Underwater Photography

The Dangers of Becoming Obsessed with the Australian Giant Cuttlefish

It would be best if we all forget about the Australian giant cuttlefish. They hold humanity in contempt and, to be honest, who can blame them?

Each and every individual I’ve encountered has shown a deep disdain for me and how could they when it’s a matter of public record that I love them with a passion that borders on an obsession?

And herein lies the first danger, entering into what qualifies in any psychologist’s book as an unhealthy relationship.


large male Australian Giant Cuttlefish with tentacles showing
‘Bow before Me!’ (Photo taken 06/07/21).  A large male looks down upon me as we would a worm.


1. It all begins in a cave as a cave painting…

Each year in the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic reserve in Sydney, Australia (where this cautionary tale takes place), the first hint of the oncoming giant cuttlefish breeding season is to be found under some of the larger rock ledges which, to all intents and purposes, serve as caves.

The cave dwellers in question are normally some of the larger males amassing both their vim and vigour for the carnal, as well as carnivorous, festival ahead.

The giants’ hermitage goes from December to March, roughly speaking. There are certain ‘caves’ that have been favoured generation after generation and, having spent five seasons so far in the bay, I religiously revisit the same ones at this time hoping and praying to find the new cast of stars.


Australian Giant Cuttlefish in cave
‘Cave Dweller’ (photo taken 03/16/21). Only natural light was used here so the ISO on my trusty Olympus TG-6 leapt up to 1000. This was coupled with a shutter speed of 1/60sec and the TG-6’s favourite f-stop f/2.8. Lots of light was added in post production and, as such, the shot looks like it’s been rendered with a crayon. At best, I’d like to call it a cave painting. You can see the distinctive pupils are larger to allow in more light, much like a human eye works. When these creatures start to venture out into the light of day, the pupil becomes a thin slit, accentuating even further their ‘alien’ appearance.

And, that’s the crucial thing here, you see, it’s always a new cast of stars.

The Australian giant cuttlefish lives one to two years. Any cuttlefish that takes active part in the breeding season does not live to see a second. We’re talking about a one-shot deal here, not just for the cuttlefish, but for an underwater paparazzo like yours truly.

With each season I’ve felt an escalating sense of urgency to capture as much as I can of any individual cuttlefish I find, knowing how little time they have. By the same token, I’m not getting any younger myself and find it disquieting, to say the least, a finite number of cuttlefish breeding seasons can be counted upon in my own future.

Without a word of a lie my only wish as I try to blow out the horde of candles on each birthday cake is, ‘just let me see the next Australian giant cuttlefish breeding season!’

Such a singular and selfish prioritization of what little time is left to one must be condemned! Yet another danger of becoming obsessed with the Australian giant cuttlefish.


2. Oh, how that first flourish of glory is perhaps the finest!

Blessed be the urge that begins to bring the giant cuttlefish out of his cave. And it is at this time that the cuttlefish’s power to mesmerize is arguably at his greatest, given its freshness.

Their magic skin, enabled by pigment cells (chromatophores) and the iridescence cells under those (iridophores), is firing, and I do mean firing, on all pistons.

‘Golden Boy’ (photo taken 04/23/21).

From the cave to the hunting ground. This is the classic color and shape a giant cuttlefish adopts when feeding his face, and feeding his face is second only in priority to looking for love. This guy was a rather large individual, not far off that magic-metre-in-length mark. The visibility in the water wasn’t great, as I’m sure is evident, but this, I would like to think, renders the moment as if it were a dream which, to me, is what it was. If nothing else, this shot is an example of what I hold most important as a snorkeler taking underwater photos – get lower, get closer! As well as having the available light behind you as best as you can in the situation.


Red-colored Australian Cuttlefish
‘Flamethrower!’ (Photo taken 05/14/21).

This guy was in barely two metres of water and in this moment he and I were in an awkward dance to avoid bumping into each other. A giant cuttlefish’s magic skin, connected through an enormous network of nerves directly to the brain, effectively communicates what’s on the creature’s mind. So, no need to be a mind reader in this case to know he’s telling me to take a hike, to put it lightly. Another instance where my devotion was met with disdain. This was also another instance where, being a snorkeler struggling with buoyancy and trying to capture a fleeting instant inasmuch cuttlefish can change their display in the blink of an eye, my framing is hardly perfect in the traditional sense. I remember being bitterly disappointed that by the time I got my framing ‘right’, the show was over. Only later did I come to accept this ‘desperate’ composition and even embrace it. Surely just another delusion born of my obsession.

The challenge at this stage of the giant cuttlefish season when they’re still quite shy is, once finding one of them, how do you keep track of him?

Often enough no sooner do you spot one than he’ll disappear back into the seaweed and network of tunnels among the rocks that only he can squeeze through.

He may hide until he’s certain you’re well and truly gone, or, just as likely if not more so by this stage, he’ll re-emerge stealthily at a spot you’re not.

Especially if you’re alone like I tend to be, this cat-and-mouse game can be very tricky for the underwater paparazzo.

Trying to second guess these indisputably intelligent creatures takes just as much luck as anything else. The danger inherent in this single-minded and oftentimes fruitless pursuit is passing up the chance of photographing another wonderful sea creature that may happen by.

Why should the Australian giant cuttlefish be so special? For me, that question doesn’t even merit an answer, once you’ve been put under their spell you’ll know what I mean. Let that be a warning.

‘Spotlit’ (photo taken 04/29/21).

It can be quite rare to see a spotted wobbegong out and about and on the move, they’re ambush predators who tend to lie around under rock ledges waiting for their next meal to come to them. I spied this guy out of the corner of my eye as I was stalking a giant cuttlefish in the area. I didn’t want to lose the trail of the cuttlefish, so I made no effort to get closer to the shark and just took an ‘offhand’ batch of shots, in sequential shooting mode on the TG-6, from where I was. Who knows what sort of shot I might’ve got if I’d given this moment its due respect. Yet, I’ve no regrets. If, as an underwater photographer, I’m just a one-trick pony, well, there you go.

colorful Australian Giant Cuttlefish
‘If Chromatophores Could Kill’ (photo taken 04/20/21).

This cuttlefish had been pointed out to me by other snorkelers in the area, other snorkelers being a valuable asset I’ll speak more of soon enough. With all the attention he was getting, this guy decided on a hasty retreat into a labyrinth of rock ledges. However, not before I was able to seize this desperate capture just as the cuttlefish was firing up a substantial percentage of his chromatophores and iridophores by way of a less-than-fond farewell.‘If Chromatophores Could Kill’ (photo taken 04/20/21). This cuttlefish had been pointed out to me by other snorkelers in the area, other snorkelers being a valuable asset I’ll speak more of soon enough. With all the attention he was getting, this guy decided on a hasty retreat into a labyrinth of rock ledges. However, not before I was able to seize this desperate capture just as the cuttlefish was firing up a substantial percentage of his chromatophores and iridophores by way of a less-than-fond farewell.


3. The Rise and Fall of the Roamin’ Empire…

Then come the salad days when shyness and reluctance fall by the wayside and the Australian giant cuttlefish struts his stuff out in the open with gay abandon.

You could be swimming along in a rush to get to where you’d last seen a giant cuttlefish on your previous visit to the bay and the cuttlefish in question will be hovering above the seaweed in the shallows to your side so very still and casually that you almost swim right past him.

This creature’s powers of levitation, buoyancy control aided by the cuttlebone in their body, know no equal in my experience, and it never fails to floor me how they can seemingly materialize out of nowhere regardless of the fact you’re looking so hard to find them.

Now the real players and stars of the season show themselves an with any luck, you’re bagging hundreds and hundreds of shots. Some of them might even be pretty good.

You see, that’s the thing now. The giant cuttlefish isn’t necessarily putting on a good display. He’s merely going about his business looking for food, looking for where a mate might be, looking just for looking’s sake.

A proper show might be the last thing on his mind. However, as you follow him, there will be moments when something inflames his interest, probably the fact that you’re following him so much, and it is at these moments you need to time your approach and capture. Well, no, not exactly, it’s before these moments, considering how fleeting a particularly good display can be, that you need to time your approach and capture. Herein lies the rub, trying to anticipate a creature who is so alien compared to us. Bear in mind cephalopods and vertebrates’ last common ancestor was more than 500 million years ago. To quote Scientific American- ‘humans are more closely related to dinosaurs than they are to cephalopods’.

That does my head in, compellingly so.


‘Mr. Big’ (photo taken 06/16/21). This guy was indeed big, easily the biggest I’ve seen this year, easily that magic metre in length. His icy indifference was only matched by the stark background provided by the rocky reef where he chose to roam. The portrait format and using natural light to cast half his face and arms into semi-darkness go some way into saving this picture, I would like to think. I only ever saw this particular individual the once and it kills me to think what might have come of further encounters. C’est la cephalopod vie.


‘Ziggy Stardust’ (photo taken 06/16/21). This guy had been ‘quiet’ up until this moment when another male decided to just cruise through his patch. Upon seeing the other male’s approach, that’s when I dove down; employing a little anticipation was the idea. However, I might’ve made my move too soon. This display took place just as I was being dragged back to the surface. The thing is that I like to travel light and stubbornly don’t wear weights, this shot is another instance of desperate framing. Nevertheless, couched in my obsession for these creatures, I’m gonna stand firm by the framing so help me.

‘Working-Class Cephalopod’ (photo taken 06/16/21). Here’s the other guy that got the first guy so upset. The sand on him courtesy of either feeding or canoodling with a female, or both. I find his indifference to both me and the larger, enraged male priceless. For creatures so distant to us, I nonetheless find their adventures so relatable. Am I alone in this madness?


‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ (photo taken 06/18/21). More and more, because of their body shape, I’m finding the portrait format the way to go with the Australian giant cuttlefish. The ongoing challenge is trying to strike some sort of balance with getting in close without getting too close as to lose a sense of place or, heaven forbid, chop off parts of the creature unnecessarily.

4. Gladiators…

No sooner do you see their rise do you begin to see their fall.

Such is the hardwired nature of the Australian giant cuttlefish. They’re programmed to procreate then promptly disintegrate. But, this fall does not take place before there are battles that may be silent but are nonetheless epic, grand silent movies scored only by the reactions of those human witnesses that may happen by.


‘Battle-Weary’ (photo taken 07/08/21). The old, the guy up the back, versus the not-so-old. First I’d happened upon the guy in the background who was falling apart but carrying on regardless. Then the younger, somewhat smaller, fellow in the foreground turned up to throw down the gauntlet. To his credit, the older guy didn’t back down, he was willing to go out swinging. Respect!


‘When the Magic Melts Down’ (photo taken 07/08/21). I’m quite sure this is the same guy in the very first picture of this blog, but look at him now. His skin looks as if it’s been splashed with acid and his feeding tentacle dangles down paralyzed. This giant cuttlefish’s last meal has already come and gone, yet he ain’t about to quit.


‘Treasure Hunter’ (photo taken 07/08/21). There was a lot of light that day and these gladiators were in shallow water so it was another case of dialling down the exposure on the Olympus TG-6, which often darkens the background to dramatic effect, especially in this shot.

After a few rounds, a battle between male cuttlefish basically consists of circling around each other in the style of professional wrestling, the challenger pulling out all the exceptional shapes and spectacular displays you only see in this situation.

The champ didn’t have any of that left in him by this point in his career. As such, I decided to focus on the challenger, given I was finding it increasingly difficult to frame both of them in the same shot. I think this ploy paid off when the challenger transformed himself into an apparition I find so beautiful all I can dream about is witnessing its like again next season.


‘Spineless Warrior’ (photo taken 07/08/21). Again it was a case of dialling down the exposure, particularly to deal with just how much light was bouncing off those white-as-a-sheet extremities. The dark blue background was a natural outcome and not a product of post-production. The one odd thing here was the Olympus TG-6 opted, in the automatic mode I was using, to use an f-stop of f/3.2 as opposed to either the usual f/2.8 or the rarer f/8.

Before I move onto the last chapter in this cautionary tale, I need to acknowledge that none of the photos in the gladiatorial encounter would’ve happened if I hadn’t seen another snorkeler showing interest in the little part of the bay where it all took place.

She was floating in what I’ve come to recognize as that tell-tale manner that something is going on directly below that snorkeler.

Now, that something can be of no interest to those of us obsessed with the Australian giant cuttlefish.

But, who among us can take that chance? On this occasion, gold was to be had and thankfully all the other witnesses (when the snorkeler began to call over her friends, I certainly knew to then make my move) who weren’t underwater photography enthusiasts kindly refrained from photo-bombing the scene as I descended, pardon the pun, into a snapshot feeding frenzy.

This was not to be the case in what was to come.

5. The Fall…


‘The Third Wheel’ (photo taken 08/02/21). I’m reasonably certain the guy on the right was the challenger in the last chapter. Here an interloper has seized his little lady and mates with her right in front of him. His displeasure is as you see.

A return to the scene of the crime. Whose crime? There’s no time for that now, I’m trying to wrap this blog up before this obsession becomes the death of us all.

In short, the scene is where we left off in the last chapter right near where I like to enter the water, not far from the Fairy Bower pool. The larger cuttlefish pictured above had the female tucked away under a rock ledge but the smaller male was not to be denied. Neither was the female. It’s upon her to fertilize her eggs with as many males that come her way, by this late stage anyway, to ensure genetic diversity in her offspring.

This scene soon brought more than its fair share of witnesses.

I was trying to be nice and share the moment, but feared there’d not be another opportunity to photograph an episode like this one before the breeding season was through. I was anxious. My obsession was sorely undermining my manners. I saw witnesses without cameras as being unworthy. Fleeting memories compared to photos did not equate. And they all, understandingly, wanted to get a closer look.


‘There’s Life Left in the Old Boy Yet!’ (Photo taken 08/02/21). Once a certain amount of mating had taken place the smaller male celebrates his success with a little help from a whole heap of his little friends.

Then, as Murphy’s Law would decree, a young father and his even younger son swim into the circle and lay their claim.

The father, perhaps rightly (I neither know, nor care, at this point of proceedings), directs us all to back away from the wildlife and allow them to indulge their instincts with due space.

The thing is, from my jaded point of view, is that the cuttlefish are beyond caring about our presence. ‘There are photos to be had, you back off!’ is what I’m thinking.

Ah, the dangers of becoming obsessed with Australian giant cuttlefish!

Meanwhile, the son, as any boy would, duck dives down to take as close a look as he can.

That’s it! I resume my snapshot-taking frenzy.

‘Haven’t you taken enough photos already, mate?!’ The young dad demands to know when I resurface.

In answer, I duck dive down again, almost straightway, and take this shot…

‘The Cool, Cruel Mr. Freeze’ (photo taken 08/02/21)

Ian Donato


  1. Kirk McGuire October 6, 2021

    Very well written! I too love cuttlefish and all cephalopods. I sculpt menu of them in wax, which are then molded and hot cast in bronze. I really enjoyed reading this! Kindest regards


  2. Graham Cleaver October 7, 2021

    Beautiful photos and love the tongue in cheek article,
    However if they are so intelligent why do they chase a one night stand which then completely wastes them?!?
    You as a loving kind diver who loves them for their beauty have already lived 27 of their lifestyles!
    Tongue in cheek reply and enjoyed the whole package.

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