Shooting Shipwrecks

By Jim Church

With the increasing number of ships, aircraft and other man-made objects being sunk to create artificial reefs and dive sites, more underwater videographers are recording shipwrecks on tape.

For some, shipwrecks provide a golden opportunity to film the fish, colorful corals and other marine life that live in, on and around wrecks. Others seek artifacts that were once the tools and possessions of past crews. A few are simply awed by the sheer size of a large wreck. For me, the history of the wreck is also important. I can't describe the thrill of diving the carrier USS Saratoga, battleship HIJMS Nagato and other test ships at Bikini Atoll.

Multiple dive sites:
Large wrecks often offer multiple dive sites. For example, the bow, midships and stern of the Shinkoku Maru, in Truk Lagoon, offer completely different views. Each section offers more than enough subject matter for a video dive. Penetrate a wreck and you will see a new set of sites; submerged engine rooms, compartments filled with fish, cargo holds and artifacts such as a ship's wheel or engine room telegraph.

The crumpled remains of the Balboa, in Grand Cayman, offer multiple video opportunities, day or night. Air pockets in the overturned hull section can be used for reflection shots and the propeller is an excellent background for diver shots. At night the Balboa is loaded with octopus, lobster, multitudes of fish and other creatures.

Where are we? Even if creature close-ups are your main interest, use some wide angle shots to introduce the wreck. When you play your tape, viewers will want to know where you were.

You can start with upward angle shots showing divers descending to the wreck or with a downward view as you descend. Choose part of the wreck that has prominent features such as an anchor windless or bridge structure. Then you can slowly swim along a railing or over the deck. Having divers in the introductory scenes establishes size proportion.

Going inside:
Wheelhouses, open holds and many other wreck interiors are often bright enough for navigation. However, some spaces below decks, such as engine rooms, can get dark darn soon! If you decide to penetrate dark spaces, you are combining cave diving, night diving and night video; you need special training! Never go in so far that you can't find your way out if all your lights fail. Watch out for wires and other obstructions and make sure someone knows your dive plan.

A fine layer of silt blankets the decks inside some wrecks. Thus, you must move slowly with minimum fin movement. If you kick hard and often, clouds of light blocking silt can dramatically reduce visibility. Believe me, there is nothing more terrifying than being lost inside a dark wreck!

Marine life close-ups:
Shooting marine life close-ups requires an entirely different mindset than shooting wide angle 'show them the wreck' shots. The two key points are: have a subject and settle before you start shooting. Look for something specific, such as clownfish darting around in a field of anemone tentacles. Then, get your body under control before you start shooting. Too often, beginners start a close-up shot before they settle and stabilize the camera. Slow down, settle, choose a camera angle and adjust the image size before starting the shot.

Shooting artifacts:
Artifacts can range from large subjects, such as a tank on the deck of the San Francisco Maru, to smaller subjects such as dishes or bottles. One of your major goals should be to shoot artifacts without breaking anything. While it is hard to break a tank, many other artifacts are fragile. Shoot the fragile artifacts in their natural state. Don't feel compelled to handle and move everything. I've seen irreparable damage done to books, clothing, pottery and other fragile artifacts at Truk Lagoon because they were handled roughly.

Don't think of a wreck as being just a pile of rusty metal. A wreck can be an underwater museum crammed with artifacts and home for myriad undersea creatures. A wreck can provide multiple dive sites for multiple interests.