By Gary Lehman
Northeast divers generally concur that our ‘cold-green’ diving is more challenging -with different rewards- than warm-blue water diving. Divers who live in the NY greater metropolitan area benefit from another aspect – a buzzing dive club scene! The winter months offer many engaging scuba diving events – including the Long Island Dive Association (LIDA) Film Festival, the Boston Sea Rovers show, Beneath The Sea Expo, and many other events dotting the diving calendar. And each month, local clubs conduct meetings with terrific speakers, keeping those scuba fires lit! These meetings always surface new local diving opportunities, sites, adventures, providers and happenings. Gets the diving year off to a roaring start!
For example, on January 29 DNN attended a NY Underwater Photography Society (NYUPS) session ( NYUPS is actually a special-interest group which is part of the NYC Sea Gypsies Dive Club; DNN was sitting near (diver-top shelf photographer-pediatric ENT physician) Mike Rothschild; before the meeting started, Mike was showing a few of us at our table some of his macro photos of nudibranchs in New Hampshire’s Piscataqua River tidal estuary near Portsmouth, New Hampshire (for details see Mike’s blog on Tumblr, http://mikesdiveblog.tumblr.com/post/140587909056/newhampshire “Live Free and Dive”. ) Wait, hold the phone… Nudibranchs? Here in our local waters!? (YES – and not only that, but Mike’s dive was during the first week in March! Hats off to intrepid Mike for diving in 30F-something waters…).
So… now we shift from little invertebrate animals to BIG ANIMALS!
NYUPS invited storied photographer/explorer/diver Amos Nachoum to present to the group; Amos was in town after presenting at the Polar Film Festival at NY’s Explorers Club. The session was extremely well attended by over sixty people from a diverse network: Explorer Club folks, various dive clubs, NYUPS members, LIDA members, Sierra Club, B&H Event Space people, and walk-ins too! But before we turn our focus on Amos and his Big Animals presentation, a shout out is richly due to …Larry Cohen! Larry is a former President of NYC’s Sea Gypsies dive club, and the leader at NYUPS and as such, he has relationships and friendships with many other leaders in the scuba community (including Amos). Larry is the heart and soul of everything having to do with underwater photography at B&H (a leading NYC photography/electronics retailer). He is always available to assist with gear questions, and can be contacted at email@example.com (or log into chat and choose ‘underwater’!). Larry – both individually and via the group workshops he leads — helps aspiring underwater photographers in their quest. He is an important part of the fabric of diving life in the northeast by the programs he facilitates with legends like Amos. Heartfelt thanks to you Larry, for all that you do for all of us!
If you were not able to attend the January 29th session, don’t despair — Larry and collaborator photographer Olga Torrey will be joining Amos Nachoum on March 26th at the B&H Event Space for another joint presentation. Details will be posted at https://www.bhphotovideo.com/find/EventSpace.jsp We don’t want to miss these three together! If you are not familiar with B&H’s Event Space, it behooves you to learn about this terrific resource for all kinds of photography! Experts, professionals, and photography leaders in NYC – the media capital of the world – sojourn to Event Space, teaching and sharing their knowledge, experience and skills to spellbound audiences. And, these sessions are livestreamed as well. Larry can offer additional details!
Amos might object to the following because he is a rough and tumble ‘big animal’ kind of guy (not a nudibranch guy), but we will say it anyway… he is a teacher. Most of us understand that apex predators are not mindless killers looking to create misery and death, and we believe that they will not indiscriminately attack anything that moves just for the enjoyment of it. Amos proves this to us by diving/venturing into their spaces, both topside and underwater, and documenting his experiences with them. He stakes the position – by swimming outside the cage with white sharks – that we must respect natural law and be aware of animals’ predatory behavior. His discussion also covered the use of underwater equipment – specifically the use of the 50mm lens which yields correct ‘normal’ angle of view, so as to not distort the relative size of animals. His many resulting head-on images of ‘smiling’ white sharks – with their fearsome, serrated triangular teeth – are nothing less than electrifying. He thinks creatively about species behaviors, seeks unusual angles and situations, and then he and his team of Sherpas or porters or local Inuit or local fixers – relying on their instinctive knowledge and animals’ ways and means, goes out and gets the shots. It is important to understand that his images frequently capture behaviors for the very first time in human history!
“First time in human history” – is this exaggeration?? No, my friends, it is not. Can you imagine being inside a bait ball of herring and capturing an image of the herring inside the mouth of the sailfish after the sailfish has stunned it with its bill? Amos got that shot! Or can you imagine photographing snow leopards snuggling in the mountains of Ladakh at dusk, after being on the go since before dawn and lying motionless in snow and wind for hour upon hour?? (This writer spoke with novelist Peter Matthiessen and vertebrate biologist George Schaller about their failed attempt over two months in the early 1970’s to spot elusive snow leopards in the Nepali Himalayan plateau some years ago at The Bodhi Tree Foundation. Like Nachoum, they spotted tracks and heard them, but they never actually spotted them. Amos heard them, sensed their presence, got his team up out of bed in frigid weather way before dawn, tracked the leopards, and twelve hours later not only observed one, but photographed TWO together!
We’ve all seen videos of orcas hunting cooperatively on television, but Amos and his clients have witnessed this personally. We’ve all seen eagles snatching fish out of the water, but Amos brings us for the first time the underwater view of this raptor predation, while it happens! We all know that African crocodiles take down wildebeest crossing the Mara River during the annual Serengeti migrations, and we gasp at the power and fearsome visage of these lunging dinosaur/crocodiles tearing apart the wildebeest and zebras. Who in their right mind would chose to dive with these known man-eating crocodiles, which snatch humans at the river’s edge as an afternoon snack? Amos would — and did and does, because he applied human thinking and knowledge of animal behavior – he understood that crocodiles attack only at the surface, and do not attack at the bottom of the water. Stay on the bottom, and you are safe. Linger at the surface, whether it is a white shark or a crocodile, and you become prey — in a case of mistaken identity.
Amos also brings with him an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of marine biology. Forty years of diving and his passion for marine life has thrived and expanded within Amos. This is combined with his emotional connection with his marine subjects. He grieves along with the mother orca, who carries her dead calf for a week before letting go. John Hargrove (formerly of SeaWorld) speaks eloquently about the emotional capacity of orcas, and how the part of their brain governing emotions is 50% larger than that of humans. Nachoum’s emotional connection can be readily seen in his photography of so many species. People continually underestimate the emotional lives of animals. Mountaineer Rick Ridgeway in his book In The Shadow of Kilimanjaro wrote about the grieving elephant standing guard over her dead calf’s body, and the tenderness with which she thanked Ridgeway with an embrace by her trunk after Ridgeway brought the grieving mother a bucket of water in the blazing Tanzania sun. Why did the orca calf die? In fact, there is a 30-40% mortality rate, because of the toxicity of the mother’s milk in which so many poisonous chemicals collect, and the catastrophe of plastics in the Earth’s oceans. Amos showed breathtaking photos of resting, nursing blue and sperm whales. Amos is a fierce warrior for environmental activism to protect our oceans; he sees the dread results first hand too often. He has a fiery antipathy towards the media, Hollywood and politicians for propagating myths about white sharks and for trivializing or ignoring the grave concerns over the marine environment, and he is on a crusade to do his part to correct that.
Humans ARE on the menu for polar bears. This we know. This the Inuit (indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic regions) know. AND that polar bears have no fear of humans. In Churchill, Manitoba it is against the law to lock your front door. Why? Because on occasion polar bears will range thru town looking for garbage – or humans. A locked door can result in mauling or death. Polar bears will hunt collaboratively to pull belugas up OUT of the water through the polynya (breathing holes and open water) in the frozen Arctic. So, with that in mind, what kind of ‘meshuganah’ (crazy man, head case) would scuba dive with polar bears?! When Inuit were asked the question “Would you dive with polar bears?”, the answer is delivered with characteristically-Inuit politeness, reserve, modesty and careful attention to not offend — with a simple “No”. So, what do these Inuit know that Amos doesn’t? The truth is that Amos knows when to dive with polar bears and when NOT to. The poignant underwater photo of a mother polar bear cuddling her cubs close to her to avoid the strange animal with air tanks below her in the water, to protect her cubs, is utterly unprecedented in human history. He has seen firsthand how convincing locals that the eco-tourism potential of the wildlife in their habitats far exceeds harvesting potential is a true win/win.
Amos had the flash of understanding, realizing that retreating from a 12’ 500lb leopard seal invites a predatory attack, just as advancing on a territorial leopard seal will trigger a defensive attack. Why is a leopard seal potentially aggressive towards a human in the water with a big DSLR camera? Because when the leopard seal LOOKS at the camera dome, what do you think the leopard seal SEES reflected? It sees a mirror image of itself, and cannot be faulted for believing it to be an intruder on its territory. (This is the analogous behavior shown by mountain gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda; eye to eye contact is perceived as a challenge). Amos knows that when he does not retreat and does not advance, the leopard seal does not know what to do — but does not attack. Paul Nicklen of National Geographic had a similar experience with a large female leopard seal some years before Amos did, in which the seal attempted to teach Nicklen how to feed on a penguin. Paul might have been one of the first to dive with leopard seals, however Amos extended and expanded our understanding of this species and its behaviors. (Of course, sometimes things do not always go exactly according to plan, and Amos was once chased to seventy feet by a male polar bear. The ‘conventional wisdom’ was that a polar bear would not dive below thirty feet in pursuit of prey – although of course, this begs the question: HOW could anyone actually know that to be true? And of course, no one told that to the male polar bear which attacked Amos, obliging him to beat a hasty retreat downward in the water column at high speed to seventy feet, just inches from a most horrifying death [if you have ever seen the ten six-inch claws of adult polar bears…]).
Jacques Cousteau reportedly was most concerned about the unpredictability of oceanic white tips which are opportunistic feeders and maximize predation potential at their pelagic few-and-far-between prey opportunities. He thought they were by far the most dangerous shark species. But is this true, or just melodrama? Amos sought the answer to this question by diving with oceanic white tips at Cat Island and in the Red Sea, and observed that here again, conventional wisdom was wrong. White he has a healthy respect for oceanic whitetips, they are not unpredictable scourges intent on attacking humans. Rather, it is for us to understand their behavior, respect the natural law, and by doing so we avoid attack, are able to observe their ways and means, and can marvel at the sleek, powerful rhythms of their underwater patrols!
Nachoum concurs with Dr. Sylvia Earle about hope spots, and believes that there is still time to avert disaster and collapse of marine ecosystems. Dr. Earle’s example is that Asian youth are rejecting shark fin soup. Amos’s example cited was the rebounding of gray whales and other species due to changes in shipping lanes to redirect commercial tanker traffic to protect migrating whales. This we have also vividly seen right here off NY/NJ as well. And participation in a Big Animals expedition ( www.biganimals.com ) is a great way to join forces with Amos to rally together and make a positive difference on behalf of our oceans – to which Amos calls out ACHARAI, FOLLOW ME!