First Australasian Serial Rights
About 820 words
© 2014 Pete Atkinson
Mask, snorkel and fins = adventure!
by Pete Atkinson
Many of my happiest times in the ocean have been snorkelling in water less than 4m deep with a camera. The reverie is uninterrupted by concerns about air, safety, tomorrow, a buddy, or even, these days, running out of film. You have a seamless proximity to the weightless delight of being at one with the sea. All the equipment you need is a mask, snorkel and fins, and a wetsuit and weight-belt if the water is cold. The only danger, and it is significant, is shallow water blackout. Take only a couple of deep breaths before you snorkel down; if you hyperventilate beforehand, you can lose consciousness and drown very easily. If you are planning to do deep snorkel dives, have a buddy and watch out for each other when you are submerged.
I dived the Coral Sea many times. Always Spoilsport put us in great locations, steep edges, deep clear water with big animals. I love that too, but I always wanted to steam into the lagoon at Osprey Reef and anchor on the sand-flat by the back-reef margin on the windward side. Here, I knew that limpid ocean water flooded over the reef top and back-reef margin, across a shallow sand-flat of perfect sand a few metres deep, dropping away into the more turbid lagoon. Oceanic reefs are like that.
When the water is clear and there is sand below, the refracted shards of lucent turquoise seen through the surface can touch the soul. With a slick of biological material coming off a reef to windward, the oily surface is tamed in such a way that the net of caustic light patterns scattering across the bottomare completely entrancing, like an open fire.
For a photographer, the shallows have so much to offer. Light, of course but reflections too. With shallow water over a perfect reef in the calm, the upside down reef reflection extends to infinity, drawing you to its horizon. Lie motionless on the bottom waiting for your bubbles to clear, so you can use the Snell’s window for creative effect. On rougher days you can shoot pictures of fish against the underside of the rafts of foam coming off the reef, or jam your camera against the rock to capture swirls of bubbles at slow shutter speed. You can shoot sea birds, or drifting rafts of pumice if there’s avolcano handy, or explore mangrove forests by pulling yourself along by the aerial roots. You can experiment endlessly, because you have time. At least you do if the water is warm.
I love the way the meniscus pastes itself across the camera housing dome port in endlessly delicious curves. By angling the camera up, you can capture the scene above and below and the reflection of the bottom in the underside of the surface. Angling down, I can see both the image below and the subject refracted and disjointed through the surface.
It’s not as though the shallows lack animals. I recall one dive outside the atoll of Takaroa in French Polynesia. There seemed to be no sharks at all, till I ascended and looked over the lip of the reef flat. There, grey reef sharks were occupying the niche of black tip reef sharks in half a metre of water. Outside the reef, on the leeward side, swells from a distant ocean will curl in glassy perfection onto the reef, held up by what little wind there is. I love to snorkel here, to catch the exquisite glass tubes as they curl above and disintegrate in a maelstrom of foam and vortices.
Late afternoon the sun strikes the surface at just the right angle to be refracted into a jangle of golden lances like crepuscular rays. A warm gel on the flash will add consistent lighting to your foreground subject, and a high shutter speed will increase the definition of the rays.
When I think back to all the wonderful animals I have photographed while snorkelling, they have been my best times underwater. Humpback whales of course, once accompanied by a hundred melonhead whales and roughtooth dolphins, minke whales so close you could touch them and the lone friendly dugong in Vanuatu. Whale sharks at Christmas Island, and mako and blue sharks in New Zealand, one of which swam right through the cage. But we had left the windows open!
Animals don’t need to be big to be fascinating; jellyfish have always been a favourite of mine including the first picture I sold, a compass jellyfish photographed off Southern Ireland. That day we snorkelled with a swordfish briefly (we were scared of becoming a kebab) and other people on my boat saw a leatherback turtle two metres long!
So you don’t need to travel far, or to the tropics, to find extraordinary animals underwater. You just need a mask, snorkel and fins, and a sense of adventure.