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Random Ruminations On Underwater Photography
By Andrea Ferrari, November 23, 2009 @ 12:48 AM (EST)

When I was young, a long time ago, I was a real sci-fi nut. I ate and slept and lived science-fiction 24 hours a day. Weird aliens, gleaming spaceships and distant planets were my life. At night, I used to look at the stars—when you could still see them—and think “Shall I ever live long enough to find out if there is life, out there? Shall I ever witness the arrival of Klaatu, the Martians, the Ymir, E.T. and all their extraterrestrial brethren on Earth?” Years passed, and I started to get weary of waiting for the landing of flying saucers or the exploration of faraway worlds—hope was waning, as was youth.

Then, one day, and almost by chance, I took my own first Big Step—not on another airless planet’s surface, but from a dive boat’s gunwhale. The black and white underwater exploration movies by Jacques-Yves Cousteau being then shown on TV had provided an irresistible glimpse of another world, and I was curious. And it was then—when for the first time in my life I donned a mask, slipped a tank on my bank and a regulator in my mouth, and then glided noiselessly under the glass-smooth surface of the Red Sea at dusk—that I found my own Outer Space.

clownfish in anemone

There was no reason now to make up imaginary extraterrestrial worlds in my mind—the alien landscapes, the incredible creatures, the amazing shapes and colors I had dreamt up for so long were now coming to life —in vibrant fantastic colors and dizzying movement—in front of my eyes!

scorpion fish portrait

Since then—and that was 30 years ago—I’ve never stopped being awed by the wonders of the underwater world, never stopped marveling at the unexpected discoveries, the surprises and even the occasional horrors of the tropical deep worldwide.

crab on sea cucumber macro underwater photograph

I’ve seen creatures no one else had probably seen before, others unnamed yet, witnessed mysterious rituals, faced encounters which thrilled me to the bone: I was the first to photograph at length the great Oceanic Whitetip shark in the wild (in the Red Sea of Sudan, 30 years ago), the first to take good images of the Pacific Thresher shark underwater (while diving in the South China Sea with our friend Doug Perrine, 12 years ago), the first to document the mating behavior of the Mimic Octopus (a couple of years ago in Bali); my photographs have been used to describe the then-nameless Orange Mantis Shrimp and a few other undescribed curious species. I’ve had the rare privilege of admiring up close the enormous Napoleon Wrasse, the ever-so-strange Hammerhead shark, that great sea-wanderer the Turtle, the pearly, sinuous Sea Krait, and countless other mysterious, strange denizens of the deep.

oceanic white tip shark
Napolean Wrasse image

After having met the big ones, I’ve turned my eye and my camera lens to the macro- and the micro-world, marveling at yet countless more alien, strange creatures: the grotesque Frogfish, the grinning skull of the Stonefish and all the other dark lords of the twilight world of muck diving. Never I’ve tired, not once I’ve stopped wondering and marveling. Each and every dive has always been a priceless occasion of learning, and learning new facts and wonders makes one thirst for more: it’s addictive. And with learning came the urge to share this precious knowledge, first with my beloved wife and then with others worldwide: that is why we started writing and publishing books.

devilfish portriat
goby on coral macro photograph

At the same time, I’ve always been surprised—and slightly annoyed—by the complacent attitude of non-divers towards our breed, and our art. They clearly do not realize the enormous difficulties—indeed, sometimes even the dangers—inherent to underwater exploration and photography: trying to create  a good-looking image while operating in an airless, weightless, hostile environment where movement is generally erratic, fast and unpredictable. Talk about taking your time and setting your shot! Landlocked photographers seem totally unable to appreciate that underwater photography is—in most cases—photography in its purest form, the act of capturing and freezing the moment, crystallizing motion and shape while acting under the sharp spell of instinct. It’s where action fueled by instinct and rational, clear-minded thought merge in the act of artistic creation.

Jackfish school

Granted, not every shot we take can be (or should be) considered “art” in the commonest accepted sense—our personal motivations are different since some of us strive to create something new and unusual, others are happy with plainly documenting the underwater world (like myself) and others again are satisfied with taking simple souvenirs. Some of us are obsessed by the technical aspects of the equipment and feel the urge to regularly upgrade, while others (like myself) are content to own the bare, often outdated minimum, and defy the limitations of technology with creativity and a more “sporty” attitude. Again, some of us have the time and the means to travel the world far and wide and dive in remote, unexplored locations, while others have to make do with their own backyard quarry or shoreline.

goby on sponge

But we are a privileged bunch. We all share the burning passion, we all share the joyful thrill, we all explore an alien universe—we all witness the mysterious ways of the world beyond the mirror, we all feel the adrenaline rush of discovery. And the temptation to bring back a visual memory, often a very personal one, of such a remote environment is too strong to resist. That’s why we underwater photographers are here to stay, with all our clunky, expensive, heavy, cumbersome equipment, with our plastic point-and-shoots and our incredibly expensive housings. After all, wouldn’t you be tempted to pocket a few pebbles to bring home, if you landed on Mars?
close up of a fish eye
goby on coral

Andrea’s latest book is the best-selling A Diver’s Guide to the Art of Underwater Photography.



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