August 20, 2012
Written by Amos Nachoum, Blase and Barbara Mills
My guest, Bartosz, is submerged for more than 30 minutes in the cold water of the Okavango Delta. He is diving with our guide Brad on this crocodile expedition in Botswana. Topside, on the boat, Richard and I watch their bubbles surfacing from only one spot. They aren’t moving. This means they have found a croc! (Click on any image to enlarge it .)
The sky is cobalt blue and a light wind rustles the papyrus which glistens in the wind like wheat in the sun. The air is full of sounds: monkeys, river birds and the seductive murmur of water. (Remember, you can click on any image to enlarge.)
When Bartosz finally surfaces and climbs aboard, his eyes are twinkling. Still in his wetsuit and mask he eagerly checks his camera screen. After reviewing his pictures he looks up with a happy grin. He got his croc! Seconds later, Brad surfaces and beckons me into the water. I grab my camera and with the help of my teammates quickly join him in the river. After hours under the African sun, the chill water (55F) seeping into my wetsuit is a welcome relief. Brad leads me under the papyrus canopy into the hidden lair of the crocodiles and turns on the light of his new RED video camera. Illuminated in front of us is a 12 ft. young croc resting on white sand. The darkness around the pool of light is impenetrable and we are only at a depth of 15 ft.
For the next 10 minutes Brad and I photograph the croc. The beast is calm and unmoving. But then things change. Irritated by the strobe lights, or perhaps by our presence around him, the croc rises on his forelegs and like a slow-motion scene in a sci-fi movie lurches towards us. With each step clouds of sand rise and its tail sweeps the silt into a ghastly whiteout. We back off, blinded by sand and satisfied with our encounter.
Most mornings and late afternoons we film the fish eagle’s hunting behavior. Our method is simple and time tested. We catch a few tiger fish in the river. We set up the boat downwind, bracing it against the papyrus. Our guide, Brad, imitates the cry of an eagle and waves the fish up in the air. This brings the Eagle to a tree close by the riverbank. As the predator locks its eyes on the fish, Brad tosses the fish upriver against the wind.
“Are you ready?” Brad asks.
“Wait a minute “ Bartosz replies as he sets up his 400 mm lens mounted on a mini tripod. I scream “Good to go!”
In three seconds or less the eagle spots the bait floating down the river. It spreads its majestic wings and turns into the wind. Then, fighting against the wind, struggling to accelerate, it flies towards the fish. As the eagle turns into the current of air, it dives down, skimming the water with the tip of its wings. It’s talons are now fully extend forward towards the floating fish. We photographers are all tense and silent waiting for Brad’s signal. “NOW!” Brad yells as the eagle start its turn, flying low over the water. There is a cacophony of cameras firing in frenzy—30 and up to 50 frames in less than 4 seconds. There is a sigh as we all exhale at the same time. Frantically we search through our images, focusing on our screens—Did you get? What did you get? Oh yes and oh no…. Let’s do it again and so on…
The sun is setting behind the tall papyrus wetlands and soon we will face the chill of the African night. We tuck our cameras away and speed over the river to our Lodge. Long before we arrive we can smell the welcoming wood fire waiting for us on arrival. After hot tea and coffee we break for hot showers to end another exciting day on the river.
For the next 6 days we explore different parts of the river in search of clear water. “Clear water” is a relative term in this kind of river diving; it means 15 to 20 feet visibility. Each section of the river has a different name. One section is called Fat Albert, after a croc by that name. The legend is as follows: this croc was located near a village in another area some 70 miles away. The croc became accustomed to people and boats and frequently would approach them. Everyone was worried he would hurt someone; consequently the croc was relocated down the river. Now we are searching for this beast. It is rumored he is 14 – 15ft long and 50-55 years old.
Fat Albert channel, about 5 miles long, remains clear through the winter long after most others channels turn murky again. We explore this channel which is shallow, 12 to 20 feet deep with a sandy bottom. The contrast between a dark croc against white sand makes our work easier. We see no sign of Fat Albert until one morning someone screams “CROC!” We suit up with lightening speed as the boat moves up current. Together, we enter the water with a back-roll and speedily assemble on the river bottom. We brace ourselves as the current sweeps us forward. Pushing forward with our fins we dig them into the sand using them like brakes. By the time I see Fat Albert resting against the riverbed, I have passed him and am nearly on his tail. Dragging myself, my camera and strobes against the current I maneuver towards his head. I want to photograph this croc head on – looking directly toward its rows of white teeth.
I look straight into the croc’s unmoving eyes. When I realize how big the beast’s head is, I move my camera like a shield in front of me and start shooting. The croc remains immobile. I inch closer and closer until the camera is too close to focus. I have the Canon 14 mm lens, which means I am merely 8 inches in front of dinosaur. Minutes later Fat Albert moves and each step creates a small sand storm. With apparent ease, this 14 feet long croc turns into the current disappears.
We try to follow the beast but cannot battle the strong current. We stop, look at each other with a smile and raise our fist in sheer satisfaction and relief. We did it again, against all odds.
I look forward to seeing Fat Albert and other crocodiles next year. Diving and photographing crocs is exciting and safe providing we use knowledge of the reptiles and their environment. Our guide, Brad, has been diving in the Okavango River for 12 years and is one of the leading experts on crocodiles. From experience he has learned crocs do not see well underwater and therefore feed mostly on the surface. Consequently, it is crucial to stay close to the riverbed while diving. It is also essential to take only 2 guests at a time so as not to crowd the croc and block its escape route.
Join me next season so we can explore the Okavango River and its wildlife together, as I have done with John H, Daniel B, Bartosz B and John A… will you be next? For more images and a deeper look, visit my Facebook album about the Okavango Delta.
August 1, 2011
One image more spectacular than the rest. I think I’ll let them speak for themselves.
A croc resting on the riverbed.
A croc rising.
Brad filming a four-meter croc.
A family of hippos crossing.
Fishing eagle catching prey.
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May 18, 2011
Written by Amos Nachoum
In my journey around the world I have seen the world’s greatest predators through my viewfinder. I like to write about them here for you, and I’d like to start out with an unlikely predator: the Humboldt squid, known as the “red devil.’ On May 20th, National Geographic is featuring these giant predators in its series called “Hooked,’ and they are subtitling the episode “Squid Invasion.” They promise to show you, “Marauding mobs of huge Humboldt squid are spreading northward along the Pacific coastline, devouring salmon stocks already diminished by other threats.”
World’s Greatest Predators
I can tell you from experience that the Humboldt squid is very impressive. These big animals can move very quickly (as quickly 15 miles per hour) and are capable of large migratory patterns. The adaptability of the Humboldt squid means they are able to explore and take advantage of new environments. The name ‘jumbo squid’ is well-earned, as these creatures reach six feet in length and can weigh as much as 110 pounds. Their Spanish name, ‘diablo roja’ comes from fisherman off the coast of Mexico who report seeing a color change – a flash of red and white – when they attack other fish.
Would you like to see this for yourself? On August 6-13, 2011 and also on August 14-21, 2011 I’m leading BigAnimals Humboldt Squid expedition to Mexico to experience these ocean giants, swim with them, and photograph them. The BBC and National Geographic have documented the Humboldt squid, but they used noisy fishing vessels to do it, and dove only at night. I’ll offer you a lot more.
Following our own protocol that I have designed for you, we will start out of La Paz on a live-aboard dive boat and follow along the coast of Baja north toward Santa Rosalia (the Humboldt capital). Long the way, we’ll have the opportunity to dive with hammerhead sharks and the sea lions. Our aim will be to dive for three days, taking advantage of early night, midnight, and early morning, which is typically more successful time to see “red devil.’ I’m also going to launch test day-time dives. Will you join me? This PDF has all the details.
Swim with the Humboldt
Recently, as the National Geographic TV special shows, there has been new interest in these mysterious creatures. Some of their behavior will be documented in the National Geographic series Hooked: Squid Invasion airing on May 20. I invite you to see for yourself in August!
March 3, 2011
I am lucky to count Dr. Sylvia Earle among my friends. She is also a powerful friend of the ocean, working to call attention to the most important issues of conservation, education and change. Her TED talk from February 2009 is still strong and still affects people. She talked about how we’ve eaten more than 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean and how the ocean’s coral reefs are disappearing. And she has also said that the next decade will be the most critical and important in the next 100 years when it comes to ocean conservation. Last April, inspired by her words and action, a group of 100 scientists, activists and philanthropists set out on an adventure called the Mission Blue Voyage. Their goal is to find and get the word out on what they call “hope spots” – places that deserve to be protected, saved and restored.
This is what Dr. Earle calls “the blue heart of the planet.”
Hosted by the National Geographic society, Mission Blue has tracked whale sharks in the Galapagos and investigated conditions in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Mission Blue has been described on the TED blogs, and also in Time magazine. Dr. Earle’s wish is to create marine protected areas on the high seas. Just like governments have created parks on land, Dr. Earle wants there to be sanctuaries on and under the water. Think of them as national parks at sea. I know how she’s feels – I am a co-founder of Israel’s Marine National Park on the Red Sea.
I’ve heard about a movie Dr. Earle is part of and I’m looking forward to telling you more about it when I can. Earlier this year, when she received a lifetime achievement award, they played a clip. Have a look at it - I think you’ll find it inspiring.
If you want to experience the Galapagos first hand, I am leading an expedition there with a September 17th departure. This is a rare dive trip to the Galapagos, since it is for a full two weeks. Last year’s prices were $13,900 for the Master cabin and $13,500 for the Deluxe. Now we’re offering them at $11,900 and $11,500. This includes the domestic flight to Galapagos and other local taxes. Book now and take advantage of this deal because there are only eight spaces left. Departures on Sept 17 – Oct 3.
January 5, 2011
Written by Amos Nachoum
You may have seen orcas in captivity or heard them called “killer whales.” First of all, they’re not whales at all, but the largest species in the dolphin family. If you want to experience them for yourself and have a BigAnimals encounter you’ll never forget, join me as I’m leading an expedition to Norway to see the kind of orcas known as “resident” orcas. Their favorite food is herring, and we’ll be going there at just the right time – during an enormous herring migration. I have trips leaving Jan 28 – Feb 5, 2011 and also Feb 4 – 12, 2011.
I’ve seen orcas display amazing behaviors. I’ve watched them blow millions of bubbles underneath the herring, using these “bubble nets” to herd their prey. And the New York Times recently reported that orcas will who feed on penguins will gather a few hundred feet from an ice floe and charge a penguin colony. Just before the collision point the orcas will execute a U-turn, which throws up a big wave. The wave washes the penguins into the sea and the orcas move in.
Orca Photography Expedition
Orcas are clever, and they’re also very social. They live in small nuclear families that we call pods. At the heart is an orca mother who stays with her children throughout her life. They are confident animals, too. When we dive with them, two divers at a time to mingle with the pod, it doesn’t take them very long to see that we aren’t a threat. I’ve found that they will swim close to us – they’re just as curious as we are. Orcas like to have fun, and there has been a report of orcas riding waves like body surfers. They are also well-known for their vocalizations, a language made up of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls. They use the clicks as sonar, a form of echolocation to find food sources and to navigate the vast ocean.
They are among the most fascinating BigAnimals, and I would like to invite you to come with me to Norway in January. The water is cold, so this is a dry suit expedition, but it is also very clear water, with horizontal visibility up to 50 feet and vertically, more than 100 feet. You’ll get amazing views of orca feeding behavior. There are still some spaces left on this trip – I promise you it will be the orca adventure of a lifetime.
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November 17, 2010
Written by Amos Nachoum
Great White Sharks – Nasty Predator?
My expeditions to encounter the Great White Shark tend to sell out fast. That’s what just happened to my last two October expeditions. My favorite spot in the world to see Great Whites is in Mexico’s Baja California. Luckily, I have another Mexico diving trip coming up. The trips sell out fast for a good reason. People are fascinated with Great Whites, even though these sharks have the undeserved reputation of being a nasty predator. They’ve got a lot of teeth, as many as 300. They’re big – 12 to 16 feet long, and they weigh a couple thousand pounds. Steven Spielberg gave a starring role to a Great White in Jaws, and that didn’t help their reputation as a ferocious man eater.
But the truth is they are one of the most fascinating animals you’ll ever encounter, and one of the most rare.
When young, they feed on small harbor seals and later go after sea lions, elephant seals and even small toothed whales. They like to ambush their prey from below – one big bite usually does the trick. They will also scavenge – eating the carcass of a whale shark. They will sometimes eat sea turtles and sea otters.
Let’s be fair, though. Scientists and others who study the Great White say that in the past 100 years more people have been killed by dogs than by Great White sharks. That’s not to say that they don’t look scary. They do, especially when you’re facing one close up. But that’s only part of what makes them so fascinating.
The Great White Shark: A Rare Species
There are only about 100 adult Great Whites in the state of California’s waters. Scientists say less than 3,500 Great Whites are left in the world’s oceans, making them rarer than tigers. They are long distance swimmers, capable of traveling 12,000 miles over a nine month period. A trip from California to Hawaii is a common trip for them. Scientists have tracked them swimming from South African to Australia and back in nine months’ time.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium has been capturing young white sharks, exhibiting them for a a short time, and then releasing them. The first time they did this, in 2004, the shark had almost a million visitors. The aquarium’s executive director Julie Packard said the shark was “the post powerful emissary for ocean conservation in our history.” The aquarium is also studying the adult Great White sharks to learn how to protect them from overfishing and the effects of bycatch – sharks that get caught in the nets of industrial fishing operations, get injured and can die because of it.
That’s what happened to one of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s White sharks, a female. Captured on August 26, 2009 and released on November 4, the shark traveled more than 500 miles, from Monterey Bay to Baja California. There, she was accidentally caught in a gill net and died.
Baja California – One of the Best Dive Sites for Epic Shark Diving
There’s no doubt that Great White sharks are worthy of great respect. They’re found in the waters of Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It’s true that are amazing dives to be enjoyed in all of those locations, but my favorite place to see them is in Baja California. The water is clear and warm and the shark encounters will always be your best memories of shark diving.
October 20, 2010
Written by Amos Nachoum
Last week I advised you to “stay tuned” for the second part of our Guadalupe Island expedition. We were diving – sometimes “cage-free”– with Great White sharks. Here’s one moment from the shark’s point of view.
Over the two weeks of this expedition a total of 20 divers learned first-hand about the Great White shark with some real “face time” experience. When they returned to their homes all over the world - Germany, Greece, New York, Florida and California – they all instantly became ambassadors for aquatic wildlife. Why is that possible?
Everest of Shark Diving
When you are introduced to this — the Everest of Shark Diving — you are never the same afterward. It’s a soul-shaking experience and it simply changes your life forever. I know it’s been that way for me, and it’s fresh each time I visit Guadalupe Island to see the Great Whites. For me, and for the divers I bring along on these trips, that’s the only way – you just have to go there. The experience is unfiltered. Completely real. This is a lot better than reading a newspaper or getting a TV reporter’s view of the ocean and its wildlife. Certainly, there are a lot of good sources out there: The Monterey Bay Aquarium, BBC Science News, and Google Earth with the Oceans plug-in is a fantastic resource. But nothing can replace actually going there yourself. Seeing these animals for yourself changes everything. You can be your own reality filter by getting up close and personal with a Great White shark. Like in this picture:
While I was in Baja California for the Great White dive, I learned that yet another body surfer along the California coast became the fatal victim of a shark attack. It happened in Santa Barbara County and it was a tragedy. But it also sparked yet another media frenzy about “predator” behavior of the Great White. In fact, a California Fish and Game official called the Great White involved in the attack a “perfect predator.” This makes me sad, not only because of the human tragedy, but also because so many of the positive, peaceful encounters I’ve lead for years get very little coverage. I’m all for dispelling the hype and myth of danger. But this can only be done when we dive with great responsibility and respect for aquatic wildlife. Here’s it it looks like with a real shark, real people, real life.
I say it’s the responsibility of the conservationists, the photojournalists and the environmentalists to keep the information flowing freely, and avoid spreading panic and the “witch hunts” of a shark attack. We need to help create a shark image makeover.
Will you join us? We’re ready to go with next season’s adventures. It promises to be another classic Big Animals expedition. I can tell you that life is good when you have three sharks around you.
October 12, 2010
The Great White Shark and Guadalupe Island
If you want to swim with a Great White Shark you can come along on my next expedition to Mexico. A select few of us will be going “cage-free” – which is about a close to a totally free fish-like experience as any human might ever experience. We’re interested in underwater photography, catching these amazing creatures close up in their natural habitat. We travel just 150 miles off the west coast of Mexico’s Baja California, Guadalupe Island. Visibility is fantastic – 60-100 feet – and the water is warm – about 72 degrees. Conditions that are just right to merge heart and soul with the sea.
Swimming with Sharks
That state of becoming “one” with the ocean has been something lots of divers have tried to feel, and not just on a Great White Shark dive. An Israeli inventor I read about recently named Alon Bodner has been working on an underwater breathing apparatus that lets you swim like a fish without carrying compresses air tanks on your back. It sounds like science fiction, something out of Star Wars (Obi-Wan used an underwater breathing apparatus in “The Phantom Menace”). But there’s really more science to it than fiction. Nuclear subs and the International Space Station use something called electrolysis to split oxygen from hydrogen to get you something you can breathe. It seems like a system like that would work underwater, since even at a depth of 200 meters (nearly 700 feet) there’s still 1.5% dissolved air.
Scuba like the Fish Do It
You can’t mention SCUBA without mentioning Jacques Cousteau. With Emil Gagnon, he receives credit for basic design of the equipment we use today – a portable air supply. Alon Bodner’s idea is to use the same system fish use. The fish’s breathing apparatus work by allowing them to extract oxygen from seater, even deep in the sea. Amazing! But can we do it that way too, and dive without a tank? There’s a problem. And it brings us back to sharks.
Sharks are cold-blooded. That they don’t have to worry about regulating their body temperature – they rely on the water to do it for them. A shark has to stay in a part of the sea that has temperatures he can work with. He also swims all day with his mouth open and water streaming through his gills. That’s because seawater supplies just a little oxygen, and to extract it and support his large body, a shark has to keep moving. According to experts, only little fish, with little bodies, can sleep. But big sharks have to keep moving, and keep processing that seawater so they can breathe.
What’s that mean for you and me? We’re warm-blooded, so we have to regulate our temperature. That requires a lot of oxygen, more than anybody can figure out how to extract from seawater using a compact technology. (The technology they use on subs is really big and requires lots of energy to work.)
So I think that swimming completely free at depth, like a fish, might be pretty far off technologically, but I can give you that experience in real life. Just sign up for one of my adventures. The two most recent expeditions to see Great White Sharks in Isla Guadalupe sold out quickly. But you can sign up now to be part of the next one.