Wonders of the Deep
Three photographers who answer a siren call below the ocean's surface.
Words by Laura Collacott
Anyone who’s looked back at blurry images leached of colour on their underwater camera will know how challenging it is to take shots that truly capture the magic of the submarine world. It is difficult to catch the twinkling play of light on water, the quizzical look of a turtle, the jewel-like colours of myriad corals. Mastering the art is a long-learnt skill as demonstrated by three of the Caribbean’s most preeminent, and patient, underwater photographers.
A lemon shark hunts at dusk, breaking the surface and leaving a wake that explodes like flecks of mercury gleaming in the night. Lemon shark at Dusk is just one in a vast body of work by David Doubilet spanning decades. For him, underwater photography is more a calling than a career, undoubtedly the reason National Geographic has been clamouring for his spellbinding marine photography since 1979.
Having first shot underwater at the age of 12 by sealing a Brownie Hawkeye camera into one of his father’s rubber anaesthesiology bags, Doubilet is something of an industry pioneer, and leading voice in the conservation conversation. “I feel responsible for opening the world’s eyes,” he says of his beloved underwater wonderland. Together with experts at National Geographic he has been instrumental in developing and enhancing the vital equipment that underwater photographers need for their craft.
“I first went to the Caribbean in my early teen's with my father who liked to bonefish,” he relates. “It was there that I taught people to dive and in my off time I would take my underwater camera and make images of a robust Caribbean Sea filled with life that has long since vanished but for a few places. I owe my beginning to the Caribbean and have an unbreakable bond with it, like imprinting behaviour.”
Extensive experience and world-class equipment mean he is as adept at macro underwater photography as he is at capturing the full-scale majesty of underwater vistas. “I try to convey a sense of time, gesture, place and water – which after all is some 70% of our planet,” says Doubilet, considering himself an artist and journalist. “I capture, illuminate, celebrate and sometimes,” in exposing human behaviours that are destroying the environment he explains, “humiliate.”
The photographs which capture half ocean and half land are among the finest examples of this philosophy. Half submerging the camera allows him to capture the gentle ebb and flow of water, the raking of waves on the shore and the luminous, crackling marine life below. In Stingray with Sailboat his talent for this type of image is simply and elegantly demonstrated: a yacht and mottled skies contrasted with the calm swoop of a stingray below the surface.
The scale of Jim Hellemn’s images are as giddying as the worlds they represent. Seventy-five feet tall, his installation in the observation tower at Camana Bay, Grand Cayman, shows a life-size reefscape in every minute and enchanting detail, every shimmer and shadow, clam and clownfish, turtle and tendril, hand cut and applied to three million Venetian glass mosaic tiles.
This is “a world that nobody ever sees,” says Hellemn. “I wanted to show it to them.”
His unique, world-leading process is every bit as impressive. Using a custom-built imaging system, developed by virtue of being a creative early adopter of digital photography, Hellemn shoots a series of reef images and painstakingly stitches them together to produce complex, composite masterpieces.
One of his first projects, taken in Little Cayman, Bloody Bay Wall, is a riot of bright sponges, corals and sea life dropping vertically down over 1,000 abyssal metres. Encountered on honeymoon with his wife Karen in 1993 “because of its reputation as one of the most pristine coral reef sites in the world” Hellemn remembers being “faced with the frustration of seeing so much beauty, but being limited to the small areas that can be effectively photographed. I was struck by the spectacular colour and incredible density of marine life on this wall and intrigued by the fact that even though all this colour existed in abundance, at 90 feet deep the whole reef looked almost colourless and drab. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if the water could be taken away and you could photograph this incredible landscape lit by sunlight and reveal its true colours.”
Five years later he devised a way to do just that. In 1999 he returned with a custom rig to shoot mosaic-tile frames of the wall, the nascence of his digital tapestry. The completed oeuvre attracted the attention of National Geographic who published it in 2001. So impressed were scientists who saw it that the image has since become a research and teaching tool.
“About 90 percent of life in the ocean starts in coral reefs; they’re the nurseries of the sea,” says Hellemn of why he considers his work both art and part of important conservation work. “They’re fragile and they’re under threat.”
“I empty my mind before I immerse myself. I enter the water with no expectations, ready to shoot whatever nature gives me; you never know what will show up from the deep,” says photographer Ellen Cuylaerts.
Cuylaerts’s patience is richly rewarded, her portfolio an enviable array of sharp yet delicate portraits of the underwater world’s most intoxicating residents. A time-gnarled manatee drifts timidly among the curled and bowed roots of the mangroves, shafts of light piercing the agitated surface to illuminate a sub aqua refuge. Dolphins jostle each other playfully, the sheen of their bodies, shaped by soft grey panels of marking, gleaming gently in the blue.
“The best subjects are those where you have an understanding, a knowledge. The more you know about potential subjects, the better you can anticipate how they will react to you and your camera,” says Cuylaerts. “I never shoot the moment I discover a potential subject. I first want to observe it and create a mutual curiosity.”
Her talent for capturing capricious underwater lighting is almost unparalleled. The shimmer of fins, inky black of a cave and sparkle of a perfectly framed shoal in ‘Vortex’ are so spectacular they appear extraterrestrial.
Light forms the starting point of many of her most successful images: “It always enchants me,” muses Cuylaerts. “The reflection of the sun beams on shallow sandy patches, touching ripples of sand, or the low morning or evening light that touches the water’s surface. There is nothing more serene.”
The Caribbean is her photographic playground, yet she moved here almost by accident. “We were planning to leave Belgium and booked a holiday to Grand Cayman to snorkel with the children,” she recalls. “Five days later we had found a property.” Having fallen hard for Cayman’s submerged beauty, she was deeply moved to learn about the suffering of sharks, which are killed for their fins.
“Sharks should be loved: they keep our oceans in balance, feed on sick and weak fish and keep our reefs strong.” Determined to do something, she co-founded Fin Free Cayman Islands to educate the world about the need to protect this most misunderstood creature, securing an international stage to progress this work by winning prizes in the World Ocean Day Photo Contest in both 2014 and 2015. The UN do an amazing job promoting ocean conservations, she says; “I’m very proud to be a part of their effort.”
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