As a photographer, showing your work to people is one of the most satisfying parts of the job. Upon request, I usually whip out the trusty iPad and flip through an array of imagery—coral, sharks, reef fish, blah blah blah. Eventually I come to unfamiliar, otherworldly looking creatures posed in front of black backgrounds. Quickly, their faces crinkle up at their peculiarity, and the first question is often: “How deep was that shot?”
I answer, depending on the particular image, anywhere from about 1,000 to 2,560 feet—an unexpected response that typically induces the natural reflex comment: “While scuba diving?”
I understand that not everyone is well versed in the physics and physiology of scuba diving, but nonetheless, the question always makes me chuckle. After giving the person a moment to reflect on the absurdity of the question, I give a short explanation about a homemade submarine, a quirky explorer, and a little Asian woman with a big camera.
Housed off of Roatan, Honduras is a homemade submarine called Idabel. Its builder and inventor, a very resourceful and ambitious man named Karl Stanley, uses it as a vehicle for taking people down to around 2,000 feet. After meeting Karl in 2007, we began collaborating to document his findings. As of today, we have spent over 100 hours together bobbing along the floor of the Cayman Trench.
And so it was that early on in our dives, we formed a shooting relationship that involves a lot of communication, patience, and commitment. With Karl’s knowledge of the terrain and expertise in navigating the submarine, coupled with my size and thus ability to press myself up against a four-inch thick dome port in a small space, we make a somewhat unconventional duo.
Shooting from Idabel requires a great level of trust between photographer and driver, as well as fluid, verbal cooperation. Much of what I can see and need to photograph is absolutely not visible to Karl, so our strong dynamic and ability to communicate efficiently is key.
Denizens of the Deep
In our 17 dives together, each safari has often had a goal. On one mission, it was to capture the appropriately named dumbo octopus. Because the dive site that Karl had in mind was farther down the coastline and quite a ways from shore, we received a tow from Karl’s neighbor so we could save time and power. Sure enough, not long after reaching our desired depth of 2,300 feet, we found a dumbo octopus.
The octopus, as if on cue, rose up to do a sort of dance and twirl in front of the dome. With the aid of flashes outside of the submarine in equally homemade housings, the theatrics of the dumbo were lit up and frozen in my frame as I snapped away furiously.
Karl seems to have a knack for getting on the deep sea horn, and ordering up the creatures he wants to see. Taking advantage of its lethargic nature, I had a few seconds to increase my shutter speed and aperture, so that I could reveal the iridescent body of the chimaera’s scales.
Caribbean Rough Shark
There are so few images of this animal that in most scientific publications you will only find sketches accompanying their description. The rough shark, sensing our lights and probably our electronics, attempted to move towards the wall, slowly bumping its nose into rocks.
But at one point, it gave up and turned towards us, during which time I snapped the pictured photograph. Being so close to the wall, our lights reflected back into the lens, thus adding a more informative environment.
Six Gill Shark
My most memorable shark encounter was with a curious six gill, who was just as inquisitive about this strange, foreign blob (us) as we were about this incredibly rare, beefy-looking shark.
I managed to fire off three shots, as awe overtook me. The briefness of the shark’s curiosity led it to make one single pass in front of the dome port. I still believe it could see me, for our eyes locked as it went by. To this day, this brief moment is still one of the highlights of all my underwater and above-water adventures.
Pink Frogmouth Anglerfish
Finally, we come to the pink frogmouth anglerfish, with which we played a game of chicken. It was sitting on a ledge that was at a perfect angle for shooting. Karl was able to maneuver the port straight into a position where I was staring eye to eye with the animal.
We slowly inched our way closer and closer until I felt that if the glass were not separating us, that we could practically rub noses. The anglerfish did not budge—not one bit. And we sat there having a staring contest for a few moments until I remembered that instead of pressing my nose up against the glass, I should be pressing my lens!
Dangers of the Deep
Though we are mostly combing open terrain, we have run into some potential hazards, like when trying to photograph a venus flytrap anemone suspended on rope. At this moment, my communication with Karl was extremely important, for when renegade rope and a submarine are in the same vicinity, the potential for a deadly bind is an actual concern. This rope in particular was suspended between two heavy cylinder blocks.
Were we to get too close and get a ballast or a light caught, so would have been the tragic end of the adventures of Karl and Lia. Fortunately, we live to tell the tale. Karl’s apprehension made this venus flytrap’s close-up very brief and so we hastily left the rope, paranoid about additional hurdles in the area.
So after all of my hours spent in Karl’s submarine, my biggest advice is that if you ever have the opportunity to shoot in a submarine, do it. You don’t even have to be an underwater photographer to capture these deep-sea creatures! It’s like you’re shooting from your bed! Well, a rather cramped bed. More like the back seat of a car.
Unlike conventional underwater shooting, you have the luxury of changing lenses, staying warm, and eating snacks while photographing. It can be comically lazy. Though there are a few downsides, including a lack of modern plumbing (at least in Karl’s). Yet toilet issues aside, what I take away most from these experiences are thrilling encounters, a rare body of images, and an insatiable hunger to see more.