Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

A photographer’s despair

Have you ever felt the despair of a disappointed photographer? Have you experienced the terrible frustration of being ready to take an exceptional picture, and then having everything go wrong? I have had this experience, and even now, when I think of it, I still feel terrible regret. All professional photographers know that the number of opportunities to create great pictures in a lifetime can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

We were in Djibouti. After a long journey to Africa’s Cape Horn, we decided to go on a diving cruise. After visiting the islands of the Seven Brothers, we stopped for two days in Tadjourah Bay to observe and photograph a colony of whale sharks. The only way to photograph these massive fish is using snorkeling gear. They feed on plankton, and in order to filter the massive quantities which they need out of the water, they have to constantly move around. If we had used scuba tanks, we would have had very little chance of taking any photos. Our technique was to row around the bay in an inflatable boat until we spotted one or two whale sharks, and then get into the water to take pictures. To avoid frightening the animals, we worked in pairs.

It was our second day photographing the whale sharks. We had already taken a lot of good pictures. The harvest was very rich. We had each spent over 8 hours in the water, and we had all the photos we wanted for our report. I decided to try something different. I talked to Isabelle: I wanted to be alone for 30 minutes. She agreed to swim a short distance away from me. I felt that even a pair of snorkelers might frighten a whale shark. Even though whale sharks are about 7 or 8 yards long, it is still necessary to come fairly close to them, and the beating and thrashing of a scuba diver’s fins does not encourage them to stick around. Laurence, our scuba diving guide, also agreed to leave me alone. She gave me some advice, and then left. She would come to pick me up in 30 minutes. I thought that there was a fairly good probability of encountering a whale shark. I hoped, since I was alone, that I would avoid frightening it and be able to take some different photos.

The inflatable boat moved away, leaving me alone with my camera. This is my favorite way to work, and I had all the time that I needed. Half an hour is plenty.

I didn’t see any whale sharks, but I was not worried. I told myself that at least one would appear in a few minutes. I decided to make some free dives to 10 yards so that I would be warmed up and ready whenever a whale shark showed up. I completed a few breathing exercises on the surface, then made my first descent. It was exhilarating, even though I had to hold my breath. Because I was alone, without someone watching from the surface, I had promised Laurence that I would not go any deeper. I only stayed down for about 20 seconds each time. It wasn’t worth risking an accident by staying down too long.

After 15 minutes of solitude, there was still no whale shark in sight. I began thinking that I must have adopted the wrong method. Maybe it would have been better to search with the inflatable boat. 20 minutes, and still nothing. I decided to make another free dive to pass the time. I descended slowly to ten yards. I set the computer to beep when I reached that depth. The beep sounded, and I stood up. Then I started turning to see if a whale shark was coming towards me.

Suddenly, I saw an enormous shadow less than 100 yards away. It was huge. The whale shark would have to be more than 15 yards long. In Djibouti, that is extremely unusual. I had seen whale sharks that size before, but that was in the Galapagos archipelago. I waited impatiently for the behemoth to come closer. The form was growing clearer. It wasn’t a whale shark. It was four of them coming right towards me, mouths wide open. They were only 25 yards away from me. I felt a powerful adrenaline rush. Finally, after all these years, I was going to create a really great, ‘winning’ picture. It was an extraordinary sight. I have never seen a photo of four whale sharks swimming together. I was certain that I would take a ‘killer’ photo. Everything was moving very fast. I aimed through the camera’s view finder. I was using a 14 mm lens, so the field of view was large enough for me to see the whole scene. I focused the camera. The autofocus worked well. I triggered it. Nothing happened. I forced the trigger down. Still nothing. Suddenly, the wonderful picture that had been so close to me was gone again, hopelessly out of reach. It was impossible for me to take a picture. The four whale sharks moved on inexorably. What was going on? My mind was working at a hundred miles an hour. I had enough battery, because the autofocus was working. Maybe I pressed too hard on the trigger and it broke? The whale sharks were right over me, forming a huge wall that blocked out the sunlight. Not only was the space around me dark, but so was my mind. I was desperate. I did not understand why I could not take a picture. It had only been 7 or 8 seconds, but now I could do nothing. The whale sharks swam past me. It was too late. I had missed my chance to take the perfect photo. I returned to the surface, desperate, miserable, and confused. I gave a cry of despair.

I needed to understand what was wrong. The battery was charged because I could focus the camera. Suddenly, I understood. I looked at the number of pictures I had left: 0. My memory card was full. I scrolled through the photos and realized that I had forgotten to format my card at the end of the previous day. That morning, I had continued to use it. What a mistake! The whole thing was my fault. By the time I figured it out, it was too late. I deleted some pictures I had taken the previous day. We never know. I still had ten minutes before the boat picked me up. But luck did not smile on me again. The miracle did not happen twice. That was not the day that I would create “the picture”.

Ever since that mishap, I always check the number of pictures remaining, and I always check the trigger before getting in the water. Luck comes only to those who pursue it. I am still in the race. One day, I will take “the picture” that I missed that day. Until that moment, which should happen soon, I still find that life is beautiful.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti

Whale sharks in Tadjourah Bay, Djibouti.

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