Underwater Photography

In Praise of Chance Encounters

Chance. There are no promises with chance. Chances are you could get in the water and find precious little or nothing at all you believe to be worth photographing. On the other hand, you could be photographing seaweed or, even worse in my book, taking selfies and miss an opportunity to photograph something truly worthy of your time and of others’ with whom you would care to share your underwater photos.

Of course, if you don’t get in the water at all there’s absolutely no chance of capturing a memorable underwater moment. And, this is what motivates me: the slim chance I’ll come across a creature and a moment that will give me the opportunity to bag a shot I’ll treasure more than any gold coin or, for that matter, a forgettable afternoon sitting in front of the TV or staring into the phone.

When I talk about what a waste of time taking selfies is I talk from experience. About six years ago I was snorkelling at Freshwater Beach in Sydney, Australia. At the time I was using an inexpensive action camera that’d been given to me on my fiftieth birthday. The camera was primitive but instrumental in shaping the underwater photographer I would become.

However, roughly six years ago, there I was filming seaweed and, heaven help us, taking selfies. So, on the afternoon in question, when I had a chance encounter with a beautiful, large manta ray I was mugging for the camera pointed in the opposite direction of the manta. All you can see on the footage I captured that day is the look on my silly face as the manta belatedly caught my eye and the camera being hurriedly swung about to film a small, black smudge. The manta, the second it’d noticed I had taken notice of it, had taken flight. That’s been the one and only manta I’ve encountered in my life so far.

From that day onwards I never took another selfie.

2020. If ever there was a year to truly hold dear the treasures that lie beneath the surface of the sea this is it. These days I use an Olympus TG-4, a compact camera that hardly takes up any more room in my hand than my ancient action camera did. Perhaps the equipment hasn’t changed all that much but I would certainly like to think that I, as an underwater photographer, have.

The renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams is quoted as saying, ‘We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.’ Now, when I first read that, it struck me as arty-farty waffle. And, in all honesty, I still don’t entirely buy it. However, slowly but surely, I’m finding credence in those words.

Nevertheless, I’ll say no more on such high-falutin matters lest I risk losing the plot here. So, let’s get straight to the first chance encounter of this year I wish to praise.

At first sight I was sorely disappointed by chancing upon this Australian giant cuttlefish, photographed at Cabbage Tree Bay in Sydney, Australia on the 30th of May this year. For one thing, she was small, I like ‘em big, and she, I say ‘she’ because the smaller ones are generally female, had her back covered in sand as if she’d recently been ravished by a larger male (my preferred subject).

There was no guarantee I’d stumble upon the male in question so I’d learned by now to try and make the best of the situation I’d been given. With this cuttlefish’s back covered in sand and that it was hovering over a small, shallow ravine the notion to shoot from below soon occurred to me. Largely by instinct the way I remember it.

The trick here, as a snorkeler who doesn’t wear a weight belt, was to find a rock ledge to hold onto with one hand and shoot with the other. And, as ever, try to have the light behind me (I only use natural light). The rest here was brought home by using the sequential shooting mode and getting as close to the subject as I could while still leaving some space to give the little lady some context as well as capture some of the surface.

The title of this shot is a steal from Buzz Lightyear of Toy Story- ‘To Infinity and Beyond’. But, perhaps, just perhaps, the real influences here are my love for the original Alien movie and the H.P. Lovecraft stories involving the Cthulhu Mythos. These influences might be even clearer in the next shot taken around the same time, during the same chance encounter. I call this one ‘The Mastermind’ and it skirts the rule of having the light behind you, bends it as opposed to breaking it I would say.

As you can see I’ve employed the portrait format here achieved by simply rotating the TG-4 through ninety degrees. This can take a little practise because it’s so easy to crop parts of the subject especially a larger subject. Finding a smaller subject was lucky in retrospect.

Earlier this year finding a giant cuttlefish in my preferred spot of Cabbage Tree Bay entailed creating one’s own chances by seeking them under rock ledges. The Australian giant cuttlefish don’t normally emerge out into the open until around April when the breeding season begins its clarion call. Back in February I happened upon a beauty under a drab and rather boring rock ledge (that’s most rock ledges in my experience).

Once again it was the portrait format to the rescue although, as a snorkeler, this wasn’t that easy to employ. I must’ve went down the six metres or so close to a dozen times to bag the shot which has a lot of the drab rock in frame but I would like to think it starkly offsets the cuttlefish’s dramatic posture and colour (or lack thereof).

To enable the camera to adjust to the low light as best as it possibly could without an artificial source on hand, I placed the TG-4 entirely under the ledge.

Thankfully, the witchcraft of digital photography did the rest (f/2.8, 1/60th sec, ISO-640).  If there are influences here they’d be the Cthulhu Mythos again (a cuttlefish favourite worldwide) and let’s throw in Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by David Bowie.

Sepia apama (photo taken 05/02/20)
Yellowtail scad. (Photo taken 23/06/20)

In talking about chance encounters I’m not only talking about the creatures one stumbles upon but also about the light and water visibility that happens to be in attendance at the moment the photograph is taken. Yellowtail scad are quite common, often I’ll swim right on past them in search of something, well, more interesting. You know what they say- familiarity breeds contempt.

Not that I feel contempt for them or any sea creature mind you, it’s just that they’re, like I said, common. Nevertheless, there are occasions (that’d have to qualify as chance encounters) when they’re grouped in a certain way in clear water and in a certain light. And, here we go again with the portrait format. Yikes, this piece may also go by the title of ‘In praise of the portrait format’. Meanwhile, I know our guru Ansel Adams didn’t mention paintings but maybe the graduations of light here owe something to Impressionism.

Photo taken 05/07/20

Now we come to what I consider to be the most beautiful, as well as sad, chance encounter I’ve had this year. Quite possibly of any year I’ve been making underwater photos so far. I was swimming back from the ocean side of the bay where I’d been fruitlessly searching for a giant cuttlefish I’d seen over there a week before. I was swimming directly across the bay disappointed and wondering, as I sometimes do when the water’s cold and I’m all alone in the bay, why bother getting in the water at all when I stumbled upon something that snapped my self-pity in two.

Versuriga anadyomeme. Giant ocean jellyfish. Photo taken 09/07/20

Directly below me at a depth of between five and six metres was the largest jellyfish I’d ever laid eyes on. It was close to a metre in length and the bell was massive. Initially, I gave no thought as to why it was flailing around on the bottom as opposed to floating along near the surface. I’ll readily admit all I thought about was the photo opportunity which had been dropped into my lap. From the photo above you can see the reason for this poor creature’s predicament. The best theory I’ve heard is that this jellyfish (Versuriga anaydyomeme) had had a run in with either a fishing or shark net, causing those large tears in its bell undermining the jellyfish’s buoyancy.

Meanwhile, I didn’t take a moment to reflect on the misfortune here, I dove down with camera in hand.

In this shot you can see the creature was still trying to find its feet, for want of a better expression. There was, as is common with large jellyfish, a colony of small fish in orbit. The clear blue water was an added gift as a backdrop. This is an example of the one rule in underwater photography which I subscribe to above all others: get lower, get closer.

In the midst of my excitement, to my discredit I felt no sympathy for the jellyfish’s plight until going through the photos later on, I was still determined to keep my head and formulate the angle needed to bag the best shot I could. The following is, I believe, the best I bagged.

‘The sunken giant’- for me an ode to Berlin-era Bowie, especially the album ‘Low’ (no pun intended)

Not long after this shot was taken my fingers, even though I was wearing gloves, were succumbing to the cold and I was unable to work the buttons on the camera any longer. At the surface, I scanned the bay around me to see if there was someone else I could let in the submerged treasure I’d stumbled upon. I was hoping another underwater photographer or even just an eyewitness was somewhere, anywhere nearby. This had to be shared.

As far as I could tell I actually was all alone in the bay. I took one more look below me then swam for the shore, eager to get my camera home and work on the photos.

Thankfully, the last chance encounter I’d like to speak of here was one that was shared. I was out in the bay again and had found a giant cuttlefish again. My interest in it attracted a pair of other snorkelers, one of them I knew as Lawrence Scheele (@snorkeldownunder on instagram). Well, he’d recognised me before I’d recognised him and would’ve strongly suspected I’d spotted a giant cuttlefish, we both share a preoccupation with them. It’s a time honoured practice that if a snorkeler has evidently found something by diving down repeatedly in same spot that spot is worth checking out.

 Lawrence’s breath hold is much better than mine and he was instrumental in keeping tabs on the giant cuttlefish when it would disappear under a rock ledge. When the cuttlefish would reappear we’d alternate taking photos and, in his case, filming. All very civilised. The upshot was that between us the cuttlefish was gently corralled into a lovely little location where the background worked a treat. Without Lawrence in attendance this most likely wouldn’t have happened. Two chance encounters in one you could say.

‘Cliffhanger’ (photo taken 24/07/20)

As you can see the cuttlefish had been through the mill and had lost most of its arms. Normally I much prefer a subject to be in their prime, both a failing and foolishness on my part given these creatures live in a rough neighbourhood to put it lightly, but in this instance the missing arms afforded further glimpse of the background which I find pretty cool.

The other shot I’d like to share with you from this encounter before I go is a bit of a hairy one, so to speak. I’m very much on the wrong side of the light in this one given the cuttlefish is largely backlit without much fill at all. However, and I hope you agree with me here, this shot escapes as an exception to the rule of having the light at one’s back.

‘Remain in Light’- a title stolen from that of the best album the Talking Heads ever made.

 Here’s where I stop even though 2020 hasn’t finished with us yet. All things considered it’s a great comfort to believe the sea holds a host of chance encounters to come.

Ian Donato
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