Underwater in the Caribbean and Pacific

The wreck of the M/V Keith Tibbets is the only sunken Russian warship in the Western Hemisphere. The renamed freighter is located in the Cayman Islands. 

Getting paid to bring a camera underwater has been my dream for over a decade. As a PADI scuba instructor who worked in Florida and Hawaii, I was always fascinated with underwater camera equipment. However, my job was to teach students, not snap photos.

That all changed last year with the show Rock the Park, produced by Tremendous Entertainment. Here, I was given the opportunity to work as a professional underwater camera operator in Biscayne National Park, the Cayman Islands, and Catalina Island. While my shoot responsibilities were simple at first, I was able to work as an underwater director of photography by the end of season.

Diving into Biscayne National Park, my first underwater shoot of the season kicked off just south of Miami. The goal was to document the remains of two sunken ships that had been affected by Hurricane Irma, a category 4 storm.

We first visited the wreck of the H.M.S. Lugano, a massive British freighter that sunk in 1913 after steering off course and grounding on Long Reef. Our guides from the national park service quickly pointed out sections of the ship that were freshly rusted – a sign of newly exposed metal. Our team photographed the wreck and saw that it had not been heavily damaged, only shifted slightly by storm waves.

Our next survey would be the wreck of the Mandalay, a luxury passenger yacht that sank on New Year’s Eve 1966. This steel hulled ship also met its fate on Long Reef, and was famously picked clean by local “wreckers” before tug boats could begin cargo recovery. Same story: no major damage.

Both ships belong to the Biscayne National Park Maritime Heritage Trail, an underwater tour that allows snorkelers and scuba divers to experience a variety of wrecks dating from the late 1800s. While it was obvious that a hurricane had recently hit these waters, the damage to the shipwrecks was minimal. Our team, including Hosts Jack Steward and Colton Smith, cleaned some marine debris and fishing line from the wrecks, and decided to head home and reflect on the power of nature.

Here’s a shot of Elliot Key, one of the uninhabited small islands of Biscayne National Park

Murky water and broken coral greeted us at the site of the shipwrecks. You can see the rust colored section of  the hull near the lower left of the photo marking a place where waves may have slightly affected the wreck of the H.M.S. Lugano. 

A volunteer from the National Park Service displays the various trash cleaned from the wreck, including fishing line, ropes, and aluminum cans.

Although surveying shipwrecks was timely and interesting, our next dive focused on a strange natural phenomena further south in the Caribbean. Traveling to the Cayman Islands, we found a spot where the locals have been feeding stingrays by hand for generations. The site known as Stingray City lies a few miles offshore from the capital city of George Town on the island of Grand Cayman.

To get there, we boarded a beautiful 51′ Leopard Power Cat staffed by the crew at Cayman Luxury Charters. The luxury boat and mostly British staff made for an attentive and upscale diving experience. Once anchored, the crew jumped into the water and expertly began coaxing the massive stingrays to the surface using cut squid.

The dozens of rays here seemed docile, and though armed with poisonous tail barbs, made no display of threat to anyone. I noticed that in terms of shear size, they were among the biggest stingrays I’d ever seen. Several large females in particular had wingspans of at least five to six feet.

One, affectionately known as Frisbee, had no barbed tail whatsoever. Sadly, I realized this meant she also lacked the ability to defend herself against predators. Stingray City was probably the reason this animal was able to successfully feed and stay alive.

While our dive guides petted and even cuddled the leathery creatures, my instincts told me to photograph the stingrays as naturally as possible and without interaction. Debating the ethics of fish feeding wasn’t my focus today, rather getting the shots that illustrated the whole situation.

From there, we boarded a small propeller plane to the island of Cayman Brac, a scuba paradise located 100 miles northeast of Grand Cayman’s bustling beaches. The goal here was to find and dive a sunken Russian frigate known as the M/V Capt. Keith Tibbets. Interestingly, the wreck of the Tibbets is the only sunken Russian warship in the Western Hemisphere. The Caymanian government purchased the ship, originally called “356,” from Cuba specifically to sink and create an artificial reef.

For me, Cayman Brac was the definition of a sleepy island paradise. The island had several “towns” located on various shorelines, but they were really just settlements owned by the locals with a few churches and small stores sprinkled in between. Predictably, the diving was fantastic with visibility close to 100′. Our team chose to explore the wreck with the talented scuba professionals at Brac Scuba Shack, and they provided us with an excellent private charter.

Our crew boarded this beautiful Leopard catamaran staffed by Cayman Luxury Charters to cruise to the dive site at Stingray City

Host Colton Smith dives into Stingray City to check out a big female southern stingray. No scuba is allowed here, in order to protect the rays. 

Shooting stingrays with my Canon 5D Mark III underwater housing at a feeding ground near the island of Grand Cayman, photo: Ben Cannon.

Perhaps our best dive of the season happened in the clear waters and astounding kelp forests just off Catalina Island. The goal was for Jack and Colton to plan their own self-guided dive and explore a unique scuba park built and maintained by the city of Avalon.

Wading into the cold Pacific water, my instincts told me to get ready for low visibility and marginal dive conditions. However, a quick survey with my camera found dozens of friendly fish and water clarity in excess of  sixty feet. The conditions were truly ideal, and I was immediately impressed by the city’s construction of the dive park. Located on a jetty close to town, the park had its own scuba rental shop and concrete steps leading right down to the ocean.

Working as the underwater director of photography, I motioned for Jack and Colton to join me at the surface, and we worked our way down to about forty feet inside the kelp forest. The experience found us all combing through giant kelp strands and greeting a myriad of underwater creatures, including dozens of iconic orange Garibaldi, hundreds of kelp bass, a few sea stars, and even a lonely lobster.

Since most of my dives have taken place in Florida and Hawaii, I was not expecting to have this much fun in 60-degree water. After filming two dives, everyone smiled and congratulated each other at the surface, despite a few shivers. What’s more – Jack and Colton had made their first planned solo dives without a divemaster guiding them. Another successful underwater shoot was in the books.

The iconic Garibaldi is the state fish of California, and there were plenty off the coast of Catalina Island.

Camera operator Nejc Poberaj takes his skills down below for this episode of Rock the Park, Catalina Island.

Kelp bass camouflage themselves alongside the beautiful, waving strands of kelp at the City of Avalon Dive Park.