailfish, in one easy bite, and swam off with blood, appearing green at that depth, gushing from its mouth.
This seemed to trigger the sharks into a feeding frenzy. A third tiger shark appeared in the distance but never ventured close. The other two were now swimming in tight circles around us; their body language was one of aggression. As I fended one off with my camera a second one was snapping at my fins. At this stage I was not taking comfort from the fact I had read in a book that very morning that, should divers encounter a tiger shark, they should not remain in the water, let alone feed them.
It is well known that a cameraman gets a false sense of security, almost a feeling of detachment from reality, while looking through the viewfinder of a camera. This was certainly true on this day as, when I looked over my monitor to see Barbara-Anne in her entirety, her nose pushing up against my camera, I realized how large she really was and how easily she could have taken me out if she had decided to.
I panned my camera across to Mark who was in the midst of another close encounter. Then I realized that it was time to leave the water and I shouted to Mark that if we stayed someone would be bitten. He needed no encouragement and we were soon back in the boat excitedly exchanging stories of our adventure. That night I was to discover that my housing lens had been badly scratched by the shark and I had to get a second housing sent up from Cape Town.
Surprisingly, southern right whales have scared me more that sharks. They are normally found in murky water and to work with one or more 15-meter-long (49-foot) beasts, each weighing upwards of 45 tonnes (50 tons), in under 10 meters (33 feet) of underwater visibility, can be quite nerve wracking. Southern rights have a habit of disappearing from sight and then slowly surfacing directly beneath a diver. It looks as if the whole reef is floating up towards the surface. I have many sequences filmed while frantically finning away from an oncoming whale. Sometimes a whale will charge a diver on the surface, its huge head moving rapidly from side to side. The large abrasive white growths, called callosities, that grow on southern rights' heads, could inflict a nasty injury.
How do you use your work to educate people about sharks and the marine environment?
I believe that any positive and factual information about sharks is educational, irrespective of the media used. I do give talks about filming sharks when I get the chance. My Web site also contains a lot of information on various shark species and the marine ecology of South Africa in general.
Situated in Cape Town, the Two Oceans Aquarium has both a predator tank for large sharks and rays and a kelp tank for various cold-water fish and small sharks. Every day hundreds of students pass through this aquarium and learn about our marine environment.
What have you found to be among the biggest misconceptions people have about sharks?
To begin with stories like Jaws did have a negative impact on the white sharks' reputation, labeling them as mindless killers. At about this time the white shark angling craze was taking off, especially in South Africa and Australia.
However, in the long run, I believe that this story generated a new interest in sharks that eventually led to the development of the white shark tourist industry, the huge demand for shark television documentaries and ultimately to the protection of the white shark in a number of countries, including South Africa. I worked with Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, in 1999 during the shooting of National Geographic's Inside the Great White story. Peter believes that while our knowledge of great white sharks has improved since his book was published, it was a good yarn in its time and stimulated an interest in sharks.
What are the threats to the South African coastal waters? What kind of impact are you seeing from tourism?
Netting, long-line fishing, and the shark-fin trade are the most obvious threats to our marine environment. White shark tourism is a growing industry in South Africa. During the peak season it is almost guaranteed that the tourist will see or be able to cage-dive with a white shark. To have such large numbers of white sharks within a few kilometers of land makes South Africa the ideal place for this industry. Bearing this in mind, it is amazing how few white shark attacks on humans we actually have.
Chumming and baiting for white sharks can become controversial. A few years ago there were more than the average number of white shark attacks in the Cape area. Some immediately blamed the white shark tourist industry, others pointed out that historically there have been other peaks in the number of attacks, before the tourist industry was in existence.
White sharks migrate to the seal colonies in early winter to feed on seals. Seal colonies generate their own shark-attracting stimuli and the boat operators' chum and bait offer a minor additional input. Marine and Coastal Management, a Cape Town-based governmental organization, is presently researching whether (and to what extent) these activities are conditioning the sharks.
In filming sharks, what kind of techniques do you use to get close and to induce certain behavior?
To get good shots of sharks, chumming and baiting is sometimes essential. I believe that if this is done infrequently and the bait consists of the sharks' natural food, little if any harm is done. The daily feeding of sharks in one spot for the sake of diver-tourists is a more complex and controversial issue and one on which I am not qualified to comment. For example, ragged tooth (sand tiger) sharks are popular with recreational divers, due to a combination of their dangerous appearance and passive nature. However, when fed at night, their temperament changes as they become more active and aggressive, attacking the camera and divers. These sharks have grippingand holdingrather than cutting-teeth and swallow their prey, normally small fish and rays, whole. I have footage of these sharks, with fish that they have caught tail first, flipping them around so that they can swallow the fish head first to prevent the fish's spines from sticking in its throat. During this delicate operation I have seen other, more dominant ragged tooth sharks stealing the fish. One shark in particular had a huge semi-circular scar above its gills, possible inflicted by a bull or tiger shark.
Have you seen a change to shark populations and distribution in your career? In what way?
There does appear to be an increase in the white shark population in South African waters, but I am not certain whether this is as a result of protective legislation or because we are more aware of white sharks. Some believe that the chumming associated with the white shark tourist industry may be attracting more white sharks to certain areas, but this theory is unproven.
I think that the most disturbing fact is the noticeable decrease in the numbers of blue and mako sharks in our waters. Off the Cape of Good Hope there are fishing grounds rich in tuna and sailfish. Inevitably, there is a large long-lining industry there that catches thousands of sharks each year. These sharks are a lucrative "by-catch," and the statistics indicate a sharp drop in their numbers.
Tell us about the phenomenon of the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run.
The KwaZulu-Natal sardine run is a natural phenomenon that takes place every year off the eastern coast of South Africa. Here the coastal waters are dominated by the warm Mozambique Current, sweeping south. In early winter huge shoals of sardines, Sardinops ocellatus, leave their normal cold-water habitat near the southern tip of the African continent to migrate northwards, in a narrow counter-current of cooler, nutrient-rich water. Due to the high density of the shoals, the sardine run offers an ideal opportunity for various cold-water predators that follow the sardines on their northward migration. This includes Cape gannets, copper sharks (bronze whalers), common and bottlenose dolphins, Cape fur seals, Bryde's whales and even orcas and penguins.
"Sardine Fever", as it is commonly known, also creates a frenzy of human activity as large numbers of sardines are sometimes forced right onto the beaches. Subsistence-netters use small boats to gather the fish and bring them to the shore while others wade into the water to collect fish in buckets and plastic bags. It is not uncommon to see a bloated copper shark beaching itself in its quest for food.
Until a few years ago this was a virtually untold story, in spite of the fact that it is, in its own right, comparable to the annual wildebeest migration across the plains of Africa. Now, with wildlife documentary producers wanting to cover this amazing story, underwater cameramen are spending more time in the water during the sardine run and are, as a result, learning more about the interaction between the main role-players.
The sheer visual overload of a good bait ball is difficult to describe. The sardines are literally packed into a tight pulsating ball. This phenomenon normally starts with the common dolphins working together to herd a pocket of sardines into a small, tightly packed group. These fish can be driven from deeper, cooler water beneath the thermocline to the warm surface water, not normally associated with sardines. A bait ball can materialize from nowhere and disperse again just as quickly and is, therefore, an elusive event to film.
You can hear the sounds and see the bubble curtain of the common dolphins as they coordinate their attack. Suddenly a group will charge straight into the bait ball from below. The bait ball explodes as the dolphins break through, quickly reforming behind them. Copper sharks, moving much slower than the dolphins, circle below, occasionally swimming into the bait ball at an almost leisurely pace, one or two at a time. The sight of the fish parting to reveal the sleek silhouette of a shark, backlit by the sun, is unforgettable.
Sometimes one can hear the "coughing and grunting" of Cape fur seals as they hang around on the surface immediately over the bait ball, occasionally breaking through the fish to feed and pose for the camera like aquatic clowns, framed by a circle of sardines.
Cape gannets dive-bomb the shoal from above, producing noises akin to exploding depth charges and the shoal, as though it possessed the mind of a single animal, darts in every direction in an attempt to avoid the onslaught. As gannets are very buoyant, they need to hit the water at high speed, wings open for maximum control until about half a second prior to impact when they tuck their wings tightly into their bodies to avoid injury and increase penetration. As they plunge beneath the surface of the sea they leave a glistening trail of white, aerated water behind them. Once underwater they can move horizontally to catch their prey before floating to the surface where they swallow the fish whole.
Once a Bryde's whale appeared in my viewfinder, narrowly missing me with its huge body as, with mouth wide open, it scooped up everything in its path. The shoal closed behind it, obscuring it from view as though it never existed. I was amazed that such a large animal could pass so close to me without generating any noticeable water turbulence. A few days earlier another group of divers had witnessed a pod of orcas killing a dolphin in the same area. This was, indeed, the meeting place of many predators.
Your image became famous as part of a hoax composite showing a shark jumping out of the water towards a man dangling from a helicopter. What kind of worldwide reaction did you have to that image? Did the person who made the hoax ever come forward?
I never gave anyone permission to use this image in such a way. It was, according to one e-mail that I received, copied from a picture in my Web site gallery.
I had a lot of emails when this was featured on the National Geographic Web site. I had to write a standard reply to these emails or I would have been unable to cope with the volume. I would have preferred to have written to everyone personally but that was impossible. I received three e-mails from different sources stating that they were the ones that did the artwork. The tone of all three was rather aggressive and I did not believe any of them. These were the only e-mails to which I did not bother to reply.
How rare is it to see a shark breach like that, naturally?
If you are near Seal Island in False Bay at sunrise on a winter's morning, then the chances of seeing a natural breach are very good. On some mornings I have seen about ten natural breaches plus probably that number again on a towed decoy. I do not know of anywhere in the world, including the famous Dyer Island about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Seal Island, where natural predatory white shark breaches take place on such a regular basis.
Your profession is extremely competitive. What advice do you give to aspirants who want to do what you do?
That is a difficult question to answer as the route is different for every person and every country. In South Africa we have the disadvantage that we are geographically quite isolated from the mainstream of television productions, but we have the advantage that we can offer a wide diversity of natural history subjects both in the water and on land.
However, do not think that it's one big holiday, having fun, and diving in exotic places. There are risks with both animals and clients. While the vast majority of my clients have been great to work with, there have been a few very difficult customers who, mainly due to ignorance, have tried to push me into achieving the impossible, sometimes in the worst of sea conditions.
My experience with cave-diving taught me the value of team effort. I have contacts all along the coast advising me of interesting developments and giving me new ideas on how to film various marine animals. The team consists of members of the scientific community, the technicians who design housing modifications and towcams, the boat operators, the assistant divers, and many others, all making valuable contributions to the end result.
You need to be really dedicated, love the sea, be willing to work long hours, be technically minded and have a good eye for the camera, but there is always the element of luck as well. In 2000, I was covering the KwaZulu-Natal sardine run on a low budget and, with only a few days at my disposal, I happened to come across one of the most awesome bait balls filmed underwater to date. For over an hour I had the bait ball to myself. The footage was used in the BBC/Discovery Channels production The Blue Planet: Seas of Life that won a number of Emmy Awards in 2002.
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