As a documentary filmmaker, I have the opportunity to see someone’s life from an inside perspective. Recently, I had taken a dive into the world of Matt Draper, an underwater fine art photographer. Draper has been capturing the ‘fascination of fear’, searching for some of the most apex predators this ocean has to offer. He travels around the globe searching for that next moment and with one click, he can print, sell and fund the next adventure. But it’s not always that easy. Especially when trying to capture a shot of killer whales in Mexico.

Photo by Mike Nulty

I had imagined it to be similar to an episode of Blue Planet, filled with non-stop action. We have two weeks dedicated to getting the shot, it seems like it was going to be a piece of cake. But Matt assured me that it isn’t always that easy; ‘it is all about time on the water.’

I hadn’t spoken to Matt about his goal for the trip but I could tell that the image he wanted to capture was already thought out in his mind. He knew the frame, light and positioning of the subject. Even down to the details in the reflection of the water. I could only imagine this photo has been itching to surface for a while.

Last year Matt came on this exact journey in search for the Killer Whales. Very few people have captured these animals underwater due to their unpredictability. You may spend two weeks searching and not see a single dorsal fin. You can’t help but have a small sliver of doubt that after all this time and money invested you might not see them. Hopefully this trip will have a different outcome. The goal is set and the hunt is on.

Since the trip was so last minute I had no time to really process the fact that I might be swimming with Killer Whales. Especially since my only diving experience was swimming with some turtles back home. I was about to scale the food chain and swim with the whales that snack on great whites and humpbacks. It was an easy decision to make while binge-watching Blue Planet (for research). Since I was no longer on the couch but in a wetsuit on a boat in the middle of nowhere; it sort of made me a question.

Was this really a good decision?

The journey begins with a 12-hour car ride from LA to Bahia De Los Angeles, a small fishing village in Mexico. We met with a local fisherman, Poncho, who will be our legendary captain for the next two weeks. Unfortunately, Poncho doesn’t speak any English and we don’t speak any Spanish, which made for some quiet conversations. Luckily the schedule was simple, meet at the boat ramp every sunrise at 6:30 am. Along with a lineup of fishermen preparing their boats for the day.

Straight from the get-go, the pressure is on. No time is wasted. We take the boat out and after two hours we arrive on this small island. Whalebones are scattered along the beach and the resident birds are very protective over their real estate. We leave the land to swim with the seals.

Video By Electric Bubble

I dive into the water; It’s freezing. Especially because I have borrowed my friends spring wetsuit compared to Matt who was in a custom head-to-toe bodysuit; It even has Draper printed on the back. I begin to realise that I have gone a bit out of my depth even though I feel like I am in my element. I am loving capturing every minute I get underwater with the camera in my hands.

The seals sense my timidness. They swim at me full speed, opening their mouth and turning away at the last second. I come up for air and notice Matt swimming back to the boat. Poncho has seen something in the distance and is shouting for us to return. I make it back into the boat and we speed off. We don’t know what he has seen but the from the expression on Poncho’s face we know it is something big. We search for about half an hour before we see a spout in the distance. Poncho drops the throttle and pins it towards the sighting. We get there but the water is still. We then sit and wait until the next spout.

This goes on until we can get close enough to the whales to track their movements. But if we get too close, the whale will sound, diving deep into the ocean. Losing our opportunity to capture the whales.  We have to time the movement of the whale before Matt coordinates with Poncho to safely manoeuvre the boat into position.

As we get closer we realise it’s a Fin Whale. Once the boat is in place, we wait for Matts call for when he is going to jump into the water and free dive into position. I follow Matt as he dives into the water.

We swim as hard as we can to meet the whale on its path. My vision is blurry by the wake of Matts fins. I hold my camera out in front as I look around for the whale. Matt stops. Just past him, we see a 40ft fin whale. It moves incredibly quick under the water with little effort. It dives deep. Matt follows it down. While holding his breath he has to work with the natural light, configure the frame and adjust settings. All this has to be done within a window of about 3 to 4 seconds before the giant disappears into the big blue. Matt swims back up and floats at the surface as he looks through the photos. I can sense that he didn’t get the image he wanted. After all the energy spent following this one whale, it’s hard to explain the emotions of surfacing without that photo.

We swim back to the boat and begin looking for the next opportunity. We do this for two weeks. Every time we are out on the boat, Matt says ’this is the day’. There are so many ups and downs on a trip like this. One day spirits might be down because the wind is too rough but next day you encounter four fin whales cruising by. Being the second-largest animal on earth it is hard not to enjoy their presence

After the two weeks, Matt is left without the image he came for. We did not find one Killer Whale. I begin to understand Matt’s world and it is not what I expected. But I know understand the excitement and exhilaration of hunting for just one photo.

No matter how much I wanted this perfect shot, I soon learnt that I have no control of the ocean. It’s not about setting expectations but about being present. This is a big lesson I took away from the trip. People rush to get things done like they are checking off a grocery list. They want instant gratification for their work. No one just picks up a camera and becomes an artist overnight. It takes years. Years invested in the ocean. Years invested into the animals;  As Matt would say, ‘it is all about time on the water.