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
Sailfish and Sardine Run in the Gulf of Mexico off Isla Mujeres, Mexico
In a few days I will be heading to Mexico to photograph the Sailfish.
This is a challenging photographic situation: the fish are fast, the baitballs in chaos, birds diving at the surface, action all around. It is well worth it to witness this spectacle. The images can be exciting and beautiful capturing a dramatic natural spectacle.
Please enjoy this gallery of my sailfish images from the past years. I look forward to sharing my images from my upcoming trip.
These images were taken with my Canon 5D MKII and MKIII in an underwater housing .
The lenses I used were a EF15mm F2.8 Fisheye and an EF 16-35mm f2.8 . While I found an equal number of good photos taken with both lenses, for this year’s trip I will just take the 16-35mm. I base this decision on the fact that I have to get very close with the fisheye and given the speed of these animals and the choas, it is difficult and if I miss the sweet spot I get distortion of the fish’s body shape.
Each year I pull together a collection of images that summarize all of the wildlife photography and wildlife encounters I had this past year. This year I thought I would try a theme of Black and White / Monochrome.
There are many tools that will help you process your digital images into monochromatic images; Photoshop, Lightroom, and numerous third party and plugin softwares. Even within Photoshop and Lightroom there are dozens of ways to achieve the black and white look and spirit.
For this collection of images I challenged myself to use many of the different techniques available to me in the Photoshop and Lightroom toolset.
The first challenge was which images to choose: not every image is powerful in monochrome / Black & White. Contrast, range of tonality (black to highlights), sharpness , and separation of subject and background / features are all important for making a successful monochrome image. Color can be necessary to understand the subject and the setting, but sometimes it is just a distraction. It is these times when the image can be elevated by removing the color (or most of it)
Here are the highlights of my year and a bit about how I processed the images.
March: Tiger Sharks and Caribbean Reef Shark, Bahamas
Processed in Photoshop: I want to use Quadtone: 4 colors assigned according to tonal range Black, shadows, whites, highlights. First change to 8 bit and Greyscale mode. Then choose Duotone Mode. I set 4 colors all in grays and browns and set the curves of each to assign them to a tonal range. I then used a Highpass filter to sharpen. Convert back to RGB before saving.
April – May: South Africa
June: Wild Dolphins in the Bahamas
July: Whale Sharks in Mexico
Sept – Oct: South Africa
I hope this has sparked your creativity and you will start to experiment and explore ways to enhance your photos in the monochromatic realm.
Some other posts about Post Processing and Black & White
The 2015 whale shark season is not yet over, but I have returned from 2 great weeks with my guests and their whale shark experience. We had great weather (one of the reasons I choose July) and whale shark encounters each day including several days with manta rays.
Our first few days the whale sharks were feeding just under the water. Over the next few days they were again feeding on the surface and easy to spot from in the water. This also facilitated some great topside images. The water color and clarity was variable as we tried different areas hoping to find mantas and whale sharks feeding on the surface. On occasion it was more blue-green and on other days we had crystal clear blue water.
Being in the water with whale sharks teaches you much about their life and role in the environment. One afternoon we witnessed schools of tevelli fish swimming close to the whale sharks; by their fins and mouths and even cowering underneath. The reason because clear when I heard dolphin squeaks underwater. A pod of 4 small but fast Atlantic spotted dolphin charged up to me, did 2 complete circles around me then raced on to confront the whale sharks. I saw a few fish meet their demise.
The giant mantas are my favorite to photograph. We would see the tell tale signs in the form of wingtips above the surface. When we dove in they were coming from all directions feeding at about 1.5m below the surface. Some had formed a convoy of 4 to 5 individuals all slowly flapping and scooping in food. A few times I was present to photograph their looping up and down feeding.
Each manta has a unique pattern on the underbelly. I donate all images I can get of these identification markers to the Manta Trust so they might add to their Caribbean database. It would be wonderful if some images from this season match individuals from last season.
Each day we left the dock in the morning and then returned in the mid afternoon around 3 or 4pm. While on boat we had comfortable space, shade, sandwiches and snacks. We could enjoy ourselves while the captain and crew placed us in the best areas for whale sharks and mantas. All boat cooperate to take care of the wildlife by limiting numbers of boats and people in the water around each group of whale sharks. At the conclusion of our swimming each day we enjoyed freshly ceviche specially prepared by the first mate before embarking back to Isla Mujeres.
When not on the boat we had comfortable hotel rooms with plenty of public spaces for relaxing and connecting with wifi. Restaurants are plentiful and very good and most are very affordable. We had many very excellent meals and the shopping was fun and diverse.
At the opposite end of the island is a part to explore and take in the rough coastline.
I will be hosting Whale Shark Trips again next year. I have again secured great boats and crew and rooms at the Playa Media Luna. Our boats are limited to 6 guests so space is limited
The newest release of Adobe Lightroom CC 2015 has a new tool called Dehaze which is stated to “dramatically improve images by removing haze”. I have been wondering if this tool is applicable to underwater situations that mimic haze (scatter and low vis).
In this demonstration I take a pretty good underwater image that feels a little “hazy” or “Milky” and apply the Dehaze tool like a secret weapon to see if it improves the sharpness of the image. I also compare it and combine it with the Clarity tool – another finishing touch secret weapon.
The Original Image
(click on photos to enlarge)
The Image with some Exposure, Curve, and Color adjustments
Adding the Clarity Adjustment
As per my usual method, I add the Clarity adjustment to the image right at the end of my process. The Clarity slider adds mid tone contrast, lending a sharpness to the image. I don’t normally Sharpen beyond the default setting unless I am presenting elsewhere besides on screen. If it is to be viewed very large or printed I get serious and sharpen in Photoshop.
I used a fair amount of Clarity to pop out details on the whale sharks face. It is a good effect and I am happy with the results.
Also you can see my Exposure settings from the beginning of my processing which back off the bright highlights (the white upper lip near the surface) and boosts some contrast in the mid tones on the body by separating Shadows and Whites, and adding darkest tones by decreasing the blacks. Not seen here are further adjustments to the Curves to manage the Highlights, but that is a different topic.
With a just a Dehaze adjustment – clarity set back to zero
Dehaze was a bolder effect, but similar to a Clarity, but I see a slight “enriching” of the colors as if the smarts behind this tool also effect a certain color range. I like the effect, but might have to follow it with a small color shift and a brightening of the water to maintain the contrast between water and shark.
A Similar Tool that does the Opposite – Luminance Noise
Getting rid of Luminance noise is effectively doing the opposite of what the Clarity and Haze are trying to do: add contrast vs remove contrast.
Luminance Noise is common in images taken in the dark. Underwater photos have scatter which in many cases can be treated like Luminance noise. There is also Color Noise, which can also happen in (commonly green) water, it is harder to fix. I applied a pretty heavy Luminance correction to “smooth” the water and remove what manifested as grain in the water.
The Luminance Slider is the amount of effect to apply
Detail is like telling what size of speck you want the tool to act on
Contrast is telling the tool how different the luminance of the speck has to be in order for the tool to act on it.
These tools take some trial and error to get it smoothed to your taste without going overboard and making it look smeared.
It will not work on all photos unfortunately and in extreme cases you will have to resort to blurring, masking, and advanced tools in PhotoShop.
You can also try the Adjustment brush to a specific area with the Clarity set to a negative value – anti clarity which can work like a gauze effect. I may explore this in another post one day.
End Results – Luminance Noise Adjusted Water plus Clarity only
End Results – Luminance Noise Adjusted Water plus Clarity & Dehaze
End Results – Luminance Noise Adjusted Water plus Clarity & Dehaze and a brightening of the water
To put back some brilliance in the water that the Dehaze took away, I brightened the water only in the Blue color channel. Any adjustment including just midtone adjustment would have effected the results of Clarity and Dehaze on the black, white, and grey colored whale shark which is where I wanted it. I dont need the technique on the water and it is uniquely blue compared to the whale shark, so using the Blue Luminance on the color channels allows brightening just in the water.
My conclusion is that i will use the Dehaze tool and further explore situations where I can use it.
The Manta Trust works to conserve manta rays through research, awareness and education.
They work all over the world to study and identify manta ray populations
Anyone who has photographed a manta anywhere in the world can contribute directly to their global research and conservation by submitting images and sighting encounters though a portal on their website: Contribute your Manta Images
They need images that best show the spots on the underside of the manta ray – this is how they identify individuals. With a growing database of individuals it is becoming possible to give you feedback about your sighting and a history of the individual.
The Manta Trust recently contacted me about a video compilation I posted featuring whale sharks and manta rays filmed off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. This lead to me submitting several dozen images of mantas from my collect to add to their research and database.
Karen Fuentes, Project Leader for Mexico, was so pleased with my images that she awarded me a Manta Certificate. I get to name one of the mantas I encountered in Mexico.
My manta is a Male and I chose the name Atarau – the New Zealand Maori word for Moonlight
Here is information about their project in Mexico:
I use Lightroom 3 primarily for organization and secondly for quick to medium difficulty adjustments. My advanced work and preparation for print are still done in PS. Many times LR is all I need to select photos, prep them for use on the web, and export them.
With all of these features and with more integration tools, added image adjustment capabilities, and printing options going into the program, it is easy to forget that LR is a database. Like all databases, it is only as good as the data is complete and detailed, but if you manage the detail you can create a powerful learning and efficiency tool.
I am a wildlife photographer and a habitual photographer who photographs in the same location over and over and with the same subjects. The conditions and sometimes fast action do not leave much time to fuss with settings and adjust. I do get some chances to experiment, but I want to be in the ball park when I enter the water or get in the game vehicle. This is where a little extra time in LR provides me with a valuable learning tool. I consult it before each trip and keep charts for each camera and lens as a quick cheat sheet based on real data.
Settings, time of image, flash use, and equipment are all recorded in the metadata automatically (make sure you adjust the time on your camera for time zones and daylight savings!) but I also enforce the discipline of recording the location in detail (for example: north corner or in canal), the sky and lighting conditions, and for underwater – the visibility. Next I will try to add tides to that. I also rate each photo before I do much adjusting to it and I keep all but the really embarrassing shots – at least until my disk gets full.
I have learned some surprising things such as all of my best manatee photographs happened between 9am and 9:30am. There was a significant drop off in number of quality shots before and after this time and the golden time ranges later as it gets later in the season. This makes sense due to the lengthening of days and the sunrise getting later. Knowing this, I no longer have to get up before dawn!
Using the Library Filter panel in LR I can use it like a query tool to see a count of images with the keywords I have chosen and combinations of the ISO, flash, rating, etc that I choose. The tool is not a perfectly flexible query tool but you can be clever with your keywords and how you record data to get it to track and measure what you are interested in. Maybe improvements to this will make it into a future release.
When I have my manatee workshop next week I will be able to look at the time, weather, and water conditions and recommend settings. I prepared the following chart using meta data in LR.
7am to 9 am
Cloudy and/or low visibility
1/80 – 1/100
Bright and clear visibility
F3.2 – f5.0
1/60 – 1/80
9 am – 10 am
Cloudy and/or low visibility
Bright and clear visibility
F4.0 – 6.3
1/80 – 1/125
10 am – 11:30
Cloudy and/or low visibility
ISO 500 – 320
F6.3 – 8.0
Bright and clear visibility
ISO 160ISO 250
F7.1 – f8.0F6.3
For use on my safaris, I am using the data to come up with animal specific settings given lighting conditions. Of course you can use the histogram on the camera screen and your experience to do the same thing, but many times I cant take the time to analyze and adjust in the field (while cageless with sharks or at a lion hunt) Thus is the nature of wildlife and sports photography.
If you needed another reason to keep you photos organized and properly loaded, taking this “big picture” look at a collection of images of your favorite subject is very rewarding.
Follow our adventures on safari in South Africa and underwater