Playing with dolphins
“WE WOULD SIMULTANEOUSLY DIVE DOWN TOGETHER, TWIRLING AS IF WE WERE PUTTING ON A SYNCHRONISED SWIMMING PERFORMANCE.” – CASSIE JENSEN
In this online interview, Florida-based underwater photographer Cassie Jensen talks to Oceanographic Magazine about her playful interactions with dolphins in the Bahamas, the importance of ecotourism and how to start off as an underwater photographer.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When and how did your love for the ocean emerge?
Cassie Jensen (CJ): I grew up loving the water and spent a lot of time with my parents on our boat in lakes and the ocean. I had somewhat of a healthy fear of the ocean until I was in my mid-twenties due to how the media portrays sharks; it wasn’t until 2015 that I really began to understand them and the ocean more. Thankfully I started scuba diving on a weekly basis when I moved to Florida and developed a passion for the ocean and its inhabitants – my life has never been the same!
OM: How did you get into underwater photography?
CJ: After I had been diving for a few weeks, I got more comfortable in the ocean and I liked being surrounded by all sorts of different species. I had a GoPro to start with and just wanted to show people what I was seeing. That eventually turned into a life’s passion of wanting to show people what is at risk if we do not help save our planet and ocean soon.
I eventually upgraded to a DSLR camera rig before my first trip to swim with humpback whales in Tonga. My goal is to show people the beauty that is worth protecting underneath the surface. I hope to show people that all the creatures who live in the ocean have an essential purpose – each and every one of them is crucial for the health of our planet. Each individual within a species also has a unique personality, and we can develop relationships with them that are more incredible and life changing than anything I can put into words. Through my photography, I hope to inspire others to protect our planet and its beautiful inhabitants before it is too late.
And if people are unable to join me on my expeditions to experience swimming with whales, dolphins and other species, I hope my images and videos, along with detailed descriptions of our interactions, will lead people to care about these exquisite beings and create a desire to protect them and their home.
OM: Tell us about your most memorable encounter underwater.
CJ: My most memorable encounter underwater was playing the seaweed game with spotted dolphins. I have been lucky enough to experience this a handful of times. As soon as I see one of them pick up a piece of seaweed, I know the game is on! The seaweed game describes a dolphin picking up a piece of sargassum seaweed from the surface of the water in their mouth, with their pectoral fin or their tail. The dolphins play it with each other or, if you’re lucky, one plays it with you. The rules are simple: keep the seaweed away from each other.
It is fascinating to watch the dolphins slow down so the opponent can almost reach the seaweed strand, then swim away with it just out of reach. It is an extraordinary behaviour to witness this between dolphins, watching them tease each other with it. But even more special is when a dolphin wants to play with us humans.
On a recent trip to the Bahamas, after almost two years of not seeing one of my favourite dolphins to swim with, the now adolescent ‘Moose’ finally made his appearance again and he really put on a show for us. As soon as we saw each other, it felt like our connection was sparked just like it had been the last time I had a very special moment with him when he was a baby. He spun around me more times than I can count, so much that I got dizzy.
I was squealing with delight, and we would simultaneously dive down together, twirling as if we were putting on a synchronised swimming performance. I was already so grateful to have shared these moments with him, but then he saw a piece of seaweed on the surface, and the game was on! Picking it up in his mouth while I swam next to him, I reached towards the seaweed half-heartedly – just to tease him, and he passed it onto his pectoral fin. I reached for the long string, he swam just fast enough away to bring the seaweed out of my reach where he started to bounce it on his pectoral fin, as if to say, “you can’t catch me!”
Laughing into my snorkel and filling my mask with water, I slowed down to reorganise myself. He was a little ahead of me at that point, and he slowed down and turned his head as if asking me why I am so slow and can’t keep up with him. I chuckled and swam towards him and the seaweed and reached out for it again. He started swimming, bouncing the seaweed on his pectoral fin, before passing it onto his tail, while I continued to reach for it.
He gave me a playful side-eye, then dropped it so I could grab it. I sucked in a lung full of air before diving 20 feet down to drop the seaweed. He immediately followed, looked at me, gazed at the seaweed and grabbed it with his mouth so that the game started all over again. His mom even got involved at some point. It was such a delight to be a part of their match. It is really hard to describe what it feels like to actually play a game like that with wild dolphins, who choose to interact with us on their own terms. I did not have my camera in the water with me for this interaction, for I wanted to fully be in the moment and interact with him. I did have my GoPro though, so I could capture some of the action with a small handheld device that wouldn’t take my attention away from Moose and the connection we were making.
OM: Which one is your most viral photo? And how did it come about?
CJ: The most viral content I have documented is a video I took while in Tonga on one of my whale swim expeditions. We had been swimming with a sleepy humpback whale mum and her calf for some time, watching quietly at the surface as they snoozed 20 feet below us. The baby started to get rowdy and came up to the surface, wanting to play with us. The baby was very rambunctious after their nap, and kept trying to wake its mum up until she couldn’t resist the baby’s antics. The mum started breaching several times. We think It might have been to wake herself up fully at first, before it turned into either teaching moments for the baby, or a playful game. We got back on the boat to watch the crazy breaching continue. I pulled out my phone and started videoing her breaches, and each time she got a little closer to us.
After seeing her breach on the same path consecutively, we guessed where she would pop up again, holding our cameras at the ready – and we were right! Directly behind the boat, 15 feet away! I captured the video in slow motion, and a friend who was on the expedition with me was just in front, which provided a great sense of scale to show how huge the whale really was. We all cheered in excitement and could not believe how amazing it was to witness a breach so close to us.
Shortly after, mum and calf settled down again and we swam with them a few more times. It was really great to see the raw power of her breaching so close, followed by seeing how calm and nurturing she was with her calf afterwards. It’s ironic that the most viral video I have captured was taken on my phone, and not any of the underwater camera gear I have used so much over the last few years to capture amazing moments. That just goes to show, you don’t need the ‘best’ camera gear to capture something great. Use what you have in the moment, and sometimes the stars align – you just have to be in the right place at the right time, with a little bit of luck.
OM: What advice would you give young emerging underwater photographers?
CJ: Slow down and enjoy the view. Enjoy the underwater world for what it is, absorb it, experience it as if it is your home. Before picking up a camera, make that connection with it first. Being comfortable in the water before you do that is also crucial, because you need to be aware of where you are in the water, and the environment you are in. It is easy to get sidetracked. You focus on the one thing you are photographing and you could wind up separated from the group. Read books and do some research on photography, composing, lighting, settings, and understand how to change your settings before going in the water. Keep shooting and play around in post – have fun. Don’t get frustrated if your images are not everything you hoped they would be. Underwater photography is difficult – it takes patience, practice, and persistence. And, last but not least, please put your camera down from time to time and enjoy the moment without solely focusing on getting the shot and missing that eye contact with your subjects. Getting a great shot is the end goal for a lot of people, but you also really want to immerse yourself in the moment too.
OM: How does it feel to share the water with dolphins and whales?
CJ: There is no other feeling on earth that can compare to the one you get when you make eye contact with a wild sentient being. When a massive humpback whale trusts you enough to bring her tiny new-born right up to you, or when a playful dolphin makes full eye contact and invites you to dive down and be a part of her pod, there is nothing that can come close to that feeling. Words fail me when trying to describe what it’s like… I had no idea what I was missing until I first swam with whales and dolphins in 2016. The easiest way I can describe it is that it makes you feel free. It changed my life forever.
OM: How do you think ecotourism experiences can help conservation measures?
CJ: Ecotourism is a huge asset for conservation. Bringing people into the water and experiencing nature and wild animals with their own eyes is crucial. Once humans make those connections with wild animals or the ocean itself, it can really give them something to be passionate about, something specific to care about. The more people who care about the ocean and its inhabitants, the more of a chance we have to help protect them. Ecotourism not only helps bridge connections between humans and wildlife, but it can also help promote certain laws and protected sites.
OM: What’s next for you? What will the future bring?
CJ: I would love to work more directly with conservation organisations, help with research, and work on more ways to give back to local communities in these amazing places we visit. I would also love to travel to schools and give talks to inspire the youth to care about our beautiful ocean and all of the creatures living in it. I will also continue running expeditions to introduce people to these incredible animals and to show them the magic of our underwater world.
If you want to find out more about Cassie, visit her website.
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