RARELY have the lives of a man and a dolphin been so entwined. The Czech wildlife photographer George Karbus got to know Dusty the dolphin a dozen years ago.
He moved to the west coast of Ireland in the summer of 2004, initially living in a tent in Salthill, Co Galway with his Czech girlfriend, Kate Hamsikova, before drifting down the coast to Lahinch, Co Clare, where the pair now live on the outskirts of the seaside village with their two children.
Getting to know Dusty the dolphin, who has been living in various locations around north Clare and the Aran Islands, for the last couple of years, was a life-changing event, says Karbus. “Finding Dusty was a huge influence on us. We saw her grow up. It’s an incredible story.”
When Karbus and his partner started swimming with Dusty, they were beginner divers, just armed with basic snorkeling gear. Now they dip into the water with custom-made, free-diving wetsuits and high-end underwater photography equipment, having spent thousands of hours in summer and the gloomy, icy-cold waters of winter, snapping her.
They have watched her surfing, hunting, also getting pregnant.
“I’m pretty sure she was pregnant twice but she lost both of the babies,” he says. “Her calf was found in Doolin and we got DNA proof in Galway to match it to Dusty.”
They have observed how she has changed over the years. When they met her first, she was very young, and very playful. They could play hide and seek around the reef with her. When she was in a good mood they could make her jump over their heads. Nowadays, she’s more restful. She’s slowing down, and doesn’t goof around as much. Dusty has also hit the headlines a few times over the years for her aggressive behaviour as increasing numbers of people got in the water with her, and experts warned against the unpleasant consequences of such interactions for both humans and dolphin alike.
“I can get close to her like probably nobody else,” he says. “I have some amazing pictures of Dusty swimming with Kate. You can see the harmony between them. To get those pictures, is almost impossible anywhere on the planet. I have a picture of Kate doing an underwater backflip in a beautiful, green light, with green water and the sunrays going through the water, and the dolphin looking at her like in a holy picture.
“There’s another similar one where Kate is sitting in seaweed and she’s touching her finger on a jellyfish. From behind, Dusty is looking at her, watching what the human is doing with the jellyfish in her hands. Dusty really admires our movements with our hands. She tries to imitate them with her pectoral fins.”
Dusty has opened up new vistas for Karbus. “All that I’m doing — going to the Arctic Circle to swim with orcas, some crazy, wild whales like beluga whales in Russia, with huge whales in the Azores — is based on that friendship.
“To have such a friendship with a wild, bottlenose dolphin and to photograph some incredible pictures definitely put my photography on a different level.
“She inspired me to find more cetaceans — what groups of whales, dolphins and porpoises are called by scientists — and to travel around the world. Because of the amount of time I spent in the water with her I learned the moves, how to move quickly, how to approach animals very gently and quietly without disturbing them, how to swim with whales and sharks and mantas. They all have the same body language.”
Karbus says the key to swimming with potentially dangerous predator animals like a shark is to approach them with respect. It comes from experience. He’s honed a sixth sense.
“I don’t believe animals are dangerous,” he says. “We create this fear about animals. If you spend some time with them, you will recognise their moves, their behaviour, and their moods. You can tell, oh, this shark is not happy in my presence so let’s back off. If I see this shark is okay, I can continue swimming with him.
“I’ve swum with many different kinds of sharks and they all just cruise around. It’s actually hard to get a shark close to you. You have to usually bait them to get near enough to observe them. Sharks are so afraid of us.
“As a free diver or a scuba diver, there is no danger if you approach with respect. Sharks are predators. They’re like lions. If a lion can see that the animal he is chasing is too fast, he just gives up. If a shark knows you’re not part of his diet, he’s not going to do anything.
“We create the fear about sharks because there are attacks that happen, but attacks usually happen with surfers or people who swim in very murky waters and the sharks get confused and they do this kind of ‘test bite’. The test bite unfortunately can be fatal for people. They grab your leg with very sharp teeth, and find out you’re not the type of diet they’re looking for, but you’re already so injured you can bleed to death,” he says.
WAVE OF INTEREST
Karbus has become renowned for his wildlife photography, garnishing several prizes, including three British Photography Awards before, as he says, he lost his appetite for the awards circuit.
He is also synonymous with surfing and landscape pictures, particularly of the western seaboard, and created a viral sensation in January 2014 with a photograph of a winter storm unleashing its force on the promenade at Lahinch, Co Clare.
He says Irish wildlife photographs are some of the most sought after pictures from magazine editors around the world.
“If I bring great photos of sharks or seals or dolphins in Ireland, they have much more popularity than any shots from tropical, blue waters. The photos I bring from Ireland tend to be much more dramatic. Ten years ago, people didn’t know about the marine life we have in the sea around Ireland.
“There are amazing animals around the shores. People are only now realising the kinds of whales that are coming into our waters, how many dolphins we have along the coast. I’ve had incredible reactions to my photos of leaping common dolphins in beautiful backlit, early morning light, and seals, and basking sharks and blue sharks.”
Karbus admits it’s difficult to photograph marine life in Ireland. The weather doesn’t co-operate often; the sea can be rough and dim. Sometimes, he might go a couple of weeks without photographing.
“You have to be on it. I’ve been chasing marine life in Ireland for many years and there are still many things I’d love to photograph.”