Swimming With Sharks: Profile - Volker Bassen

Name: Volker Bassen.

Age: 42.

Family? One daughter, 13.

Where did you grow up? Gothenburg, Sweden.

Where are you based today? Kenya.

Languages: Swedish, German, Italian, Swahili, and English.

Underwater cameraman, marine engineer, pilot, diving instructor.

What education have you had? Special training in cinematography?
Marine engineering advanced underwater photo training with Kurt Amstler, PADI European college in 1990.

What benefit do you think your studies have given you in your working life?
A lot. Thanks to my engineering skills, I can repair and service most equipment myself – very handy because of the high maintenance required when filming underwater.

Current assignments. Where, doing what, shooting for whom?
Just about to finish a DVD/BD project that my wife and I started four years ago: the World’s Top Dive Sites. We basically traveled around the world a couple of times and filmed the best dive locations – such as Sipadan, Raja Ampat, Similand Islands, Fakarava and Rangiroa in French Polynesia, Tonga, Pemba island in Tanzania, Kenya, Aliwal shoals and Gaansbai in South Africa, Cozumel and Holbox in Mexico, the cenotes with the underwater cave systems on the Yucatan peninsula.

In South Africa we filmed tiger sharks and white sharks. In Tonga we filmed humpback whales, in Holbox and Kenya it was whale sharks, in French Polynesia thousands of gropers spawning, hundreds of sharks, dolphins, manta rays – they call it “the stuff of legend.” Sipadan is a turtle heaven, they call Sipadan “The jewel of the Celebes Sea.” Raja Ampat is probably the world’s best dive site – it’s called the “last frontier”.

I’m now about to start shooting a documentary here in Kenya; we plan to catch two juvenile seven-meter whale sharks and keep them in an enclosure for a period of time before releasing them.

Meanwhile, tourists can come and swim with them for a fee; this money will go towards the local fishing community, educating them to use more environmentally friendly fishing methods and buying back their US-AID sponsored shark nets that are destroying our marine life and corals.

Have you been busy?
Yes, very, since I also run the East African Whale Shark Trust, which I founded in 2005. I also own and operate a big game fishing club and do aerial surveys every two to three days, flying up and down the coastline, spotting marine life such as dugongs, whale sharks, dolphins, whales, and making turtle counts. Planned for next year is Galapagos and Norway: rebreather diving with killer whales.

Do you find any difficulties in working from your base in Kenya?
Yes, it’s very frustrating sometimes! Just to give you an idea, I started the whale shark trust after we had seen a local fishing boat cutting off the tail-fin of a juvenile whale shark about six meters long; the fishermen didn’t want to spend too much time untangling the tail which was badly entangled so they just cut the fin off, leaving the whale shark to bleed to death! If they had consumed the shark, I would have at least understood the killing, but just leaving it to die because not wanting to spend time untangling was just too much. Ignorance and lack of education and compassion is sometimes lacking in Africa, common sense is not very common. Other than that, Kenya is a beautiful country, the best in the world, I think!

Have you faced any difficulties, cultural or governmental, when shooting in Africa?
Not at all, people here are very helpful and will do everything to help out.

Do you specialize in a particular genre?
I am specializing in marine stock footage; my next project will be fish identification BD/DVD, I have 870 different kinds of fish in my library to date.

What was your first ever shooting job?
A commercial for scuba diving. Last year I produced a short doco called PAPA Shillingi (it means whale shark in Swahili) and won two awards at Asia’s biggest underwater film festival “Celebrate the Sea” in Manila. I won Best Short Documentary and Best Conservation Message awards. Among the jury was Peter Scoones (BBC Blue Planet Producer) and David Doubilet. That made me very proud.

What kit do you use?
I use a Sony Z1 with Amphibico Phenom housing and an HC9 with a light and motion housing for macro.

Other gear you have access to?
I am one of the few underwater cameramen who uses a rebreather occasionally – no bubbles, more fish!

What underwater gear do you use?
I am a Scubapro fan but will also use Mares.

Do you do much shooting from the ultra light? How do you do it?
Yes, it’s great for shooting, since it’s wide open. I just hold the camera while I let the passenger hold the bar! They love flying with me because of that!

Do you have a kit “wish list”?
I am upgrading all my equipment very soon since I plan to start shooting 3D and will probably go for two Canon 500s with housings and attach them together. A RED camera would probably be my biggest wish, maybe one day, we’ll see.

Best thing about your job?
Freedom and fantastic experiences with wild life underwater, seeing stuff nobody ever saw, being able to film it and show them!

Worst thing about your job?

Hairiest/scariest assignments and why?
Removing a body in a lake after a helicopter crash at 14,600 feet in Africa’s highest lake (Lake Michelson) on top of Mount Kenya. The Kenyan Navy tried to get it up but called me in after five futile days and I recovered the body on the bottom of the lake at 70 feet, freezing temperature, four degrees Celsius. I only had a five-millimeter wetsuit – normally you use a dry suit for these kinds of jobs. It was pitch black since the visibility was only about two feet.

What country do you most like to shoot in?
There are so many, don’t know where to begin!

What’s your taste in music?
I like Cecane, goes good with my underwater stuff! I also play drums in a resident band here in Kenya, called the Muzungu Riots. We mainly play rock and roll.

Favourite food?
Apple pie with vanilla ice cream and strawberries.