Sailfish along with bonus Whale Sharks, Dolphins, and Giant Manta Rays.
This year I lead 2 groups down to Isla Mujeres for the Sardine Run. Each group was on our charter boat for 5 full days on the water.
This year’s experience demonstrated to all of us how the sardines and sailfish are just two pieces of a larger ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. We encountered Whale Sharks, Giant Mantas, Sailfish , and Dolphins all feeding in food rich waters. The sardines are there to feed on the plankton and krill and they attract all the species that want to eat sardines such as the sailfish and dolphins. We were excited to see so many different species out in the open blue water.
On our first day when we found the dolphins we thought we had found a pod feeding on sardines and perhaps the same bait school that some sailfish were working, but this was not the case. In fact the encounter was more unusual: this was a pod in the act of mating. The frenzied males were chasing the females and competing with each other to dominate her. They paid no notice to us as we swam along and photographed them.
Over the next few days we found some sailfish. The captain and crew must look for frigate birds diving into the water. This is a sign that sardines or other food is near the surface. Spotting the surface disturbance of the sailfish or sardines would be impossible so the birds are the best method to find Sailfish. We are very lucky to work with experienced and patient captains for have loads of experience in these waters. They found us several chances to “drop” us in the water with sailfish.
Once in the water it is some fast surface swimming to catch up to the moving baitball. I have found that it is easier to keep up with a group of sailfish who are managing a smaller baitball. The large schools of sardines move and break apart to rapidly.
The sailfish work together to trap the sardines near the surface. The birds are diving down to grab fish at the same time as sailfish take turns running into the baitball and swatting at the fish to stun them. They then eat fish that are stunned and separated from the ball. Then a another makes a run. The sailfish flash colors and their “sail” fins as a means of communication. This action makes for great video.
It can be a long day of searching for sailfish so on a less productive day we tried a different area and were excited to find feeding whale sharks and giant mantas. These two species are known to aggregate in these waters in the summer months, so it is unusual to find them in the winter. We had nice long encounters with the whale sharks. The giant mantas swam in loops while they fed. I was able to take many images of their individualized markings. I submit all my manta photos to the local Manta Trust . They confirmed that these are mantas that have been documented in the area during summer concluding that there is a resident population – very exciting!
All of my guests had some great images and were pleased with the surprise species encounters and with the fact that we were able to find sailfish. I wish to thank all of them for making this an enjoyable trip for everyone. I hope to see them on a future trip.
I was very conscious of baggage volume and weight when I made my equipment choices. My biggest decision was between my 16 – 35mm lens and the fish eye. I have used both before for sailfish. While the images with the fisheye were nice, one drawback was how close you need to be to get a good shot. Also if you get too close, your subject gets distorted at the edges of the image. I did not want to bring both or switch my equipment halfway through, so I opted for the 16 – 35mm.
I have a Nauticam housing with my best glass dome port. I also had a 2nd 5DMKIII as a backup and set for land images. No strobes as they would just slow down my swimming.
I have had my housing from my old Canon 5DII converted to fit my 2nd 5D III or a future RS. I like things to be interchangeable and to carry less equipment.
My initial setup was thus:
Canon 5D MKIV with a 16 – 35mm lens ISO 400 1/320 and f5.6
When conditions were cloudy or if the action was further below the surface, I stayed in the ISO 400 – 640 range, Shutter priority. For the sunny days and surface shots, I would dial things down.
The subjects are alway moving so a center weighted autofocus mode is important as is keeping the shutter fast enough to get crisp images.
You can enjoy my sailfish images from past seasons in my online gallery
As always, Isla Mujeres is a fun and comfortable home base for this adventure (and our whale shark trip in the summer). Our hotel is close to the dock and restaurants, while being a quiet place to rest.
There is a nice pool which leads down to the beach. The rooms have AC and many have a balcony facing the water.
There are many good restaurants in town and food is very economical (average of $30 total for dinner) . We feasted on fresh fish, Mediterranean dishes, local tastes, and Cuban. I have been going so many years now that I have a list of the best places to please all my guests.
The shops are colorful and the people are friendly and we enjoyed just walking around town. The guests and I had happy hour around the pool with great conversations .
I hope to share another adventure with each of them and I am already looking forward to my next visit to Isla Mujeres.
A Special Opportunity to Join a Most Exciting Marine Wildlife Encounter
Sailfish Hunting Bait Balls in Isla Mujeres
January 29 – Feb 4 2018
* Preliminary Dates
5 boat days for sailfish
Limited to 5 guests
Photograph and free dive with sailfish hunting sardines in the blue water off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Our private charter leaves daily from the docks of Isla Mujeres for an 8 hour day of maximum time in the water photographing and enjoying this incredible encounter.
Only snorkeling gear is required and the action happens at or a meter or two below the surface. We charter the most experienced sport fishing guides who know the water and patterns of the sardines and predators.
Limited to 5 passengers on boat plus guide and crew. This is an excellent opportunity for photographers to capture dramatic images and video. Freediving and excellent swimming skills are recommended in order to enjoy this athletic experience.
“The trip was fantastic. Excellent itinerary and well organized. I saw way more sailfish than I ever expected and was much closer than I thought possible. My friends are amazed by the photos I took. I got a really good shot of you that I attached. Many thanks to you and Karen. Michael and I are spreading the word about a trip to Africa. Great trip and hope to see you again” ——- Kurt Bitters
“Had a great time in the water and topside. And, I salute your restaurant selections! I’ll be back for more… you’re a topnotch guide and host. I will be back for more.”
— Bob Pooley
The hotel has a private beach with pool and deck. The rooms are ensuite with a balcony, AC, and wifi. Upgraded rooms are available at extra cost. The town of Isla Mujeres is safe and features many great restaurants, shops, beaches, bars, and a park. It is an easy ferry ride from Cancun.
I will need a minimum of 4 guests to make this trip happen and a max of 5 to allow for uncrowded boat and encounters.
Please contact me soon with your interest so I finalize bookings and make sure I get space on the fleet’s and hotel’s busy in season schedule. Contact Me
Chinchorro Atoll (Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve) is the best place in the world to get close to American crocodiles. Located south of Cancun, Mexico and near the Belize border. The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is the largest stand – alone reef in the Northern hemisphere and one of the healthiest. Currently only 1,928 hectares of the 144k hectares are zoned for diving and fewer than one thousand divers get to see these remote and unspoiled dive sites per year. It teems with fish and other sea life, and contains more than 100 shipwrecks as well as the largest population of American crocodiles found in the Americas.
This July, photographer host Gregory Sweeney and 6 guests will travel on a unique adventure to see American Crocodiles and dive these beautiful and remote reefs. This is a safe encounter with guides who have done years of experimentation and careful planning to make this safe. Our outfitter and guides in Xcalak were the first operator to organize croc encounters in Chinchorro and they remain the only dive operator with an official concession. They are committed to sustainable tourism and conservation.
On the Chinchorro Banks, we stay in utilitarian fishing shacks on stilts over the shallow waters in a lagoon surrounded by the reefs: 36 nautical miles off shore and across from Xcalak, Mexico. (2 -4 hours boat ride)
Each morning we dive and while taking in the pristine reefs and marine life, we hunt lionfish. There is a duo purpose in this; to help eliminate the invasive lionfish population and to get food to attract the crocs. Guests are also invited to participate in the spear fishing of the lionfish and will be equipped and taught the safest techniques.
This is a remote adventure at its best: The fisherman’s’ hunts have no wifi, cell phone, mobile services, no running water, only marine toilets, and 2 or more hours from shore. Guests sleep in hammocks in the huts and delicious food is prepared and cooked by our boat captains with the aide of a small generator and ice storage chests (all food must be transferred out with us). We also might have the chance to buy fresh catch from passing fishermen to make a special, though rustic feast.
At Chinchorro, we are surrounded by water and 700 American crocodiles and a few fishermen. We photograph the crocs when they show up at midday (after they warm up) in the 1.2m deep water around our huts. We are able to maintain a level of safety even when we are getting up close due to the experience of our guides. A safety diver and guide are nearby with a pole to ward off any advances from excited crocodiles. Generally they are extremely well behaved and tolerant of divers getting close.
When in Xcalak we have a chance to enjoy some diving on excellent reefs in the shallows and some deep walls covered in healthy sponges and large stands of black coral. Sometimes manatees are spotted on these reefs and there are several wrecks and plenty of large and small fish species.
We start and end this adventure in the Cancun area which has its own fair share of exciting diving, whale sharks, cenotes, and Mayan ruins.
If ancient reptiles and remote adventure is calling to you, get more information on price and availability from Gregory Sweeney at www.GregorySweeney.com
2 Days scuba diving (2 tank dives) in Xcalak in the Reef National Marine Park
3 days snorkel with crocodiles at Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve
3 nights accommodation in Xcalak
3 nights accommodation in Chinchorro in rustic/ basic fishing huts
Morning dives at Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve to gather invasive lionfish
Tanks, weights, dive master, guide at Chinchorro
All meals while at Chinchorro Atoll
Breakfast and Lunch while in Xcalak
Transfers to/from Cancun Airport ( or other location TBD – 6 hour journey)
All fishing huts are shared and we sleep in hammocks. A single room is available while we stay in Xcalak – before and after the Chinchorro portion.
Meet up in Cancun – Transfer to Xcalak – Hotel night 1
Two dives in Xcalak Reef National Park – private boat Hotel night 2
Transfer by boat to Chinchorro Day 1 Crocodile Encounter at Fishing Huts – 2 hour boat ride
Day 2 Crocodile Encounter – morning dives for lion fish – night 2 at Fishing Huts
Day 3 Crocodile Encounter – morning dives for lion fish – night 3 at Fishing Huts
Transfer back to Xcalak – reef diving, Xcalak hotel 3
Transfer back to Cancun area
Limited spaces – contact me with questions or to reserve your space
Last year Adobe released a new version of Lightroom CC which contains their newest adjustment tool: The DeHaze slider. It is found in the FX menu of the Development module (way down toward the bottom of the list).
You must have the CC version of Lightroom to use it, but if you have Photoshop, there is a way to access the tool and take it further using a few medium/advanced PS techniques. (see at the end of this article for details). Also this tool works on the entire image – in Photoshop you can target the area where the effect takes place.
The purpose of the Dehaze slider is to either add or remove atmospheric haze from a photo. In Adobe’s words:“The Dehaze technology is based on a physical model of how light is transmitted, and it tries to estimate light that is lost due to absorption and scattering through the atmosphere.” The obvious use is for adjusting landscape images, but I have found it useful with safari images where there was quite a bit of dust in the air and even for some underwater images where the water was not clear. (the underwater equivalent of dust)
For me, it is a tool that combines Contrast, color saturation, and midtone sharpening into a single tool. Using a combination of tools it is possible to achieve similar results to the Dehaze slider, but if time is an issue, you can get great improvements with just one adjustment. Investing a bit more time you can build on the improvements Dehaze adds to your images by combining it with further adjustment tools.
Here is an example of how I used Dehaze for an image that was not a landscape.
The drought has made everything very dusty and it really effects this image taken in the mid morning light.
With just one adjustment, the colors pop and the contrast is greatly improved.
Now I experiment with doing some Exposure adjustments first before applying the Dehaze.
My method for this is to temporarily Desaturate the image so I can analyze it without the distraction of color.
I used the Tone Curve tool (you can also use the 4 sliders under Exposure) to add contrast by darkening the Shadows and Darks and lightening the Lights. I left the Highlights as they were since there is a bit of bright light in the mane and sky. I then restored the color to see the following improvement.
Now I add the Dehaze adjustment – a little bit less than I used when it was my only adjustment.
Dehaze has taken the image a step better than exposure adjustments alone.
Looking at the results in detail, I want to bring some lightening back to the Shadows range of the midtones. I go to my Darks slider in the Tone Curve tool (or the Shadows in the Exposure section) to lighten these tones up. I can now see the details in the lion’s face better.
Now my image is acceptable or I can add details such as small color adjustments (to saturation or hue) or some targeted sharpening or highlighting on places like the eyes.
Here are a few other images with a simple Dehaze adjustment.
For those without Lightroom CC who have Photoshop or those who take the technique further with more targeted results:
Open the image in Photoshop.
Make a duplicate of the background layer.
Go to the Filter Menu and find Camera Raw Filter
Dehaze appears under the FX tab
Make your adjustments and choose OK to return to Photoshop.
Now you will make a Layer Mask which will hide the effect where you do not want it. – in my example I will mute the effect in the background.
Add the layer mask to the layer which has the Camera Raw Filter adjustments. Use a paintbrush and black color to mask out the effect. You can soften your brush and/or lower the opacity at the transition points.
If I had turned my copied layer into a Smart Object, I would be able to return to the Camera Raw adjustments and amend them as I wish.
The Dehaze tool is now my go to tool for images that need contrast boost – especially if it was taken in dusty conditions.
During our small group photo safaris we travel an hour and half south of our Tree House Lodge to the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve. This is a very old reserve (one of the first to be decided as a nature reserve) and we stay in the section which is bordering the Kruger National Park. There is no fence so wildlife is free to range into both areas.
We come to Sabi because they have the rivers and tree conditions that leopard prefer and thrive in. They also have a long history of tracking and knowing their leopards very intimately so the rangers quickly find the leopards and can tell us each animal’s story.
We had many wonderful leopard moments over the course of our 3 September 2016 safari groups. This evening game drive was especially nice: we tracked a male leopard named Tingana while he went on his early evening rounds
We catch back up to our leopard after the sun has set. There are lions moving through near by. A leopard can be harassed or killed by lions so he is becomes very alert and circles back to his tree where he had a kill stashed away.
After a snack in the safety of a tree he goes back to resting.
The next morning we catch up with Tingana and he is on the ground under the tree still guarding it from lions and others who would steal it.
On a previous visit to Sabi Sands we saw Tingana with a zebra kill up a tree. It is amazing to think of the strength this animal must command in order to drag a small zebra high up a tree.
See our photo safaris which include a visit to Sabi Sands in 2017 & 2018 on our website Africa Wild Safaris
Though there is no hiding the stress of the long drought on the animals and plant life of the bushveld, we had excellent wildlife sightings. The predators thrive during these conditions with so many herbivores loosing condition to lack of food. There was hope in the first good early rains. We enjoyed the cooler than average temperatures and watched the drama of nature unfold. These are some of ours guests and my own favorite moments from our recent 3 safari groups.
I use a Canon 5D MKIII and most of my images are shot using a 70 - 200mm lenses, sometimes with a 1.4 teleconverter. I also use a 300mm lens for the long shots in Kruger - this also with a teleconverter. I use a monopod as stabilization as this method works in all vehicles, is light, and versatile.
I have now upgraded to the Canon 5D 4 and look forward to its first trip to Africa in April 2017
Martial Eagle Makes a Large Kill
Martial eagle has made a kill
Most of our large raptor sightings are of the bird of prey scouting from the top of a tree or involved in a crowd of birds on a scavenged carcass. The eagle was able to take down a steenbok. The bird plummeted with enough force to knock the weakened antelope to the ground then held it in a choke hold.
Following a Leopard on His Rounds
In the early evening we tracked a leopard as he surveyed his territory and looked for hunting opportunities…and took a nap
Our trackers knew where to look for this male and we found him early in our game drive. He is a very robust male who has obviously had success hunting lately. We had a wonderful time seeing the daily life of this predator.
Leopards love warthogs and this one spent some time checking likely dens while listening and watching for some to return for the night.
It is possible this leopard has a recent kill stashed up a tree (his stomach does look a bit big) and thus he is only surveying territory tonight and hunting only what is easy to get.
Most times we see hyenas at the kills made by lions, or harassing a cheetah. We had a chance to see a more sympathetic side of hyenas at a den sight with multiple pups.
The den had several cute puppies and the dominant female (mother) was very attentive and affectionate to them. The usual subadult den assistants were also there keeping the bold puppies close.
Seeing and photographing lions is always a thrill. We have seen many different lion kills and pride groupings this year. Observing the social dynamics of the group at feeding times is very revealing. The physical demands of eating a carcass is surprising as is the effort put into guarding the meal from vultures and scavengers even after all the lions are so full they can hardly move. We can get very close and see every detail for different positions.
Learning about Conservation Efforts
We are lucky to have many wildlife conservation and rehabilitation centres near our lodge.
It is always an educational experience for first time guests and repeat visitors like myself. We visited an orphaned baby rhino, the raptors recovering from poisoning, and other permanent and temporary species.
Great Wildlife Moments at the Lodges
Often we don’t have to leave the lodge to have great wildlife encounters: it is all around us. The night skies are magnificent in the near total darkness and the sounds are exotic.
One hot afternoon our guests were relaxing in the pool when giraffes came to eat buds off their favorite trees.
Our safaris are full of wildlife which will thrill photographers and those without fancy cameras. We also believe that all the wildlife needs to be presented within a context of current conservation efforts, successes, and challenges. We celebrate and appreciate each species of bird, insect, plant, and animal for its role in the whole ecosystem of our corner of South Africa.
Our safaris are educational, fun, exciting, surprising, and fulfilling – and some say life-changing.
Every October and November, polar bears congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their preferred prey: the ringed seal. We headed up in late October, which is the middle of the aggregation of the bears and usually before the ice forms and they head away.
We traveled by way of Winnipeg and a flight up to Churchill. Our group stayed inside the Churchill Wildlife Management Area at he Northern Studies Centre, a research facility that houses those conducting research. Each year the Centre welcomes a few visitors such as our group. While at the Centre we were introduced to ecofriendly facility, learned of the current research, and had a thorough orientation to polar bears in this region from the researchers. We enjoyed the observation deck and night observatory dome.
Our first two outings were on “Tundra Buggies” or “Bear Buggies”; specialty build vehicles which can travel the roads and overland in the Wildlife Management Area with minimal impact to animals and environment. I dare say we would not have been able to reach the remote areas had we not been on such an accomplished and purpose built vehicle.
The back of the vehicle is an open deck from which we could photograph the bears and scenery. It was also possible to get shots out the open window, but we spent most of our time outside.
Our bear sightings started right away on our way form the airport. Our first two days yielded some very nice encounters with a male polar bear along the water and napping in the snow.
It snowed these first days decorating the rocks and scrub bushes. The snow actually made spotting the bears easier as they appear yellow against a new snow. They seemed to be getting excited and energetic feeling that ice and seals were getting closer.
One curious male came to check out our vehicles one at a time. He peered up at us in curiosity and gave the vehicle a good smell underneath.
We encountered a female escorting her two cubs at the edge of the Bay – perhaps checking to see if the ice was formed yet, or just looking for a meal. The cubs were very full of energy and roaming all over not following mom. It was difficult to get a nice family shot, but fun to see the young ones out learning how to survive on their own.
The bears were hungry as they have not had a good meal of seal since coming to shore last spring. We spotted them eating kelp and browsing berry bushes.
For our last day we used a different mode of transportation: a private van tour with a local expert. He spacious vehicle was comfortable and his knowledge allowed us to find bears but also other wildlife such as a snow owl, ptarmigans, and fox. Though outside the Wildlife Management Area, we had excellent polar bear sightings. A young female came toward us then thrilled us as she picked a nice patch of moss among the rocks and took a nap just meters from our vehicle.
We tracked a male polar bear for some time. We were out of the van photographing at photographing something else when the bear snuck up behind us and came toward us. We quickly got back in the vehicle and when he arrived at the vehicle we had some very close shots of him as he checked us out.
The private van was a great way to enjoy all the wildlife and scenery. Our guide showed us a couple of abandoned structures and other sites that illustrate life in Churchill and its history.
A fox follows a bear at a safe distance hoping to get some scraps
Though short, this was a very successful and fulfilling opportunity to photograph polar bears and their arctic landscape. It was both exciting and educational; I feel a deeper understanding of the polar bear’s lifecycle and how the climate impacts them in very significant ways.
We are planning a return trip in October 2017 – Join our mailing list by using our contact form – Our mailing List members will have first access to the limited spaces on this trip (6 guests only)
A South Africa photo safari will be full of opportunities to photograph animals at close distances. These images have all the details and interesting poses found in modern (human) portraits. You can apply current portrait processing techniques to your wildlife portraits. This technique gives the image added depth and dimension and adds the illusion of the face coming forward.
The key characteristics of this technique are Light, Contrast, & Sharpness
Areas with contrast and sharpness draw the viewers attention and lighter areas seem closer to the viewer building intimacy and connection between subject and viewer.
Begin in Camera Raw or Lightroom
Start with a basic White Balance adjustment if the image is too warm or cool.
Also quickly adjust the tone for good exposure and add some contrast. We will add more contrast later and do further work on the overall Tone.
You can also add punch to the eyes now, but I like to leave this as the final touch.
Dodge and Burn
Dodge and burn will increase contrast and bring out specific details that you think are important. Details around the eyes and character features on the face are good targets. For animals with facial markings, it is good to bring these out.
This step is done in Photoshop since it will be achieved using a layer mask. Switch To Photoshop from Lightroom by accessing the left click menu and selecting Edit In – Photoshop.
Create a new Layer with blend mode of Soft Light
Fill with 50% gray
Choose Dodge tool
The Dodge/Burn tool has controls which limit the effect to specific tonal ranges: Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows
Start with the Dodge Tool: Set range to Highlights with Exposure between 5 – 10% Paint over areas on the face to brighten highlight areas and other areas you with to appear closer to the viewer. Repeatedly go over areas to make the effect stronger or raise the Exposure setting higher.
Switch to the burn tool and darken midtone and shadow areas in the same way.
It is a bit of a pain, but try to burn and dodge in the whiskers and eyelashes: they are unique to the animal and thus important to present to the viewer.
Contrast and Sharpening
If you are familiar with using Smart Objects, you can duplicate your image layer and convert it to a Smart Object. Then choose Filter – Camera Raw Filter.
The alternate method is to run the Camera Raw Filter on the layer. The difference is that with the Smart Object, you can go back and fine tune your Sharpen and Clarity values.
In the Camera Raw tool, choose the Adjustment Brush, then set Clarity to around 25 and all other sliders to zero. Check the Mask at the bottom of the dialogue box and paint over the face where you want the effect. Click it off to see the effect, then also increase the Sharpness around +10 – +25. Press Ok to return to PhotoShop.
Press D to set Foreground and Background to default colors of black and white.
Create new Adjustment layer and choose Gradient Map Adjustment Layer . In the properties panel click on the gradient ramp to open the gradient editor
Drag white color stop left toward the center to intensify the highlights.
Drag midpoint slider to the left or right a small amount. ( you might want to try midtones both to the left and right on separate layers to see which you like best.) Click OK . Reduce layer opacity to 30% or a percent that gives the look you want. You still want a hint of color instead of a completely monochrome image. The amount that looks good to you will vary depending on the image.
Add some Fake Depth of Field
If the image could use more depth of field, this step will add some.
Add another merged layer to the top of the stack
Use the Filter Blur Gallery Iris Blur and place the oval over the face
Adjust it to fit and so none of the sharp areas are covered
Increase the blur amount. Since animals do not have oval shaped faces (ears etc. ) you can add a mask to the layer and paint black to remove blur from these areas.
Make a merged copy and name it Sharpen. You can make this layer a Smart Object f you wish. Choose Filter Other Highpass. Add radius of 1 – 5 pixel: enough to be able to see the hairs and whiskers, but without a large halo around edges. Change the Blend Mode of the Sharpness layer to Overlay. If the effect is overdone you can reduce the layer opacity or adjust the radius.
At this point you can also add a layer with texture to add a gritty effect. Use a mask to block the texture effect from the eyes so they stay sharp.
Adjusting the Light
The idea here is to darken the background and leave the face bright.
There are several ways to achieve this. One way is to add a curves adjustment layer then mask out the areas you want to remain bright.
Another method is to add another Merged layer to the top called lighting
Do a Camera Raw filter and choose the Radial Filter tool to draw oval to encircle the main part of the face. Adjust Exposure to darken outside the oval. Alternately use the Adjustment brush to navigate the non oval face.
Add punch to the eyes
If you have used all Smart Objects and Adjustment Layers, you can go back to the Dodge and Burn layer and add some contrast to the eyes. If you have used stamped layers, you simply add a layer at the top, fill with 50% grey and set the Blend Mode to Soft Light. Use the Dodge and Burn tool.
A vignette or cropping might also be a good edition.
Use this series of adjustments on several images to give a consistent look to a collection.
Follow our adventures on safari in South Africa and underwater