Fish, camera, action

In 2009, Wild One Tony Fitzsimmons bought his first camera and two months later, he quit his job. Now a professional documentary photographer specialising in life at sea, Tony shares images and insights from his wild experience aboard the CFL Hunter, an MSC-certified toothfish boat in the southern Atlantic.

The man behind the camera

How did you first get into fisheries photography?

After I graduated, I struggled to find work so I went down to the harbour in Plymouth, UK, my home town, and asked every skipper if they'd take me out. I wanted to feed my curiosity about what was going on aboard the fishing boats and I felt I could educate others through the process.

Eventually, I came across one skipper aboard a boat called the Emily Rose. After relentless requests, he agreed to take me out if I passed my sea survival certificate. I promptly did, and a few days later, was invited to spend my first week at sea. I was sick most days and on the final day I was treated to gale force winds! A photo of that storm is still my biggest seller, and the trip was to become the start of many commissions.

“Little did they know I was seasick. I was sick for five days on my first fishing commission, but oddly in the Southern Ocean, where the waves were as big as houses, I was absolutely fine.”

What do you love about your job?

Documentary photography allows me to experience other lives and livelihoods that I otherwise wouldn't see. Living in Plymouth, a coastal town where life revolves around the harbour, fishing naturally became my niche.

It’s a strange life, the life of a fisherman. There are two parallel worlds. Life on land that people see, and life aboard a boat: a life that involves tough conditions and hard graft. They’re normal people, fishers, yet they’re also quite superhero-like. There’s no wincing or whining, they just carry on doing it. Being able to document that is quite humbling. I get to capture it all going on and I hope that my photography gives others an insight into this under-reported industry.

A voyage to the Southern Ocean

What was your most recent commission?

I've just come back from a trip of a lifetime: a whole month documenting the unforgiving wilderness of the Southern Atlantic Ocean and a particularly fearsome-looking creature that calls it home: the Patagonian toothfish.

The jumping off point for the journey was the Falkland Islands, a windswept archipelago a few hundred miles east of the southernmost tip of South America. The Falklands are so remote that getting there was an adventure in itself.

From the UK, the easiest way is to take a flight from the Brize Norton, a military base belonging to Britain's Royal Air Force. Unfortunately, just as I was ready to go, the flight was cancelled.

Nature often dictates the timings of my work, and this time, strong winds in the Falklands meant the plane wasn't able to land.

I spent a surreal week living on the RAF base surrounded by Falkland Islands residents checking their phones for updates on the weather situation while military aircraft roared overhead. We finally left late Friday night, stopping in Cape Verde en route for refueling.

What were the Falkland Islands like?

It was dark and murky when we landed. The jagged peaks were largely obscured by thick cloud, giving the whole place something of a desolate and prehistoric vibe. I didn't have a lot of time to take it all in before I was whisked off to the CFL Hunter, my home for the next three weeks.

I’m someone who’s used to photographing 24 metre boats in the English Channel, so the 60-metre-long Hunter came as a bit of a shock. It houses a crew of 40 and can process and freeze toothfish within minutes of catching them. This means it can stay at sea for 5-6 weeks at a time. The sheer size of the boat and the scale of the operation were something else.

"I was a bit worried because I only speak English and the primary language onboard was Spanish. But as they say, once you are out at sea you are out at sea. I was made to feel immediately welcome, with beaming smiles and 'holas' all around every time I entered a room."

Despite my initial hesitations, I quickly adapted to life aboard the CFL Hunter. I would wake up, take photographs, meet people for lunch, then write and edit and take more photographs later in the afternoon. I never thought ‘I can’t wait to go home!’. There was no clock watching. It was a simple life. There were always new people to meet, new parts of the boat to see, new views, new wildlife, new weather. I could happily have stayed on for another month.

How was life at sea?

I quickly discovered there was nothing calm about the Southern Atlantic. Back home, I'd been out on boats where the sea conditions were like rippled glass, smooth enough to even skate on. Out here there was always movement. Waves as big as houses were very much the norm.

Five days in, the officers told me the forecast was severe for the next four days. It was quite unheard of for bad weather to last so long, they said. During this time, fishing was completely cancelled which was bad news so early on in the trip.

"There were a few hairy when the coffee machine came off the wall and hurtled across the room like a missile. But oddly for me, I wasn’t sick at all this trip!"

Thankfully, the bad weather didn't last, and fishing soon began in earnest. I found myself captivated by the wildlife drawn to our vessel. Birds in their hundreds circled, some far larger than what I was used to back home, each waiting to get first dibs on the catch.

"One evening, I saw a plume of mist not too far away from the boat. Then all of a sudden this enormous cigar shape rose out of the water: a sperm whale."
"I started shouting and waving and pointing to get the attention of the crew up on the bridge.They calmly nodded. It hadn’t really occurred to me that they see these magnificent beasts all the time."
The formidable toothfish

Tell us about toothfish

The CFL Hunter's main catch is Patagonian toothfish. It's also known as Chilean sea bass. I was struck by how snake-like they are. They have python-like heads and huge jaws concealing rows of sharp teeth that look like they could do some serious damage.

They're also big. A couple of toothfish the crew pulled in were the same size as me. They can grow even larger than that, and live for up to 50 years.

Until the 1970s, the only predators they would need to worry about were sperm whales, elephant seals and the occasional colossal squid.

Then we decided that they were tasty and caught a few too many of them. Right up until a decade ago, Patagonian toothfish were seriously under threat, due to illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

But that isn't the case any more, thankfully. Toothfish are once again thriving in these waters and are back on the menu for diners in search of a delicious and sustainably-caught fish.

The combined efforts of governments, charities and Southern Atlantic fisheries stakeholders like those who own the CFL Hunter have all but eliminated the pirate vessels. These efforts have been rewarded with MSC certification, recognising that much of the world’s toothfish is now a sustainable choice.

All images © Tony Fitzsimmons 2017

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