Underwater photography reveals the secrets of Britain’s rivers

Grayling, River Avon

Grayling, River Avon - Credit: Archant

Andrew Griffiths meets Jack Perks, the underwater filmmaker who has worked on television programmes such as BBC’s Countryfile and Springwatch

Jack Perks by the River Wye

Jack Perks by the River Wye - Credit: Archant

We were on a packhorse bridge over the River Wye, just upstream of the delightful market town of Bakewell. Jack Perks was doing a fine if unintentional impression of a young John Cleese in his ‘Ministry of silly walks’ heyday. Jack’s long legs probed the air as he crept across the bridge, his gaze habitually hanging over the parapet like an overladen pannier.

‘My girlfriend says I am like a heron,’ he whispered over his shoulder as he went. ‘Because I am always staring into rivers.’ Then he stopped bolt upright, and stared into a river. ‘There!’ he says excitedly after a few moments. ‘Down there look!’

I do. This is the point where I feel I should write about the ‘crystal clear waters of the Wye’ but it was a bit murky actually. At the time we visited the river was still high after a cold, wet, early spring. But this idyllic limestone river was still clear enough for me to make out a dark shape beneath us, in a fair flow of water, seemingly hanging motionless down near the river bed.

‘It’s a grayling,’ Jack says. ‘And up there look – that’s a rainbow.’

Rainbow trout in the River Wye

Rainbow trout in the River Wye - Credit: Archant

I strained to look upstream, where Jack was pointing, but without the advantage of his polaroid glasses or his hyper-tuned eye, I could only just make out a smaller fish. But when it turned it revealed a tell-tale flash of crimson. It was one of this river’s famed wild stock of rainbow trout, the only river in England in which this American import successfully breeds.

Jack Perks is a wildlife photographer who has made a name for himself photographing the underwater world of the UK’s freshwater fish. You may have seen his work on television programmes such as BBC’s Countryfile and Springwatch, where he revealed to the nation a blackberry-eating chub and a spawning grayling which appeared to be – and there is no delicate way of putting this – in the throes of sexual ecstasy. The clip was shown on TV, went viral online, and spawned (sorry) a thousand jokes around the theme of: ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.

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One tabloid newspaper even complained that it was too explicit and questioned whether it should have been broadcast before the watershed. It couldn’t have been better publicity for a young filmmaker. Thank goodness nobody told the journalist that the grayling is known as the ‘lady of the stream’, they would still be consumed by prurient apoplexy now. But all in all it provided Jack with a firm foundation on which to start to build a career.

That tremulous grayling was filmed just a couple of miles upstream of where we were standing now, and it is tempting to think that Jack just must have got lucky on the day. Tempting that is until you learn that it took him four years to capture that footage of grayling spawning.

Jack Perks by the River Wye

Jack Perks by the River Wye - Credit: Archant

‘At the time I had a pole camera with a monitor, so I could actually see it while it was happening,’ says Jack. ‘I was jumping up and down on the river bank, I was on cloud nine for a few days after.’

Jack has an angling background himself, coarse fishing mostly, which he learned as a boy beside his grandfather on his Nottinghamshire rivers. This may conjure up an image of the older man passing on a lifetime’s angling wisdom to a young and eager boy, but nothing is quite that straightforward with Jack.

‘I suppose usually it is your dad or your granddad who takes you fishing, but it was the reverse for me – I took my granddad fishing,’ he tells me. ‘He used to take me and he would just sit there and watch, but then he got fed up and said “I am going to fish as well”, and so I had to teach my granddad how to fish.’

But he says that the ‘thrill of the chase’ is now found more in filming the fish than in catching them.

Jack Perks by the River Wye

Jack Perks by the River Wye - Credit: Archant

‘It is that excitement, when I get the cameras out of the water,’ says Jack. ‘I rush home to see what is on the memory card and I am like a kid at Christmas. I can’t wait to see what is on the card! Nine times out of ten it is just a bit of blanket weed for two hours not doing anything, but every now and again you might get something special and it makes it all worthwhile when you are sitting in the middle of a cold river in Derbyshire waiting for these fish to do something.’

As we stood watching over the bridge, we were witnessing one of nature’s dramas playing out, but one which is seldom seen. A tourist party passed by, edging us into the cutwater. They were completely oblivious of what was going on beneath them. Rivers are two dimensional things that may look pretty but most people have no idea of what goes on beneath their surface. Even anglers, who may walk up rivers in pursuit of their quarry, often have little idea of what is actually happening beneath their feet.

‘It’s very typical of fish, and any wildlife really in the river,’ says Jack, once the tourists had crossed. ‘There is all this amazing behaviour and life cycles that these animals go through and people are just oblivious of it.’

Jack uses ‘Gopro’ type cameras to film underwater. He weights them, places them strategically on the river bed and leaves them filming. There is rather more skill involved in this than you might at first think, or indeed Jack wants you to think. He complains that people treat him as though he just drops cameras in the water and it all happens effortlessly, but he complains lightly and you feel that secretly he rather likes that. At least he is smiling while he says it. However, he has to predict the fish’s behaviour to place his cameras correctly, and as any angler will tell you, predicting what fish are going to do next is far from easy.

Jack Perks’ quest is to film every freshwater species in Britain, which, depending on who you speak to, numbers 57. By that count, Jack has four more to go so I am interested in what he sees himself doing next. Is he content, Gilbert White-like, to make this small triangle of Derbyshire riverbed with its myriad attendant stories the extent of his ambitions?

‘As a wildlife photographer I get asked a lot whether I’ve been to Africa or the Amazon, and I reply “No, I went to Derby last week”, or whatever,’ says Jack. ‘I would like to do more species underwater in rivers, so things like riverflies, watervoles, dippers, otters, all these species that we are more familiar with seeing on the top side. We forget that a lot of them spend half if not more of their life under water.’

Jack does at some stage hope to travel. He plans one day to film barbel in Spain and the massive catfish snatching a passing pigeon in France, but for now he is happy hopping in and out of Britain’s rivers.

‘I am never happier than when I am sitting down next to a river,’ he says. ‘I can’t help but have a big cheesy grin on my face when I can hear the trickle of water and the dippers and kingfishers go by. If I can do that for the rest of my life it still won’t be long enough.’ u

Jack Perks’ first book, Freshwater Fishes of Britain, features his underwater photography and is available from all good bookshops (Waterstones, Amazon etc). Jack is speaking to Derbyshire Wildlife Trust on freshwater fishes of Britain on 15th April.

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