Belize is among the most biologically diverse places on Earth. Its tropical forests are home to howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, macaws, jaguars, and more unidentified insects than those we’ve catalogued and named. By itself, this would be more than sufficient to earn Belize a place on my bucket list.
Indeed, several years ago, I photographed in Belize’s rich rainforest. Yet, the highlight of that trip was not a once-in-a-lifetime photo; it was a chance encounter with one of the world’s most famous field naturalists and conservationists, the famed Alan Rabinowitz. Actually it really wasn’t that improbable that I would run into Alan; after all, I was staying at the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, the world’s first jaguar preserve, founded by Alan in 1985.
Because on my first trip I did not have the opportunity to spend much time on the coast, I’ve been eager to return to Belize. For me, with my background in marine biology, the coast has as much to offer as the forest, sans mosquitoes. In fact, as if Belize weren’t satisfied with the biological riches of its rainforest, it also claims the world’s second largest barrier reef. The mesoamerican reef, which extends from the Yucatan Peninsula almost to Nicaragua, is rivaled in size only by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
So, over the winter, I exchanged emails with my cousin, Bruno who, like me, is also an avid diver. Together, we developed a five-day dive trip with the Seahorse Dive Outfit in Placentia during which we would spend nearly ten hours under water, and which would also coincide with the annual gathering of whale sharks. Whale sharks – the largest fish in the world – feed on plankton. Every spring, they congregate along the reef front to gorge on roe from red snapper which spawn here around the full moons of April and May.
As a professional wildlife photographer, I know that even when we do our due diligence to put ourselves in the right place at the right time to see and photograph Earth’s more elusive animals, luck, good or bad, is always a factor. So while I was excited about spending so much time experiencing the reef, I had to keep my expectations about spotting a while shark in check. In my emails to Bruno, however, I just about guaranteed him an encounter with a whale shark. This trip was intended solely to spend some time underwater with my cousin with whom I have a history of fabulous outdoor adventures that extends all the way back to our childhoods, and to enjoy the diving and the reef without being encumbered by the tunnel vision necessary to take publishable photos. Besides, I don’t own any underwater photography equipment. Thus, the fact that, for the first time in years, I wasn’t taking any camera gear with me at all, not even a point-and-shoot, would assure us that we would rope and saddle us a whale shark.
On our first dive, we spotted five whale sharks! (What’d I tell ya?) One surfaced and swam around a second dive boat for 2o minutes giving the divers on that boat, who had just entered the water, an eye-to-eye view of itself. Our group was already down at 60 feet so we couldn’t just pop up to get closer to the shark, but my view of it rising toward the other divers, which provided a scale for the fish’s enormous (45 ft.) size, most certainly earned an entry on my list of top ten wildlife encounters which include a charging bull elephant in Kenya, a penguin swimming between my legs in the Galapagos Islands, and a display of the Bermuda fireworm.
While I watched the whale, Bruno filmed the scene on his GoPro camera. Another diver in our group, Kristen Villalobos, was photographing the scene, also with a GoPro underwater outfit. Later, back on the boat, Kristen approached Bruno and asked if he knew how to transfer the images from her camera to her tablet wirelessly. Bruno didn’t, but we offered to let Kristen dump her image files onto Bruno’s laptop and my iPad so she could email them to herself and thus clear her camera’s memory card. We also invited her and her companion, Dan, to dinner that evening.
The GoPro cameras Kristen and Bruno were using are equipped with a very wide angle lens (I’d guess around 22mm.) Unfortunately, what we saw with our eyes is not what their cameras captured; the whale appeared very distant and lacked detail. That evening, over my dinner of conch fritters and red snapper at the Tipsy Tuna, I used Snapseed to crop and adjust some of Kristen’s files to see if I could bring the view of the whale shark back to something that resembled what we actually saw, as well as bring out more detail, but without destroying the image with noise and artifacts. After a few moments, I passed the crude results around the table. Kristen was so pleased with what she saw on my iPad that she allowed me to print the best of the images she captured and add my name to the byline for, without the post-capture processing, she would not have realized the full potential of her captures. In my studio, back in Vermont, I processed Kristen’s raw files in Adobe. The GoPro’s 12MB sensor provided sufficient resolution to crop and enhance the files without too much degradation.
I used Vegas Movie Studio to edit and enhance Bruno’s video footage. Where I could, I added considerable red to offset the unavoidable blue cast caused by the elimination of long wavelengths at depth. Below about 30 feet, adding red made no difference, but near the surface, where more of the white light spectrum remains, I was able to add color to Bruno’s footage of the marine life on the reef.
In the end, our teamwork resulted in several gallery-quality photos and a delightful video of our experience in Belize. You can view Belizean Blue on my Youtube channel by clicking on the image below:
Enjoy, leave your comments, and please stay in touch.
With gratitude and respect,