It is said that the best way to swim with and video dolphins is to free dive with them. I’m not sure that’s true. There are of course occasions when marine mammals are very nervous of things they don’t understand. A diver blowing noisy bubbles would be one of those things. Let’s think about dolphins. They are extremely smart, a master of their environment. No matter if you are free diving or wearing an air tank, the dolphins know exactly where you are and quite possibly what you are.
As soon as you enter the water, what happens next is entirely up to the dolphins. If they want to play they will, if they are feeding, then you probably won’t be able to keep up with them. If they are simply hanging out then who knows?
There are occasions when free diving does seem to work better and allows for closer contact but this is not the golden rule. Not being a very good free diver I have always, where possible, used air tanks and mostly come away with great results. There are advantages and disadvantages to both free diving and scuba. As already mentioned free diving may on occasion let you get closer but air tanks give you a lot more time and you don’t have to surface for air just as things are starting to get good. Air tanks also allow you time to think about your sequence.
A good example of this is two very different films I have worked on with groups of Spotted Dolphins on the Bahaman Grand Banks.
The first occasion I met and filmed with them was from a boat that had very strict rules about how to behave when encountering dolphins. It was free diving only and absolutely no physical contact. We were to observe the dolphins in the wild, video what behaviour we could and that was all. I could understand this as people do get extremely self centred and start to chase and harass dolphins just to get that ‘dolphin experience’. So although a little frustrating, it made perfect sense to me for the rules of this particular boat to be so strict. We swam with the dolphins and filmed while free diving. We got some nice stuff and felt quite pleased at the end of the shoot.
It was two years later that I was sent to film the same groups of dolphins using another boat, only this time the approach of the skipper was very different indeed. As with the previous skipper two years previously, an association with the dolphins had been going on for many years, only here, play was the order of the day as well as observation.
Within the first day of being out at sea we came upon a group of fifty dolphins. It was one of those typical Bahaman Bank days. The sea was pond calm and clear. The golden sand below shimmered up through the two or six metres depth of water and the pale blue of it merged effortlessly on the horizon with the vivid blue sky.
The dolphin pod could be seen hundreds of metres away and were very slowly and deliberately cruising towards us. The camera gear had been ready on deck since the early hours of the morning, before we even left port, so I had a moment just to stand and look. It was like a perfect painting where all the colours, light, composition and animals are all meticulously placed in an impossibly wonderful arrangement. But this was real and I was spell bound.
But I was here to film so I picked up the camera and started with a few wide GV’s (general views) just to set the scene. Then as the dolphins came closer I went for a few mid shots and close ups. It was all so easy.
Then I noticed our skipper was sat on the back platform starting a petrol driven water scooter. Its 2 stroke engine coughed into life and was thrown into the water followed almost immediately by our skipper. I must confess to being more that a little surprised. Surely he doesn’t hope to get near them with that? Within seconds he was careering through the water surrounded by a very playful group of Spotted Dolphin. Noisily with protesting puffs of exhaust, the little scooter was weaving and dancing with the excited dolphins.
After a few minutes, the scooter was discarded and bobbed silently and alone while our skipper simply swam and played with the dolphins as they played just as enthusiastically with him. Having covered things from the surface it was at last time for me to get into the water. We had two cameras on the shoot and so one was dedicated to the underwater housing which meant I could get in without any delay. There was absolutely no need for any lighting under the high bright sun. Unlike our skipper I was wearing a tank. Within moments I was in the water spinning, tumbling and rolling, with dolphins doing the same all around me. Then after about half an hour of playing we all relaxed and simply chilled out together in mid water and on the shallow sandy sea bed. Now I was really getting some beautiful video. Gentle dolphin to dolphin interaction, mothers and calves, feeding, playing……. And most importantly of all for the premise of the film, human and dolphin together in perfect harmony and acceptance. You know, it’s quite hard to smile underwater and keep a regulator in your mouth.
I must say at this point that this particular encounter was not just a chance meeting. Our skipper had been developing a friendship with these dolphins for nearly 20 years. Slowly at first and then gradually evolving into personal contact and recognition from both man and dolphin as the years went by. It was wonderful to see and be part of. It was sharing, for a brief moment of time, an ocean with another species. It was a mutual attempt at understanding.
Needless to say the following few days resulted in some fantastic video of dolphin behaviour both human induced and natural. All done on scuba.
I do believe that success in filming animals in the wild is greatly a state of mind. Be relaxed, non threatening, understanding and when possible try to get the attention and curiosity of the animals you are filming. Give them the opportunity to look at you.