The Gannets’ Dinner Guest

An award-winning photographer chats about getting in the water with the graceful seabirds.

The gannets in the photo may be fighting over a fish, but there’s little argument about the photo itself being the winning image in this year’s British Underwater Photographer of the Year Award, by British photographer Matt Doggett. In 2012 Doggett spent two days on a boat off of Scotland’s Shetland Islands with a friend, photographer Richard Shucksmith, trying to capture a Northern Gannet feeding frenzy. He talks to Audubon about how he and Shucksmith got the birds to show off their diving abilities, and what it’s like to see a gannet “fly” beneath the waves.

Audubon: Why did you want to photograph gannets diving?

Matt Doggett: We thought it would be really fun to experience what it would be like to be in the water when you've got this maelstrom of gannets hitting the surface and diving all around you. That's something probably only a handful of divers have ever experienced. In the United Kingdom, no one had done this before. And in this day and age with wildlife photography, if you want to get your pictures noticed, you've either got to do something better than anyone has done it before, or you've got to do something different—and this is completely different.

A: How did you set up the scene?

D: At the place where we launched the boat there are two big mackerel fishing vessels and a huge warehouse where their landings come in. So we bought mackerel in bulk and filled Richard's boat with about 100 kilos of it. Gannets eat them in the wild anyway, but the mackerel weren't close in shore that early in the season. To get the birds diving, we threw the fish over the side into the sea.

A: What method did you use to take the photographs?

D: We started out by just hanging over the side of the boat, holding the cameras beneath the surface. But the gannets were coming so close, diving right next to us in the boat, that we were getting absolutely soaked, and our cameras were too. We only did that for five or ten minutes before realizing we really needed to get to the underwater action as quickly as possible. So we put the cameras in their waterproof housings, put on our diving gear, and cracked on with the underwater stuff.

A: How many birds did you have dive-bombing you? Didn’t it feel dangerous?

D: Oh, hundreds. It was more terrifying when we were on the boat, because a few times when they were diving you could almost feel them brushing over your head! But once we were in the water we didn't think about that at all; we just enjoyed the action. Gannets are incredibly well-adapted for diving, and the lenses on their eyes actually change shape as soon as they hit the water, so under the waves they still have really good vision. We certainly felt like they knew what they were doing.

A: What's going on in your winning photograph?

D: Those three birds have actually converged on one fish, which was snapped up by the bird on the left-hand side. It has the fish in its beak at the back, and the other two have just missed out on it! This moment we've got here, when one bird's beak is in another's, is a split-second in time. Afterwards they all kind of went, “oh, missed that,” and then swam off in different directions. The flash I used froze that split-second action and lit the birds up nicely.

A: Did anything surprise you about the way the gannets behaved underwater?

D: When the birds dive for fish they either do a U-dive or a V-dive. For V-dives, the gannets hit the water at speed, do a shallow dive, catch a fish, and then go back to the surface. A U-dive is much deeper and can last up to 20 seconds. The birds will reach a point—about 10 or 15 feet below the surface—and then just like puffins do, rather than just relying on their momentum, they actually actively swim with their wings. It was really interesting to watch.

Gannets also actually swallow the fish underwater, because on the surface there are these other birds called Great Skuas, which harass them and make them regurgitate the fish—it's called kleptoparaciticism. So we've got shots of gannets swallowing the fish beneath the surface, so that hopefully they can hit the topside and fly off without being harassed.

A: Do you think these images have conservation value?

D: Other than being purely aesthetic, their value is that they ignite peoples' interest in the seas around the United Kingdom. If you come out of the water from a dive site around here, people tend to say, “Why are you diving? It's horrible, it's cold, there's nothing to see.” But when you can show them stuff like this; you can really change their minds about the amount of wonderful, diverse wildlife we have just off our coasts.