Photographing Gannets Underwater and Diving for Fish
Vooompff Vooompff Vooompff…. Vooompff – the sound of gannets diving underwater was incredible. Beaks, wings, feet – all moving at break-neck 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.
Co-authored by Richard Shucksmith and Matt Doggett.
There is no denying that digital photography has allowed many more of us to capture high quality images and opened up a plethora of new photographic techniques. But this can mean that creating an image with a “wow factor” that stands out from the rest has become 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 gannet colonies, spectacular scenery to provide the back drop to our project and is also Richard’s home, so made perfect logistical sense to try here.
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, but this meant we had to provide the fish.
On day one we set out in our small boat having filled it with camera kit, dive kit and around 40 kg of mackerel from a local supplier. As we arrived at our site, a little way from the colony we realised it was not going to take long to bring the gannets in. Once a few had started to dive for the fish, hundreds of gannets circled the boat, hungry, noisy, ready and waiting for more fish.
Wanting to tell a complete story, we began shooting from the topside. As the gannets’ confidence increased, the closer they came; eventually diving inches over our heads and wings brushing our faces as they left the water. The scene quite simply turned chaotic.
We got wetter and wetter and so did the cameras, so out came the towels to dry the lenses. 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 to be good subjects to get the underwater exposure settings right.
Not wanting to push our luck too far too soon, we tried holding the cameras just beneath the surface. A diving gannet can hit the water at 80-100 kph. Getting the shots was not easy and a fine collection of a mass of bubbles and half-gannet images ensued. Eventually 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. Heading back to port we intended to get back as soon as possible but our plans were thwarted by strong winds for several days – 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 a sunny, clear day creating bright conditions. Thirty minutes after launching the boat full of mackerel and dive kit, it was like the gannets remembered us as hundreds of gannets were soon circling us again. We had decided this time to get in the water with them.
First diver in, followed by fish. Nothing – the gannets wouldn’t dive. So in went the mackerel by the handful. Hundreds, if not thousands, of gannets were circling the boat but it seemed none were going to dive. We started to wonder if this would work. One more go and bang, a gannet dived. Then it went crazy 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 though – they were coming close to the diver.
It was amazing to watch the gannets underwater. The action was fast and furious, with competition between gannets being fought out beneath the waves for the mackerel. To our surprise they could also swim or “fly” underwater, using their wings to propel themselves at speed into the depths to take the fish. The noise when 20 to 30 gannets hit the water simultaneously was astonishing. It was extraordinary to watch these gannets underwater 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 gannet diving into us. Despite the scene, it was organised chaos and the gannets seemed very spatially aware. We never saw gannets collide, despite chasing after the same fish. The sense of chaos was created by the pace of action and millions of bubbles. From entering the water to running out of mackerel, it lasted little more than one hour with over 100 kilos of mackerel consumed.
Further Reading: “An Introduction to Underwater Photography“
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.