The Ugly Side of Underwater Photography

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Notes From the Back of Beyond II

We took a busman’s holiday last weekend and went diving on Bali’s north coast.  It’s easy diving around Tulamben; porters carry the tanks and you just walk off the beach.   Great schools of trevally surround the Liberty Wreck and the black sand slope to the east is a famed critter diving mecca. It should have been a beautiful morning dive, but what we saw underwater shifted our moods a full 180 degrees. We finished the dive almost ashamed to call ourselves underwater photographers.

About 50 feet down the  slope, hovering close to the substrate, we spent about 15 minutes searching for unusual species of nudibranchs.  We weren’t the only ones in the water-Tulumben is a popular dive area-and another group of divers was nearby.  From the amount of silt that drifted our way we figured they had found an interesting subject so we finned over to take a closer look.  There were about ten of them, armed with all manner of image-capturing gear, and they had surrounded a Wonderpus photogenicus, one of the recently described long-armed octopuses that is often confused with the Mimic Octopus. A few divers had still camera housings mounted on video housings, a few had both wide angle and macro rigs cobbled together with a tangled web of multiple strobe cords.  One diver caught our attention; she had a small video housing and had settled down gently on the bottom, waiting patiently, and so we decided to hang around to see what happened.

For more than 30 minutes we witnessed one of the lousiest displays of buoyancy skills we have ever seen outside of an entry level class. You would have thought that the current was running at four knots, there was that much sand blowing through the water.  The lone divemaster vainly tried to keep order so everyone in his group could photograph the creature, but he gave up after about 15 minutes and took off down the slope. A couple of photographers shot 50 or more frames (yes, I counted), and no one wanted to “share”.  One anxious, double-rig-carrying oaf couldn’t wait for his buddy to finish with the octopus, so he positioned himself over the top of the offending diver and literally picked the guy up off the bottom by his BC and shoved him out of the way. One “good buddy” yanked so hard on on another’s full foot fin that he pulled it off and just tossed it aside, leaving the diver to try and catch up with his free-floating fin before it was out of sight.  ”Well,” I thought, “that’s one way to to keep a subject for yourself.  What’s next? Slicing regulator hoses?”

Just as it seemed like the lone, patient diver might get a chance, the octopus escaped and the group swam off in a cloud of silt.  The remaining would-be videographer didn’t move for several seconds. The she looked our way, shrugged, and headed back toward the beach.

As we were ascending I thought about the octopus, the rude photographers, and I couldn’t help but mutter “get a life” through my regulator.  What was so important about photographing that octopus that it could trigger mass behavior like that? I mean, we make our living selling photographs of marine animals, but being able to pay our credit card bill on time doesn’t mean that we need to trash a dive site, harass an animal, or endanger another diver. Sure we’ve all been guilty of taking too much time with a subject, with digital it’s hard stop photographing a charismatic subject. Still, perhaps it’s time to agree to and sign not only the standard CYA (cover your ass)  diver’s release form, but also a Photographer’s Code of Ethics that covers how we’ll treat the reef, the animals that live there, and our fellow divers.

Some divemasters, celebrity group leaders, and cruise directors admonish their guests to take care of the environment and share subjects. Others don’t. Are we losing the joy when we senselessly compete for images? Recently a liveaboard owner called us with questions about our upcoming group. “What kind of people are they?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what he meant.  He explained, “You know, do they like to sit on deck and watch the sun set or are they staring at their computers or taking apart their cameras whenever they aren’t in the water?  I just finished with a group like that and let me tell you it was boring and awful.”

Taking pictures is just one of the reasons we like diving. We like the sunsets, talking about good books, sharing stories with friends, new and old.  Let’s cut out the competition and bring back the joy.

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63 comments for “The Ugly Side of Underwater Photography

  1. Jay Miller
    May 24, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    My wife and I just returned from Roatan with a group we have been diving with for 5 yrs. We love the group but one person came with the big twin elkhorn unit this yr and totally took over every cool thing pointed out by the divemaster. buoancy was poor and the person would settle down in front of the whatever, take a minute or 2 adjusting the strobes, take a shot then repeat the process. On it went. We asked the operator if they ever set up boats for point and shoot or no photographers but unless we create our own group – no sale. As much as we love this group we are looking at other options for next yr.

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  2. John McConn
    July 20, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    I have been diving for 22 years and along the way I have taken photos and then videos. During that time, I have also traveled with many of the some of big names in professional underwater image making. Keeping in mind that these people are making a living selling their images, all of these professionals “discussed” the protection of the environment at the beginning of the trip.

    Some of these individuals practiced what they preached, but the overwhelming majority did anything they had to do to “get the perfect picture”. Only once did I see a professional talk to, on the side, a diver about their obvious destrucive practices. I have never seen a sanction against a diver whose buoyancy was something less than an anchor, either by the professional or the resort.

    On a recent professionally led trip to Indonesia, every diver had their eyes glued to their viewfinder throughout the dives. One diver assigned to my panga ran over me, into me, kicked me, dislodged my mask 6 times during the first 4 dives. The claim was is that he didn’t see me. Of course not, wih a viewfinder serving as his field if vision. On the sixth occassion I cursed him out underwater and shoved him away. This same diver carefully set up a shot of a unique nudi, then proceeded to maul it by crawling over it on his exit from the site. It was clearly dead as I approached the area.

    My opinion is that most “professionals” (witin my experience) have little to be proud of in keeping the well being if the environment anywhere on their priority list.

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  3. Tom Shropshire
    August 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    Having read this story with great interest, I was a liveaboard many times (it should be noted I worked for the liveaboard company, land-based), and many times witnessed professional photographers who destroyed the reef. Their motto: anything for a great shot.
    It did not go unaware to these photographers as I did say something (in private) to them upon return to the boat.

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  4. August 23, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    This subject is near and dear to my heart. In the predive briefing on a recent trip I was leading to the Raja Ampats, I made it clear to all photographers that if they wanted to take a series of photographs of a subject then they must wait till all other divers had a chance. I also discussed all the other courtesies that divers should take into consideration…buoyancy being top on the list. Last year, in Lembeh Straights I witnessed a group of photographers tearing apart a huge sponge to they could get a good shot of a frogfish. My only regret is that I did not take a photo of the melee. Sadly, it is not the first time I have seen “photographers” disturbing critters.
    I have been diving the Raja Ampats for more than 10 years…sadly, I note that I see a definite decline in the number of critters and destruction of the reefs. I attribute this to too much pressure on the reefs by an over abundance of liveaboards and discourteous divers.

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  5. laura cerlon
    September 30, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    As a budding underwater photographer, on one hand I am happy to report that I have not witnessed such an extreme transgression of etiquette. However, I have seen it happen. I was very fortunate in my early experiences to learn how underwater photography can truly hurt the subject. The case at hand was a poor pygmy seahorse that I was certain was blinded by the flashes of the many cameras pointed in its face. Flashes that were so close, they burned the critter’s coral surround. Perhaps a solution to the problem of poor etiquette (i.e. large group of out-of-control underwater photographers) or those that are so insensitive to their subject’s well being, would be to turn the tables. Take a few or 50 photos of an inconsiderate photographer’s face, at close range, and see how they like it?

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  6. S Cole
    December 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I don’t like diving with amateur photographers. If you want good pictures of marine life, buy a Paul Human book! No one really wants to look at your vacation pictures anyway.

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  7. Egglesly
    January 31, 2012 at 7:29 am

    Peer pressure works. Get 2 or 3 of your dive buddies and confront the offending photog either under or above water and tell them to quit or be relieved of decent shots for the rest of the dive.

    It is particularly horrible when night creatures are subjected to constant high-intensity flashing. It can permanent damage their visual membranes, thus effectively signing their death sentence.

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  8. Kent Kossoy
    March 20, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Excellent article. I take pictures and realize that I will never be published in NatGeo. Thus, am willing to let go if it endangers the reef or invades others right to enjoy the dive site or creatures. I have witnessed many pros and amateurs who do not follow my lead. It is unfortunate. I wish more people would speak up so we all could enjoy diving.

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  9. Maria Chapman
    June 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    Thank you for the post. Maybe education and the possibility of being banned from dive operators and liveaboards would work. I remember many years ago the island od Saba practiced a similar policy, any offending diver that would not stop damaging reefs and animals was taken out of the water, his money refunded, and a call to all operators not to accept him/her as a custumer went out to all.

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  10. AE Puccinelli
    January 25, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Well I hope this goes to show, I take a few pics as does my wife, reef,& fellow divers courtesy is foremost, Hello Marie Chapman, how is my old Mako video setup doing, let me know (pucc@sonnet.com)

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  11. mick shaneor
    March 18, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    I avoid diving with underwater photographers. They usually have their own agenda & can be a distraction & disruption to the non photo shooters. They should dive with other photographers or get their own boat & divemaster.

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  12. Ezzie Russell
    April 24, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    We just returned from a week on the Thailand Aggressor. The crew tried to divide us up into “photographers” and “non-photographers.” My buddy takes pictures and I like to look at fish. We went with the photographers. There is no concern for the animals or the reef, just for the picture, which will be put into iPhoto and forgotten. I saw a “photographer” lay on a coral head while shoving her camera into a soft coral to harass a juvenile box fish. The poor little guy was so blinded it kept bumping into things and was probably dinner for some predator. These people show no interest in the animals and their behaviors and only want a shot of the “trophy fish.” They get the divemaster to take them to the seahorse and spend the whole dive torturing the poor thing while missing out on the whole wonder of the reef around them. Peer pressure doesn’t seem to work but we can keep trying.

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  13. July 18, 2013 at 6:31 am

    I have been diving since 1972 and filming and imaging underwater since 2009 and can say that I was/am fortunate that I never came upon a group of reckless underwater photographers like you described above. Not saying that it is not true, just expressing my share of experience. Mostly I was very selective with what dive op I was diving with, second I tried to stay as far away from any group anyway, making arrangements with the dive op prior boarding. If they disapproved my request that’s the last time I dove with them. I know that some of the top end underwater videographer use coral heads for steady shots with their often 300 lbs. cameras, something no matter who’s behind that budget I never will approve. I agree with the term that we are all temporary visitors down there and have to be respectful what we do.

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