As the week of SNAP Retreat was drawing to a close (see Bahamas Part I), I was on the hunt for one last thing. With all the storms taking place all week (something every local described as a very odd occurrence), I hadn’t gotten a chance to shoot underwater hardly at all. When Katie Storr (one of the attendees and a killer underwater photographer herself) mentioned she might be able to put something together with underwater statues (um, what?) and sharks (okay seriously, what?), I was ecstatic.
She put me in contact with Liz Parkinson of Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas, and I honestly don’t remember much after that. Katie was surely getting annoyed with having to constantly repeat the details of where we were being picked up, what to bring, where we were going, but guys, sharks and underwater statues. I was like a giddy kid that just heard we were going to Disneyland in the morning. I couldn’t focus.
The Stuart Cove shuttle picked us up in front of the Melia. There were 10 of us in total, myself, Andy and Katie being the only photographers. We signed all the required documents and release forms while we were en route, and once we arrived, they took us aboard another boat to suit everyone with fins and snorkel gear. We only had a couple people with any snorkeling experience, but no worries, the crew was clear and helpful.
After we were all fitted we made our way to our new boat and we were off! Our captain, Jahrian, hooked up some music and before you knew it we were skimming across open ocean, everyone taking in the salt spray and sun on our faces, not to mention some really interesting info about the area. Did you know this place is basically underwater Hollywood? They’ve filmed a ton of movies out here, including Flipper, Cocoon, Into The Blue, L’Odyssee, Jaws IV, Splash, two James Bond movies (Thunderball and Never Say Never Again), and plenty more. I was in heaven.
Soon we were at the site of the underwater statues and Liz pointed to the flag sticking out of the water. “That’s right about her shoulder,” she said and gave us a bit of background information on “Ocean Atlas” as she called her. The statue was one of many built by Jason deCaires Taylor, is about 20 feet tall, weighs about 60 tons, is the largest underwater sculpture known to exist and is made to look like she is carrying the ocean on her back, much like the classic “Atlas”. Over time these statues grow plants and provide shelter for the marine life in the area, but the Stuart Cove staff also plant some additional coral to help the process along. It’s a beautiful thing.
I got my camera housing ready, strapped on my goggles, slipped into the water and took off toward the flag. After a week of storms the water was a bit cloudy, which kept the statue hidden until the very last second. I crept closer and closer to the flag, becoming more excited with each kick. All at once I reached the flag, the water cleared up and there she was, her massive stone face looking up at me through the water.
I don’t think I’ve felt anything like that before. I’d surely never been in the presence of underwater statues before, and even though I knew what to expect – I’d seen pictures and video and Liz and Katie had described her perfectly – I just wasn’t ready. It was eerie and breathtaking and majestic and a bit terrifying all at once. It took me a second for my brain to register I was making eye contact WITH A FREAKING 6′ STONE FACE STARING AT ME FROM UNDER THE WATER.
We began shooting immediately. I could tell it was a bit too cloudy to shoot the other, deeper underwater statues, so we stayed with “Ocean Atlas” until it was time to leave. I’ll be back to see her again though. This is definitely something that takes multiple viewings.
Plus, I mean, there’s a goddamn airplane down there from Jaws IV and I had to skip over it. So yeah, trip #2 already in the works.
After we loaded back up we left the underwater statues and headed out to the sharks, a two mile cruise to a wreck 65 feet down. Now, before we get to the sharks, a little backstory: I’ve never shot with sharks…intentionally.
I’ve been on a shoot where a shark showed up, which meant my model and I were all of a sudden “pretty sure we got the shot” and got the hell out of the water. Later my husband mentioned to me over the phone there had been shark sightings in the area and I responded with, “You don’t say?”
Besides that very random day in Catalina, my closest encounters with sharks have been through television, conservation groups and the photography of a few very talented friends of mine. This was uncharted territory. I was so excited I could barely stand it, but I had to keep telling myself these are wild animals. We have the same problem in Montana: the number of people that die every year in Yellowstone because they tried to ride a freaking bison increases every year. Guys they’re wild animals, stop trying to ride them.
The nice thing about being on the boat with Liz and Katie, is that these are two people that clearly know what they’re doing. This wasn’t some tourist stop where they take your money and literally throw you to the sharks, there were rules, and rules that were clearly in place for both the sake of the animals as well as their human observers.
We learned why we must wear fins (because your feet look a lot like the fish held in the baitbox), as well as theories about why so many sharks gather in this particular area. Just passed the wreck we were anchored over is the famed Nemo Cliff, where the sea floor bottoms out – going from about 40 feet to over 6500 feet in an instant. Known as The Tongue of the Ocean, it also runs perpendicular to the island, creating a swirling current of nutrients that settle perfectly in the area. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle of ocean goodies.
If the thought of water going from blue to black in the blink of an eye doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, you should hear the stories. Liz talks about wrecks that are pushed over the edge during a storm, and even as we’re talking a research submarine surfaces in the distance. There is so much going on here, and it all revolves around the animals. We learn many of the sharks have names and are tended to for years. One of the sharks named Lucy is described as having a giant necklace around her neck. When she was younger, she caught herself in a round of rope that began cutting into her skin as she grew. She was caught, the rope was removed and she was released. Now she hangs out with hundreds of other sharks (most of which all have names and distinct markings).
Andy and the models are allowed to take a quick dip into the water off the back of the boat while holding onto a line and get to see the sharks swirling beneath the boat. After that, Liz, Katie and I set out to the main wreck to photograph the sharks up close.
In order to safely swim with the sharks, we had to wear fins, something I struggled with just a bit. I’d never worn fins before (I’ve just never needed them), but I of course wanted to keep my feet so on they went. Problem was, I have my own self-taught methods for sinking into the water to photograph, and it involves this funky little swirl/kick I do with my right leg that sucks me straight down under the water. It’s tough to explain, but I just kind of made it up one day and it’s worked great for years.
Of course with fins on, my move – my one move – was rendered completely useless, so for awhile there I was kind of flailing on the surface trying to figure out how to get under the damn water with these giant things stuck to my feet, something I’m sure would’ve been pretty comical to witness from the surface. Don’t worry, I picked it up later, but had you seen me trying to figure it out I bet it would’ve made for a good laugh.
The other thing you should know – I’d had the flu for the past 2 days, which meant a constant fight against the urge to vomit and cough every few seconds. Yes, I know if you just throw up that one time you’ll usually feel better, but I’m just not one of those people who can make themselves do it, which means I stay unnecessarily miserable until the second it finally happens. I mentioned it to Liz when we started out and she said if I do get sick, not to throw up when I’m near the sharks. Apparently it attracts the small fish and the sharks come eat the small fish and you find yourself in the middle of teeth and fins and it’s just not where you want to be. Point taken.
The annoying cough meant every time I dove down to anything past 20 feet, my chest would compress ever so slightly and I’d have that urge to cough and shoot straight back up to the surface. Annoying, yes, but not a deal breaker.
Or course even on my healthiest day, I could’ve maybe gotten down to 45 feet. Somewhat respectable, but nothing compared to what Liz can do. The woman is a freaking water goddess. Down she goes, all 65 feet to the wreck, where she poses with sharks for the scuba divers surrounding it. Again and again she goes down. Katie’s down there too in full scuba gear, and guys, I. Am. Jealous.
I take as many photos as I can, but after awhile I hand my camera off to Liz so I can just swim alone with the sharks and the wreck. It can be a strange feeling seeing so much of the world through your camera lens – sometimes you just have to be there in person and see it for yourself and forget about the picture.
Liz took my camera down to the wreck and snapped a few shots, then when she surfaced she quickly handed it back and said, “Nope, I am not a photographer.” I’d beg to differ though, because she captured one of my favorite photos of myself ever, one where I’m literally just suspended in my happy place, just below the surface.
After a few more deep dives, I knew we were getting close to our allotted time. I decided for one more dive down, and of course went just a little too far. I’m not sure how far down I got, but I was so happy I just kept going deeper and deeper and once I resurface everything in my body and brain was shouting “Girl, that was a stupid thing to do.” Liz suggested we start heading back, and I agreed. Looking down at the school of sharks below me I got that sinking, horrible thought that only comes when you have the flu and your mouth begins filling with saliva: “Oh god…it’s happening.”
The boat must’ve been at least 100 yards away (keep in mind I have no reliable estimation for distance so ‘100 yards’ means anything from 30 feet to 3 miles), and all I could think was “Liz said don’t get sick over the sharks. Liz said don’t get sick over the sharks. Don’t get sick over the sharks. Don’t get sick over the sharks.”
I began kicking as hard as I could, knowing I had to make it to the boat before I got sick (realistically, I’m sure I would’ve been fine…maybe…but I was not about to go against good advice my first time out). The boat didn’t seem to be getting any closer, with my inner thought process going something like, “Kick harder, don’t throw up, kick harder, don’t throw up, there’s the boat, don’t throw up, so close, oh no not yet, almost there…”
I reached the ladder off the back of the boat, and all in one motion threw my housing inside and vomited over my shoulder, right in the water. I jumped up into the boat and scooted inside. In the distance I hear Liz yell, “Did you get sick?” I laughed and gave her the thumb’s up and she replied, “That’s okay, at least you’re in the boat!” Whew.
I was worried the rest of our party had gotten bored while I was out having the time of my life, but when I came around the corner my mind was quickly set at ease. Andy and the girls were laying out in the sun, talking and listening to music. We could’ve been gone another hour and I doubt any of them would’ve noticed. It seems we were all in our happy place.
We loaded up and headed back to shore, and just before we disembarked Liz pointed out the Hollywood wall of photos from all the films that had be shot here. Even off the water, sharks and underwater statues aside, this place was the epitome of cool.
On the shuttle back to the resort we were tired and giggly. I was salty and sticky and had a full card of photos. All I wanted was a shower, some food and a long nap, and I did get the first two, but then one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve witnessed showed up and Andy and I headed down to the beach to shoot a few more of the models.
We even went back out at 6:30 the next morning to catch the sunrise, and I remember sitting on the beach, digging my toes in the sand and wondering why it took me so long to visit the Bahamas.
You win, Bahamas. You’ve succeeded in every way in making me want to come back. You’ve pulled me over to the dark side of cocktails, lounge chairs, underwater statues and sand as soft as a baby’s bottom. Hell maybe I’ll even make a stop by the gift shop and see if I can drum up any palm tree fridge magnets I talked so bad about in Bahamas Part I: SNAP Retreat.
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