Underwater seabird madness

Welcome to the second of my blogs. Recently, instead of damaging my feet on some crazy adventure (see previous blog), I have been a long term conservation volunteer on Lundy island in north devon, one of my favourite places. One of my ideas for this summer on Lundy was to try to photograph and film puffins, guillemots, and razorbills underwater. I’d seen a few photographers do this before, but as far as I know none of them had thought of doing it at sunset, and no one had done it on Lundy. I got the idea of photographing underwater at sunset from seeing an epic shot of a killer whale in the wildlife photographer of the year by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen, with golden sunlight bursting through the water. Although I think this image was taken just before the polar winter (when the sun is very low in the sky), I couldn’t see why the effect should be any different to a normal sunrise or sunset, so I was surprised that more photographers had not thought of doing this.

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The killer whale photo by Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen which inspired me to photograph guillemots at sunset.

 

So, before going to Lundy, I had the dream shot in my head: a puffin / guillemot / razorbill swimming down through golden rays of sunlight, with the bubble trail backlit by the sun.

When I arrived on Lundy there were loads of seabirds still around, and conditions were perfect (hot and sunny every day, so rubbish light during the day but a guaranteed awesome sunrise and sunset). On the first evening, I got in the water at around 6, was absolutely blown away by the beauty and awesomeness of seeing the auks diving underwater, and so used up all the camera battery by 9, at which point the light was getting seriously hot. So although it was a crazy experience, this first attempt did not produce the images I was after (I got some cool film though).

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One of the early pictures. The light is not as good as later in the evening, but you can see the “snorkelling” behaviour – swimming around on the surface with it’s head in the water to look for fish / investigate me.

For the first few weeks it was an absolute dream: I would slip into the calm water, swim around with the seabirds in absolutely unreal light, look into their eyes underwater, and watch the sun dip down over the horizon, with the birds silhouetted in front. The sunrise sessions were even better: I slept out under the stars (there is low light pollution on Lundy) in my bivvy bag near the north end of the island, was kept awake by manx shearwaters calling as they fly in to their burrows, woken up by peregrine falcons calling and the wailing sound of seals, and saw some deer before sunrise. I got in the water before 5am, and watched the sun rise whilst surrounded by puffins and guillemots (the razorbills were always far rarer, I think overall I only have a couple of images of them). Later on, when the wind changed to the west (the big seabird colony is on the west side) things became a bit dodgy in the evenings: climbing out onto the rocks amongst big waves, with one hand holding the camera and wearing flippers, was certainly an exciting, sometimes scary, and adrenaline fuelled experience, and it was incredibly lucky I didn’t smash the glass dome of the camera housing on the rocks. It was then even more annoying that I scratched it in an entirely non dangerous situation a few weeks later.

It was an absolutely mind bogglingly awesome and beautiful experience to swim with the seabirds. Watching them on the water at sunset is pretty cool, but beneath the water it is a whole new world. The low sun filters down through the waves, the guillemots swim towards me out of the gloom, through the golden rays of light, their bubble trails lighting up in the sun. Sometimes when I approached a large group, they would all dive at once, and there were as many as 20 all swimming around me. When they disappeared, I was surrounded by their criss-crossed bubble trails floating up to the surface. The groups often moved away from the shore throughout the evening, so I followed them out, reaching several hundred metres from the shore, in water too deep to see the bottom. There was no point of reference in the water, so it was absolutely incredible (apart from on some evenings there were actually massive swarms of jellyfish which got in the way of the photos, which was very annoying). The birds were so at home underwater, using their wings to fly underwater far more gracefully than they fly through the air. It was mental!

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A puffin – awkward on land and inefficient in flight but a swimming machine.

At first I focused solely on photographing them underwater, but when swimming around with them I kept seeing them silhouetted against the sunset. To get an image of this required a very high tech gadget – a raft which I made out of plastic bottles from the recycling. With this raft, and a slightly longer lens (you need a mega wide angle for underwater stuff), it was possible to take photos and video at a water level perspective with the sunset in the background. The issue was that with the longer lens, underwater shots were tricky and almost always looked rubbish, so each evening I would have to decide on one setup, and then later realise that the other would have been better. I also bought a cuddly toy puffin and tied it onto my head as a cunning disguise. Once, when I was swimming in an area with few birds, a puffin landed right next to me, so the trick worked, but most of the time I’m not sure it made much difference as they were very curious anyway.

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The raft for water level shots, and the toy puffin.

Despite some technical issues and a very large number of muck ups (basically an excuse for saying I was a crap photographer), there were a handful of images that I actually liked, and in my opinion they are by far the coolest images I have ever taken.

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Puffins at sunset. It’s annoying that the ones on the right are looking away though.

 

 

 

 

 

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A guillemot diving.
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A puffin as the sun drops over the horizon.
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The guillemot shot I had dreamed of (except that the sun is burnt out and the water is too green).

This experience was also the best ever. It was awesome to be immersed in the seabirds’ world, and experience the colony from their perspective. Often when watching wildlife we just look at the animals from a distance, seeing them in a very different way to how they see each other and how they experience the habitat. I felt that in this case, swimming around with the seabirds, seeing them fly overhead (a few times closer than a meter away), seeing them swim around me underwater, and at times being smashed around by large waves, I had experienced a part of their world. Millions of images must be taken of puffins on land, yet they only have to come to land to breed. Apart from breeding, they are really marine animals, perfectly at home on and under the sea. Hopefully some of the underwater images conveyed this.

I am also making a film about some of the wildlife on Lundy. Keep an eye on my Facebook page (Joshua Harris Wildlife Photography) or Instagram (@joshharriswildphoto) to see a few more of my photos, or check out the gallery on my website www.joshuaharriswildlife.co.uk/Lundy/ for a larger selection. Also watch out for my future blogs, the next one will be about the best memories of my time on Lundy.

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