Goran Ehlme underwater photography ()Goran Ehlme underwater photography () © Copyright

The ecstasy of the hunt

Underwater photographer Goran Ehlme takes an extraordinary journey into the unknown

“I was on my knees looking down into the ice hole and suddenly I see something deep in the water, coming up with enormous speed,” recalls marine life photographer, Goran Ehlme. “A leopard seal shoots up through the hole like a rocket. Because I’m on my knees, I fall backwards and get my feet underneath my ass as I land on my back. The leopard seal is biting and snapping away at me, but it can’t quite reach.”

Ehlme was in Antarctica, filming emperor penguins for BBC’s The Blue Planet 15 years ago, when he had the near miss with a 350kg leopard seal. But his producer pulled him to safety, and he’s still alive to tell the tale.

Goran Ehlme underwater photography ()

 

“The seal was biting because he’s still in the ecstasy of hunting,” he explains. “He hasn’t determined what I am yet – I’m still prey to him. That’s how they work; first they bite and catch, then they identify what they’ve caught. Five minutes later, when they realise they have no interest in eating you, you could jump in with the seal because he knows what you are and you’re not on his menu.”

The Swedish photographer is part of San Miguel’s ‘Rich List’ – a list of people who are rich in life experiences – and backed by the campaign, he travelled to the Azores to find sperm whales and the rare Mola Mola (or ocean sunfish). The results are the pictures you see here.

“It’s a unique feeling to be all alone – to be
with nature without any sign of humans”

“The film maker who was with me has been to the Azores every summer for the past 20 years and never seen a Mola Mola that size,” says Ehlme. “They’re often called the biggest plankton in the world because they just drift around in the ocean’s currents and eat jellyfish. They love to go up to the surface and lay sideways to bask in the sun.

“When we found the sunfish, he was at the surface, then he started to descend to about seven metres, so we followed him down and swam next to him. But then all the small pilot fish surrounding him swam over and he wanted them back, so he came right up to us.”

Goran Ehlme underwater photography ()

 

The Mola Mola and sperm whale he dived with were friendly enough, but what about some of nature’s less hospitable creatures? “Divers and swimmers have ticked off the list of dangerous animals by studying them and learning how to approach them,” says Ehlme. “But we should never forget that wild animals are just that – wild – so there are no guarantees.

“It’s extremely important that an animal is very clear you are approaching. Do not suddenly become close or swim among a big school of fish where there is bad visibility, because then the animal has no clue you are in there.”

According to Ehlme, this logic even extends to that most fearsome of fish, the great white shark. “In many places on the planet, they dive with white sharks without a safety cage,” he says. “In clear water, where there is a good food source, people dive with white sharks without any problem. Starving animals are always dangerous because there are no rules and they will eat anything to survive.”

Goran Ehlme underwater photography ()

 

Despite his belief that most animals can be approached safely, there are always some, like walruses, that will remain unpredictable, and humans won’t be swimming with them any time soon.

“Walruses have, I assume, a very similar mentality to hippos,” he says. “They’re very calm and relaxed one minute, sleeping and snoring, laying on their backs and showing their belly. You can be sitting next to the walrus and it has seen you and knows you are there for hours. Then suddenly, without any clear reason, something in their brain switches and it could just attack. There are no rules, and they become even worse in numbers.”

His favourite animal to dive with in the wild, the orca, has received a lot of coverage in the last few years after the documentary Blackfish exposed the cruelty of keeping such intelligent creatures in captivity for entertainment.

Goran Ehlme underwater photography ()

 

“It’s the black and white of orcas, the power and grace of how they move and work in pods and care for their young,” says Ehlme. “You spend enough time in the water with them and you’re seeing more than just the animals, but their behaviour too.

“I’ve dived with orcas for 30 years, and now it’s very easy, but when I first started, it was very difficult because the orcas were very shy of humans. We went back year after year, and the success was very little, but you always went back because each time you got a bit further and a bit further. That thrill of planning for the next trip, and the joy of trying to crack it and get closer to knowing the animal, is the essence of it all.”

The utterly engrossing way Ehlme talks about his underwater adventures makes you want to quit your job, go full Ray Mears and live in a hut beyond the outer edges of civilisation. “In our crowded world, it’s so nice to set foot where you know that maybe for thousands of kilometres, you are the only one,” he explains. “It’s a unique feeling to be a human and be all alone. It’s a thrill to be with nature without any sign of humans.

“It’s probably the same feeling that caused the old British explorers to push the boundaries and go further away to see beyond the horizon – it’s curiosity, and just always wanting to learn more than you can read in a book.”

Goran Ehlme is one of the latest people discovered by San Miguel as part of its Rich List, a list of ‘life-rich’ individuals.

Visit www.sanmiguel.co.uk/richlist

Photographer Joey L

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