The Definition of Insanity in the Yucatán Peninsula
By Ken Kiefer
"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."- Usually misattributed to Albert Einstein
My wife Kimber and I must have a little insanity in us. We keep going back to the Yucatán Peninsula time after time, always hoping for different results…
The truth is, we return to do the same dives in the same areas again and again because they are usually amazing and always changing. Whenever we return to this slice of paradise we come up with new angles, and new expectations for image creation.
If you imagine Mexico as pointy high-heeled elf boot, Yucatán is the tip of the shoe. The variety of underwater possibilities along the coast of Mexico from Cancún down to the tip of Xcalak are mind-blowing. Some things are dependent on the time of year or season: whale sharks, sailfish, schools of eagle rays, bull sharks, mantas, and crocodiles all migrate through the area. The gorgeous reefs, shipwrecks, schools of tarpon and jewel-like cenotes are year-round pleasures. Though there are strong storms there, they pass quickly and there are very few days that you aren’t able to get wet and see amazing things!
Kimber is an experienced underwater model in addition to being a photographer and fellow Ikelite Ambassador. When we're able to return to an area we're already familiar with we can arrive on site full of new angles, ideas, and dreams. In August, Kimber and I headed out on an adventure with Yucatan Dive Trek to try and bring our visions to life.
One of the cool things about Yucatan Dive Trek is their ability to handle every aspect of a long adventure in the area. They live and work up and down the coast - and have for years - always exploring and trying new activities, restaurants, hotels, etc. to add to their deck of cards. From the airport transfers to types of restaurants, hotels, and dive activities – they’ve tried all of the crappy places so that you don’t have to. Instead of offering a single package like most operators, Yucatan Dive Trek can mix and match to tailor a trip to the preferences of the group.
Kimber admires the passing of hundreds of giant tarpon on the dive site "La Poza" off-shore from XTC Dive Center in Xcalak, Mexico. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
Our first peek underwater on this trip was at a dive site called La Poza. This is basically the house reef for XTC Dive Center in Xcalak. It’s within 4-5 minutes from the dock and is an astounding dive. It’s a valley filled with incredible soft coral growth and - unique to this dive - hundreds of giant tarpon. It’s a sight that we never get tired of.
We actually ended up diving at La Poza four or five times this trip. We wanted to get some images of a new BCD that Sherwood will be releasing soon, as well as work with models in this gorgeous location.
The next part of the itinerary was to bounce our way to Chinchorro Banks in the hopes of swimming with huge American Saltwater Crocodiles. We were treated to three days in the water with these incredible animals, all under the wonderful supervision and tutelage of the XTC safety team. It is a coordinated team that does everything. They teach you about the Chinchorro Banks, the reefs, the animals, the fishermen, the history, and most importantly the safety of every activity you do. They also cook, clean, assemble your gear, and assist with anything you need. I can’t say enough great things about this team.
Melodie Treviño (@watermelodie) heads into a cenote deep in the middle of the Mayan jungle. Mel is deep into super-technical diving whether it's side mounts, trimix, or rebreathers. But there are some cenotes to visit that have very short cave intervals leading to open caverns. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
When Kimber and I discuss ideas for images the safety team works with us to see which ones are possible. They politely but firmly shoot down any ideas that aren’t workable for safety or other reasons.
Every time in the water with the crocodiles is a thrill. Modeling with the crocs is a huge challenge that we’ve tried several times before. You never know what you will see. The personalities and aggressiveness of each crocodile, weather, visibility, currents, and available sunlight all combine to present a lot of variety with each encounter. Each time you are hoping for some good vis, nice sun, and for the croc to position themselves in a certain area and angle just so… The safety team will try and use lionfish snacks to tease them into a location. But, well I can just say, wild animals have a decided mind of their own!
The XTC Safety Team is highly experienced in offering interactions that are safe for both the divers and the crocs. You never really know what you're getting into when shooting and modeling with a wild crocodile, so it's important to take experts along with you and listen to their advice! Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
Luckily we have spent our underwater lives developing adaptability and embracing the situation that we are given. Thankfully the stars were aligned and I'm super pumped with so many of the images we were able to create this trip!
Next we headed north in the Yucatán to explore some cenotes. The cool clear waters of the cenotes are always refreshing in the summer heat. They are like jewels scattered over the Mayan jungle, each one unique in its visual splendor.
Kimber and I are not so bold as our friends who love to dive for hours back in the dark depths of the cenote cave systems. We're ok with a short passage on the way to a hidden hole with laser beam sun rays peeking through. But we don’t have the mental makeup for the super tech stuff like our buddies. If you are of that mindset, get in touch with Javier and Mel of Dark Zone Diving and they can get you going.
Looking for those perfect sunbursts? Cenotes are a great place to shoot silhouettes with light diffused by the jungle canopy and stream into small holes in the surface. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
In the cenotes, we spent time shooting with sun rays, water lilies, scuba divers, models and a superstar guest that surprised us all.
We headed to Casa Cenote to do snorkeling shots and try some dress modeling. Casa Cenote is connected to the ocean so it is brackish water- some fresh and some saltwater. It's home to tarpon, turtles, snakes and a variety of fish.
I'd heard stories about a crocodile in the area, but I had only seen vague fuzzy pics from a distance... kind of like Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster. We had a kayak to carry our crap around and Kimber was holding the kayak while Mel and I dove down for snorkel shots.
We surfaced and Kimber screamed something at me that I couldn't understand. About .0003 seconds later I was wearing Mel as a backpack. I looked to my left and there was a croc swimming directly at my face!
Freaking Amazeballs Awesome Sauce!!! So pumped!!
Not your typical tour guide. You have to be prepared for anything in the heart of darkness, including a surprise encounter with our reptilian friends. Ken recommends that you get really familiar with the most important controls on your camera so that you can adapt easily to quick changes in subject matter. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
Not only did this croc come say hello, but it took me on a tour of the entire cenote until it disappeared into the super murky brackish water to hunt.
This was an absolute dreamy moment that I will never forget. In one of the best moments of the encounter, I was swimming alongside the croc as we came around a bend. An unsuspecting American tourist in a lifejacket was in front of us. We yelled at her that a croc was swimming directly towards her. When she focused on the croc head she immediately performed a Squid Squirt backwards at an incredible speed and with eyes the size of dinner plates she screamed WHAT THE ACTUAL F****!!!! I almost choked on saltwater laughing while trying to keep swimming.
When shooting crocodiles you can't afford to take your eyes away from the viewfinder for a second. Ken recommends that having your strobes connected by electrical sync cords and set to TTL is the best way to keep up with the rapid firing you need to do during big animal encounters. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
Through all of this jungle adventure, my Ikelite gear couldn’t have performed better. I treat my rig like my baby, but there’s no way to avoid hard bouncing on boats, abuse in the rocky jungle cenotes, and days out on a fishing shack without fresh water rinses. It takes even the toothiest situations like a champ!
"The most important thing to prepare for the unpredictability of the underwater wilderness and shooting animals is adaptability and being super familiar with your gear and what settings do."
Working with the crocodiles, I almost always aim for higher shutter speeds to capture the lightning quick jaws of these dinosaurs. I’m having to move around a lot based on their movements, so it helps to be very familiar with your equipment and ready to change settings without looking. The "without looking" part is super important when you are in the water with giant crocodiles, because you cannot take your eyes away from them. I usually set my shutter speed at 1/200 and then pop the aperture up or down based on where the sun is coming from and look that I’m going for. Practice all of your adjustments, buttons and knobs at home, pool, or somewhere calm, so that when something awesome happens, you can make that split second adjustment to nail the shot!
I’ve tried many ways to place my strobes while shooting the crocs. Normal placement for wide angle reef shots or shooting sharks isn’t optimum because of the super fine silt typically present in the shallow waters. The silty water combined with my desire to light the inside of their jaws has led me to put my strobes behind my camera down low and aimed slightly upward at a low power so that the strobes don’t pop too hard off the sand or the teeth and blow them out. I’ve even aimed my strobes slightly backward if I’m going to be inches from the inside of jaws so that the light just caresses the inside of the mouth and doesn’t highlight much of the silt on the sides of the image.
Wondering what Melodie Treviño (@watermelodie) has on under those sidemounts and dry suit? Probably not this, but she rocks it just as well. Photo © 2020 Ken Kiefer
I’ve preached for years that the most important thing to prepare for the unpredictability of the underwater wilderness and shooting animals is adaptability and being super familiar with your gear and what settings do. Never was I put to the test like I was with the crocodile in the cenote. I had everything set for shooting Mel with the sun at my back as we dove down to about 10-15 feet. The croc surprised us all. While swimming at top speed to keep up with it I reflexively started my GoPro, moved my strobes to the position that I wanted, adjusted strobe intensity, and changed both my shutter speed and aperture, all while managing to catch a breath here and there! Talk about intense!
Any of the locations along the way would be an amazing trip on its own – but the fact that you can combine all of this into a week or so is astounding.
Ken shoots Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and 5DS R cameras in the 200DL Underwater Housing # 71702. He shoots dual DS161 strobes with DL5 DS Link Canon TTL Converter.
Ambassador Ken Kiefer has had a love of the water and nature since his younger days surfing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He got his first breath of compressed air while lifeguarding and was immediately hooked. Ken spends his professional life in and around a pool, which provides a handy spot to work on underwater photography and lighting techniques. But his passion is the ocean, and his favorite subjects are sharks (and his wife, Ambassador Kimber Kiefer). Read more...