Geo Cloete: the realm of the jellyfish
03 November 2016 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer
Geo never forgot the vast swarm of box jellyfish he encountered when diving in Hout Bay off Cape Town, South Africa. The experience sparked a fascination with jellyfish and a drive to discover their underwater world. Since then, he has impressed the WPY jury with his otherworldly images of these intriguing, yet venomous, creatures.
Geo is a WPY52 Finalist with his image Tentacle tornado, which depicts the congregation of thousands of Cape box jellyfish forming several tightly packed columns. It's unusual to see them in such vast numbers, revealing there is still a lot we don't know about their behaviour. As part of our guest blog series, Geo shares some memories from venturing into the dreamlike realms of his favourite species.
It's an early mid-summer's morning in Cape Town. The Cape Doctor has taken a break, and the air temperature is already in the upper twenties. The mirror flat Atlantic Ocean stretches out like a lake before me. Inshore, the water has turned a beautiful inviting aquamarine colour. I can feel sweat drops rolling down my face as I hastily rig my gear. The wonderful visibility will aid my search, but I know it won't last long.
The Cape Doctor is the affectionate name given to the prevailing summer wind in Cape Town. It sets a powerful upwelling force in motion as it blasts the coastline from the South East for days on end. A force strong enough to draw nutrient rich pelagic waters inshore. The resulting current is strong enough to not only sweep plankton along, but also various pelagic creatures seldom seen inshore. Today I will be searching for a rare sight. One yet to be described by any biologist or scientist studying the species.
© Geo Cloete 2016
I find it ironic that the best reference I can think of using, when explaining to non-divers how difficult it is to find something in the ocean, is to compare it with searching the desert for life. At first you only see an endless sea of sand. Yet you know, hidden in that seemingly big blank canvas, treasures big and small await you. The question is just where to begin your search? I love the ocean with my whole being, but there is no denying that trying to find something in it is no easy task. Especially if what you are looking for is essentially transparent.
It's for this reason that I am grateful for the good visibility on offer this morning. In the desert at least one can see for miles in every direction and can keep on searching, for as long as you have food and water. Where I will be exploring, however, having the ability of seeing even twenty meters ahead, is the exception rather than the norm. Time is also a luxury which I won't have. There is a limit to the amount of breathing gas I can take with me, and the rate at which I will be using it, greatly depends on the depth of the dive and work load. Diving beyond ten metres means that I also have to keep a close eye on my tissue saturation to stay within the limits of a no-decompression dive.
© Geo Cloete 2016
As I enter the water and feel it push up into my wetsuit, it reminds me why this beautiful colour of the water is also called icy blue. The temperature has dropped down to eight degrees Celsius. It's not the coldest I have experienced, and I am still thankful that I have plotted a three kilometre route to explore today. Covering that distance will mean a fair amount of finning. Keeping my metabolic rate high will keep the cold under control.
Along my route I get to see various species of pelagic jellyfish, as I thought I would after the strong South Easterly wind over the previous few days. Although beautiful and fascinating to watch, these jellyfish aren't my goal for today, I am searching for Box Jellyfish… and lots of them! Although they are an inshore species, in my experience, I have only seen them aggregate in very large numbers when the water is so rich in nutrients.
Time flies underwater and the mid-point of my allowable dive time is fast approaching. I haven't even spotted a small school of Box Jellyfish yet. The water has started to turn an emerald colour and that is even more of a concern. The change in colour is due to the scorching summer sun. In mid-summer, when the South Easter wind backs down, it's not long before the plankton starts to bloom due to the heat.
© Geo Cloete
Good light and visibility, especially when aiming to capture wide angle scenes, is crucial when photographing underwater. At the moment I am losing both of those at a fairly rapid rate. In the past, I have found very large aggregations of Box Jellyfish, but unfortunately in low visibility. After studying my previous images, the lead local scientist, studying this species, was intrigued as he had not seen a smack of Box Jellyfish that size before. The general consensus was that the photographs documented previously unknown behaviour. Since then I have been searching to find these elusive large swarms of jellyfish in clear water in order to better communicate the true size and number of animals, as well as attempt to help piece this exceptional puzzle together.
There is just over one kilometre to go before I reach my exit point, and I am starting to feel that today's search is going to be another failed attempt at finding a needle in a haystack. Spotting these transparent creatures is never easy. But I have found that the ocean never disappoints those with patience and a passion to persevere.
Jelly Fireworks by Geo Cloete. Finalist 2014, Underwater Species.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 50
I have already passed through the first layer of Box Jellyfish before I realise I have struck gold. I am now amidst as large a smack of the species as I have ever seen. Although the visibility is not as clear as it was at the start of my dive, it's still the best conditions I have ever had with a smack of this magnitude. I am now literally surrounded by towering columns of jellyfish. Even in this relatively good visibility, the scale means that I can only capture one column at a time.
The rhythmic movement of thousands of jellyfish schooling together is almost hypnotic. Diving in itself is a surreal experience, but being amongst so many alien like beings amplifies that feeling to a level beyond description. It's easy to lose track of reality in such an intense dreamlike experience, but it's of vital importance to keep focus. Firstly, because I need to avoid being stung at all costs, so having only small sections of my face exposed, certainly helps. I am also trying to spot new clues to shed further light on explaining this behaviour.
By now I have been in eight degrees Celsius water for close to eighty minutes, and the cold is taking its toll. The mind seems to be primarily occupied with keeping the body warm at this point in time. Spotting something out of the ordinary among thousands of schooling jellyfish seems near impossible. I study their movements and the shapes the school form, I notice the interactions between the jellyfish and other creatures around, as well as their interaction with me.
Tenctacle Tornado by Geo Cloete, Finalist 2016, Under Water.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 52
At first I think it's just the cold and diminishing visibility playing tricks on me, but I am almost convinced that I have spotted something out of the ordinary from the corner of my eye. My air is starting to run low, but I need to confirm what I have seen. The search takes me into the column, and as the column opens up, I move through it to the other side and that is when I spot this unusual sight again and lock my vision onto it. These Box Jellyfish have four tentacles, yet I clearly see one jellyfish with more than four tentacles. I move closer to it and now I not only count eight tentacles, but clearly see that there is one jellyfish inside another one. In that moment, all thoughts of the cold are gone and I am filled with excitement and questions. After taking a few photographs, I search further, focus again on the creatures all around me, and low and behold I find a few more "couples".
Back at my car, warming up in the sun, pins and needles tingle in my extremities as blood flow returns to them. Watching the steam rise out of my wetsuit, I reflect on what I have seen and the questions keep running through my mind. I know that what I photographed, will most likely raise more questions than answers. But even without immediate answers, such an experience sends shivers runs down my spine. Although my core is still icy cold, I glow with joy, for not only did I find the needle, but a whole lot more.
The search continues.
© Geo Cloete 2016
ABOUT GEO CLOETE
Geo Cloete took to underwater photography to share the beauty of the underwater world. As a proud Capetonian, most of his work is created in the challenging, fascinating waters along Cape Town's coastline. His love of exploring and discovering the unknown also leads him to work in far-off places. His work has allowed him to document previously unknown animal behaviours. He strongly believes that sharing the beauty and wonders of the ocean will cultivate the awareness and love that the ocean and its creatures deserve.