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Incredible experiences

Shooting with the sharks

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Last week, an image of a moonshaped Mola Mola or sunfish by a Brazilian underwater photographer became a viral hit. Not everyone can get a shot of a rare fish but that doesn't stop people from picking up their cameras and diving in.

Digant Desai took the plunge seven years ago and he hasn't stopped since. The 50-yearold has just returned from a 21-day stint in Papua, Indonesia, taking shots of the gentle giants of the ocean: the 15-metre-long whale sharks. "They're very unlike their bloodthirsty cousins. In fact, these whale sharks are so used to the fishermen at the Papua coast now that they actually seek them out and play with them. That's how I managed to get some amazing shots, " he adds.

The Mumbai-based nature photographer who led "a gypsy's life", hung up his boots in 1996, soon after his kids were born. "Responsibilities of life took over, but as things settled down on the family front, my fascination with water surfaced, " he smiles. Not only was he watching programmes and collecting books on marine life, he couldn't stop dreaming of going down under. Finally, one day, after getting certified as a diver in Goa, he made it happen. "This was in Koh Lante, Thailand. At that point, I wanted my diving to be better than my skills as an underwater photographer. And sure enough, that experience was beyond comprehension, " he says.

But initially when Desai took a small camera along, he came back with "atrocious results". The beautiful pink and red coral reefs looked "disastrous". "It was most frustrating specially for someone like me who was into serious nature photography at one point. Of course, this was also when things had gone digital, so there was a lot of learning and unlearning to do, specially with the restriction of light under water. " To hone his skills, Desai took off for Bali for a special training session with an Australian photographer.

"Since then, the learning process continues. And now, it's become almost an obsession, " he says. "There's this state of 'spacelessness' underwater that's not possible on earth, " says Diggy, as he's better known.
This was about seven years ago, and Desai has seen the change from the time "there were still some risks involved to now, when it's almost completely safe or 'fail-safe' as we say - not just for me but my camera equipment too, " he laughs. "But, as on land, there could be human errors, equipment failure under water too. But with a good company, such things are well taken care of, " he adds.

Desai recalls the time his weight belt, which counteracts the buoyancy of other diving equipment, came off about 14 metres down. "Thankfully, I did not panic but furiously finned downward after it. And with my buddy - we all move in pairs underwater - managed to retrieve it and put it back. " Tales of diving in strong currents (" this was in Indonesia in pursuit of the three pinnacles under water. The dive had to be abandoned mid-way" ) and running out of air (" I was so engrossed with my shoot that I didn't notice this. Luckily I did what we are trained to do in such situations - breathe out while going up" ) have become part of his personal folklore to be recounted when divers sit around sharing experiences. "Strangely, you don't always come across hostile species (unless they are the notorious bull sharks, lemon sharks, tiger sharks, the great whites or the oceanic whitetips) - the areas they inhabit are out of bounds for divers. " The idea, he stresses, is to enjoy and respect life under water and it, more often than not, leaves you alone. "However, there could be times when even seasoned divers could panic upon coming face-to-face with an octopus, a snake or shark but fatal situations are rare, " adds Desai.

It's such "incredible experiences" that have prompted him to take others down with him. And in the last few years, he has seen interest in underwater photography surging. He credits the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara with igniting passions. "That film sure did the trick. Many have been inspired enough to experience the 'magic' that Hrithik Roshan feels after he goes diving and sees the exquisite corals and the shoals of fish gliding past. "

For those interested in underwater photography, Desai suggests a basic, four-day scuba-diving course. "It's good to first get a feel of the water. The training includes a twoand-half day theory session with video films followed by a stint in the pool. After which we take them into the ocean. " All this could cost between Rs 15, 000 and Rs 18, 000. Very few who learn diving can resist going back again, with a waterproof camera in tow. "Contrary to what many think, underwater photography is not a very expensive hobby, " says Desai, who often uses a small, lightweight camera that has just enough features for him to record high-quality images. Quite a few companies like Canon and Olympus have started catering to underwater photography. Their cameras also come with a 'housing' and strobes (flash gun) that is essential since light changes under water. "It's never about the camera but about the guy behind the camera, " says Desai. "The first two rules are: get close to the subject and get even closer. And shoot straight with a flash, at face level or upwards, " he says. That's easier said than done since getting your fishy subject into the frame can be quite a frustrating task. After all, the critters are unlikely to stand still while you get your shot.

"It's a good idea to read up and get an understanding of life in the deep. " Photographers, explains Desai, also need to appreciate how light loses different colour spectrums at different depths. "Red is the first to go at about five meters, followed by orange, yellow etc at different depths, till you lose all light post 60 meters down. The light loss is in the reverse order of VIBGYOR and finally, you are left with the challenging hues of blues and greens - that are any photographer's delight, " he says.

Desai offers diving and photography courses "in some of the most exciting underwater destinations" including Sri Lanka, Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. "No diver anywhere can remain unmoved by the 'sightings' - not just of the gorgeous reefs and corals or seahorses and dugongs but even of the normal schools of fish that swim past. "

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