Before starting Big Fish Expeditions, I was a full time wildlife photographer specializing in underwater photography. I picked up a camera soon after I learned to dive in the 90′s. Almost immediately I developed a passion for sharks. Over the past 20 years I have photographed more shark species than anyone in the world (as far as I know).
How did you make the transition to becoming a tour guide?
Once I had built a name for myself as a big animal photographer, I started getting requests from divers that wanted to share my experiences. I ran my first trip to dive with Tiger Sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas in 2010. The guests raved about the trip so I ran another and soon expanded to new locations with new big animals. Within a few years, I was having so much fun as a guide that I dropped most of the magazines I was shooting for and ran trips full time.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It really varies. Some days I wake up on a luxury liveaboard dive ship in the tropics, eat a sumptuous breakfast with our guests and then spend the day photographing wildlife on colourful coral reefs. Other days, I crawl out of bed feeling exhausted after a night of revelry around the camp fire. Then I slip into a freezing wetsuit that didn’t quite have time to dry properly because yesterday we spent 10hrs at sea in the South African winter. By 7am we’re all huddled in a zodiac bouncing over the surf on our way out to the Sardine Run. Then, the sun comes out, the gannets fly, whales breach, super-pods of dolphins swim by and sharks boil the water. As the action heats up, all the discomforts are forgotten.
My days are largely dictated by the movements and whims of the animals we are chasing. It also depends on the wants and capabilities of our guests. If some guests are keen photographers, I will likely do some camera coaching – hopefully without acting like a know-it-all. Some guests are all about the interactions and learning about the life history of the animals so I will often spend time talking about specific animal ecology and conservation while we wait for the action to start.
What is the best part of your job?
I love showing people an animal that they already thought they would see but in a way that is better than they dreamed it would be. Generally, that means a more intimate encounter, closer, bigger, longer lasting and more interactive. I also still love the chance to get my own new images even if I’ve been to a place many times before. Not everyone has a fancy camera so at the end of a trip, I generally load a folder of my best images onto the web for my guests to download, print or share with their friends.
What’s the most bizarre experience you’ve had on a guided tour?
There have been so many exceptional moments. Perhaps having a beluga whale mimicking my movements as I swam above it, or maybe the time I had eight huge tiger sharks swimming circles around me, or trying to get a baboon out of our truck, or swimming within touching distance of a curious 8m long orca. The list goes on…
We have had quite a few guests that wanted to walk among the polar bears. I’m all in favour of close encounters but that is taking it a little too far One of our guests asked if she could wear her mermaid tail on every dive. Of course I agreed, to the delight of some of the photographers on the trip.
Every job has its ups and downs. Are there any aspects of your job that you don’t like or aren’t that keen on?
Working with wildlife and more often than not, out at sea, we occasionally run into uncooperative animals or bad weather. Fortunately, we usually have some pretty good back-up plans to keep people entertained until the action resumes.
As an experienced guide yourself, can you explain to our readers what the benefits of hiring a guide are?
Realistically, if you want to see the Taj Mahal, you can buy a guide book and simply go there on your own. A guide may make the experience more rewarding but he/she is not essential to the experience. Conversely, when you’re looking for specific wildlife, you can’t just read a book. It is critical to go with a knowledgeable guide that knows the movements and behaviour of the animals and can arrange all of the logistics to put you in the right spot at the right time to enjoy an epic encounter.
How about this, there is a secret spot in Prince William Sound in Alaska that we have coined ‘Shark Alley’. During the annual salmon migration, this particular spot attracts scores of salmon sharks – a rarely seen species of mackerel shark that looks just like a mini great white shark with a bad attitude. The sharks are only there for a few weeks and they are hard to approach but we have developed some effective techniques for getting them close to our boat so that our guests can see them underwater. This is the only tour in the world where you can see this apex predator.
In your view, what makes a good tour guide?
As a wildlife guide, experience is essential. Beyond that, you need to be detail oriented when building successful adventures. Fortunately, I have a major case of O.C.D. lol. Plus, you must be able to multitask and most importantly, you need to be able to communicate with your guests to understand their expectations and needs, and use your intuition to assess if they’re enjoying the trip so that you can change things up if necessary.
And finally, have you got any tips for people who are interested in booking a guide like yourself, but aren’t too sure what to look for?
Ask how long they have been guiding the trip you are interested in. Then, ask them how successful the tour has been each time – there is no point choosing a guide with years of guiding experience if they don’t deliver! And finally, ask for all of the logistical information that you want to know. If they can’t answer all of your questions, move on to another guide. Don’t be embarrassed if you are clueless when you first inquire, thats why you’re hiring an experienced guide.