Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A voyage on Discovery

The "Discovery" is a 10m catamaran boat based in Liverpool. Primarily used for fishing trips she is available for hire with all the details on the web site here:-
Owner and skipper Gary and the crew are a good humoured bunch and I think they enjoy a change from their usual schedule of fishing when it is hired primarily for photography. The brainchild for the trips is Richard Steel, a very talented Wirral based wildlife photographer, and it's all thanks to him that the trip took place. I was lucky to be on the only successful trip last year, the others were either cancelled or, in one case, aborted due to the weather and sea conditions.
Richard has done lots of research on pelagic trips in an attempt to discover how best to bring the birds in to the boat. Last year he had prepared a special concoction of fish oils and pellets to float a slick off the back of the boat. We had taken lots of bread and I took a huge box of fish offcuts from the local fishmongers which consisted of heads,backbones and tails. Claire and I had spent ages trying to hack them in to small pieces, even needing an axe on the Hake. A lot of this simply sank straight to the bottom of the sea so I decided not to repeat the exercise this year, particularly as Rich let us know that Mackerel were plentiful. Rich's special brew on the other hand had been maturing for months so he brought that along for good measure too.We also had some bread on board
The weather forecast was appalling, so much so I have to admit the pessimistic side of my nature hoped it would be cancelled to reschedule a few days later. That of course isn't always possible due to other bookings and not everyone is free 24/7 like I am ! As it happened I was proved to be wrong, the weather was actually quite good, we had mixed sun and cloud for the first couple of hours, not too bright for those white feathered birds, followed by dull and cloudy conditions for all bar 45 minutes of light rain.
Having powered out of the Mersey with the twin 100hp outboards, we stopped to try and catch a few Mackerel in preparation for our first Gannet shoot of the day. Everyone had a go with various levels of success !
Mackrel fishing
Richard put a bit of his special brew in the water just to see what the reaction was and we soon attracted a Fulmar which had been hanging around the only other nearby boat out in Liverpool Bay.
It didn't fly for long, instead offering the more unusual on the water photo opportunity
With a reasonable supply of bait fish caught we set off for deeper water further out in to Liverpool Bay, way out as far as the Gas drilling platform
Liverpool Bay gas rig
and beyond all the off shore windmills that now cover the bay.
Llandudno from Liverpool Bay
To attract the Gannets , the simplest thing is to get the gulls interested first.
A few fish pieces and bits of bread will do the trick.
Lesser-Black backed Gull
Better still to toss them from a moving boat as that in itself attracts interest, presumably because most anglers gut their fish on the boat to lighten the load and get rid of the unwanted bits.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Once the Gannets have seen what's going on, they too will come and take a look. Time then to stop the boat and get ready for some serious Gannet action.
Whole fish are tossed in to the sea and the Gannet soon focus on them.
Gannet with flying fish
Sometimes the Gannet will give a warning squawk before plunging at their target.
Sometimes they drop without warning but either way, the fewer there are the better as it's difficult enough tracking just one. If you are lucky you track the right one that's about to dive.
Sometimes they drop from almost directly above you which is very tricky but makes for a better shot in my opinion.
but wherever they come from it's a photographers obsession to capture the point just before impact.The nearest I came was a millisecond too late
Richard of course managed the perfect capture with about 1 cm of the birds bill in the water !
I was fairly happy with this one though as you can still see all of the bird as it dived at a shallow angle.
Gannet 200 mm
So what is the best gear for these kind of shots ? I had taken two full frame cameras, the Canon 5D3 and 1Dx. The latter with it's higher frame per second rate was to prove more effective although both have the same focus point arrangements. I chose to try expanded centre point on the majority of shots and in fairness, the keeper rate from an in focus point of view was pretty high which was something of a relief as much of my recent work has proven not to be the case.
For lenses I had a 500mm f4, a 300mm f2.8 and a 70-200f2.8. The choice of lens is of course dependant on the distance of the target but I found that even with a full frame body, the 70-200 was the easiest to use particularly as it has the zoom capability...if you can keep up with the action. We were tossing the fish a few metres from the rear side of the boat and the Gannets tended to hit them before they had drifted too far. The 500mm was out of the question, the 300mm would be perfect if you could keep the bird within the frame but that proved very hard at short distance so at full zoom of 200mm, life was much easier
Pick the bird up at 200mm

Gannet Dive 200mm
then zoom out to keep it in the frame.
Gannet 160mm
Gannet 123 mm
Gannet 102 mm
Then I lost it ! Zooming and focussing all at once on a fast moving subject is hard.
Big isn't necessarily best for this kind of situation. At 102mm the image is capable of a decent crop to 66%.
Gannet 102 mm 63% crop
Worth remembering for the future even if the image on the camera LCD looks pretty small.
On a crop body camera and even smaller focal  length might be better.
Of course, the further the fish drift the more need for length but by and large, if the Gannets don't take the fish fairly quickly they sink beyond their reach anyway.
Sometimes the Lesser Black-backed Gulls try for the bait.
Lesser Black Backed Gull
Usually unsuccessfully but often annoyingly too!
On this particular trip we had even more reason to need smaller lenses.
To our delight a pod of Bottlenose Dolphin were spotted and a unanimous decision to abort the Gannets was made in their favour. It seemed an age as we lifted the anchor, would they have disappeared by the time we got to the area we first saw them ?
In fact as we approached them, they changed course in our direction, deliberately seeking us out.
Bottlenose Dolphin
Before we knew it we were surrounded with Dolphin on either side of the boat, perhaps there were 30 in the pod, perhaps more. Absolutely amazing, a moment to cherish.
From a photographic point of view they were not easy as the tended to break the water just ahead of the bow.
Bottlenose Dolphin
More often than not you were looking down at them directly from above and the best chance of a shot was actually under the water.
Bottlenose Dolphin   Liverpool Bay
However, I decided to take a chance and moved to the rear of the boat just in case a better opportunity arose. While everyone else was snapping away I was missing out but I finally got what I hoped for, even though it was just the once.
Bottlenose Dolphin
What magnificent creatures they are
Bottlenose Dolphin
And how lucky we had been to experience them.
However, next time I will be certain to take an even smaller lens with me. The 24-105mm would have been better still ! The 24-70mm f2.8 would be perfect but that is out of the question as I don't intend getting one !


  1. Dave. What a wonderful day we all had on board Discovery. Your images are great and those of the dolphins are superb!! I am still sifting and sorting but will eventually publish on my blog,
    Hope we all meet up again soon,possibly mid August again on Discovery.It was a brilliant day out with good weather,good birds,fabulous dolphins and an excellent skipper

  2. Very good graphic account of the trip Dave,thought for a moment that I was back on Discovery again!
    Some nice action shots to boot and the dolphins....well! Catch up with you soon!!