9 Questions with marine cinematographer Steve Benjamin

Winona Griggs

9 Questions with marine cinematographer Steve Benjamin

Why do I dive in places others can’t? Well, it’s because I want you to feel something when you look at my images. I want you to experience wonder, terror, and awe. Through my work, I also have the privilege of aiding scientists and conservationists in shedding light on the issues that affect our precious oceans.

Recently, I had the opportunity to collaborate on WildTrust’s latest short film, See Us. This film is part of their marine campaign called On the Brink, which aims to raise awareness about South Africa’s crucial role as a sanctuary for shark and ray species, both locally and globally.

How did I start my journey in underwater photography?

I was born in Cape Town, a city that holds a special place in my heart. From a young age, I found myself deeply captivated by the wonders of nature, particularly the vast and endless beauty of the ocean and the fascinating creatures that call it home. With a sense of curiosity and adventure burning inside me, I was drawn to activities like bodyboarding and spearfishing, which allowed me to immerse myself in the vibrant world beneath the waves.

But it wasn’t just my love for the water that shaped my journey. During my formative years, I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at the Two Oceans Aquarium. This was a pivotal experience for me, as I got to witness the magic of the aquarium coming to life. I remember spending countless hours at the holding tank, marveling at the intricate details and the sheer dedication it took to create such a remarkable space.

I owe my involvement in this project to Russell Stevens, my primary school teacher at the time. To this day, he remains an integral part of the Two Oceans Aquarium’s Education Centre team, inspiring and educating countless individuals like myself.

These early experiences undoubtedly left a lasting imprint on my life. They ignited a passion within me that continues to burn bright. They instilled in me a deep appreciation for the natural world and the importance of preserving it for future generations.

I studied zoology and ichthyology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). At UCT, we learned about a wide range of topics, from mammals to insects, physics, chemistry, math, and science. While volunteering at the Two Oceans Aquarium, I had the opportunity to meet Maryke Musson, a former employee. She offered me my first job in fish farming in Hermanus, and I was thrilled to accept. After that, I worked as a dive master for a year, specializing in tiger sharks in Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal. During my time there, I had the honor of meeting several influential photographers and filmmakers, including Thomas Peschak, who works as an assignment photographer for National Geographic, and Roger Horrocks, an underwater cinematographer renowned for his contribution to Netflix’s critically acclaimed documentary, My Octopus Teacher.

Now, let’s talk about some of my most memorable assignments.

An incredible experience for me was when I had the opportunity to visit Aldabra, Seychelles – a truly special place. It’s not just any ordinary location; it’s a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was lucky enough to explore this haven of wildlife alongside Thomas. Let me tell you, it was something out of this world. Imagine being surrounded by magnificent giant tortoises and getting to witness the beauty of the Aldabra rail, the last surviving flightless bird in the West Indian Ocean. It was a sight to behold.

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Another extraordinary journey took me to Baha, Mexico. This place blew my mind. Everywhere I looked, there were wonders of nature. The icing on the cake was when I got the chance to dive with grey whales and giant trevally in MPAs that were lovingly cared for by the local communities. It was an exceptional example of a bottom-up approach, where the locals took charge of protecting the natural environment. The result? Flourishing life and an environment that felt like paradise. It’s amazing to see what can happen when we all come together to safeguard our surroundings.

I’m Roger Horrocks’ right-hand man, helping with all the behind-the-scenes stuff. You know, when Netflix or the BBC come knocking, it’s my job to turn their ideas into reality. I handle everything from finding the perfect locations to organizing boats, crews, safety measures, and insurance. Once we’re set, the film team flies in, and we dive headfirst into capturing awe-inspiring moments. Like the time we filmed humpback whales feeding near Cape Town for Netflix’s Our Planet, or the unforgettable surfing dolphins we encountered in Transkei while working with Disney.

Why did I choose to be part of See Us ?

I was recently invited by Lauren van Niekerk of WildTrust to be part of a captivating short film that showcases the fascinating world of sharks and rays in two Marine Protected Areas (MPAs): Aliwal Shoal and Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town.

WildTrust is doing an amazing job in South Africa by introducing the coastal biodiversity to the local community. Not only that, but they are also actively involved in promoting science education and empowering African individuals, especially women, to play a role in marine conservation. It’s truly inspiring to see them paving the way for the next generation.

Now, let’s dive into the distinguishing features of these two MPAs and what makes them particularly attractive to sharks and rays.

Aliwal Shoal:

Aliwal Shoal is a remarkable MPA known for its incredible marine life. It’s teeming with an abundance of colorful corals, which provide a vibrant and diverse ecosystem for various marine species. These corals attract a wide range of fish and invertebrates, which in turn become an enticing food source for sharks and rays. The unique underwater topography, with its numerous caves and swim-throughs, creates natural hiding spots and resting areas for these magnificent creatures. The presence of warm ocean currents also contributes to the rich diversity of marine life found in Aliwal Shoal.

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Table Mountain National Park:

Nestled in the beautiful city of Cape Town, Table Mountain National Park is another extraordinary MPA. What sets it apart is its coastal vegetation, rocky shores, and kelp forests. This combination creates a complex and rewarding environment for sharks and rays. The kelp forests offer shelter and protection to smaller fish, which serve as a tasty treat for sharks and rays. Furthermore, the rocky shores provide perfect hunting grounds for these magnificent creatures, allowing them to feed on a variety of prey. The presence of seagrass beds and sandy bottoms further adds to the allure of this MPA.

In conclusion, both Aliwal Shoal and Table Mountain National Park offer unique attractions for sharks and rays. From the vibrant corals and underwater caves of Aliwal Shoal to the coastal vegetation and kelp forests of Table Mountain National Park, these MPAs provide abundant food sources and suitable habitats. It’s no wonder that sharks and rays are drawn to these remarkable locations.

I bet you didn’t know this, but the ocean is actually colder in Cape Town than in Durban. So, naturally, you’ll find a whole different set of species swimming around in the waters there. For instance, the kelp forests of Cape Town are home to cat sharks and great whites. But if you head over to KwaZulu-Natal where the water is warmer, you’ll come across blacktip sharks, bull sharks, hammerhead sharks, and stingrays.

Now, here’s the best part. The marine protected areas (MPAs) we explored are totally accessible to the adventurous souls out there. You can actually go scuba diving and see these amazing underwater creatures with your own eyes. How cool is that?

Now, on to the exciting discoveries we made. Dive Master Thandeka Hlongwa and I had an absolute blast exploring Cape Town’s waters. Despite the big swell, we managed to find all the different catshark species that I wanted to show Thandeka. We saw the puffadder shyshark, the dark shyshark, the pyjama shark, and even the elusive leopard cat shark. But that’s not all. On one of our test dives, just as Thandeka was getting used to the water, we came across a massive short-tailed ray. It was a thrilling moment for both of us. After all, it was Thandeka’s first dive in Cape Town, and she’s from KwaZulu-Natal.

When I visited Aliwal Shoal, it truly surprised me. Instead of encountering the sharks I had anticipated, like ragged-tooth, bull, or tiger sharks, we only spotted a blacktip shark and one type of ray. However, we did have the pleasure of seeing various turtles, including loggerheads and hawksbills, which was a delightful experience.

How did my education help me in this situation?

My education played a crucial role in enhancing my understanding of the ocean, its species, and their habitats. It provided me with valuable knowledge about concepts such as water movement and the Agulhas Current. It also shed light on how scientists establish marine reserves and protect marine life. Moreover, my education enabled me to appreciate the evolutionary connections among different creatures and understand the importance of providing ample space for their development. However, it’s not just about the formal education I received; it’s about maintaining an ongoing dialogue with scientists and staying connected to the world of science.

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Now let me share with you the emotions I experienced during my visit.

When I witnessed Thandeka’s reactions during her first dive in Cape Town, it was truly special for me. Thandeka, being a Zulu woman, has stepped outside her cultural norms to pursue her passion for the ocean. She has learned to swim and gained an understanding of wildlife. Being a part of “See Us,” I drew inspiration from Thandeka’s journey and aimed to showcase these incredible parts of South Africa to a wider audience – especially to young, African individuals who, like Thandeka, may not have grown up near the coast.

Have you ever wondered why sharks and rays are among the most threatened species on our planet?

It all comes down to the fear they inspire in humans. People tend to remove top predators from their surroundings because they don’t want any danger. For instance, shark nets are often placed in the waters off the KwaZulu-Natal coastline to keep these creatures at bay.

We catch sharks for food and recreation, but this is causing negative effects. Many of the places where sharks find food or reproduce have been destroyed. Our rivers and estuaries are in bad shape and not working properly.

Sharks and rays don’t have many babies each year, and it takes them a long time to grow up. They live for a long time and reproduce slowly, so they can’t handle being hunted or removed from their home. All of these things harm them.

Sharks also travel long distances and need specific places to go during different times of the year. Even though there are places where sharks can be safe, they spend a lot of their time outside of these areas and get caught by humans.

What are you hoping to achieve by visiting See Us?

Hey there! I want you to experience the magic of MPAs firsthand. Let’s get inspired by Thandeka and dive into the wonders of the ocean together!

Capturing the beauty: Check out the breathtaking shots by Steve Benjamin and Mnqobi Zuma.

If you want to learn more about this incredible campaign, make sure to visit On the Brink website.

Find out more about Thandeka Hlongwa and her passionate connection to the sea in our fascinating interview, titled I Speak for the Sea. You can catch it in the November 2023 issue of Getaway, available on shelves from October 13, 2023.

Don’t miss our interview with Thandeka Hlongwa, I Speak for the Sea, in the November 2023 issue of Getaway, available on shelves from October 13, 2023.

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