Kenyan-Italian photographer Jahawi Bertolli talks to Nomad’s Leroy Buliro about his time spent diving into the depths of the ocean to document marine life with the aim of shedding a light on their conservation.
How did you get into underwater photography?
One day while filming a music video, we needed an underwater shot of someone jumping into a pool so I went in with a GoPro and my cousin, the talented director Phillipa Herrmann, joked that I should venture into underwater photography as there was no one doing it in Kenya. A few months later, I was sitting in my studio writing music for some beautiful footage when my frustration at being trapped in landlocked Nairobi came to its pinnacle. I decided that I wanted to be out there, within nature, filming, and not stuck in a studio. Once that project was completed, I moved to Thailand and enrolled in an underwater cinematography course…and that’s how I got behind a camera.
Which has been your most exciting assignment yet?
Hunting down photos of blue whales in Sri Lanka which is an interesting place for cetaceans because it is one of the few places that has a resident population of Blue Whales alongside many other species. The nutritious upwelling of plankton and krill at the drop off of the continental shelf in the south of the island makes it possible to support these massive creatures year round. For the best chance of photographing blue whales, Sri Lanka was the place to go. It is also a very culturally interesting place with superb waves for surfing.
When did you finally get to see some blue whales in Sri Lanka?
On our first day, we were woken up by the owner of the guest house where we were staying. “There are huge numbers of whales being spotted,” she said in excitement. We hadn’t planned anything for that day given that it was our first morning. The day was dark and cloudy and the water an eerie gun metal grey. The lack of sun meant that the krill were closer to the surface providing a huge feast for the whales; this was however not the best weather for photography. The whales were close to the coastline and when we found them, we realised that the boat was surrounded by at least 15 feasting blue whales; even with all their years of experience, the crew had never seen so many together! We spent some time just watching them to see their behaviour and once the captain was convinced it was safe, I decided to take the plunge.
How was the first dive?
The water was very murky and visibility was poor. Swimming on, I came across a bubble trail left by one of the whales that had a 6 metre wide tail. Water visibility was bad and it was impossible to get a good shot. The water was 1 km deep and 500 metres long, cargo ships were moving silently through the mist… not the best conditions, so we called it a day and went back to shore deciding to wait a few more days for better conditions. This was actually one of the only times I’ve ever felt really uneasy in the water.
Did you get another photo opportunity?
Definitely. We spent the next week exploring the southern part of the island and when conditions improved, headed back out to the open ocean again. From radio chatters, we heard that the whales were quite far off the coast – about 30 nautical miles – so we motored out into the blue which took about 3 hours. We eventually found one as the sun was getting low. The best way to get a chance to capture these gentle giants is to get in the water in front of them and let them swim to you. There were many unfruitful attempts. Knowing we had a long trip home, the captain said there was one more chance to get underwater. I jumped and swam as fast as I could to reach where I estimated the whale was heading only to see a huge tail disappear into the blue, for a moment I thought I had missed my opportunity and then I turned to see another whale coming straight at me following the first! The moment passed by in slow motion as the largest animal ever to have lived on this planet glided through the water in front of me before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived.
What’s another set of memorable shots that you have ever taken?
We filmed a short documentary in Lamu for the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust. A strong part of the narrative was turtle conservation and we needed a shot of a newly hatched turtle wading into the ocean for the first time. For months I went out to hatchings to try get the shot but ocean conditions were always either difficult or visibility was bad. Trying to follow something so small also proved impossible. One morning after 6 months, the sea was calm and visibility was good. I managed to find and stay with a baby turtle that had just hatched and filmed a sequence of its first few moments in the ocean, and that moment will stay with me forever.
What lies next for you this year? I just received great news that a project I’ve been working on has been approved for a National Geographic Society grant, which is amazing and pretty much a dream come true! This will be part of a larger project we’re setting up called East African Ocean Explorers where we want to inspire a new generation of explorers who will champion marine conservation and act as an inspiration to young people in their communities. We want to provide a platform for passionate people to be able to explore and learn more about the ocean providing workshops, educational films and funding for young Kenyans from coastal communities to be able to get in the ocean; whether that’s learning how to snorkel, taking a diving course or going on whale watching trips.