South African wildlife experience

Daniel Locke Wheaton, captures South Africa's wildlife with the helpful of sponsors and Dunns Imaging.

| Animals / Wildlife
South African wildlife experience
Budding wildlife filmmaker, Daniel Locke Wheaton, captures South Africa's wildlife with the helpful of sponsors and Dunns Imaging.
Words and Pictures Daniel Locke Wheaton

After years of planning, my South African experience finally began on the 31st May 2002 when I arrived in Cape Town airport in the early hours of the morning.. The generosity of my sponsors, and Dunns Imaging allowed me to fulfill a lifetime's ambition of discovering and capturing the famous beauty of South Africa's wildlife and landscapes. Having studied for my BSc Marine Biology at the University of LiverpooI this unique experience will aid towards my goal of becoming a wildlife filmmaker and this great adventure was about to begin.

I joined Craig Ferreira and Mike Langley at the White Shark research Institute. Craig's father Theo, like so many others around the world, was a hunter of the great white. Then his opinions changed and he focused on setting up an institute for studying the Great White. I spent three weeks studying under Mike and Craig learning the art of working with, filming and photographing the Great White shark. We spent eight hours a day anchored off the island, here we observed and recorded the behaviour of the sharks from both above and below the water. By the end of the three weeks I had seen and photographed 174 white sharks ranging from 1.5m to 5.5metres.

Working five miles out to sea is not a new experience to me as a student of marine biology, though working with one of the world's largest predators adds a new dimension to this. The Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharius) still remains one of the most feared animals in the world. Whilst I have learnt that this fear can be misplaced, admittedly I felt apprehensive as I perched precariously on the gunwale of our boat, the 'Shark Team', with my trusted Nikon F90X

There are several important points to be considered when photographing at sea, water movement, the water itself and the horizon. The constant movement of a boat results in a difficulty to capture sharp images. I found that a monopod provided stability and used less space than a conventional tripod. A fast shutter speed also eliminated this problem, which suited the fast shark action.

With the sharks coming in so fast and close to the boat, the widest-angle lens should be used. My 28-105mm Nikon zoom provided a good angle, while allowing for versatility with some close ups on the eye and dorsal fin. However, the use of a wide-angle lens produced a problem by revealing the horizon in some shots. This introduced the difficulty of ensuring that the horizon remained level.

Water, or more specifically salt water, is a cameras worst nightmare. Sharks thrashing at the bait, the movement of the boat or strong winds produced a near continuous spray, so it was important to protect both the lens and body of the camera. While there are many splash proof covers on the market, I discovered an adapted transparent shower cap worked equally well for my body and small zoom lens. The need for protection was highlighted every time a shark got hold of the bait line. It would shake its upper body vigorously from side to side, attempting to saw through the rope with its serrated teeth. This would send waves of sea water splashing over the boat and showering its occupants.

Being ready in the right place at the right time is not all that is needed to capture a good image in wildlife photography; you need the cooperation of the animal. Years can be spent studying the behaviour of species in the wild, though when it comes to nature little can be predicted. It is also guaranteed by Murphy's Law that the minute you are not ready, they are. This situation was uncanny with the white shark. Hours can be spent staring intently at the surface float on the bait line; finger paused over the shutter button ready to catch the attack, but with nothing; no action and no attack. However, as soon as you turn your back to get your lunch, the sharks decide they wanted theirs.

I was kindly supplied with Fujichrome Sensia II for my trip by this proved to be a versatile film with balanced colours, a fine grain and excellent definition. When photographing the sharks, ISO200 produced the best results, coping with the fast action and grey conditions of many of the days. The shots were sharp and held good contrast between the dark upper and light lower body of the shark.

South African wildlife experience: South African wildlife experienceWhen the shark is just below the surface by the boat, a nose up can be done. Around the conical above the mouth the shark has hundreds of sensors called Ampullae of Lorenzini. When your hand touched these, the shark feels you heart beat and as a response rises out of the water, mouth a gape. To ensure that I could do this and take the picture, the camera was held in position by another crew member and as the shark lifted its head out of the water I fired my remote shutter release. Out of 25 frames this is the only one in which my body did not block the view.
Camera: Nikon F90X
Lens: 28-105mm f/3.5
Film: Fujichrome Sensia II 200
Exposure: 1/500sec at f/6.3
Equip: MC-30 remote release cord

My journey then returned me to Cape Town where I met up with BBC/National Geographic cameraman Charles Maxwell. We travelled together to False Bay where we spent time looking and filming the seven-gill Cow shark. Having himself just returned from the Annual Sardine Run I was able to witness and learn the valuable techniques and tips for underwater filming.

Once I had reached north of Durban and entered the national parks, I dreamt of feeling the coolness of the ocean again. It was the dry season and high temperatures ensured that it was painfully hot. With film storage limited in the field, the temperature of the films could not be controlled, though the quality of Fujichrome Sensia II ensured no problems.

Several days and many films later I left South Africa and crossed the border to Swaziland. Here in Mkhaya, Swaziland's prize game reserve, I spent time with the rangers learning how to track the wildlife, including their endangered rhinos. By 1987 Swaziland had lost over 85% of its Rhinos to poachers; thankfully the establishment of armed anti poaching units has resulted in their increase.

The scary thing about these photos was that they were taken from less than 10 meters away after tracking them on foot. This proved to be and will remain one of the most amazing things I have done in my life.

When photographing dangerous and unpredictable wildlife there are bound to be some close encounters, and I had my fair share.

Mother and baby Rhino

A moment after this photograph was taken the one year old decided to come and investigate the strange person taking her picture. Unfortunately her mum followed her in full charge. Not being in the mood to be trampled or stabbed to death, I hastily moved backwards. My guide though did not, instead he stepped towards the oncoming mom, raised his hand and shouted stop. To my amazement she did, and upon further instructions turned and disappeared with her young one.

Camera: Nikon F90X
Lens: 170-500mm f/5.6
Film: Fujichrome Sensia II 200
Exposure: 1/250sec at f/11

South African wildlife experience: South African wildlife experience

South African wildlife experience: South African wildlife experience

After a week I moved to a neighbouring lodge. Here with my guide Yeti I was able to travel into the bush by foot and also in a 4x4. On the third day a surprise awaited us as we passed through the dense grass. Two cheetahs were enjoying the afternoon sun, it was amazing to be so close and photograph these speedy predators.

Cheetah watching impala

South African wildlife experience: South African wildlife experience

This is one of my favorite images of the whole trip. The warmth can easily be felt and the deep orange eye captures the life in picture. I purposely did not include all of the body, as I wanted to allow a space for the cheetah to look into. The impalas were foraging in the undergrowth about 500 yards way. Though I sat with baited breath, disappointingly no chase occurred.

Camera: Nikon F90X
Lens: 170-500mm f/5.6
Film: Fujichrome Sensia II 100
Exposure: not noted

As you can imagine this was a trip of a lifetime for me and I hope a step up the ladder to a very interesting career. I have launched a Web site since my return and you can view more of my pictures at

South African wildlife experience: South African wildlife experience

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