Ocean News

Murphy and the whale sharks

3rd January 2009

We headed out of Djibouti city at around two in the afternoon on new years day. New years eve was also spent aboard the boat, we had a very civilized evening anchored in the middle of the port, and spent the next morning prepping cameras and moving onboard MV Deli.

After a five-hour steam we found our anchorage off Arta beach in the Gulf of Tadjoura and spent our first night on board contemplating what the next day would bring.

The first day of diving in any new location is always exciting. I generally do not expect to film any decent footage on these first days, as I’m finding my feet, getting used to the gear again, and getting straight in my mind how everything will work for the next however-many days or weeks.

After a short journey on our skiff (a small tender vessel that we’ll be using for our daily diving operations) we reached an area that historically has yielded high numbers of whale shark sightings. Sure enough after a few minutes we spotted out first whale shark. Once the researchers had finished gathering all the data, images and DNA samples they required, I hopped into the water to film the shark. Early morning light percolated beautifully through the surface layer, and the water was a smooth cobalt blue; a good start.

After quite some time filming this shark and others, we broke for breakfast, and then quickly headed out to sea again. As we were nearing the area where we’d earlier sighted sharks, another small vessel began hailing us toward it. We rushed over, and soon we saw why they were trying to get our attention; in front of us we began seeing whale sharks everywhere, our skipper started counting them out loud, one two three…twelve! There were too many sharks to count (later estimations came to around 40). We all scrabbled to be the first off the boat and in with the sharks. As I slipped into the water I was almost barged by a small (3½ m) individual, I looked through the viewfinder on my camera to start filming, and straight away I knew there was something wrong… settings had changed on my camera that shouldn’t have, and I was unable to adjust the exposure. I looked at the housing’s ‘wet alarm’ (an L.E.D that flashes if water has entered the housing) and sure enough it was on; a bright red L.E.D was staring back at me like a warning light on a ticking bomb.

In sheer disbelief of the cruel turn of events that was unfolding, I checked everything again, and made a futile attempt at solving the problem by turning the camera on and off (that old chestnut). I headed back to the skiff and got shuttled back to the main boat to get a better idea of the damage. Turning my back on what could potentially be a once in a once lifetime diving experience I felt physically sick.

Once back on the boat I began to assess whether or not the damage was repairable, or whether my one and only camera system had gone down on the first day of shooting. This is a classic case of Murphy’s law, I had bought only one camera system because of excess baggage restrictions, I’d selected the camera system that historically I’ve had the fewest problems with, and of course, it breaks down on the first day of filming!

Sure enough water had entered the housing, not a lot, perhaps a tablespoon, but this is more than enough to wreak havoc with the delicate housing controls and stop me from shooting. After establishing that the camera had not been destroyed by the salt water (thank you Sony for building such resilient cameras), and the housing was broken (no thank-you to the housing manufacturer who shall remain nameless, for putting all of those delicate controls at the bottom of the housing, where gravity generally prefers to direct water), I reached for the tool kit and set about spending the next ten hours fixing the system and doing test dives underneath the boat to establish where the leak was coming from. I eventually found that water had managed to creep in through one of the o-rings that seals a control handle onto the housing (a part that is normally only accessed when being serviced). Corrosion had managed to work its way past this seal and drip onto the circuit boards beneath it, rendering the whole system temporarily useless.

The rest of the team returned close to sunset, and I did my best to ignore their tales of the amazing encounters with aggregations of 40+ juvenile whale sharks. I’m wandering now, was this a one off spectacle, or is it a daily occurrence that I will get the chance to film again in the coming days?

Camera now fixed, I’m ready for tomorrow.