Irish beauty and an extraordinary friendship

George Karbus is a wildlife, water and landscape photographer based in County Clare on the Irish west coast. Freediving with his camera he has a truly mind-blowing portfolio witnessing of many close encounters with ocean wildlife. After spending a lot of time with a local dolphin, George has developed a good understanding of animal behavior – not only dolphins, but many other marine species, which has allowed him to take astonishing photos of many different creatures in the ocean.

George, you are originally from the Czech Republic, which is pretty far from the ocean, where does your passion for the ocean come from? And how did you end up in Ireland?

I grew up in the Czech Republic. It is funny, but it was actually after seeing the movie Point Break as a teenager. That was when I started dreaming about the ocean and I realized I need to end up living somewhere where there are waves, so I could surf. When I was nineteen I was ready to immigrate to California, but my visa application got declined so instead I ended up on Mallorca. I stayed there for five years and that’s where I met my girlfriend Kate. We moved to Tenerife where I learned how to surf. After that, we went back to Mallorca for a while, before we decided to move to Ireland. Now we have been here for fourteen years.

Why Ireland?

When I lived in Mallorca I bought a magazine where there was a five-page article about Ireland with beautiful photos. One photo was from Bundoran, there were people playing the guitar on a green cliff and below people where surfing. It looked like paradise. All green and fresh compared to dry Mallorca. This was at the time the Czech Republic was entering the European Union, which meant we could work legally in Ireland. During the 5 years in Spain, I had worked illegally. We decided to give Ireland a try, and well, we fell in love and settled down.

Cliffs og moher Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare.

Surf Surfer and board shaper Luke Underwood on a gem of a wave at Crab Island, Co Clare. 

What about photography when did you get into that?

I started snapping pictures in Mallorca, but I was mostly broke, so I didn’t have money to buy a proper camera. Still, I managed to get some nice photos with my analogue camera. But it really started when we moved to Ireland. It was the beginning of the digital era and now I could buy a proper camera. And of course, there was the inspiration from the Irish landscapes and from meeting the dolphin. That really got me inspired.

Tell more about the dolphin!

Yeah, we met her shortly after we got to Ireland. It was an amazing experience. For me, it has always been a dream to swim with dolphins. People pictures swimming with dolphins in tropical seas with crystal clear water in swim shorts, but this was different. It was raw, green water, cold and wetsuits. A different experience, but it was beautiful. We got totally hooked on this dolphin and we started to swim with her often. We developed a relationship, became really good friends. She became a part of our lives, and here we are 14 years later; till swimming with the same dolphin. We call here Malika, which means little girl in Czech.

dolphin 1 Kate and Malika.

I understand that you mostly freedive when you are shooting underwater even though scuba diving would allow you to stay underwater for a longer time. Why do you prefer freediving?

I have a license for scuba diving and have used it for diving with bull sharks in Fiji, which was an amazing spectacle. But I only scuba dived because there was no other option, there was no way I could freedive there. Beside that, I don’t scuba dive at all. It’s too heavy and I feel a lack of freedom. When freediving I can use my fitness and approach the animals careful and gently which helps me get the best angle for my shoots. For me, freediving is the only option.

dolphin Kate and Mailka again.

You have done a couple of trips to Lofoten in Norway to swim with orcas in the middle of the arctic winter. Sounds pretty extreme and adventurous to me, can you tell more about those trips?

Yeah, after I started swimming with dolphins here in Ireland, of course, I got interested in their cousins as well. They are mammals just like us and they are social, smart, sensitive and mysterious why I find them very inspiring. Since meeting the dolphin we have followed dolphins and whales around the world which has taken us to so many amazing places and we have been swimming with so many different species. Orcas are spectacular creatures, so they were always on my list, and Norway is probably the best place on the planet to see them face-to-face in the water. They come there to hunt for herring and when they do that they are moving pretty slowly, so you can just be where the herring are and watch the hunt which is pretty incredible.

baitball2 Herring hunt in the arctic.

For many years the herring wasn’t there, but when they started to come back four years ago I was on it. My first two trips were quite unsuccessful, but the last two winters were amazing. Lofoten is a very special place, the arctic winter environment is dark and cold and the light is amazing. I’m used to dark and cold water from Ireland and that is what I’m trained for, so I feel very comfortable up there.

Can you describe what you feel when you are face to face with an orca? Are you ever afraid?

People call them killer whales and I think the public opinion is that they are one of the smartest and most dangerous animals in the sea, which is true for most other animals living there. I have a lot of respect for them of course, and any animal I swim with. I’m not afraid. After spending a lot of time with the orcas, all I can say is that when I watch them, what I see is a just big black and white dolphin. Their body language is the same. Their hunting technique is very special though. They release bursts of bubbles, flash their white bellies from below and make sounds to create a bait ball of herring which is easy to attack. Once it’s done they slap the bait ball with their tail which is perfectly designed for this. As they slap the fish they do like a backflip. Once their face reaches the area where they slapped, there are already five to ten dead fishes floating around which they gently pick up one by one. It’s really extraordinary to witness.

Bait ball1 Perfectly shaped bait ball. 

There are not only orcas hunting there. A lot of humpback whales are hunting too. They are taking advantage of the bait balls created by the orcas, coming from below with open mouth. When a huge humpback whale is appearing from the darkness, sometimes just in front of your face, it’s super scary and humbling.

humpback Close encounter with humpback whale.

As we surfers we are constantly in search of “the perfect wave”, do you have a perfect moment that you dream about capturing with your camera?  

These days I don’t really dream about a perfect shot, maybe I used to before. I feel confident now, knowing that when something amazing happens I have the ability to be in the right spot capturing the moment. There are many good photographers out there and we have seen a lot already but I’m always trying to do something new.

I would love to be in crystal clear water with five foot barreling waves and photograph something like twenty dolphins surfing those waves from underneath. I guess that’s my dream shoot.

dolphin 2 Dolphin surfing a wave in Ireland. 

© All photos by George Karbus. Check more of his photos on his website or Instagram