Friday, June 1, 2012

A Visit with Jeffrey Knox Philips

by Jean Henry Mead                                

Jeffrey Knox "Hammerhead" Philips, an internationally known underwater naturalist, has pursued his passion for large marine animals such as hammerhead and tiger sharks, humpback whales, sea lions, and manatees around the world from Bridgetown, Barbados; Peti-Goave, Haiti, to Lucuala, Fiji. Twice winner of the Okefenokee Wildlife annual contest for his underwater photography, his photographs often appear in the pages and on the covers of half a dozen dive magazines. 

His articles have appeared in Florida Scuba News and Shark Diver magazine and his video footage has been used in several documentaries aired on the Discovery Channel. As an underwater naturalist he often is interviewed on TV by CBS affiliate WPECand NBC affiliate WPTV in south Florida, as well as nationally, which has helped to get the word out about the destruction of turtle nesting sites, over harvesting of lobsters and anchor damage on the coral reefs. He also offers advice on undersea homeland security issues. So when he decided to write mystery novels, the sea was a natural setting.

Jeff, you have an impressive background in underwater photography. How did your interest in large marine animals come about?

It is easier for a large animal to fill the viewfinder than it is for a little guy. Photographing flighty palm-size fish becomes frustrating unless you have lots of patience. The key for me was to start with slow moving, fat creatures. Manatees are easy to learn the craft. After gaining confidence and experience, I set my lens on french angelfish, queen angels, rainbow parrot fish, each species getting a little larger. The most curious were Nassau groupers who seemed to enjoy seeing their reflection in the dome ports or lens glass.

What’s a shark rodeo? And why do you prefer to photograph hammerhead and tiger sharks?

I believe “Shark Rodeo” was first coined by the dive staff on Walkers Cay, Bahamas in the ‘80s. They would take a 50 gallon trash barrel, fill it full of fish and freeze it, thus making a chumsicle. Once frozen, they’d take it out to a sandy bottom site that is surrounded by brain corals with a boat load of nervous divers. Over the years the sharks learned that anytime they heard the whine of a particular boat propeller, that they would get fed. While revving the diesel engines , the Bahamian boat captain said “I’m ringing the dinner bell. Time for supper.”

The divers then descended into about 30 feet of water and laid or knelt on the sandy bottom. The frozen chumsicle, tied to a float ball, would stay suspended about 15 feet below the surface. As soon as the ball started to melt, the sharks swam in. Not a few, but around a hundred. Nurse sharks, black tips, Caribbean reef, and bull sharks.

The divers had to follow one rule, don’t touch the bait and stay at least 15 feet away from the frozen fish chunks. The sharks would circle the bait ball, tearing bits out of it, just like a wild rodeo. The sharks often swam between the divers, over the divers, around the divers. Strobes firing from cameras, newbie divers and first timers wide eyed. Definitely a heart pumping, adrenalin pulsing time. Often nurse sharks would lie beside divers to rest and hope to get scratched. The encounter lasted little over an hour. Plenty of time to capture an award winning shot and memories never to be forgotten.

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