Veteran freediver Darren Shields exchanged his speargun for a camera on a recent trip, and found it be as challenging – and rewarding – as spearing fish...
On a recent trip to the Bay of Plenty (which is quickly becoming the Bay of Depletion), I took along my little stills underwater camera and was lucky enough to find a gathering of scorpion fish – or ‘granddaddy hapuku’ as they are also known. These are often discarded by anglers, but cooked the right way, they have a similar flavour to crayfish. However, handling them the wrong way can end in lots of pain. They have some nasty toxic spines, especially behind the anal area. This big spine catches out many careless handlers, resulting in an injury that can bring a grown man to tears for a couple of hours.
The group I found appeared to be in mating mode. The water was relatively shallow at around 14 metres, and they were on a sand edge where it was quite clear. There was a bit of current which meant kingfish, maomao and even a small group of tuna passed through (we think this could have been small southern bluefin). It all made for an exciting dive.
The scorpions took exception to me invading their privacy, one opening its mouth and making a threatening approach on several of the dives I made to capture a few pictures. I got really lost in the challenge. I wanted to capture what they were doing and their colours but was well aware I could easily disturb them and have them swim off. The situation required very slow descents and ascents, then quietly laying on the bottom right beside them.
It was great fun trying to get as close as possible to the scorpion fish without disturbing them. The colours were beautiful.
It meant long breath holds. To do this, I lay very, very still on the surface, giving my body plenty of time to reoxygenate after each dive.
It’s particularly important, if you are learning to free dive, that you take time on the surface. Rushing the dive is a common error among new divers especially. Slow right down and relax. It’s better to do one long dive than three very quick ones with no bottom time. You will also scare all the fish away as your movements will be fast and erratic.
The scorpions did seem to get used to me after a bit and some wouldn’t even flinch with me up close. It was such a buzz and you can see some reasonable photos despite my limited ability and basic camera.
Earlier in the day I tried taking photos of golden snapper. They live deeper and beneath overhangs. This adds a few challenges, light being the main one. You need some natural light when shooting with basic cameras.
Golden snapper are hard photo subjects as they live deep and beneath overhangs.
The other issue was that I was taking the camera past its recommended depth, resulting in the camera sending me warnings and making it slower to take photos. I managed a few but there were plenty that had to be deleted.
I also took the time to try for shots of the other divers I was with to record the fish they speared underwater.
This is one of the hardest things with a point-and-shoot camera. It’s never in focus, and trying to coordinate with your mate underwater to get the right shot doesn’t often happen as you want it to. I find it easier to get a really good shot back on the boat with my iPhone.
It can be hard to get a good clear photo of a diver and their fish underwater.
For these shots you need to ensure the light is shining on the person and the fish, and that you ‘fill the frame’ by getting as close as possible. The person and the fish are the heroes – you don’t need all the background in the frame! You should also look for things like a fishing rod behind the person – clear that sort of stuff out of the photo to leave a clean background. Wash the blood off the fish and show the side with the least damage.
The thing we all want is a day of adventure and challenge. Once you have speared your dinner, a camera is an effective way to fix that itch. The challenge in taking the right photo can be far harder than spearing a fish. It can also be more rewarding if you end up with a great photo for the wall or capture that one shot of a rarely-seen fish. It also means you can target species you normally wouldn’t with a gun, giving you plenty of new challenges.
Why don’t you invest in a cheap point-and-shoot camera, and challenge yourself to see how many species you can capture on film in one day’s diving – perhaps 25, even 30 species? Give it a shot!
March 2022 - Darren Shields
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