A few moons ago I found myself working on a fascinating project in Panama documenting Fritz Hanselmann and his team of underwater archaeologists excavating a 17th century shipwreck. We were looking for ships belonging to the legendary English pirate Captain Henry Morgan. Morgan was on his way to sack Panama City when a storm sank five of his ships at the mouth of the Chagres River – these were the ships we were searching for – but Panama had other plans for the team. Instead of finding Morgan’s ships, we discovered a merchant ship laden with swords, bolts of cloth and other goods.
I was on the project for nearly 30 days – and out of the 30 days – had exactly two where the water was clear enough to shoot. The shipwreck was located very close to the mouth of the Chagres river, and every time it rained, the visibility underwater went to just about zero. Photographically, the project was a great exercise in patience and persistence – gearing up day after day, to be greeted with water that I couldn’t see the end of my arm in.
The great team of researchers made the days fly by, and in the end the currents worked out in my favor for just enough time to capture what needed to be captured.
When I was living in India, I managed to spend some time in the Andaman Nicobar Islands where I captured the above image of a young man free diving in the ocean. I would have never guessed that this image would find its way onto the cover of Jake Stephens debut album “How The Water Feels” – but am super stoked that it did! I met Jake many moons ago at Virginia Tech where we spent every free second rock climbing. Jake went on to ride as a nationally ranked cyclist (inspiring one of the songs on his album The Ride to Key West) and work as a solar company executive. Over a year ago Jake made an abrupt break from the rat race to pursue this creative endeavor. The album drops on November 15th. Pick it up on iTunes HERE!
See The Light, a workshop I am teaching with Dewitt Jones on Molokai has begun, and Dewitt started the week off with a question: What is the most important life lesson you have learned from your photography? I can think of hundreds of life lessons I have learned from my photography, but one of the lessons that floats to the top of the edit is something I learned doing underwater photography thanks to a great mentor of mine, Ralph Clevenger. As I was just learning the technical side of making photographs underwater, Ralph told me one of his secrets to its artistic side. He said, and I am going to paraphrase here, ‘You have limited resources when you are underwater because eventually your air’s going to run out. So don’t spend your time wasting air and energy swimming around. Find a pretty spot and stay there. Look around. There is a sub-sea city full of wonder all around you. ’ I thought a lot about what Ralph said and later, during my travels, began to apply the same technique of finding a pretty spot and waiting. I never though of this in a metaphorical sense until many years later when Dewitt was talking with me about finding the place of maximum potential, and then, no pun intended, it clicked. In photography I knowingly or unknowingly, have always tried to put myself in the place of maximum potential for the shot. Then I would wait, watch and decisively act when the time was right. As Dewitt was speaking many years ago, I realized the same statute applies in my life. Ever since that day, in life and photography, I often find myself asking the question – what is the place of maximum potential, and can I be patient enough to wait for the right moment to act?
I would love to hear your thoughts on the most important life lessons photography has taught you…
The cover of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt, published in 2006, features an image by Aurora photographer Jonathan Kingston. The photograph is an underwater shot looking up at an elephant swimming in the Andaman Sea in India with his trainer on its back. Jonathan tells us that when people see the image they often think it is digitally manipulated, however the image was captured on film and other than some basic tonal correction and dust removal, is a straight shot.
Jonathan was inspired to take the shot by some documentary footage of the elephants by Jacques Cousteau. Thinking it would be a relatively easy feat to find elephants swimming, he was surprised by the difficulty he encountered arranging government permission to shoot the elephants. On his second attempt, he was able to get his shot. “Seeing the underwater view of an elephant swimming in the crystal blue waters of the Andaman sea was was one of the most amazing and beautiful things I have ever witnessed. When the elephant is swimming, its entire body slips below the surface of the water, save the top of its head and its trunk that is raised up like a snorkel. The frustration of two trips and nearly two years of planning were instantly forgotten in that moment.”
‘All right Jacque – lets see who stays down the longest!’, Enzo smiled at me.We had been playing the same game for the last four weeks, Beau and I were on the final dive of a five-day trip and we had built up a friendly rivalry pretending to be Jacque Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, the free divers made famous in the movie “The Big Blue”.We were about to dive a site known as Silverbanks that sits on the southeast side of Santa Cruz Island.Silverbanks is a massive kelp forest in 30 to 60 feet of pure pacific blue.Swimming through the tall trunks of the aquatic trees, it is easy to momentarily forget the water and imagine how bird must feel in flight.
It is unusual for me to feel uneasy in the water, but during the dive I was unsettled — the submerged hairs prickling on the back of my neck.Determined not to let Enzo beat my bottom time, I found an uninspiring reef to photograph and slowly burned through my roll of film, taking small sips of air to conserve my tank and wondering if my friend had finished his dive.The commotion started as soon as I surfaced.“GET ON THE BOAT NOW!” my frantic friends faces yelled at me as I lazily swam towards the swim step “SHARK!”.
Apparently as I was taking my time underwater, a 14 foot juvenile Great white had hit a harbor seal a couple of hundred feet from the anchor line of the boat.When I surfaced the shark was slowly circling his prey waiting for it to bleed to death.
Sharks are smart hunters.Rather than risking bodily injury to themselves, they hit their prey with the teeth that tear and wait just below the surface for their lunch to become to weak to resist.Never have I seen a more hopeless look on the face of any creature, then in the eyes of that harbor seal.It was a broken being.Waiting for death.
We waited with it.We waited for over an hour, watching and waiting for the deed to be done.Waiting for the shark to fulfill its role at the top of the aquatic food chain and take its dinner to the depths.But time was running short, and the sun was sinking low, and the channel had to be crossed.Jacque and Enzo knew the most important lesson of the sea, that she either wants you, or she doesn’t.In the final scene of La Grand Bleu, the audience is left guessing to Jacques fate as he swims into the depths and the embrace of the ocean.I also was left guessing to the fate of that harbor seal.The last I saw it; it was swimming for some rocks near the shore.A sad trail of blood lingering behind its path in the water.In my mind, it survived, gnarled teeth marks a proud battle wound on side.But in reality there was no guess that day, the sea didn’t want me and it was time to go home.
The ride out to Santa Barbara Island had been rough on the Truth. Our intrepid 40-foot craft labored over the uneven terrain that the pacific presented. Some passengers had the expected rounds of sick, but fortunately for me the Marezine was working like a charm. After an all night ride set to the sound of the hull slapping the base of each wave, it was a welcome prospect to dive into the cold water of the Pacific.
The underwater terrain of Santa Barbara Island is not unlike an underwater rock castle bordered by a sandy plain with sea lion sentinels patrolling its rocky ramparts. On more than one dive I would see the aquatic animals move in pairs move along the outer rock wall of the flourishing pinniped rookery like sentinels in search of sharks. For those who have never been underwater with a sea lion, imagine an aquatic puppy that is hyper, curious, gregarious, inquisitive and graceful. Dive-bombing the unexpected diver, the daring creatures bark, twist, pirouette, dart, blow bubbles and disappear. Just like a puppy the Zalophus californianus will play until it is to tired, bored or warned of unseen danger by some form of communication unknown to man, to continue.
Ralph Clevenger and I were on the northeast side of the island when the sea lions reached this state of exhaustion after gregariously greeting their visitors for over an hour. They languished on the surface soaking up the sunshine long enough for both of us to burn through a roll of film. As we were preparing to head back to the dry deck of the boat, the calm mood among the sea lions changed and after a few nervous glances over 20 creatures had vanished from view. Ralph and I cautiously looked around for the sign of the disturbance and the dry deck of the boat suddenly seeming extremely inviting. As we nervously searched for the disturbance, unseen to Ralph, one of the smaller sea lions swam out of hiding and mischievously crept up directly below his fins. Before I could wave or point, the miscreant had latched on and begun shaking the fin vigorously side to side like a chew toy. The bubbles coming out of my compatriot’s regulator momentarily doubled in volume until he navigated his limited field of vision to realize that his leg wasn’t about to be decapitated by a shark.
Spooked and out of film, we hugged the bottom of the ocean on the way back to the anchor line. Back on the deck of the Truth we were thankful that this ride in the underwater realm had not been as rough as the ride to the island. In a typically understated fashion Ralph chuckled and said “that was exciting”.