Revisit conservationist photographer Jean Tresfon who shows us how he uses a gyroplane to capture his award winning images.

Recently The Insider SA followed award-winning marine conservationist Jean Tresfon on a diving journey into the ocean. This time around we join him in the sky and learn about how this thrill-seeker is able to document wildlife while controlling a unique aircraft. 

“I’ve been diving for 30 odd years and diving led me to my photography in terms of everyone wanting to know what I was seeing underwater. The only way to explain that was to take a camera down and show people,” shares Jean Tresfon. 

He adds that diving and flying share a lot of parallels, as both offer a unique perspective on a world that people think they already know. Both also require a primary activity, either flying or diving, and his photography follows. 

“Doing the training and the exams, it took me about 4 months to get the license doing it two to three times a week, and I really enjoyed the process. However, the real learning starts once you’ve got your license,” he says before adding “It took a little while to get the flying to a place where I was comfortable. Then only did I start taking a camera and that’s when a whole world opened for me. When I started taking aerial photography.” 

We met with veteran Len Koppers, a chief flight instructor who was awarded the prestigious Don Tilley Safety Award by the Aeroclub of South Africa in 2013, to find out the difference between a helicopter and a gyrocopter, also referred to as a gyroplane. The fundamental difference is that in powered flight, a gyroplane rotor system operates in auto-rotation, rather than using engine power to turn the blades and draw air down from above.

Jean however had a unique appreciation, “The best way to describe it, is that it’s like a three-dimensional motorbike. You’ve got a tiny windscreen in front of you and you’re completely open to the elements – it’s a raw, elemental experience. From a photography perspective it’s magnificent because there’s no wings or wires in the way and there’s no window that you need to shoot through. It gives you an unparalleled observation platform and to my mind there are few aircraft better suited to aerial photography.”

He adds that the aircraft offers the perfect vantage point to spot wildlife around the Cape Peninsula. “You see sights that you otherwise would never have a chance to see, so it’s so much more than a big boy’s toy. Aircraft are typically seen as the play things of the rich and famous but these aircraft are affordable, and they are probably the best way to see marine wildlife that I see, in fact the only way, and as such I use this plane quite a lot for marine conservation. I fly the whale surveys for the Whale Unit of South Africa and we go count Southern Right Whales up the Overberg Coast, I’ve flown the shark surveys for the shark spotters, we fly fish surveys for the fish scientist and it’s just a fantastic way to keep track of Marine Wildlife and see what’s going on. 

Jean has been diving for 30 years and flying for about 11 years but shares that he’s learnt more in his time flying about the ocean, than he could diving. “Being able to see the animals around the whole peninsula, track the patterns and how they change according to weather and climate, has taught me so much more than it would have just diving” 

Living life on the edge allows Jean Tresfon to make a tremendous contribution to conservation efforts in South Africa.  

“I’ve had years of pleasure from the ocean and if I can help in any way with marine science and the conservation angle and give back, that’s my goal considered achieved. And perhaps one day there will be a book out of all of this.” A book we would certainly love to read! 

Through Jean Tresfon’s adventures capturing our ocean life, we can appreciate the beauty we are so privileged to be surrounded by.