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Freshly Spun: Exploring the UK’s Freshwater Realms
By Laura Storm, July 1, 2020 @ 09:00 AM (EST)

The UK is home to a remarkable tapestry of freshwater systems

Ever since I can remember, rivers and lakes have held a special place in my heart. In Africa, where I grew up, I’d head to the magnificent lakes of Kenya’s Rift Valley for a regular fix of wild and untamed action. So it’s no surprise that these habitats still have a hold on me. Those early experiences, the sense of freedom characterized by life on the road, shaped my love of exploration. Dusty safaris intensified my obsessive interest in wildlife and alongside that grew a deep appreciation for the value of conservation.

Fast track to the here and now, London is on my doorstep and life down a muddy track has a different meaning. In the UK, I’ve been diving deep freshwater since my tech days, where quarries, murky depth and long decompressions were the order of the day. But other than the freediving athletes I supported, there wasn’t much life at 200-plus feet. Almost a decade later, I’m now a fully-fledged photographer finding my way with a home-turf conservation project. My attention has switched to shallower depths and the liquorice assortment of life found in our freshwater biome.

Spread out across the UK’s landmass, seemingly unconnected bodies of water collectively form a freeway, an unmapped trail that enables biodiversity to migrate from place to place, to survive and thrive—nature’s network. It lives and breathes alongside the seasons, perpetuating cycles of life. A puddle leads to a pond, which lies close to a stream, which flows into a river. Ditches, reservoirs, canals, vast wetlands and lakes, a few raindrops here and there all play their part. It’s the sum of the whole that forms this mosaic, creating checkpoints for life.

The freshwater superhighway passes right under our noses, through our gardens and urban spaces until it breaks free into greenbelt and countryside, leading eventually to coastal shores. It is perhaps easier to string together in a temperate climate such as ours, but by no means is it exclusive to Britain’s lush, green isles. Every country and terrain has a system relative to its climate.

But there’s a glitch in the matrix; holes in the interconnected, carefully woven fabric; a disconnect created yet again by our very human impact resulting in these aquatic habitats becoming increasingly fragmented—not just in the UK, but globally. So much so that as a biome, fresh water is now one of our most endangered. And it’s the usual story of climate change, pollution, deforestation, over-extraction, development, and so on, that’s creating those holes.

My rig for the project: Canon EOS 550D, 60mm f/2.8 macro lens, 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens

With this all staring me in the face, in 2019 I finally launched my own conservation project, a long-term photographic venture focused exclusively on British freshwater habitats and ecosystems. Named The FresH2O Connection, it’s all about joining up the dots to highlight the underwater scene of these diminishing waterscapes. Putting my skills to good use, I’ve challenged myself to photograph these environments in a creative or unexpected way, in an effort to produce really fresh, artistic work. Making images that spark the imagination and reveal hidden aspects of this often-overlooked realm are at the heart of what I’m trying to do. It’s a journey of discovery and an ambitious dream. So come on in because there’s much to show!

For this article, my focus is on ponds and lakes. The water closest to the edge of a lake or pond is dominated by phytoplankton, aquatic plants and tiny invertebrates. As with our oceans, it’s known as the littoral zone. These shallow margins warm quickly through the spring and summer months, leading to algal blooms, a catalyst for life cycles to reawaken. And since algae form the base of many food webs, it became a fitting subject, an unusual story for my project.

Invasive Mussels and Ferocious Pike

Take two lakes: They’re on opposite sides of Britain and have very different ecosystems. One has rich vegetation, splendid crystal-clear visibility, and stunning water lilies. The other is silty and unassuming, with caliginous, cloudy water. But that doesn’t matter, it is nevertheless teeming with life. The lakes, as the crow flies, pretty much lie on the same latitude, about 250 miles apart. So, what connects them and how? Far more than you might imagine!

Benthic algae abstract

The algae shown in this abstract was found on the bottom of the silty lake. It lay in-between some clumps of weedy-looking stonewort, just above the silt itself. It is alien-looking stuff. The amazing colors of the algae (and its resident bacteria) were masked by a strange milky layer floating over it, like the effect of drifting clouds.

I wanted to incorporate the wisps of white and so positioned a strobe to light up the algae growth from beneath, enabling it to “glow” from within. A second strobe was set on low to help reveal the gaseous mist. This scene is a seasonal happening with a tiny time window of just a few weeks. In a blink, the show is over and the benthic zone of the lake returns to its less colorful look.

Ethereal warrior

Elsewhere in the same lake, a different type of algae had taken up residence. In just the same way that corals and sponges encrust man-made structures in the oceans, the same process occurs in fresh water. Over time, algae and hydroids lay down foundations, rooting themselves to surfaces, like this terracotta warrior.

The statue had been submerged in the silty lake for a while, and time had done a great job of morphing it. I wanted to reveal the contours of the statue’s face, covered in fine, hair-like strands. Zebra mussels adorned it and dozens of small snails dotted its face like freckles. To create a spooky, ghost-like atmosphere, I combined front- and backlighting to make the most of the encrusting filaments.

Zebra mussels

Originating from the far-flung shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, the statue-adorning zebra mussels are an invasive species. They nestled into British freshwater habitats about 200 years ago, disrupting aquatic environments and wreaking havoc. They’ve colonized the silty lake in the thousands and now play an established part in its ecosystem, helping to cleanse the water by filtering out pollutants. In turn that allows sunlight to reach greater depths, which invigorates algae growth, equating to more food for fish, insects, snails, and so on.

The mussels are highly sensitive to movement and clamp shut the moment they detect a threat. Capturing them open like this and filling the frame seemed to take an age. But by using a focus light on red, and inching close moment by moment, they gradually unlocked to show their filtering siphons.

Pike portrait

Pike coloration abstract

Pike fin marking abstract

Flashing fangs and a fierce pose, a northern pike lies in wait, hidden in the silty lake’s gloom. At the top of this particular food web, pike employ ambush predator tactics to attack their prey. Frogs and small fish are easy pickings for a stealth agent. Sometimes shy or standoffish, other times brazen, curious or aggressive, northern pike are known for their big personalities—not unlike barracuda! And because they lie so still, they make a great subject to experiment behind the lens with.

These three images show some of the characteristics I love the most: camouflaged markings, beautiful coloration, and that feisty attitude. The abstract of a dorsal fin with its textured, contrasting scales and dotted markings highlight how the pike blends into its cool water surroundings—green, yellow and olive colors, perfect camouflage for when it hides amongst fluffy algae and submerged vegetation. All three perspectives were taken with a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens.

Water Lilies, Water Lilies, Everywhere

Two hundred and fifty miles away, the second lake with crystal-clear waters was a dream come true. It’s a protected habitat, a magical setting that few are permitted to experience underwater—a truly pristine environment and by contrast, at the opposite end of the scale to the silty lake. Working in collaboration with the lake’s conservation team, I was able to gain access and capture these hidden views.

The lilies were photographed in one long session using a 15mm fisheye. Logistically tricky in unexpected ways and with only one chance to slip into the water like this, the pressure was on to get things right first time. So for these images, I storyboarded ideas beforehand, thinking through what might be possible. Using a singular prime lens is a great way to push yourself creatively and capture different views: Reflections, flower portraits, big picture scenes, split world views, close-focus wide angle were all in the mix.

Lily lake

Submerged lily portrait

Lily reflections

Photographing the above scenes were surprisingly challenging. Beneath the spread of lily pads, everything lies in shadow. The blooms, though, are a brilliant white and easily overexposed or blown out, even with strobes set on low and positioned strategically. Through the winter months, the water level rises with seasonal rainfall but there are no flowering lilies on show. Once summer arrives, water begins to seep away through deep fissures in the lakebed. The rate of evaporation increases and stonewort—complex algae that carpet the lakebed—grows rapidly until it more or less breaks the surface. Timing all of this with the flowering season was paramount.

During this shoot, I had on average about three feet of water to move around in. So I modified my kit to minimize the risk of entanglement and streamlined my camera rig. The first two images were shot in natural light while strobes were used for the close-focus wide-angle reflection.

Frogs and Mermaid’s Tresses

Closer to home, I started photographing life in urban ponds. Much like with lakes, some are more productive than others, and access can be just as much of an issue. Different types of algae and oxygenating plants prevail in these shallower bodies, notably a filamentous green algae called Spirogyra.

Close up, Spirogyra algae looks much like bamboo, but infinitely more delicate. It’s an abundant and vital first link in freshwater food webs. This simple life form reproduces rapidly, leading to thousands of individual strands. When combined, they form a tangled labyrinth known by common names such water silk, blanket weed, and mermaid’s tresses. Microscopic bubbles formed during photosynthesis reflect the world around them.

Alongside biodiversity and habitat connections, another area of focus for my FresH20 project is aquatic life cycles. I began by following the life story of some of the pike’s prey. Enter our very cute common frog! And, because this is all about interconnectedness, its relationship with Spirogyra. This is an ongoing and fascinating chapter. With pond habitats, I’ve been experimenting, having fun, and generally obsessing over the artistic results. They are microcosms I can follow through the seasons, giving me time to brainstorm, make mistakes, and develop ideas.

Spirogyra in a pond

Common frog tadpole

Froglet in Spirogyra

Critical to my approach is that I want to show this realm in a new light, to reignite interest, and help push these troubled spots into the fore. For these smaller habitats, I’ve embraced super-macro as an initial way to produce something fresh or with rarely seen detail. These final three images were all captured using a Nauticam Super Macro Converter 1 (SMC-1).

Final Thoughts

So there it is: a brief glimpse, a few pieces of the puzzle that scratch at the surface of an undeniably beautiful and deserving arena. In time, there will be more. The network beckons, my photographic journey continues, there are many more mysteries to uncover.

To see more of Laura's awesome work, check out her website, www.planetplankton.co.uk, and follow her on Instagram.


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