Freediving with blue sharks is a dream come true for many divers. The irridescent blues of this slender and graceful creature make it seem to appear and vanish from another dimension as it moves through the shifting light of the ocean. It has long pectoral fins, which complement its narrow form, a pointed nose, and large eyes. Like other sharks, it is curious about divers, and will come close for a look.
The Azore Islands, located off Portugal in the North Atlantic Ocean, are convenient stop-overs for migrating oceanic sharks, and blue sharks congregate there in the summer months. Divers can rendezvous with them at the Condor Banks, located 35km off the island of Faial. The bank is about 180m deep, and has become a popular shark dive spot, having been the only place in the Azore Islands where fishing is prohibited.
Kurt Amsler said, “This place is definitely the best spot on the planet to freedive with blue sharks! The Condor Banks was the first protected area in the Azores Islands and the result of this decision is evident!”
The shortfin mako also migrates through here, and when it soars up from the depths, the blue sharks leave—the speed at which they can suddenly move is one of the intriguing things about them. But when the coast is clear again, the blues return.
Pictured in this article, freediving with blue sharks on the Condor Banks is Kurt Amsler, photographed by his friend, freediving champion Fred Buyle.
Photography while freediving requires physical fitness, but in many cases, it is the only way to get your camera in front of the subject. There are several photographers whose most spectacular underwater images are shot while freediving.
Without noisy bubbles, it is obviously easier to approach shy creatures and get within the camera's shooting distance. With experience, the animals tend to accept the presence of the photographer much sooner.
Freediving is also the only way for photographers to somewhat keep up with fast-moving animals such as marine mammals, sharks and other pelagic creatures—an undertaking that would be outright impossible while wearing cumbersome scuba gear.
Because the freediving photographer—in contrast to the scuba diver—swims considerable distances and moves about more, both the camera and diving gear need to be adapted to this style of diving. The camera must be as streamlined and compact as possible. In general, there is no need for a flash. If you cannot do without one, do with just one. The resistance from pushing a double flash configuration through the water column can be draining. It is cumbersome to position the rig in a hurry, and its appearance can intimidate the animals.
When photographing the classic freediving subjects such as large sharks, whales, dolphins, manta rays and other pelagic marine species, it is a general rule to stay in the upper water-regions where the ambient light is sufficient and no artificial light is needed.
Streamlining also applies to the diving equipment. Use a suit that fits snugly (one without wrinkles), a pair of long fins, a mask with a small volume, and a short simple snorkel.
Breathing and equalization also follows general freediving techniques but may have to be adjusted to the shooting situation. For example, it is impossible to calmly prepare for the dive while swimming alongside a whale shark. Proper freediving techniques should be learned and practiced beforehand. Freediving also carries risks, which is why you need to understand the physical and physiological theories.
The blue shark is non-aggressive towards humans. The only known attacks were the result of sharks feeling threatened or involved biting after a human captured the shark.
Blue sharks are found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters. They are a pelagic species that rarely come near shore but have been known to frequent inshore areas around oceanic islands and locations where the continental shelf is narrow. They prefer cooler water though, so they are often found in sub-tropical areas where it doesn’t get too warm. They are one of the few species of sharks that stick together in small groups. They also show a distinct hierarchy and often form large, all-male or all-female schools—groups which contain sharks that are about the same size. No one knows why they do this.
Despite not being sought after for consumption, it is estimated that 10 to 20 million of these sharks are killed each year as a result of fishing. The skin is used to make leather, and the liver contains a lot of oil. The blue shark is classified as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future due to overfishing and shark finning. ■
SOURCES: IUCN, WIKIPEDIA