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An Underwater Photographer's Guide To Borneo
 November 21, 2009 @ 04:37 AM (EST)
By Matt Weiss 
Most people describe encounters with turtles as calming, serene and relaxing.

Not me.

I was 40 feet below the ocean, face to face to with a massive green sea turtle. It was staring at me with studied indifference. I was staring back at it -- awestruck.

I could almost hear the turtle sigh, as it slowly blinked its eyes, revealing it's wrinkled eyelids.

Keeping my body as still as possible, my mind ran a mini-marathon. I was focusing so much I think I was sweating underwater. When the minute or so the turtle gave me before it swam away was up, I could feel my heart pounding.

That's right, I was completely stationary, thinking about dome ports and strobe arms, f-stops and ISOs – boring a turtle to death, and my adrenaline was pumping as if I had jumped out of an airplane.

Such is the life of an underwater photographer.

It might not be as badass as motorcycling, as dangerous as rock climbing, or as physically strenuous as white water kayaking, but the kind of pulse-raising excitement I had with that turtle is how I get my kicks.   

I didn’t even nail the shot, but it didn’t matter, because the thrill came from trying.  I was “in the zone,” worrying whether my composition was obeying the rule of thirds, if my exposure had too many highlights, and why the hell I was pointing my strobes two feet away from the subject. It’s the entire process, the watching, the waiting, the whole experience of creating the image that I love.

As underwater photographers, we seek out just these moments, and when it all goes right, we enter that state of happiness that makes the experience transcendent, the way I imagine an Olympic skier feels at the peak of the jump.  It’s a temporary escape from reality when nothing matters but you, your subject and capturing the moment.

That’s why I went all the way to Borneo…I wanted a turtle moment.



Way down south, way down in Borneo…
Borneo is the third largest island in the world, just about the size of Texas.  Situated almost on the opposite side of the globe from my home in New York, right in the heart of the Malay Archipelago, the island is divided almost in half by the equator.  Borneo’s tropical geographical location has led to an impressive biodiversity, boasting well over 18,000 different species of plants, 420 species of birds and 220 species of mammals. The life found in the oceans around Borneo even surpasses its rainforests. The South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea and the Java Sea, names easily recognizable to anyone who has studied marine biodiversity, surround the island.

On the north east end, rising 2,000 feet from the seabed in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, on top of an extinct volcanic cone is Malaysia's only true oceanic island – Sipadan.  This is Borneo’s ecological celebrity.

Although it was declared a bird sanctuary in 1933, it wasn’t until 1983 when Borneo Divers began to offer dive trips that people started to see that the waters around Sipadan were special.  When Jacques Cousteau came to Sipadan and released the film “Ghost of the Sea Turtles” the world took notice. Sipadan became world renowned, and a fixture on divers’, and certainly any respectable underwater photographer’s, “must visit” lists.  Five resorts would be built on the small island, offering trips to the nearby dive sites.

Conservation of the island’s unique underwater resources is riddled with controversy. In 1992, Dr. Elizabeth Wood, a coral reef scientist who had been monitoring Sipadan, warned that although the reefs were healthy, they displayed a level of deterioration, most likely due to snorkelers and divers kicking up silt. Natural pressures compounded the human effects in 1998, when tropical storm Gregg hit the islands reefs, causing serious damage. Six years later the government took notice and took a bold stance that most governments would not have done. They mandated that all dive shops relocate to other nearby islands in order to preserve the treasured reefs of Sipadan.  

The conservation issues were well publicized. In 2006 the next in this series of unfortunate events occurred, when a barge took out around 372 square meters of reef while transporting building materials.
For most destinations these tragic occurrences would have wiped out the ecosystem and rendered the destination undiveable. But not for Sipadan.

While there is some evidence of human irresponsibility in the forms broken coral and recovering reefs, it does not change the fact that there are still are more healthy hard corals, colorful soft corals and huge amounts of marine life in Sipadan, than almost anywhere else in the world.

That barge may have taken out some coral, but it didn’t stop the strong currents of the Celebes Sea from sweeping past the island and rejuvenating the reefs with rich open ocean nutrients.

Borneo Divers
When the Malaysian government ordered that all resorts be moved off Sipadan, the majority relocated to the nearby Mabul Island. Sipadan’s original dive operation, Borneo Divers, now continues to offer trips to Sipadan from Mabul.
Photo Credit: Tim Hochgrebe 

Underwater photographers often choose their dive destinations differently than the average vacationing diver; we seek out photo subjects rather than dive sites. As underwater photographers, few things are more fun then trying to document the feeling these subjects evoke in us. Borneo is the underwater photographer’s gold mine in that it provides you with multiple opportunities to seek this thrill. Some subjects are so captivating and so charismatic that an encounter with one is as good as jumping out of an airplane.

The Turtles of Sipadan
The sea turtle is the protagonist in the story of Sipadan. They inhabit the island’s waters in unparalleled numbers.  Of course no underwater photographer needs to travel half way across the world to photograph this ancient reptile. At least one species of sea turtle can be found in most areas of the world. But in Sipadan, you will encounter large numbers like nowhere else. It is not uncommon to witness 20 or more turtles in a single 45-minute dive. Both hawksbills and Pacific green turtles are abundant, and they are often unconcerned by the presence of divers.  The turtles can get quite large, and a nice wide-angle lens is a must-have when they approach, just begging to be photographed.


Since the turtles are relatively unafraid of humans, even clumsy ones with large cameras, having a fish-eye lens will allow you to get very close, offering the potential of stellar images of Sipadan’s sea turtles. If you notice a turtle approaching you, find your perfect buoyancy, set your camera settings for a perfect blue background, prepare your strobes and just chill out, shoot away, and enjoy the experience. Few things compare to turtle moments in Sipadan.

It’s easy to be distracted by the charismatic turtles, but open your mind to other experiences of Borneo as well.  I was rewarded with many memorable underwater photography moments during my visit.

Small Things In A Big World.
I have learned during my short time in underwater photography that there will be times when people will question your sanity…

Usually, during these times we are in the proverbial “zone”.  An obsession with a shot sets in, and everything else starts to fade away. The sounds of the regulator get quiet, buoyancy becomes neutral, and everybody else just somehow disappears.

Here I was in Sipadan deep in the zone. There were two blacktip reef sharks circling behind me in about 80 feet water, and judging by the number of people making a triangle with their hands on top of their head, there was a leopard shark in the area.  But I wanted nothing to do with any it.

I had committed what most would consider an underwater photography sin. I brought my macro lens to Barracuda Point, one of the most famous wide-angle dives in the world.  The other underwater photographers were giving me curious looks. I think even the fish were confused, I’m not sure they had ever seen a flat port before. I brought my macro set-up to Sipadan for a specific shot -- I wanted an image of the square spot anthias.

The square spot anthias is not an uncommon subject. It certainly is not going to be pointed out by any dive guide in Sipadan. But it is unquestionably handsome. The colors and patterns of this fish push the boundaries of modern abstract art.  The shot I wanted was simple and easy, a full profile of the fish against a black background to bring out its colors.

I watched the anthias dance around the reef while the voice in my head was running through camera settings and composition rules.  I was oblivious to the mayhem behind me.  I finally saw the shot in my viewfinder that matched the one in my head and hit the shutter. The whole thing was simple, easy and unimaginably fun.  

I may have looked ridiculous with my back turned to sharks and shooling barracudas , but I wanted that shot and I was determined to get it. On the boat, my buddy told me I had “missed it”, I assume, he was referring to the uncommon leopard shark, but I knew I hadn’t missed anything.  I was somewhere else in my own little world.

Truth is, there are plenty of macro subjects around Sipadan that make taking the macro lens out on a dive or two worth it, if you can avoid the temptation of trying to shoot napoleon wrasse and sea turtles with your macro lens.

Why Am I Doing This?
It was 5:30 in the morning. I am 22 years old and most of my friends are probably just coming home from some bar. I, however, am in over 100 meters of dark water off a small island in Borneo. The sun was having a late start today, and so the water was darker than usual, almost completely black.  I waited with about 10 other divers staring into nothing.  In my hands was an incredibly clumsy camera that almost any sane person would describe as decadent. I turned the camera towards me so I could see myself in my dome port. What the hell was I doing here?

I adjusted my strobe arms just because I was bored, and it was like I coughed in a library. It was silent enough that everyone turned and looked. I took off my hood so I could scratch my head.  We waited, still and silent for about 10 minutes. The water was dark, a little cold, and I was unbelievably tired.  I imagine a lot of us were in the same, somewhat confused state. Maybe it’s the cynical New Yorker in me, but all I wanted was to be eating a hot dog in a taxi, not floating in bottomless black water.

Finally a faint crunching noise could be heard in the distance. Still, I couldn’t see anything. The noise got louder and more frequent. It sounded like a giant stepping on snails in a tide pool during low tide.  Finally, an oversized shiny pair of Bugs Bunny-like teeth and a bulging green bump appeared. Bumphead parrotfish. Hundreds of them - coming right at us like a rogue New York City subway speeding out of a dark tunnel, chewing up every bit of coral in their path, swimming in patterns that had no rhyme or reason.  This was not a school of fish; these guys were like a stampede. They were a herd of fish, and they were big fish, about 3 feet long and very well fed.

Here came that voice in my head that indicated I was about to be hyper-focused:

Not a lot of light so open up the aperture. Water looks a bit green, so increase the shutter speed. Going to need more light, crank up the strobes and make sure the diffusers are on. Alright, let’s try f/6.3 at 1/125.

Bang. I fired off a few shots and liked what I got. A deep breath and a big smile followed.


Sure, this was a bizarre thing to do. Even a lot of hard-core divers don’t want to wake up early for a bunch of fish, but this was an underwater photographer’s ideal adventure. The juxtaposition- between the dark, silent water before the storm of fish, to the mayhem that followed when they arrived, adds to the experience. When the last bumphead parrotfish had departed, we were left with only images on our memory cards and a ton of parrotfish poo in our faces. Had the conditions been a little more inviting, the experience would not have been as exhilarating.

That is why I do this.

Diving Mabul
After the resorts were forced off the island and relocated to Mabul, the dive masters decided, like any self-respecting divers would, to explore the surrounding waters. What they found was not the beautiful reefs, countless turtles and large fish schools of Sipadan, but something wildly different - something many underwater photographers would consider equally as exciting.

In Mabul you will be mostly diving over sand, jetties, and on the best dives, heaps of garbage.  You will find unexplainable animals that make you think that somewhere, somehow, evolution messed up. Genetic drift took some random mutation and ran with it, and you get animals like this giant yellow frogfish I shot for about 15 minutes on a Mabul muck dive.  

On one particular dive I was buddied with professional photographer Rod Klein, and we spotted a frogfish, which got both of us grown men a little giddy. The strong primary colors made for a nice composition, but the appeal of the frogfish went beyond its appearance.

In actuality, frogfish are really a miracle of evolution, perfectly adapted for their role as ambush predators. The frogfish looks more like a sponge, rock or other stationary object rather than a fish.  Its lifeless image is supported by it sedentary lifestyle. Frogfish, for the most part, remain completely still with the exception of a mobile modified fin that is used as a lure.  The lure is a little bit like a fishing rod, complete with bait in the form of a small fake shrimp, fish or something similar meant to confuse unsuspecting prey. When the frogfish has successfully lured the prey close enough, it can strike at super fast speeds, taking in the prey whole.  

This then begs the question, why do we get so excited over a fish that looks more like a rock than anything else? For me it’s the oddity of the animal that is so enticing, and recognizing its unusual adaptations inspires me to critically think about the critter, rather than just passively admire it.

Furthermore, I was anxiously waiting for this stone like frogfish to become bored and yawn.  When frogfish yawn they extend their mouth out in a dramatic fashion that makes for interesting images.   I imagine this as exciting as watching water boil for most people, but not for an underwater photographer looking to nail a shot.

This particular frogfish was resting on a red metal structure, perched so that it was almost parallel with the sand.  I actually had my wide angle lens on, despite Mabul being known mostly for macro critters. I approached close and tried to capture the animal in its unlikely surroundings. Floating parallel to the bottom of the sand surrounded by tires, discarded metal frames of small houses, and other trash, shooting straight up at this weird animal with a wide angle lens was something I had never tried before.   I had never tried shooting a typically macro subject, in conditions that usually call for a macro lens, with a fish eye lens, and the challenge was fun.  Maybe it was the unusual nature of the subject that inspired me to try something different.

There are other unusual animals to be found around Mabul, from small poisonous stonefish to large barracudas.  It must be one of the best places in the world for spotting a big crocodile fish. I recommend taking a wide angle lens that can focus at short distances for close focus wide angle shots while in Mabul, as there some interesting opportunities for it. You can save the macro lens for night dives.

If you are anything like me, the strange life forms around Mabul will lure you into deep (no pun intended) thought. Trying to understand an animal and the purpose of its unusualness is something best done while looking at it in the eye. Trying to portray whatever conclusions you come up with in an image is a mesmerizing experience.  


Entangled in Nature
Many people say they want to be completely engulfed by nature.  They want to lose themselves in it.  Sipadan gives you the opportunity to quite literally do this.

As mentioned, Sipadan is fed nutrients by the strong currents from the Celebes Sea. Many of Sipadan’s creatures enjoy these currents, but perhaps none more than chevron barracuda and big eye trevally.

These species school in the thousands, forming a constantly rotating vortex of silver fish.  If there is a current you most likely will get at least a school of one species on a dive at Barracuda Point, if not both.  Sometimes the current is so strong you have to grab onto a dead piece of the reef to keep yourself from flying by the fish tornado, but it’s worth it.  If the current isn’t so strong, you can get right up into the school.

I happened to find myself in the eye of a big eye trevally tornado. Thousands of reflective fish were circling me.  The circle extends below me beyond the point of my poor eyesight into the dark depths. In contrast, the silver jacks reflect the sun so that it’s almost blinding to look up where the sun light directly hits their scales.  Straight ahead, all I can see is the constant, methodic circling of fish. The whole thing is very chaotic.  In fact, it’s pretty trippy and kind of disorienting.  I feel like I am in Alice in Wonderland.  

I love fish. I can’t help it or explain it; I was just born this way.  I like reading about them, watching them, and photographing them. As you can imagine, few things are more exciting than to be completely surrounded by 1000’s of fish.  I wasn’t able get to that underwater photographer’s “zone” the first time I saw the school. My mind never settled into thinking about depth of field or histograms. I was past the point of trying to take a thoughtful photograph. The fish had hypnotized me, and how many times do we get to say that in our lifetime.
It wasn’t until I left the center of the storm that I could fire off a few shots. It took me a good amount of time to have the right of mind to shoot vertically.  The school of jacks, like the turtle, anthias and frogfish, were a reminder that most of the fun of underwater photography is actually creating the photograph. Sure we strive to have the best image, but the process of taking the picture should not be seen as just a means to an end.

Just being there with a camera in hand is the best part, be it a simple point and shoot, or massive housed SLR with three strobes and a 45-degree viewfinder. The image is just a way to memorialize the moment and try to share it with others.   It’s not the final image that ever makes me feel like I have just reached the summit, it’s when the moment is over, when the turtle swims away or school of fish moves on, that I feel like I am on the top or Mount Everest with my arms spread open, shouting with happiness.

The best experiences can completely captivate you, and for me, this is a place that only underwater photography can take me.  The life in Borneo facilitates these experiences.  Diving Sipadan provides you with an opportunity to have a moment, and inspires you to seize it. Get to Borneo and get your turtle moment. You will be happy you did.



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