Photographer finds his passion in fish and wildlife

Oct 7 2009 - 12:19am

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As Joe Kessling pulled his boat Off Duty alongside the yellow pylon floating in the ocean 12 miles offshore, Jose Fernandez pulled on his dive mask and snorkel.

When Kessling saw a couple of tripletail hovering next to the pylon, he grabbed a spinning outfit and put a chunk of ballyhoo on the hook while Fernandez grabbed his underwater camera.

After Kessling cast the bait to the tripletail, Fernandez slipped into the water, swam over to the pylon, disappeared beneath the surface and started taking photos of the fish, which were joined by a school of small dolphin.

The fishing turned out to be great, as Kessling caught the bigger of the two tripletail -- he had the line break after he hooked the second fish, but Fernandez was able to grab the line and the fish -- and Kessling, Lisa Pellegrino and I boated five of the schoolies.

Fernandez was in the water the entire time, capturing the excitement from a perspective few anglers experience.

Being able to catch fish and wildlife on his camera is what drives Fernandez to get in the ocean where sharks roam or in the Everglades where alligators make their home.

Fernandez, of Miami, does both as the cameraman for Manny Puig's Savage Wild television show on The Outdoor Channel. He is also the cameraman for Sheri Daye's Speargun Hunter on the network.

"When I went to the swamp the first time, after Manny agreed to take me, I started thinking of everything that could happen to me," Fernandez said. "I had to make a decision whether it was worth seeing firsthand. I decided yes, it was worth it.

"What I've learned is to keep the fear out of it. ... Once I'm in the water, to me it's heaven. There's no fear. It's just get the shot."

Fernandez has gotten many shots during the two years he's worked with Puig, and he's just now starting to exhibit his photographs thanks to Pellegrino, of Aventura, Fla., who promotes his and other artists' work on her website, newattitudeart.com. Fernandez and his colleagues will appear Sept. 18-20 at the Martin County Seafood Feast and Nautical Flea Market in Stuart, Fla.

"I'd seen his work on Manny and Sheri's shows," Pellegrino said. "When I went to his website (jafphotography.com), I was like, 'Wow!' I hadn't seen anything like that."

Fernandez, 59, was always at home in the water. He started free diving when he was 8 and later swam on his high school team. He took up sky diving when he was 19. He bought a Nikon F camera with a motor drive and mounted it to his helmet so he could take photos in the air.

That led to him studying photography in college in Daytona Beach. After he graduated, he worked as a staff photographer for The Palm Beach Post and later became a freelance photographer, shooting sporting events, advertising campaigns and weddings.

He took a break from photography to become a gunsmith, modifying handguns that were used by top competitive pistol shooters. He eventually got back into photography and met Puig through a mutual friend. They went spearfishing and Puig took Fernandez to the Everglades for the first time.

Puig has an intimate knowledge of fish and wildlife and knows exactly which alligators he can approach and how to handle them. Using his machining talent as a gunsmith, Fernandez built an underwater box for his camera so he could photograph Puig interacting with gators.

"I took some shots of him and he loved them," Fernandez said. "From then on it was, 'Let's go out next week.' Every week, we were going out."

When Puig got his TV show, he got Fernandez as his videographer.

Fernandez has had a few gators bump him and one bit his camera, but it's all in a day's work when your job is to get the shot.

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