The Underwater Twitcher
By Henley Spiers
The sound of bombs reverberates through frigid water, a bubble jacuzzi vibrates all around, like a scene from a busy safety stop. Hearing acuity dulled, my eyes dart in search of the impact location. Adrenaline builds. Pupils dilate. One thud from above is rhythmically followed by another as the aerial assault builds to a crescendo. Inches away, a pointed beak slices through the surface, the tip of a white torpedo. An unblinking gaze stares back, yellow eyes framed by blue rings. The shape of a bird emerges as wings are deployed as aquatic brakes. It’s just another day in the life of a northern gannet, but a spectacle rarely seen by human eyes and one I won’t forget in a hurry.
We all have our particular kinks when it comes to the aquatic world: I have always been a wildlife junkie, drawn beneath the waves by the observation of ecosystems overlooked by the majority of our species. Wildlife encounters on land are also gratifying, but I miss the brazen, close-quarters interactions we are privileged with underwater. Evolutionary marvels, seabirds have mastered both air and water, and for the last few years my fascination with meeting them underwater has grown, the blurring of boundaries between wildlife on land and sea offering a fresh and inspiring perspective.
My first experience as an underwater twitcher came in the Sea of Cortez, where schooling snapper carpeted the sea floor, scaly bodies shimmering beneath the desert sun of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. The tranquility was broken by a lone cormorant, its dark silhouette unmistakable at the surface. Squinting upwards, I tried to track the bird’s diving forays towards the fish buffet below. Swimming with surprising speed, the cormorant performed agile 10 metre duck dives, sending the shoal into a panicked frenzy. Acutely reminded of my own aquatic limitations, I struggled to keep up, but marvelled at this battle between predator and prey until air supplies ran low.
A bloom of jellyfish orbit the North Sea, framed by the sun-rays piercing into the Berwickshire marine reserve. Hovering just a few metres down, I have a date with Britain’s best penguin impersonator. Modestly sized, guillemots come smartly attired in a black and white suit. Highly social, they stay close to one another, whether it’s on the cliffs when nesting, or rafting at the surface. These swift seabirds have been tracked down to 180m deep, well beyond my own dive qualifications, and thankfully today’s meeting will be conducted in less hostile territory. The guillemots perform swooping arcs underwater, a ballet of swimming birds. It’s hard to know exactly why they are drawn to visit us, but it would seem our breathing bubbles arouse their curiosity, perhaps reminiscent of the small fish they predate upon. An excitable crowd gathers, as the first few curious birds incite the rest of the flock underwater. Zipping around with enviable agility, they too leave bubble trails as the air streaks from their monochrome plumage. The collective thrill of the experience is initially overwhelming, but in time smaller details emerge: about a quarter of all guillemots are blessed with ‘bridled’ features, an attractive white mascara line stretching back from their eye. A touch of make-up can go a long way, and I try my best best to train the camera on the bridled individuals. A new and memorable chapter in the life of an underwater twitcher, time spent with the compactly curious guillemots contrasts starkly with the ferocity of the gannets.
This new passion within a passion now born, I look forward to more seabird encounters underwater. Indeed, I am reliably informed that shy puffins are best approached when snorkelling with a DIY puffin helmet…
Half British and half French, Henley Spiers is a renowned, award-winning photographer, writer, and trip leader who has fast become one of the most highly decorated underwater shooters in the world. Henley’s photography has been published in the likes of The Sunday Times, Der Spiegel, and Sierra Magazine, and frequently graces magazine covers.