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Diving the trawl 2: filming the trawl

Diving the trawl 2: filming the trawl

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called Diving the trawl, describing the first time I dived on a trawler’s net.  I’ve done this a few times over the years, most recently a couple of days ago.  We re-did this because cameras improve and the quality of images improves, so we need to re-shoot.  We also wanted to get some slightly different images this time; in particular we wanted to get images as the trawl net was being hauled, when it was just below the surface. 

As events transpired the weather conditions were against us. Strong winds prevailed through most of August and much of September.  It was not until the last week of September, with equinoxal gales just around the corner, that we finally found a brief window of opportunity.  Due to vessel availability and other logistical constraints we had only one day available that week in which everything came together.  The weather was marginal but we were now well into autumn with precious few opportunities remaining this year, so we decided to take a chance and go for it.

Trawl net close up as it is hauled to the surface, Lyme Bay, Southwest England, Colin Munro Photography

Trawl net close up as it is hauled to the surface, Lyme Bay, Southwest England,

We began to load the trawl net on to our vessel on a bright but chilly morning.  A stiff breeze was whipping whitecaps on the sea beyond the shelter of the harbour, but the lastest forecast indicated this should die away during the morning.  By the time the net had been hauled aboard and rigged and all our gear on deck it was midday; Lynsey, John and I were hot, dirty and sweaty but pretty satisfied everything was as ready as it could be.  The wind had not abaited.  But we were now committed, so warps were unhitched and we nosed out into the bay.  A 60 square mile exclusion area for bottom towed fishing gear (trawls and scallop dredges) has been established within the centre of Lyme Bay to protect the fragile reefs found there (a very good thing too!).  We therefore had a two hour steam to get to a suitable location beyond this closed area in which to set the trawl.  That gave us two hours for the wind to die down and the sea state to drop away.   If we were lucky the wind would not yet have stirred up the seabed enough to destroy the visibility.  The longer the wind continued the more our chances of success diminished. 

Filming the trawl net being deployed

John does all the hard work while I film the trawl net being deployed

We reach a shallow bay outside the closed area, about 20 metres depth, shortly after 2.30p.m.  The wind was still fresh and we knew it was not looking good for getting workable conditions on the seabed.  We decided to have a test dip to check out visibility before deploying the trawl.  I wanted to stay dry in order to do some surface filming of the trawl being deployed, so this task fell to my dive buddy Lynsey.  A quick dip was enough to convince her it was no-go.  Seabed visibility was no more than one metre.  Quite apart from it being impossible to film the trawl operating in such conditions it would also have been too dangerous to be around heavy moving fishing gear.  Reluctantly I called the dive off and we reverted to plan B.  I also wanted to get footage of the trawl as it was being hauled, a little below the surface.  This we could do as the near-surface visibility, although far from perfect, was much better than that close to the seabed.  However, there were the added logistical problems that the trawl net had to be hauled with the boat steaming forward at a speed of several knots, way too fast to swim or hang on holding a large camera.  We had worked a method where I would be dropped off close to the net as it reached the surface, and drift back alongside it, filming as I went.  It sounded plausible – I mean what could possibly go wrong?  Before this we set up some surface and just below shots at speed, working from a small inflatable.  

John and Lynsey in deep discussion as we trawl for a couple of hours.

John and Lynsey in deep discussion as we trawl for a couple of hours.

Poor Lyndsey had the unenviable task of heaving cameras across the tubes to me and hanging on to my legs as I dangled head-down in the water trying desperately to: a) get the vaguest impression of what I was filming through the spray and turbulence, and b) stop my camera from being ripped from my fingers.  From the surface I must have presented a highly comical sight, legs waving and coughing and spluttering to the surface every few seconds.  From a personal perspective it felt rather like what I imagine being waterboarded by a firehose while suspended upsidedown might feel like.   Having had my sinuses thoroughly irrigated at high pressure, it was now time to get into the water, before I had time to ponder the stupidity of my actions and change my mind.  At any rate, the sun was racing toward the horizon and light was fading rapidly, so it was either now or  call it off and wait ’til next year.    In the event the plan worked almost like clockwork; we were even able to repeat the operation so that I could run one haul taking stills and a second taking video footage.  Given the relatively poor visibility (~ 4 metres near the surface) I was quite pleased with the results.  Nothing got broken (apart from a torn shoulder muscle – my stupidity when the trying to work parallel to the waterflow) and everything worked pretty much as it should.  October gales have now set in so there will be no more dives on fishing gear this year.  However plans are already underway for next.

Note:  As with my previous blog on this topic, this is NOT in any way designed to be a ‘how to’ guide to diving on trawl nets.  I have deliberately ommitted key elements to try to avoid giving this impression.  Diving around nets and heavy moving fishing gear obviously involves a significant element of risk if not approached with great care and planning.  I have presented this in a fairly light-hearted manner and should be taken as such rather than a technical guide.

Sharks of Beqa lagoon part 1: Tiger sharks

Sharks of Beqa lagoon part 1: Tiger sharks

Large female tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, known locally as Scarface, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000479.

Large female tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, known locally as Scarface, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000479.

Large female tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, known locally as Scarface, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000479. Please email me, quoting this number if you’d like to license use of this image or purchase a fine art print.
Beqa Lagoon is often described as the World’s best shark diving location and I, for one, would not dispute that. I dived here with Rusi, Papa, Andrew and the team from Beqa Action Divers. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these guys, I couldn’t have asked for a more conservation-orientated team with a great laid back attitide. At the same time the whole operation was extremely professional, making the diving run as smooth as clockwork. Above water the location is simply stunning; lush forest and magrove bordering the Navua River which empties into the sheltered lagoon. These are not, however,the crystal clear waters of , say, the Bahamas. In Fiji it rains a lot. A lot! River waters pour in to the lagoon; rarely seriously reducing visibility but just enough to reduce light levels and create slightly gloomy effect at depth. In my opinion this rather adds to the atmosphere of the place; a big tiger or bull shark appearing out of the gloom is somehow more impressive than one cruising across a bright sunlight seabed. The key location for bull sharks and tigers is near the outer edge of the lagoon, where it meets the open ocean, dropping into very deep water indeed. This has the advantage that you are furthest from the freshwater inputs, so the water is much clearer. Bulls and Tigers patrol the lower part of the reef slope, rising up to the ledge at about 30 metres (100 feet) at which the deepest part of the dive is conducted. I was generously allowed to position myself directly behind Tubee, who had the unenviable task of hand-feeding feeding the sharks with large chunks of tuna. I thus had a perfect view as they cruised in, then swept past overhead (sometimes requiring a slight nudge to help them clear me).
Close up of a large female Tiger Shark  known as;Scarface; swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji.  Image MBI000474.

Close up of a large female Tiger Shark known as 'Scarface' swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000474.

Close up of a large female Tiger Shark known as Scarface; swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000474. Please email me, quoting this number if you’d like to license use of this image or purchase a fine art print.
The tiger shark in these photographs is a lady known as scarface, due to the long scar running down from the right side of her jaw (the result of a fish hook). She is probably about 4-4.5 metres long (14-15 feet), so is a pretty big fish. She has been returning to the lagoon for several years, so is well known to the divers there. The first sign of her imminent appearance was the moving away of the bulls as they became aware of her presence; she then glided in to view, making a couple of circles to inspect the scene before deciding to head for the food. Although she has an impressive sense of smell her eyesight is not great; so provided you don’t move too much like food, or smell like food (slightly tricky when the water is full of tuna flakes) then you’re pretty much okay.
Large tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, swimming towards diver, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000486.

Large tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, swimming towards diver, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000486.

Large tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, swimming towards diver, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000486. Please email me, quoting this number if you’d like to license use of this image or purchase a fine art print.
Large female Tiger Shark, Scarface, swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000476.

Large female Tiger Shark 'Scarface' swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000476.

Large female Tiger Shark, Scarface, swimming at around 30 metres depth, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji. Image MBI000476. Please email me, quoting this number if you’d like to license use of this image or purchase a fine art print.
I took these shots on film, my last serious trip underwater with a film camera. The plus side is they produced huge images (20+megapixel images). The down side was I only had 100iso film and so was really struggling with light; even with a fast, wide prime lens (20mm) I was still down at 15th of a second shutter speed thus had to be pretty steady to get useable shots. Just to add to my problems, the auto-manual focus switch on my housing stopped working, leaving me stuck in autofocus. In such low light, low contrast conditions the autofocus was hunting like crazy. After losing a couple of perfect shots due to the camera failing to focus in time I resorted to the technique of waiting until a shark was approaching, deciding on the distance I was going to take the pic, then turning and pointing the camera at some coral rubble by my side that was about the same distance, locking focus, then with shutter half depressed turning and shooting once the shark was close enough. Needless to say this drew some curious looks from my Fijian friends; why on earth was I staring at a lump of rock to the side of me when a big shark was heading straight towards me, but hey! It worked.
A large female tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, cruising near the seabed, beqa lagoon, Fiji. Image No. MBI000484

A large female tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, cruising near the seabed, beqa lagoon, Fiji. Image No. MBI000484


I plan to follow this up with a couple more blogs on other shark species found at Beqa. Watch this space.

Spring is in the air. Seaslugs mating: Polycera faeroensis.

Spring is in the air. Seaslugs mating: Polycera faeroensis.
The seaslug, or nudibranch,  Polycera faeroensis mating.  Like all nudibranchs, Polycera faeroensis is a simultaneous hermaphrodite.

The seaslug, or nudibranch, Polycera faeroensis mating. Like all nudibranchs, Polycera faeroensis is a simultaneous hermaphrodite. Image MBI000678

Spring is in the air, the sea is getting warmer – slowly – and the birds and bees, and most things beneath the waves too. Polycera faeroensis is a very common seasulg in British waters, and although colourful is often overlooked due to its small size, large individuals are no more than 4.5 centimetrs long. Like all nudibranchs they are simultaneous hermaphrodites – possessing both male and female sex organs at the same time (sequential hermaphrodites have either only male or only female sex organs at any given time). Copulation works both ways (reciprocal copulation, as it is termed). As the sex organs always appear to be on the right side or their bodies, Polycera faeroensis nudibranchs copulate head to tail. The missionary position has not caught on in the nudibranch world. One might think this was already exciting enough for any mollusc, but some nudibranchs, (such as the related Palio dubia found around the northern Uk shores) add a touch of S & M to their sex lives. Unlike many nudibranchs, Palio dubia does not have a complete vaginal opening. Thus copulation occurs by hypodermic injection; the barbed penis (or penile cirrus as it is properly termed) simply punctures the body wall into its mating partner. Ouch!
As always my pics are available to license – if you’d like to use one just email me

Basking shark images Cornwall

Basking shark images Cornwall
Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding with mouth wide open

Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding with mouth wide open

After a couple of years of bad weather I was lucky enough to get out and finally get in the water with a small group of basking sharks last year. We launched my Zodiac out of Newquay and headed west, through some fairly substantial rollers coming in off the Atlantic. After a few hours of steaming along we finally caught up with them. They were swimming steadily, completely ignoring us but also moving pretty quickly. So once you hit the water you had to move pretty sharpish, swimming diagonally to their path, before they cruised past and left you in their wake waiting to be picked up again my the boat. In the end we had two days with them, first day I was helped by Jules and on the second Kat boat-handled for me.
Baskers are never that predictable, but they should be arriving off the tip of Cornwall in the next week or two. I plan to get out again and hopefully improve on last year’s pics. Hopefully the weather will be kind – we’re currently having once of the coldest May’s in nearly 20 years.
For more basking shark (Ctenorhinus maximus) images from last here click this link here
Watch this space for updates on success (or not) this year! As always these are stock images and footage available for righst managed license. If you’d like to use any of these get in touch email me

A clip of a Large basking shark feeding near the surface, North Cornwall, 2009.
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_-GIMCkP7Q

Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding in surface waters.  Cornwall, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding in surface waters. Cornwall, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Large basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding in surface waters.  Cornwall, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Large basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, feeding in surface waters. Cornwall, UK. Colin Munro Photography

Old Piers and simple pleasures

Old Piers and simple pleasures
Mussels, Mytilus edulis, and Obelia indivisa hydroids on an old pier leg

Mussels, Mytilus edulis, and Obelia indivisa hydroids on an old pier leg

I took my first underwater pictures bimbling about between the uprights and cross-members of an old wooden pier. That was with second-hand Nikonos III, a set of extension tubes and a Sunpak 28 strobe. I’ve probably still got it somewhere. Underwater photography has moved on a long way since then but I still love exploring old wooden piers and the opportunities they present for macro-photography. The uprights are normally festooned with filter-feeding life: hydroids and sea squirts often forming dense carpets. Dahlia and Sagartia anemones add a splash of colour. To me the beauty of macro-photography is that the basic skills can be learned quite quickly and sharp, colour-saturated images can be created even in our often quite turbid coastal waters. There is also the fun of exploring and discovering small creatures in crevices and overhangs; the joys of being a kid again for an hour or so. Each pier or jetty presents its own particular hazard. This can range from watching that a dropping tide doesn’t leave you trying to clamber up the bottom rungs of a badly corroded and rickety old ladder when trying to exit the water, to avoiding being knocked unconcious by the weapons grade halitosis of betching bull sealions as they lie flopped across the jetty cross members. But the pleasures tend to remain the same; hunting for that perfect patch of jewel anemones or symmetrical cluster of featherduster tubeworms.

The above pic was taken on the legs of a fairly tide swept pier in Southern Ireland. Large, fat mussels gaped in the rich feeding currents and between them bright orange Obelia hydroids swayed like tiny sunflowers. The trick with all macro-photography (and indeed much temperate water photography) is to slow down and look closely at what is literally just in front of your nose. The other pleasure that often comes from macro-photography is that one often discovers new things in the image that you never saw at all when composing the photograph. To take the above example; I was completely oblivious to the tiny crustacean scuttling about between the Obelia polyps, only noticing it once I had developed the film (yes, this is a film image), scanned the slide and viewed it on my laptop. This still applies with our current top-end DSLRs. Although lcd screens are improving all the time, small details are only revealed when the image is downloaded and viewed on a much larger screen.

Underwater Photography Workshop
For those interested I will be running a one day workshop, an introduction to underwater photography, in Exeter, Devon next month (6th March). This is intended for those relatively new to underwater photography looking to acquire a good grounding in the theory and practical skills, or possibly decide which system they are going to go for. There are still a few places left as I write this. For more info go to: Introduction to underwater photography workshop

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see
Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

I have just uploaded what is probably the worst whale picture you’ve ever seen, or are likely to. For a start it was taken with an old Nikonos III camera, without use of an additional hand held light meter. Those old Nik IIIs were purely mechanical, so no built in light meter; thus exposure was based on the ‘guesstimate then bracket like hell’ maxim. Secondly, it was taken with the only wide angle lens I owned back in those days, a cheap plastic supplementary lens of rather dubious sharpness. To be honest the lack of sharpness was not really an issue. I was shooting in turbid coastal waters, where horizontal visibility near the surface was between 8-10 metres (26-33 feet); pretty good for the area as it happens but lousy for shooting whales. On top of this strong winds had been blowing so the shallow coastal water was nicely loaded with suspended sediment lifted off the seabed. This made for a rather hazy 8-10 metres visibility. As if that weren’t enough, conditions were further complicated by this occurring around 7.30pm, so the sun was getting low and light levels below the surface were dropping like a stone. To cap it all I had no fast colour film with me (yes this was waaaay back in the pre-digital days). I had not gone diving to photograph whales. I knew the visibility was likely to be lousy so I had arrived armed with a set of extension tubes for macro-photography and several rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. This produces wonderful, detail and rich, saturated colours, But it is slow! Certainly useless for photographing something the size of a bus in turbid, low light conditions. Throwing everything out of my camera bag over the deck of our dive boat I fished out an old roll of 400 asa film. Now that was more like it; still going to struggle but at least there was a chance of a recognisable image now. Only problem was it was black and white negative film (so long ago I forget exactly what). Still, it was that or nothing. So I loaded it with shaking hands are rolled over the boats gunnel into the water. The slowest shutter speed available on Nik IIIs is a 30th sec, so I wound it right down and hoped for the best. Black and white negative film is more forgiving of poor exposure than slide, which was just as well really.

So I guess I was quite fortunate (and there was a lot of luck) to get any recognisable images at all. But apart from nostalgia, why hang on to them, and why publish them online? The pictures are nearly two decades old now and after all, I have lots of lousy quality pictures from years gone by. The main reason, apart from being able to waffle on about the difficulties of photographing large marine mammals in lousy conditions, is that, eighteen years on, as far as I am aware these remain the only underwater pictures taken of a humpback whale in British coastal waters. I can still remember my utter amazement as I peered over the boat’s rail into the water below, watching a dark shape slowly rise up. As it approached the surface not more than two metres from the boat I could clearly make out a long, white object. When it was around a metre below I suddenly realised I was staring at a massive white pectoral fin. ‘Bloody hell! It’s a humpback!’ I remember shouting (okay, it may have been slightly stronger than ‘bloody’). By the time it broke the surface I was already throwing dive gear together. I loaded my camera, threw my cylinder on and rolled over the gunnel faster than any time before or since, oblivious to what anyone else was doing. I settled on the bottom at around 10 metres. I peered around but he (or she) was nowhere in sight. What now? Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. The humpback was intensely interested in the boats echo sounder transducer and kept returning to make passes under the hull. I floated up to mid-water and simply hung there, waiting for him to return then clicked away frantically changing aperture sizes as I did so.

A small population of humpbacks inhabits the Eastern Atlantic, migrating each year between their arctic feeding grounds and breeding grounds off Cape Verde. They are frequently spotted off the West coast of Ireland as they head North or south. This guy somehow made a wrong turn off Cornwall and headed East along the English Channel. After our memorable dive he was not seen again, as far as I know. Let’s hope he made back on track.

I continue to muddle away at underwater photography, so if anyone is tempted I shall be running a series of workshops from March 2010 onwards. More info at Colin Munro photography Main Index under Courses and Workshops

If anyone knows of other humpbacks photographed underwater around the UK I’d be most interested to learn about it.

Colin Munro 3rd February 2010.
Colinmunrophotography.com