BBC Earth

When life gives you lemons

Duncan Brake, cameraman


Filming in the mangrove forests is one of the most rewarding but testing endeavours I have had behind the camera.

In the Bahamas, the pristine gin clear blue waters every high tide afford the mangroves optimal conditions for filming this beautiful, unique environment and its mysterious inhabitants. Bimini’s mangroves have been visited by and inspired greats, such as the author Ernest Hemmingway and civil rights activist, Martin Luther King. This dynamic untouched underwater forest provided the perfect backdrop for our subject, the lemon shark.

Despite its raw beauty the mangroves can be quite a testing place to film. Above the water you are constantly under attack from a barrage of bloodsucking insects that are enjoying the free sunburnt human buffet that has graciously presented itself to them. Mosquitoes, horseflies and the infamous yet elusive no-see-ums lead the charge – and at times you are not even safe underwater. Some areas are so thick with bugs that taking a deep breath in through your snorkel can award you with a buzzing protein-rich mouthful of legs and wings!

Submerging into the peaceful insect-free world beneath the water presents its own challenges though. Most of the organisms living here are adapted to survive in this ever-changing environment. If asked to describe how the underwater mangrove world looks I would reply, breathtakingly beautiful. If asked how it feels to be there, one word sums it up – itchy! Everything from the seagrass to the upside down jellyfish let you know that you are a visitor in their environment by a little sting here or there! Whatever you do don’t cross paths with a fireworm, as they will hold true to their name and light you up!

Despite all these challenges I would not sacrifice a single minute that I have spent in these mangroves. This stunning arboreal underwater landscape offers a raw beauty with a feeling that you have been transported to a fantasy world. It is where striated light bands filter down, illuminating strange beasts and mythical creatures peaking out from behind the tangles of roots. In this underwater kingdom the lemon shark is their queen!

Weaving a 6ft something, 210 pound, neoprene encased underwater cinematographer in amongst the mangrove roots in a channel no wider than the camera housing that he is carrying, almost defies the laws of physics. Once in position it is a waiting game for the juvenile lemon sharks to enter the channel as the tide floods in. When you see these amazing little sharks underwater, discovering their environment and interacting with their peers, it certainly narrows the line between beast and human. Characters start to form and personalities become apparent, with some individuals showing much bolder and assertive behaviours to the others.

One of the most extraordinary experiences I had when filming this sequence was when a rather skinny shark that I affectionately nicknamed “Stretch”, became intrigued by me and this big metal whirring beast of a camera I was pushing through the water. After being initially quite scared and cautious, this little pocket predator built up the courage to approach and take a closer look. Once the barrier had been crossed, he spent a couple of hours continually circling me, bumping the camera and giving the end of my snorkel an investigatory chew here and there.

Stretch stayed with me for the entire rest of the day until the falling tide chased me out of the site, and he even followed me back to the boat. Connecting eye to eye underwater with this amazing little fella reminded me that the stereotypical reputation of mindless man-eating monsters is underserved!

They are intelligent, magnificent social creatures and it is our job to try and tell their true story.