Underwater Photography

Let’s Talk About Trash.

Those of us who have a passion for the underwater world love to share that passion with others. We love to tell of the beauty, of the excitement and all the weird and wonderful things we encounter along our underwater journey.

For those of us with an underwater camera, that excitement is portrayed in our underwater photography and videography. An underwater camera can add an extra element of skill, creativity and achievement to our already obsessive passion, to be able to capture the moment those sharks ate that poor whatever-it-was, to the moment you got that one photo in focus of the pygmy seahorse you’ve always wanted to see.

Underwater imaging helps us show off our favourite moments to our nearest and dearest, as well as occasionally producing some nice art for our own walls or social media accounts.

But we’re all perhaps a little guilty of showing a false view of our modern day oceans. I doubt there is a single diver out there who hasn’t come across some form of trash during a dive, and although it’s not the most photogenic subject, and perhaps not what you’ve waited months to come and see, let me try and convince you why I think you should try shoot some trash.

Plastic Pollution

Firstly, we all know that plastic pollution is a real issue in our world. Many of the household items we rely on are packaged in plastics that degrade at a rate far slower than ourselves. That bottle of coke that we slurped down 10 years ago will still be rolling or floating around somewhere on this earth for a few hundred years to come. But I’m not here to lecture about single use plastics, I’m here to inspire you as an underwater photographer to help document its negative impact on our oceans.

Allow me to set the scene, you’re diving on a beautiful reef, you notice a nice coral bommie standing proud in the sun, and atop there is a gorgeous anemone with some clownfish dancing back and forth, perfect! Everyone needs a killer shot of Nemo now and again. Yet you notice there’s a food wrapper stuck to this anemone. Now I like to believe most divers would attempt to carefully remove this trash from the poor anemone, and ideally take it with you back to the surface. But before you remove this, let me convince you to take some images, and nice ones at that. Sure the idea of a ‘nice’ image of human pollution might sound a bit strange, but I mean this in terms of thinking about the shot. A few more seconds is going to make little to no difference to the anemone, and may allow you to compose a more striking image. 

Think of your angle, think of the light, do everything as you normally would if you were trying to shoot a perfectly exposed and composed image, because this image may just get more attention than the rest of your holiday snaps combined.

An image of marine Iife next to, or engaging with human pollution is going to have far more effect than an image of a plastic bag on its own. Now I’m not saying you should ever stage an image like this. Please do not attempt to swim that plastic bag over to a turtle in order to get an iconic shot. But if you see a turtle swimming up to a plastic bag, you may be able to get some shots before it attempts to gobble it down.

Now I can’t tell you where to draw the line. For sure an image of a turtle half ingesting a plastic bag will have the most impact, but to me that single turtles well-being is worth more than the shots impact, though I understand how some may disagree. You’ll have to draw your own lines in the sand, but the point is that you attempt to take some sort of shot before the moment is gone or the trash removed.

Reason number one: Money.

Now that I have your attention, I have sold my images on stock footage and photo websites for many years now, and the vast majority of my images sold are conservation themed, predominantly images of trash. Yes, you can make money off these images! It will be pretty hard to sell your holiday snap of a manta ray, unless you happen to capture something never seen before, but the conservation movement is massive, scientists, activists and educators are always in need of some new images that can impact an audience, and some of them will pay. Although you probably won’t live off this income, it will certainly help subsidise some more lenses, dive equipment or beer on your next trip. You may also be able to approach some magazines or websites and they may even ask you to write an article, or at least ask you offer your images up for a story, which is good exposure.

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#plasticfreejuly is just less than a week away! For those of you who are unaware of this challenging campaign, it aims to familiarise people with our toxic addiction and the growing global problem of #Plastic #pollution. We’re all guilty of it. Consider every piece of plastic you’ve ever had to purchase, food wrapping, shower gels, product packaging, drinks bottles, carrier bags.. the list is endless. Now consider that every single piece of plastic you’ve ever come across is likely still on this planet, somewhere. Out of sight, out of mind. Every day on Instagram many of us are guilty for only showing the beautiful side of nature and not the scars. Scars that we are responsible for. So I believe it’s time we take some responsibility. There are many alternatives to plastic. But we are so USED to plastic that we’re often blind to our use of it. It’s very easy to develop a sense of apathy when it comes to the plastic problem we have created as people, but.. To quote a great woman – “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” -Jane Goodall Dear friends and followers, as #plasticfree July begins in one week, I urge you to give it a go too. It’s never too late. Start with small changes. #startwith1thing search for plastic alternatives, don’t buy single use plastics, reject the big 4 (straws, bottles, coffee cups and bags) RE-use, fix or repurpose. BE that ‘difficult person’ and insist on plastic alternatives. Because change starts with each and every one of us, it’s our problem, our world, our responsibility. Every small decision we make can make a big impact somewhere else in this world, somewhere hidden under the sea. 🦈🐋🐬🐢🐟🐠🦑 Want to know more? Head over to @aplasticocean and check out their incredible and inspiring work. 🙌 or comment below with questions or tips to help others with this challenge ! If we lived without plastic once, we can live without plastic again. Shameless repost, but still relevant 😉 ps. Yesofcourseiremovedeverypieceofplasticthatifilmed 🤘

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Of course its not always pleasant to shoot these things. No one will enjoy taking a photo of a dying sea fan or a coral with some fishing line wrapped around it, but it is these images – combined with the idyllic images of our underwater world – that will inspire the most change!

Having your holiday images become part of something bigger than yourself, your friend circle or fan base is something truly special. We are all so eager to post the beautiful side of our world on instagram and Facebook. But what of our friends that don’t dive and don’t see the impact that our garbage can have on the natural world?

I believe we have a duty to educate and inspire those who live in the instagram beauty-bubble, and to encourage the every day diver to consider their impact in every little way.

Shooting for conservation doesn’t bring instant gratification. It’s the later impact that you have to strive to achieve that will make the biggest change and bring about the biggest sense of accomplishment. And that impact is worth pursuing.

Last April (2019) I returned to one of my favourite diving destinations, Komodo National Park,  this time to dive with the adrenaline chasing company of Current Junkies. My trip was timed at possibly the worst week of the year. This was right in-between the ‘seasons’ of Komodo, which usually promise strong currents and lots of fishy action, but not this week.

This week we had minimal tidal movement, barely any predatory fish action and with that came flowing an astonishing amount of trash. As we finished our dive and drove back to our boat, we were met with a river of human pollution. The sight was heartbreaking not only for guests, but for the crew, who had never seen pollution in their home at this scale. We saw other boats of guests driving past, with divers shaking their heads as they head back for some snacks and a rest before their next dive.

I understand people don’t wish to clean up someone else’s mess on their holiday, and that the sheer amount of trash brings a defeating sense of apathy, what can we do? But for a few of us angered into action, we stayed in our suits and returned to the worst area to catch what we could before our next scheduled dive. For myself, that meant jumping in with my camera and grabbing some shots, before swapping the camera for a net and joining in the cleanup.

People need to see this.

It was only weeks later once I had edited my footage into a rather short depressing video that my images were able to get some sort of traction. I will admit, at this point I simply wanted to reach my own following on social media, and hopefully inspire change in one or two people to partake in the upcoming plastic free July challenge. But the outcome that followed was more than I could ever have wished for.

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Come visit Komodo ! 😰 This video probably won’t get as many likes as a shark or manta video, but it deserves to get more views. Recently I re-visited #komodo national park for a diving drip with @currentjunkies . As it so happens, I managed to pick my week spot on between the changing seasons of the park, when the southern waters begin to cool and lessen in visibility and the northern waters clear and warm. With this week brings strange tidal movements, we had little to no current for the entire week, which as some of you may know, is almost unheard of in Komodo. With this came new currents and with them came trash. Lots of it. I have worked in Komodo previously and the crew of the #busygirl have worked for many years prior without seeing this amount of human waste. It was heart breaking enough to see this, let alone in one of my favourite diving destinations. More heartbreaking still was that the majority of this was single use plastics. Drinking cups, snack wrappers, bags, straws.. the usual culprits. But the worst thing about it was watching all the other boats simply drive past and shake their heads. Watching other divers turn their nose up in disgust and not attempt to help. My biggest hate is apathy. The feeling that it’s already too late, that nothing we do will make a difference, so why bother doing anything..? What you do does make a difference. What you do and don’t do, makes an impact, every single day. That packet of crisps you skip, that cigarette butt you pick up. It all helps, even if you don’t see the difference immediately. Big shout out to @emma.tolmie And the crew of Current Junkies for giving it their all and collecting as much trash as we could get our hands on in between dives. The purpose of this post is not to damage tourism in Komodo. I encourage you all to visit this unique and exceptional place. My purpose is to highlight that even though the trash we produce might not be in your own back yard, it could be one day, unless you stop the problem at its source. Stop single use plastics. #goplasticfree So Come visit Komodo ! But leave the plastic behind 🙂#earthday2019

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This video was then shown to the local community of Labuan Bajo by our trip leader. Dive centres were understandably disturbed by the images, but what can one shop do? After reaching out to many different agencies it was local activist Marta Muslin that accomplished what I could never.

With the help of the local government, a team of roughly 100 volunteers was assembled to help gather and collect the trash polluting the local beaches and shorelines. A huge effort was made on this one day to collect and remove a total of 100 bags of trash!

As an underwater photographer and videographer, I can say that having my images be part of this moment, to make a real difference, has been more rewarding than winning any competition.

Never underestimate the impact your images can make, in the right hands, for the right cause. The sheer willingness by the local community and government to protect their home was truly heartwarming, not only for tourism and PR sakes, but for their own love of their home.

This inspired me to always shoot the trash that I encounter, no matter how upsetting it may be, and how demoralising.

So next time you see some trash floating by that will ruin your shot, shoot it, collect it, post it. You never know if that shot will make you money, get you your own article or even spark a whole movement that you alone couldn’t have hoped to achieve. We all love our underwater world, and we all want to do what we can to protect it, she is hurting, and she needs action, and to help her I believe we must promise to not only show her good side, but to show how she needs help too, from each and every one of us, each and every day.

David Palfrey
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1 comment

  1. Emma @ Down to Scuba April 29, 2020

    Great article David, and thank you for highlighting this issue that concerns all of us, divers and non-divers alike. It is much easier to talk about ocean pollution to divers who are in the water and actually seeing the problem. But so much harder to motivate the people who don’t have the chance to get into the water to see this. This is where your photos come in, so thank you. We need to show these images in all schools and news organizations around the whole world.

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