RDF Media/National Geographic – Facing Jaws


Jason Isley – Underwater Cameraman, Facing Jaws

Sitting on a boat every day for 4 weeks waiting for sardines to arrive was one of the most frustrating experiences of my career. It was only the daily sightings of dolphins and migrating humpback whales that gave us something to focus our attention on. Although the humpbacks were breaching and appeared to be in a playful mood, they were extremely shy underwater. Positioning the boat ahead of their path and quietly slipping into the water without scuba was the only way we managed to obtain some underwater footage. From the many attempts at doing this we came away with only three quality shots, however the sight of these huge mammals slipping into the depths was awesome. On one occasion my over ambitious attempts to get a shot left me sandwiched between two large whales – before I had a chance to react a huge fluke swept past my body and created a surge that rocked me backwards, a close encounter that could have done some serious damage to myself and the camera!

The lack of action underwater meant we had lots of time on our hands, giving us the opportunity to explore the local environment above the waves. Of course this was done with camera in hand and both myself and Simon Enderby managed to get involved with some of the topside filming, something we rarely get the chance to do. South African cameraman Tim Chevallier gave some helpful hints and I became completely addicted to timelapse filming, often spending hours capturing a single scene. This opportunity was a valuable experience, especially as we had both Chevallier brothers to pass on their in-depth knowledge, and seeing some of our sequences used in the final production was very satisfying.

On the last day of filming we finally managed to get out to sea and find what we had been waiting for – the sardine action. As we travelled down the coast in the boat, the number of gannets increased, dolphins were leaping from the sea in every direction and we even saw a couple of playful cape fur seals. Expectations were growing as we were directed by the microlight to the first bait ball, however my first few dives were not what I had expected. Common dolphins were buzzing through and a single cape fur seal frequently dived down amongst the sardines, but there was only one copper shark and he quickly disappeared – hardly the underwater mayhem I had expected to see.

Then news came from the microlight that there was some ‘bigger’ action a little further north, and we headed off towards the clouds of diving gannets. Dropping into the cold, murky water I teamed up with Andrew my safety diver, positioned close to my back ready to push away any overzealous sharks with his spear gun. As we approached the bait ball the number of sharks increased, the dolphins got louder and louder and I began to hear strange explosive sounds like bombs or rifle cracks – it was the noise of the gannets hitting the water from above. We were 10m deep and the birds were coming down around our heads – my concern soon shifted from the sharks to the thought that I might surface with an unlucky seabird impaled in my head!

This was it! After 5 weeks I was finally in the thick of it – underwater mayhem, with sharks cruising over my shoulder, dolphins slicing through the bait ball, seals buzzing around and gannets dive-bombing from above. There was so much happening it was difficult to concentrate on one scene, and I would find myself filming a seal picking off sardines, switching to a shark bursting through the fish and all the while trying to capture the dolphins bubble netting from below. The fish were frantically trying to avoid predators coming from every direction and they suddenly headed towards us, something other photographers had warned me about. As the school swirled around our bodies the visibility got worse and soon the predators came even closer, with scant regard for our presence within their hunting ground. I felt Andrew’s hand on my shoulder and knew we had to descend immediately to get out of danger. Dropping towards the bottom, the bait ball danced overhead before quickly disappearing into the gloom, followed by the hungry sharks and dolphins.

We had just had 10 minutes of the most amazing, frantic feeding frenzy I have ever seen. As I swam to the surface with Andrew my heart was still pounding – I had been so focused on the filming I had not realized just how nerve racking the whole experience had been.