Kina Scollay gives his tips for making the most of the world underwater.

5 best places for marine wildlife encounters

The best place has to be anywhere around the coast of New Zealand. My experience over the years has taught me orcas visit almost every inch of this country's incredible coastline. Spending time on the water, and being quick to notice signs of wildlife will increase your chances of an encounter wherever you
are.

With that in mind, I do have a few favourite destinations and some favourite species I love to encounter when I'm there.

1 The Marlborough Sounds
Queen Charlotte Sound happens to be my backyard these days and it offers a huge amount of wildlife right at my doorstep, from big gentle stingrays that cruise the beaches in summer, to dolphins — dusky, bottlenose and Hector's. Fur seals, king shags, occasional orcas, bronze whaler sharks and whales using Cook Strait as a migration route — it all happens down here.

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Underwater cinematographer Kina Scollay. Photo / Kina Scollay
Underwater cinematographer Kina Scollay. Photo / Kina Scollay

2 Fiordland

I have some spots where I love to film sevengill sharks. They can be quite spooky in the water and certainly aren't shy, so that encounter might not be for everybody. Luckily this location has so much more to offer. The fresh water layer that filters out the light makes for extraordinary diving. This is where you can have an encounter with species usually found too deep to dive to. Black coral, brittle stars and swarms of butterfly perch — it's unlike diving anywhere else on Earth.

3 The Kermadecs
These islands north of New Zealand aren't easy to get to but they are worth the effort. Wildlife includes Galapagos sharks, giant black spotted grouper, humpback whales and turtles. The islands are stunning too — very much a jewel in New Zealand's crown.

4 Islas Coronado
I've just returned from diving a group of islands off the coast of Mexico, and it's top of my list of favourite places at the moment. The Islas Coronado are surrounded by beautiful water and you can encounter California sea lions, elephant seals, lots of sharks and birds — from golden eagles to pelicans.

5 Monterey
The coastline between LA and San Francisco, on the west coast of the United States, is a revelation. Surprisingly wild and with lots of life. There's a huge amount of country along the Big Sur highway and the diving is accessible from the shore or from the Monterey Bay marina. The diving is special for the beautiful kelp forest, shy harbour seals and the charismatic California sea lions. If you're lucky you might run into an elephant seal or an otter. Keep in mind that there are some pretty awesome ocean predators at certain times of the year, including great white sharks.

While filming Ocean Predators, Kina Scollay found himself in the water with hunting orca who swam up to the camera with their torn-apart stingray prey. Photo / Kina Scollay
While filming Ocean Predators, Kina Scollay found himself in the water with hunting orca who swam up to the camera with their torn-apart stingray prey. Photo / Kina Scollay

5 tips for getting great underwater shots

1 Know your subject

If you're planning to film underwater wildlife, you need to put in a lot of time getting to know the species you'll be shooting. The more time you can spend in the water, watching and observing what's going on, the better your shot will be. When you have an encounter in the water with marine wildlife things can happen really quickly. Especially when you're filming large, charismatic species like sharks and marine mammals. If you are tuned into the behaviour of the wildlife — what they are likely to do — then you are much more likely to get a lovely shot. When people begin filming wildlife they spend a lot of time getting "butt shots" of the animal swimming away from them. Being able to film a wild animal approaching the camera or acting out any natural behaviour is something that comes with time and dedication. And knowing your wildlife — how they are likely to react to you, or to other species, to a situation — really helps.

Broadnose Seven Gill Shark. Photo / Kina Scollay
Broadnose Seven Gill Shark. Photo / Kina Scollay

2 Know your gear

The good news is that you don't have to rush out and get the absolute best and most up-to-date underwater system before your next dive trip. The gear available now that we use on shoots is just incredible — it gets better at such an incredible pace. But it's not the most important factor in getting a great shot. More importantly, you need to know what gear you have and you need to know it really well. How far can you push your camera in challenging underwater conditions? Understanding your gear's capabilities is important.

And it's essential to know how to operate it without having to think about it. When something exciting happens in the water you don't have time to think. You need your camera set up to be an extension of you so that you can capture that glorious moment as it happens — it may never happen like that again.

3 Tell a story
Whether you're taking stills or filming, the principle is the same: you want to be clear about what you are trying to communicate. You might be after something as simple as a beauty shot but having an idea about what in particular you want to convey will make your images stronger. Are you telling the story of how beautiful an underwater location is in long, dim quiet light? Or how beautiful it is when it is alive with masses of life?

A New Zealand sea lion inspects the camera lens underwater. Photo / Kina Scollay
A New Zealand sea lion inspects the camera lens underwater. Photo / Kina Scollay

Answering those kinds of questions will focus your attention and help create something that compels people to engage with.

4 Hone your dive skills
When something happens in the water you often get no warning, and if you're not ready to act on instinct you'll miss it. Honing your dive skills to the point where they are completely instinctual is important. You don't want to think about buoyancy while trying to capture a magic moment. You've got enough to focus on. My career as a professional free diver has helped my camera work immensely, and I'm a big advocate of the benefits of snorkelling. Give a kid a cheap underwater camera, some fins and a mask and snorkel and they will happily spend hours in the water. It's about time spent in and under water: you want to become as at home in the water as the wildlife you're trying to film.

5 Notice what other people don't
What do you notice when you go for a dive or a snorkel? There is so much going on — and so much of it that no one has thought to bring to life with a camera yet. Tiny details can be just as fascinating as the big hero wildlife species. I love to see triple fins when I dive, tiny fish with huge personalities. And one of the most satisfying sequences I've shot is an epic hunt to the death by a starfish chasing a paua. This happened in slow motion, of course, but to me it was an underwater drama as thrilling as capturing a hunt by orcas — well, nearly as thrilling.

A male New Zealand sea lion on the Otago Coast. Photo / Kina Scollay
A male New Zealand sea lion on the Otago Coast. Photo / Kina Scollay

● Underwater cinematographer and documentary producer Kina Scollay hosts Ocean Predators, premiering tonight at 7.30pm on Prime.