Into the Deep -Spring 2018
Eric Savetsky travels the undersea world with his camera
Eric Savetsky is very far away from the offices of the Nantucket Islands Land Bank, where he is executive director. He is in a Zodiac, which has been motoring through the Norwegian fjords all day, looking for a telltale sign that there is something worth jumping out of the boat and into the freezing water to try to photograph.
It is just as cold as you would expect. Ice has formed on the little inflatable boat. It gets dark in Norway very early this time of year. It is only two o’clock in the afternoon, but the sky is already making the boat’s skipper suggest it might be time to head back to shore.
Then they see the fishing boat, a purse-seine trawler, hauling a net full of herring.
“The boat had set a net on a school of herring,” Savetsky said. “I think the orca learn that pattern and hear that noise. They were there when we got there. The fishing boat had already pulled their net to the side of the boat and the orca were all milling around.
“It was pretty frantic. Birds, orca, herring. And the boat driver was saying we can’t go into the water because the net was still in the water. But I’m sitting there, with my feet over the side in the water, saying to him, ‘We gotta go in the water. Don’t worry. I’m not going to swim into the net.’ Finally, we got into the water.”
The photo, and the video, show the swirling mass of herring, sometimes called a herring ball, sunlight glinting off the fish. Several orca are feeding off the herring. One slaps the fish with her tail fluke, shocking them and allowing her calf to feed.
They are stunning images. Sunlight drifting in from above the surface of the water. The silver ball of fish. The black and white coloring of the orca. It is a momentary glimpse of a part of life that exists under the surface of the ocean, outside the frame of our everyday lives. Savetsky has been drawn to the water since he was a little
boy, growing up in New Jersey.
“As a kid I was amazed and infatuated with ponds and fishing and could be dropped off at a pond and spend a whole day there, dreaming of having a boat some day,” he said.
He got himself that boat while he was a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, studying community planning and spending as much time as he could on the waters of Narragansett Bay.
It was when he took a job on Nantucket, to be a land-use planner, that he began heading farther off shore.
“I’d be going offshore in search of these bluewater adventures,” he said. “Going off 50 or 100 miles into the ocean just to see what you see. We started doing it to catch fish. We’d go out to chase yellowfin tuna and white marlin and sharks. Then we started going out to the canyons, the edge of the continental shelf, which is 75 to 140 miles off shore.”
It is difficult for Savetsky to say exactly what it was that gave him the idea to dive off the deck of his boat and into the water with the sharks. Once it got into his head, however, he couldn’t help but follow it. In 2006, he borrowed a point-and-shoot camera with a cheap waterproof housing from a friend. He booked a trip to Mexico and found himself on a live-aboard dive boat.
The borrowed camera ended up wrecked, but not before Savetsky found himself slowly becoming infatuated with trying to capture images of marine life.
“I was in so far over my head,” he said. “I was a hack diver at best. Although I was certified, I had probably only done 10 or 20 dives. We were in the open ocean with big currents, big animals, very challenging diving. But I borrowed this camera and shot it and went back the next year, and got a little better camera and the year after that a little better camera. It all started going in that direction. Then I started jumping off my own boat here, taking photos of blue sharks and mako sharks.”
Asked if he considers himself a professional underwater photographer, Savetsky shrugs. He is not anxious to put a definition on all of this. He is using fairly high-end equipment to get these beautiful shots, and he takes great pleasure in the reaction people have to his photos. So that is part of it. But not all of it.
“I think it’s a balance for me,” he said. “I’m not a scientist. Not a thrill-seeker. Not a hobbyist. I do border on being a professional photographer. It has become somewhat of an obsession and a passion. It’s the adventure. That’s a huge part of it, having adventures. And a little bit of that is being an adrenaline junkie. Just a blend of all those things.”
Adrenaline. Here is how he learned to take a photograph of a shark. You head out maybe 30 miles from Nantucket. You toss cut-up fish parts and blood into the water, laying out your chum line. When the sharks show up for their snack, you dive into the chum slick with your
“We all have this deep-rooted fear and trepi-
dation of sharks, but from the beginning I knew we’re not on the menu. The whole idea of sharks being blood-thirsty killers of humans is mostly a myth. I’m not going to say accidents don’t happen. And there might be that one-ina-million rogue shark out there,” Savetsky said.
“You just can never allow yourself to get complacent. In the water with them they are kind of like a dog you don’t know, an aggressive dog. You continue to make eye contact with them, you hold your ground, don’t show fear, and that
neutralizes them a good bit. They are not used to face-to-face confrontations. They’re used to chasing stuff and eating things that are a heck of a lot smaller than a human.”
Savetsky characterizes the mako sharks found off Nantucket as the fastest sharks in the ocean, more aggressive and much quicker than a great white.
“But they are absolutely spectacular and beautiful,” he said. “One day I got in the water and a small mako, about three-and-a-half feet, maybe 80 pounds, came up to me. It was so fast, circling me. I got out of the water, because it was so feisty and curious and in my face.”
He has been in the water with and photographed oceanic white-tip sharks, hammerheads, tiger sharks, blue sharks and great white sharks, although for the great whites he has relied on the aid of a shark cage.
Photographers will tell you that if you view the world primarily through the viewfinder of a camera, you can sometimes miss the real meaning of a moment. The question becomes: Did the moment exist if you did not come away with a photo of it?
Savetsky goes so far as to say that sometimes he feels like leaving his camera on the boat and
Orca feeding on herring near Skjervoy, Norway.
just enjoying the moment when he comes face to face with a shark, or a manta ray, or a whale. “Sometimes I pull the camera away from my face and have that moment of contact,” he said. “These are intelligent animals and they want to see what you are and vice-versa. It is so hard to actually have the encounters. Most of these animals really don’t want to hang out with you. The problem with sharks is you can never get them to come close enough. The problem isn’t that they are dangerous and we’re trying to get away from them. We’re trying to come close to them.”
Unlike sharks, which can be drawn to a chum line, photographing a whale often requires luck and the willingness to travel. It is against the law to swim with whales in the United States. Your best bet is travel to the wintering grounds, where the whales migrate and spend part of the year: the Polynesian island of Tonga to see humpbacks, for instance, the South Asian country of Sri Lanka for sperm whales, and Norway for orca.
“A huge part of the interest is observing what they do and how they do what they do,” Savetsky said. “And part of the majesty of these animals is watching them hunt, or watching a mother and calf whale interact, or watching a pod of sperm whales and how they interact with each other. I’m not a scientist, but I have a huge curiosity of their life history, anatomy, ability to survive, and how they evolved.”
On one dive, in Tonga, there was a mother humpback sitting on the bottom with her young calf.
“The calf has to come up for air every three minutes,” he said. “The mother comes up every half hour. The calf seemed really bored. He sees us, wants to show off, comes over twirling and swishing his tail at us, just being a rambunctious kid, and then goes back down to mom.”
Something about sharks brings out an almost primal fear in us, mixed with an undeniable fascination. Sharks are not just fish. Sharks are “Jaws.” Savetsky likes being in the water with sharks, but what he really likes are cetaceans, whales.
The big mammals are sometimes called charismatic megafauna. Savetsky smiles. He repeats the name. Charismatic megafauna. Part of the attraction, he says, is the adrenaline rush that being in the water with such big animals can cause. There is always the understanding that you are in their world, not your own.
A big whale in one photograph looks serene, as if he is just floating past the camera. It took Savetsky three trips to Sri Lanka to capture the image. The first time he got shots of blue whales, but saw no sperm whales. The second time he saw sperm whales, but couldn’t get any good shots.
To get a good underwater shot is no simple matter. Savetsky uses a Cannon DSLR camera. He shoots with a wide-angle lens for two reasons. First, this is all about how close you can get to an animal that is so big you need a wide-angle lens to capture the whole thing. Secondly, you are shooting not through air but through ocean water, even the cleanest of which is filled with tiny particles. You do not want to use a zoom lens that will only magnify those particles.
All good photography is about the variables of light and lens. Being underwater increases those variables.
“There is definitely a learning curve,” Savetsky said. “You get used to operating a camera on land, but how you operate it underwater is different because it’s inside the case and the case has controls that are different than the camera controls. You have to shoot in full manual mode, so you’re dealing with F-stop and ISO and shutter speed. The camera lens has a glass in front of it, which keeps the water out of the housing, called
the dome. The size of the dome and relationship of the dome to the lens come into play.”
Add to that equation the fact that you have just gotten into the water and are swimming, pushing your camera gear, to where you think might be the place to get the best shot. You are probably snorkeling, rather than using scuba gear. You take a deep breath and dive beneath the waves for, what, two minutes?
“Third time was the charm,” Savetsky said about the sperm-whale photo. “I saw and swam with a pod of at least 14, which were actually only a portion of the larger pod of around 40 sperm whales. Sri Lanka is a long way from Nantucket, but it’s an amazing country, and seeing sperm whales was worth it.”
Taking underwater photographs well is a lot like being a good fisherman. A working knowledge of the ocean’s bottom, currents, tides and how fish react to all of it, is necessary to simply find your subjects. Sharks might respond to chum. Whales are another matter.
“Out in the open ocean, in the blue water, it’s like a desert, vast nothingness, and then you find a little jackpot somewhere,” Savetsky said.
“Like fishing, there is a lot of casting and only a little catching. Lots of times you see something and get into the water with it, and it swims away.”
A few years ago Savetsky came face to face with a whale shark who was happy to play. In the photo it is covered in polka-dots and, because it is a filter-feeder, its huge mouth is open as it hoovers food almost too small to see from just below the surface.
Savetsky and Tom Burns, an underwater photographer and veterinarian from Chatham, found this particular jackpot about 100 miles off Nantucket out by the continental shelf in August 2016.
The two have worked together for the last five years, and plan to be off Grand Bahama Island photographing sharks this spring.
“Tom’s a shark guy,” Savetsky said. “I’m trying to broaden his horizon a little toward cetaceans.” That afternoon, on Savetsky’s 36-foot boat, they got a radio call from Wayne David, of Ocean Aerials, who sometimes works with them as a spotter pilot. He had spotted something unusual.
Did they want to jump in and see it close up? “We went over, jumped in, and it was one of those experiences where this whale shark repeatedly swam right up into my face checking me out. We swam with it for 10-15 minutes. It
seemed genuinely curious,” Savetsky said.
The whale shark is the largest fish in the sea. The one in this photograph is an 18-foot female, but they have been known to grow up to 30 feet long and five feet wide. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, they can weigh
as much as 20,000 pounds.
Very little is known about whale sharks, where
they breed, their migratory patterns, or even how many exist. Burns was able to attach a satellite tag to this one. It was the first time a whale shark had been tagged in this part of the Atlantic.
Savetsky and Burns will work with WHOI this summer to tag more whale sharks, in an attempt to give scientists more data on their movements.
There is a difference between amateur and professional photographers, which often is not really about the quality of any single image. Rather, it is about how you go about the work, if at the end of a job you send out an invoice. The trap of making a business out of any passion is that the demands of the workplace sometimes dampen the passion. Savetsky is well aware of this.
“I go out and search out things I love and do it because I want to see them and experience them,” he said. “If it happens to be I get some great shots and somebody wants to buy them, then that’s great, too.”
He has worked with National Geographic and the BBC on projects: “Super Fish: Bluefin Tuna” for National Geographic and “Atlantic: Wildest
Ocean” for the BBC. His photos will be seen this summer in an exhibit at Nantucket Whaling Museum. He hopes to be able to speak about ocean conservation in classrooms.
“I think it’s a neat evolution to go from whaling history to the evolution of ocean and conservation issues,” he said, adding that he would like to see his photographs and videos inspire people to learn more about the ocean.
“There’s a sort of limitless wonder of nature out there,” he said. “And there is so much we don’t know about and so much that is fascinating and out there for us to see. If it is not a whale shark, it’s blue sharks, or a great white shark, or a sperm whale, or an orca. To me there are so many amazing things out there to witness and experience firsthand.”
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His work appears regularly in Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.