2019 was a busy year packed full of wonderful wildlife encounters shared with my guests on many wildlife photography tours.
Each of my locations is special and rich in wildlife, so to rank the trips and encounters is difficult. Given that they were all exceptional trips year after year, I present them in order of what was special it me this year.
Many of these trips will be featured on my 2020 Calendar of Trips but some will have to wait until future years before I can share them again: there is just not enough time to do it all! Please enjoy this review.
Striped Marlin at Magdalena Bay
Magdalena Bay in Baja Mexico has a sardine run each November which attracts Striped Marlin, seal ions, sharks, and even whales to the area. We jumped in this frenzy of action and photographed the action. This was a special experience because of the shear numbers of marlin, easy to find bait balls, the comical sea lions, and the whole spectacle. We also combined this with diving at some of the other wonderful natural spaces in Baja for an underwater safari.
The polar bears in Churchill are always abundant and a pleasure to photograph, but this year there seemed to be even more than usual. This year there was snow cover and several pairs of mothers and cubs to delight us. We also had a little bit of Northern Lights .
There is so much wildlife seen on our safaris: we have had increasing frequency of wild dog encounters, rhinos, very good elephant herds, lion prides with cubs, and so many more exceptional sightings. Each year I think it is the best and then the next year tops it! I picked this leopard to represent a year of many beautiful predators displaying behavior in front of our lenses. This was a quiet moment where we could imagine ourselves as the leopard and live out part of his day.
I visited Tiger Beach twice in 2019: March and October. We are always happy to see the same individuals back each year plus a few new ones. New this year was as 2nd resident Great Hammerhead. I was a great day to be able to capture both species in photo – we see it underwater, but to get them all in one frame is not easy.
It is not fair to rank the Whale Shark Aggregation low on my favorites list because year after year it consistently gives us many many whale sharks, mantas in clear warm water. I am privileged to a part of this for 10 years now. My favorite is when a whale shark goes into “bottle feed” position. I have even had 360 videos as I swim around the shark who is in vertical position.
The seasons in South Africa give a different color scheme to the photos. In spring the colors are soft yellows and browns as the grass has not yet come alive. Every plant and animal is waiting for the first rains of season. This time of year can give us more predator action as they prey on animals weakened by lack of grass to eat. We had so many great encounters – I chose this hippo because his grunt always makes we laugh. 2020 & 2021 Safaris
Sailfish in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
For many years I have visited and photographed the sardine run on the eastern side of Mexico at Isla Mujeres. The clear warm water makes for some great video and photography action. Now that I have experienced the billfish on both the east (Isla / Cancun) and west (Magdalena Bay) I can compare the two. The sailfish are very graceful and their flashing colors and sails waving up and down is very dramatic. In 2020 I will only be visiting Baja for billfish
Grizzle Bears in BC, Canada
In summer 2019 I was able to go on a scouting trip to photograph grizzles from a boat. We had great encounters with mothers & cubs, a territorial male, a huge male bear, and serene moments with bears feeding on grass. This was a very special trip and staying on a boat in this remote area.
I am working on offering this special experience as a future trip.
Namibia Road Trip, Southern Africa
I completed an overland tour of Namibia after my September Safaris. This country is very different to where I hold my safaris: less wildlife but unique and awe inspiring views everywhere. It was a chance to work on my wide angle and landscape photography.
American Crocodiles of Chinchorro, Mexico
For the 3rd year I traveled to the remote Chinchorro Atoll and stayed in a rustic fishing hut in order to have close encounters with American Crocodiles. Thanks to the expert crew we were all able to do this safely. We spent our “down time” diving on the pristine reefs and eliminating the invasive lion fish.
Thank you to all the great people who made 2019 special for my guests and myself. I look forward to a great and exciting 2020
The annual aggregation of hundreds of whale sharks (Rhincodon
typus) off the coast of Isla Mujeres, a tiny little island near Cancun, Mexico
has been a must – do event among underwater photographers and marine wildlife
lovers. I have been sharing this great event with guests and underwater
photography for over 10 years now and
still find it a thrill and a grand opportunity for close up wildlife
encounters. This year was another great year with numerous whale sharks and
some giant mantas.
See Trip Details
I had two group trips this year: one in July and one in mid August.
Both groups were treated to many encounters, good weather and water conditions.
I want to thank all of this year’s guests for being such great participants: it
was a joy to host you.
My first group was a family of wonderfully fun, positive, and active
people. It was a first visit for most of them and it was exciting to see them
experience the magic for the first time.
My 2nd Whale Shark trip was combined with Crocodiles in
Xcalak. We enjoyed superb diving on pristine reefs in their marine
reserve and 2 nights in the remote fishing hut at the Chichorro Atoll with 3
days of in water encounters with the crocodiles. The group then transferred back
up to Cancun and Isla Mujeres for the whale sharks.
Many of these guests had joined my whale shark trip in the past:
they came back because they love the atmosphere, relaxing days on the boat, the
fresh ceviche, all the great food and sites on Isla Mujeres. The first time
guests were excited to see so many whale sharks in one place and without the
burden of scuba gear.
I schedule our trips at the peak of the season. In both July and
August the weather was great with smooth water, great visibility and hundreds
of whale sharks which were easy to find each day. For both our first and second
week of guests, the water was clear and flat. Not even one day of bad weather
or cloudy water! Very special.
At least one day with each group the crew were able to find schools of mantas. Most
times there were no whale sharks in the area, just the mantas, but one of the encounters
had the mantas right with the whale sharks. This was a wonderful chance to get
a manta and whale shark together in a single image.
Like most days, we had this encounter to ourselves with no other
boats near us. The mantas did their ballet of loops and plunges before moving
off out of our range. It was time to return to shore so we came home very happy
Canon 5D MKIIII
15mm fisheye lens
17 – 40mm Lens
Go Pro in underwater housing with short grip handle
iPhone or Panasonic for topside and island photos
I use a Canon 5D MKIIII in an Nexus housing for my underwater
work. It is full frame and I like the quality video capabilities. Due to the
size of the whale sharks I am using a Canon 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens. I visited
the crocodiles before the whale sharks, so I also had a 17 – 40mm lens, but I
prefer working the results of the fisheye for whale sharks.
I looked at my shooting data in Lightroom from my 10 years of
whale shark images and most fall into
the below settings ranges.
Typical Settings Using full Manual Mode
500 typically but ranging between
400 – 640
F8 – F9
I like to photograph the feeding motion of the mouth from a 3/4
profile angle. The idea here is to capture the turbulence of the water as it
flows into the mouth. The whale sharks have a natural behavior where they hang
vertical in the water and feed on the krill at the surface. We call this “botilla
– bottle feeding”. It makes for a great
portrait aspect ratio photo and the action usually lasts several minutes; so
the photographer does not need to swim to keep up, rather move around the WS to
get different sides.
How this Trip Works
The whale sharks arrive in large numbers every summer to feed on
the abundant supply of plankton and bonito eggs. For me it was an incredible
experience to be in the warm blue water with these beautiful and graceful
creatures. On several peak days hundred whale sharks would congregate in the
space of a couple soccer fields. I have photographed whale sharks in locations
around the world (Honduras, Mozambique, Western Australia), but never had the
experience of being in the water with such a large aggregation and the large
individuals who seemed unfazed by my presence.
Our boats leave from Isla Mujeres, just a short walk or golf
cart ride from our beachfront hotel. The 10 passenger boats are comfortable for
our groups of 6 or 7 and they are fast, provide shade and storage, and smooth
while cruising. Our boat captain and crew were excellent at finding whale
sharks each day, sometimes just a short 40 minute boat ride. Sandwiches and
snacks are on the boat with us so we are set to spend most of the day at sea.
Regulations require we depart the whale sharks between 2pm – 3pm, but this gives us plenty of time to
enjoy our swimming. After long day on the water we would head back to Isla
Mujeres but not before eating some ceviche freshly prepared while we were busy
with the whale sharks. Once back at the hotel, we have a relaxing time in the
hotel pool , a cleanup and download , and a delicious dinner out in town at one
of many great restauants.
One afternoon we took the golf carts to the opposite end of the
island where they have a zipline, a scenic park, and iguanas. There are many
shops to pick up snacks and drinks. Each night we had a delicious meal at
restaurants ranging from Mexican tacos to pizza, Mediterranean, and Cuban.
After our 4 days on the whale shark boat, some of the guests returned to Cancun
and did scuba dives in the Mayan cenotes and toured some of the ruins.
Another Magical Season Wraps Up
Swimming in this aggregation in the Gulf of Mexico was not like
other times I have encountered whale sharks in other waters: we would hold in
an area where there were 4 -5 visible then wait until they passed close and get
in the water with them. They did not seem too agitated by our presence or the
splash of our fins. This is an event
that delivers a great guest experience and images year after year. If you love being in the water and have not
experienced this, you must do it. I have
many guests who return year after year for the awesome whale sharks, but also
for the fun of Isla Mujeres, great food, and friendly people and guests.
I will be returning next year:
Check my website for dates and available spaces.
This year was characterized by the number and quality of giant manta ray sightings we enjoyed. Our guests were very happy to be able to get in the water with groups of them on several occasions. Our boat captains have become quite good at finding mantas while on our way to the whale shark aggregation.
We enjoyed great weather on most of the days. One of the days we returned at the end of the day in a storm, but we have always been lucky to avoid any tropical storms by visiting in July. The whale sharks were at peak numbers and very concentrated around food sources which lay on the surface.
The guests had many chances to get in the water each day with the whale sharks enjoying clear water and calm seas. The whale sharks were feeding on the surface making it easy to snorkel and to make great images.
It is special to see a whale shark feed in a vertical position: the locals call it “bottle feeding” . This can last for quite a while with the whale shark pumping its mouth open and closed close to the surface in order to draw in large volumes of water. A majestic spectacle!
In more than 8 years of visits this one stands out as one of the best. I had the company of some great people, Mind blowing wildlife encounters, some good food and drink, and great photography.
I will return again in 2019 with a new group of people to share this must do, awesome experience with.
Get Details about my 2019 Trip
I will also be pairing this trip with American Crocodiles in Chinchorro, Mexico (a few hours S. of Cancun)
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 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: XTC Dive Center, 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. This year they were training a new guide to work with the guests and crocodiles.
The weather was very nice and calm for our visit. The hurricane season has so far been quiet this year. We started out at the beautiful beachside resort in Xcalak for some amazing dives. The reefs are healthy and colorful with many fish. Again this year we found ourselves watching a manatee as we dived.
We made the crossing to Chinchorro on our 3 day in Xcalak. The water was smooth on the way out. At the fish huts we found that the water would change from a tea green hue to a clear blue color depending on the tide level.
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.
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 and I slept in hammocks in the huts and delicious food was 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). Since there are fishermen in the other huts, we also had the chance to buy fresh catch from passing fishermen to make a special, though rustic feast.
When the crocs come in as per their daily schedule, we would go in pairs into the water with our guide and the junior guide to watch over our safety and to manipulate the bait. They are really good at reading the crocs and they are able to get the croc into different poses so we get a variety of good images.
It was a great trip and everyone came away with some great images. It was certainly a great time being relaxed and unplugged out in the remote marine environment. We returned to Xcalak for another day of diving and a return to Cancun. Some of the guests joined me for the Whale Shark Aggregation on Isla Mujeres.
The Whale Sharks were Extra Special this year and loads of Manta Rays!
We spent 4 days on the water and 5 nights on Isla Mujeres for the Whale Shark Aggregation. Always a fun place with great food, we had nonstop whale shark encounters to keep us busy on our 4 days on the water. We also had great manta sightings . The water was clear and blue and the weather was very nice with mostly flat water throughout my 3 weeks in
Find out more about the whale shark portion of the trip: Whale Sharks
Photography & Video tips, Equipment, Techniques, and Best Settings
Useful for photographers with DSLR, Mirrorless, Compact, and GoPro Cameras
Whale Sharks are the biggest fish in the sea and likely the largest living thing you have ever shared the water with. Even knowing how big they are and seeing them from the surface before getting in does not prepare you for the underwater experience: what is on the surface is only the tip (or fin) of the iceberg. Their casual effort at swimming and their tenacious feeding effort is an awesome experience and you will want to capture all of this plus your emotional response to their size in your photos. This guide will give you some pre-travel advise on how to prepare.
This guide is written based on my experiences with whale sharks in the Cancun region of Mexico at Isla Mujeres.
Divers, free divers, and snorkelers can also swim with whale sharks all over the world including Sea of Cortez Mexico, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Honduras’ Utila, Cebu in the Philippines’, and Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay.
I have had many seasons of swimming with whale sharks to experiment and perfect techniques. I have changed techniques over the years as my cameras have evolved and my creative goals changed from year to year. With the addition of video to my DSLR camera and the rise of GoPros, I have allocated more in water time to video.
Photography Equipment for Photographing Whale Sharks
A wetsuit is required by the regulations. It also keeps the sun off and protects somewhat from marine creatures.
Consider a hood or lifeguard beanie for sun protection – a colored beanies is also a great safety device which will help the crew keep you in view if you get further afield.
Sunscreen, sunglasses, and coverups for on the boat.
Don’t forget a protective bag and sun coverup for your camera
Whale sharks are huge and it is possible to get close to the subject. Using a fisheye lens will let you get the whole fish in the image and capture some detail
Select the widest lens you have – ideally a fisheye prime or fisheye zoom lens: both will give you up to a 180-degree field of view with a reduced minimum focus distance. When you get as close the shark as you can (without violating any regulations) you will get the whole thing in. Compared to photographing other moving subjects like dolphins and sailfish, the drag caused by your large dome port will not be a huge factor. Whale sharks are moving, but more at a walking pace than a running pace.
Fisheye lenses like a 10 – 17mm will be the most popular, especially on crop sensor cameras. Full frame shooters can use the lenses such as the Sigma 15mm or the Canon 8-15 circular fisheye.
Underwater photographers using Olympus E-PL and OM-D cameras will opt for the popular 8mm fisheye lenses.
Compact camera users will need to use a fisheye wet lens on top of their camera’s built-in lens.
The wet lens increases the field of view (up to 165 degrees). Without a wide lens, compact users will not be able to get the whole shark in the photo or be too far away: the wide angle lens reduces the minimum focal distance so the photographer can get much closer and still fit the subject into the frame.
Wet lenses require the user to check for and release bubbles around the wet lens each time you get in the water.
A compact camera or phone camera is a great addition for shooting fun shots, cultural features around town, and people. You can then leave your DSLR in the housing without worry about resetting o-rings and seals.
GoPro shooters should be able to record great underwater photo and video of whale sharks without any additional lenses. The shallow depth and natural light mean that you will not need to add a red filter. You might want a polarizer for on the surface though. Using a handle or mount to hold the GoPro can help steady the shot, but beware of rules governing the use of “selfie sticks” – it is prohibited to use a stick to go closer to the animal than the rules allow and rules may have changed to prohibit them altogether.
When snorkeling or freediving with whale sharks, strobes are often unnecessary given the amount of available light at the surface. It’s also against local regulations to use strobes in these situations for fear of startling or harming the animal. Make sure to ask your dive guide about the local rules.
The bulk of the strobes can hinder your swimming and the movement may make it difficult to keep them aimed properly with little time to fix them once you are face to face with the large subject that is coming straight at you.
You may wish to have a strobe for topside shots
DSLR, Mirrorless and Compact shooters have a number of shooting mode options to choose from.
My method is to start with some manual settings and change them as the daylight changes. Most of my images are at ISO400 with some ranging from ISO320 to ISO640 on cloudy days or when I go deeper under the surface (such as for mantas)
My shutter speed stays at 1/250sec or more . You must be able to shoot at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action.
Mostly I shoot manual adjusting the aperture to suit the conditions. Shutter Priority would be a 2nd choice to full manual
My Canon 5D IV has very good options for pattern metering mode.
Using the Ambient Light
I try to pick my subjects based on not shooting directly into the sun. This is not always successful, but if I can get a whale shark with the sun to my back it improves the chances for a great shot.
When swimming with whale sharks, you will want to be as mobile and nimble as possible. Since the whale sharks are feeding at the surface you can shoot entirely with ambient light. As stated before, strobes are not permitted and would slow you down anyway.
The whale sharks are swimming they could change direction at any moment, so pay very close attention to their movement to avoid touching them or being run over.
When using the wide angle lenses such as those with 180 degree coverage, watch that your fins do not get in the shot!
You do not need great freediving skills, but being able to stay underwater at 2 – 10 feet will give you a shooting angle of slightly upward and can help mitigate the effects of very bright and direct light.
Practice before your trip to increase your underwater time and clearing your ears. Even breath holding exercises on land can help you be prepared for the day.
Being able to freedive to 20 feet will give you the options of silhouettes and sun burst shots.
Types of Images to Try
Catching the wide open mouth during feeding either from the front, side, or ¾ angle
Add drama to the feeding image by getting details of the water flowing into the mouth
Position yourself ahead of the shark and wait for it to approach. While photographing, move off to the side to get ¾ angle as it goes by. If it is too late to move, quickly submerge and swim to the side letting it pass over you. You do not want to get “bonked” – those fins are hard and rough.
One of the most dramatic images you can take of a whale shark is with its mouth wide open in the middle of feeding. This is common in Isla Mujeres, where the sharks shift into a vertical position to feed, called a “botella.” You will use every bit of your wide lens to capture this. The good part is that they are not moving while in this position.
Above and Below
When photographing the whale shark near the surface, try capturing a split shot with the fish underneath and the topside scene above. In some cases, the above subject might be boring: Just clouds or sky. But in other locations, you may be able to capture unique interaction with fishermen, either in a boat or on a floating platform.
Make a Complete and Varied Portfolio
Make sure to thoroughly describe your subject in both shape & form and behavior.
You will get chances to get a tail shot as the whale shark swims past you into the distance.
Getting lower in the water, looking up that the subject adds variety and drama to your image collection.
If a whale shark is below the surface, get an image of its back from above. The spots are one of the most interesting features of the whale shark.
Shooting up at the whale sharks creates a beautiful image. A whale shark is a unique shape (negative space) which makes a very interesting from above or from below shot. To capture a sunburst, make sure to stop down your aperture (f8 on compact, f18 on mirrorless, f22 on DSLR) and use a fast shutter speed to trim the amount of light getting in.
Take images with people as part of the composition
Remove distracting elements such as other people in water by moving off to a whale shark with no other people around it. There are usually enough sharks around for everyone to get their own without getting too far from the boat.
Use a person for a sense of scale, but be careful to have them isolated against the water, not positioned between you and the whale shark so as to cover part of the subject. The best compositions will have the whale shark with a person below and behind or in front of the approaching whale shark.
Try adding a person to a silhouette. This will take some consultation with your model and a plan with signals and most likely several tries to get it right.
Whale Sharks are easily accessible and comparatively easy large marine subjects to photograph
The techniques are easily practiced and perfected while on my Whale Shark Photography Workshop. With 4 days on the water we can experience all light conditions and move around to find the best areas of the aggregation and even search for mantas feeding on the same food patches. Back at the hotel, photographers have time and a safe place to download and review photos. Shots missed can be attempted the next day and successes shared with others to inspire their next days shooting. The little amount of equipment needed and streamlined snorkel kit make this trip easy to pack for. Abundant wildlife and the welcoming and fun nature of Isla Mujeres make this trip a must do for all underwater photographers.
Information about my Whale Shark and Manta Trips (and all of my photography trips) can be found on www.GregorySweeney.com
My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.! We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.
Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites. It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.
The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography. Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass. We had no trouble finding them in short order.
This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5
We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning. Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us. If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.
Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming. No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland. We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time. By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining. Some private time!
Giant Manta Rays
We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks. We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas. It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.
A Great Trip Out of the Water Too
We would return to the island in the late afternoon. It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time. We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.
The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway. It all ended too soon: this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.
I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year. They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.
Isla Mujeres is a great base for your Whale Shark Adventure
After a day out on the water with the Whale Sharks and Mantas, it is great to relax and dry out with a walk around through the streets of Isla Mujeres. Lined with fun shops and great restaurants, it is safe and full of the festive feeling of Mexico.
Great Places to Eat
After many years of leading Sailfish and Whale Shark trips to Isla Mujeres, I have found some really great restaurants both formal and hole in the wall. I think I can say I have never had a bad meal here and in fact had many great ones and all at a great or reasonable value.
Here is a few of my favorites:
Olivia (Mediterranean and Vegetarian)
Count the Whale Shark Murals
In the last few years, murals of whale sharks, sailfish, and mantas have sprouted up all over town. It is a great street photography outing to find and photograph the best all over town.
Unique Shopping – Bazaar and High End
The colorful shops are full of handmade Mexican items ideal for souvenirs and gifts to take home.
For a day off, there are beaches perfect for swimming and sunning: there might even be a hammock with your name on it. Picture a pool with a view of the beach. A ride to the south of the island takes you to a park and ruins. Numerous dive shops will give you opportunities for diving around the island. The Underwater Statue Museum is a unique experience.
Most come for the unequalled marine wildlife encounters, but Isla Mujeres is a holiday destination by itself.
Basking Sharks are the 2nd biggest fish in the ocean. (whale sharks are the biggest)
A basking shark can grow to over 10m (33 ft) long and weight several tons. Their mouth can open 1 metre wide for feeding on plankton. They filter fed on the plankton by sieving out the minuscule animals from the water column using special gill rakers. These rakers are specially adapted bone which sit in the sharks gills and act in a similar fashion as baleen in fliter-feeding whales. They are efficient and can filter up to 1.5 million litres of water her hour.
Scotland has some of the richest cold waters in the world and every spring the oceanic and weather cycles create optimal conditions for explosive blooms of plankton. The sharks migrate from their winter feeding grounds to feast on the plankton and for mating.
Historically basking sharks have been a staple of fisheries because of their size, (former) abundance, and slow movement. Today basking sharks are still hunted all over the world for their livers containing a vast amount of oil. The oil is used in cosmetics, perfume and lubricants. Synthetics and conservation efforts have stopped the hunting in some places and they are now protected. They are also victims of the shark fin trade.
Basking Sharks are a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all of the world’s temperate oceans. In additon they prefer to swim close the shore and also enjoy swimming near the water’s surface swimming at a slow pace while they filter. They travel through the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Atlantic ocean, sea of Japan, New Zealand, and Southern Australia. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are great places to spot them as well. At times they travel in groups of about 100 but also are most often seen traveling alone.
Like many sharks, ovoviviparous basking sharks develop embryos which first rely on a yolk sac with no placental connection and develop inside the female. Gestation is unknown but might be a year or more. The small young are born fully developed at 1.5 – 2m. From the only pregnant mother ever caught we learned that the brood can be six pups. The lifespan is not known. Experts estimate about 50 years.
This article appeared in Issue #87 of Underwater Photographer Magazine UWPMag.com
Northeast off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico lies the small island of Isla Mujeres. The island is approximately five miles long and one half mile at is widest point. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island offers beaches, scuba diving, and a relaxing place to shop and dine. In the summer months the island plays host to guests drawn in by the whale shark ecotourism trips. Guests travel out into the Gulf of Mexico and snorkel with the gentle giants. If they are lucky they also may encounter giant manta rays.
Isla Mujeres is best known for wintertime fishing and game fishing of sailfish. The sailfish attract many fishermen, but also underwater photographers. Watching the great coordinated predation of the bait balls is a thrill and photographing it underwater is challenging but rewarding. The sailfish work together as a fast moving team to keep the baitfish tightly packed in the bait ball. Being in the water to witness during this action is as exciting as catching a sailfish on the rod.
Adding to the adventure of Isla Mujeres is the chance to see shortfin mako sharks up close. Captain Anthony Mendillo is now offering this opportunity to photographers and shark fans during the winter season.
Captain Anthony was the pioneer of the sailfish freediving experience. Also he was involved in early efforts too preserve the sailfishing industry. The fishermen of Isla Mujeres all agreed to a Code of Conduct that only allows traditional fishing methods.
The same spirit of sustainability and responsible tourism extends to the whale shark trip and to the mako cage dives.
Capt Anthony and crew have worked with Guy Harvey Research Institute to catch, tag, and release Makos, which are then tracked to add valuable and previously unknown details about the timing and long distance migratory movements of this vulnerable species. This experience has added greatly to the knowledge of the Mexico shortfin mako population and their overlap with other populations tracked by the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Close interaction with the makos has also taught the crew the secrets of location, behaviors, bait preference, and seasonality. This know-how leads to a 70% success rate for attracting makos to the boat.
The makos in this area of the Caribbean are large compared to those in some other locations. Average sizes for shortfin makos are 3.2 m (10ft) in length and 60 – 135 kg (132 – 298lb). The Isla Mujeres population averages in the top of that range at 114 kg (250lb). Shortfin makos are a beautiful and photogenic fish in brilliant metallic blue and a white underside. They inhabit offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide and this pelagic species can be found from the surface to depths of 150m (490ft) normally far from land, though occasionally around islands or inlets. Makos are seldom found in waters colder than 16’c (61’F)
Makos are curious and feel and taste everything with their mouth including the cages, floats, transom, and midwater bait or other targets. Their prey is cephalopods and bony fish including bonitos and swordfish. They hunt by lunging vertically up and tearing off chunks of flank or fins. Makos swim below their prey and have a high probability of reaching prey before it is alerted due to their high velocity. Makos are the fastest species of shark. This speed and hunting method makes Makos one of only a few shark species to accomplish a full breach out of the water as part of its predatory attack. Captain Anthony has observed makos of all sizes doing this full breach behavior and he has developed methods to allow guests to see and photograph the breaches.
Our boat is the very comfortable Keen M , a 41 ft custom Michael Fitz Sportfish with a 580 hp diesel. We leave the dock on Isla Mujeres in the early morning and head to the waters North of the island. The cage is mounted on the back. Once we reached the deep 400 ft water, the trolling lines are baited. No hooks are used so as not to hurt the shark. It did not take long to attract a shark. When it hit the bait its whole body launched out of the water like a rocket and with tail flapping did a nearly complete flip smacking back into the water on its side with it prize in mouth.
I have my camera set to burst mode with a fast shutter of 1/1250 sec. I will only get a few frames per leap and it happens with little warning. A shout comes from a crewmember and I press my shutter capturing the full breach.
With a confirmed shark in the area, bait crates are set around the boat and scum scent slick started behind the boat. Now it is time to deploy cage in the water.
The cage adds a safety factor for the guests and piece of mind for the captain. This area is subject to wind, current and the boat is constantly drifting. Using the cage eliminates the worry that guests will drift too far from the boat or let go of the line drifting quickly out of sight of the boat and crew. Without the worry of where the guests are, the crew can concentrate on keeping the makos close to the boat and interested; coaxing them into the best position for observation and photos.
Engineered to be similar to the cages used in South Africa for great white shark encounters, this one has room enough for 2 people. It sports bars of stainless steel and aluminum with a solid floor and a top protected with bars. The cage floats a bit above the surface of the water to enable communication with the boat if needed. At eye level on the sides and front are clear panels made of Lexan polycarbonate sheet. The front has two open ports for cameras.
Captain Mendillo has experimented with different ways to rig the air supply to the cage: They tried bottles in the cage, but now opt to leave the bottles in the boat and run hookah lines to the people in the cage. This allows monitoring of the air supply and leaves more room in the cage for the guests.
Using a tether, the cage is floated 2m away from boat so the shark can do a complete 360’ around the cage.
In the cage I am able to see the makos up close and swimming very calm and curious right in front of me. They come to the bait floating nearby first to investigate then to strike. They even investigate the cage on a few passes. As the large eye connects with me I feel secure in this strong cage.
The makos will stay with the boat and cage for extended periods. Some encounters have been 3 hours long with the same shark staying with the boat feeding and circling. Our mako stayed for almost an hour doing many passes by the cage and boat. I am able to get great shots of the full shark passing by either the side or the front of the cage. As the mako comes close to check out the cage I get some close up and front opportunities. Later back on the boat it is still circling and I get some topside shots of attacks on the bait to add to my breaching shot. Capt Anthony has seen guests achieve great images with everything from professional cameras and video rigs to GoPros on a stick.
Hunting for and photographing shortfin mako was a fun and productive day. I returned with great underwater images from the cage and spectacular breaching shots from the boat. The cage experience is exciting: the sharks come close and stay close making many passes and allowing time to get a variety of images and angles. The encounters are very engaging and guests can get a great experience even if they stay in the boat and forego the cage. It is a good feeling to know that a sustainable tourism activity is being built around this vulnerable sport fish. Since the season overlaps with sailfish season it is possible to get both of these exciting large fish on the same holiday using the same crew. It is thrilling enough to appeal to both photographers and fishermen.