Not your average tek diver
IT’S NOT EVERY DAY that you roll off a RIB in remote Sudan with three stages and two large cameras in tow, only to realise that you have dropped into the middle of a school of barracuda a few thousand-strong, and that is where you have to do your team bubble-check.
As this was a deep dive we immediately descended towards 120m, through another endless school, this time of sleek unicornfish, only to be stopped in our tracks at 112m by spotting my favourite and rarely sighted whip coral anemones.
These specimens were white because of the lack of pigmentation when living at that depth, and as a bonus there was an awesome white shrimp on the anemones as well!
I hadn’t come to photograph species in the 40-120m depth-range by chance, however. I do this because there is nothing I love more in the world than photographing unknown and unusual species in greater-than-usual depths.
I started diving only five years ago, but once in the water I accumulated nearly 300 dives within my first year, and soon after that took up open-circuit technical diving in the UK.
I weigh only 50kg, so carrying twin-12s, a few stages and 10-12kg of lead didn’t make photography particularly easy, and diving to 50m wasn’t exactly pleasant with that much kit.
So in late 2013 I bought a rEvo rebreather, and that one piece of kit has created more opportunities than I ever thought possible.
I started my rebreather training in El Gouna in the Egyptian Red Sea with Simon Taylor-Watson and Anze Petric of Tekdeep, and have spent four of the past 18 months diving with them.
Diving with instructors has given me a strong foundation in safe technical diving, including making a habit of repeated checks on equipment and gases, and strict enforcement of the dive plan.
Time is of the essence with limited bottom times on deep dives – they average 20 minutes for a 100m dive and 35 minutes for a 65m dive, so I have to stay very focused on my search for subjects to photograph while simultaneously monitoring the four dive computers on my rebreather.
I rarely get stressed or worried on deep dives, and I put that down to trusting my most frequent dive-buddy, who always navigates correctly, looks out for critters
I might find interesting, and keeps an eye on me while I’m busy photographing.
I have always carried a camera when I dive, and even managed to persuade my open-water instructor to allow me to take in a little compact on my initial course!
My passion for photographing under water didn’t evolve slowly – it has always been a demanding force inside me, and it perpetually wants to be challenged, to be improved, and to capture shiny new subjects.
I don’t think I’d be diving at all if I couldn’t document the awesome and crazy critters I find in the sea, and I’m especially drawn to patterns, shapes and colours. I guess I see photography as an art form, to capture the essence of my subject, but I was also getting a bit bored of seeing the same subjects photographed by me and also by other photographers.
At about the same time I started diving I also began a degree in biological sciences at the University of Exeter, which ended quite successfully three years later with a strong marine focus.
I now had the scientific background I desired and a huge interest in mesphotic coral eco-systems. These are the deeper reefs found from 30 to 75m-plus, but they are rarely researched because of the depth limits of recreational diving and the higher risks and costs associated with mixed-gas diving.
I considered taking an academic path but ultimately I didn’t want to answer to anyone else because I already knew what I wanted to do.
I knew that if I found the right team with which to dive, I could conduct my research and photography on my own.
I can’t tell you how excited I become when diving below 60m and seeing new species for the first time. It’s as if you enter a magical world of wonder, where life is a bit familiar but there are new playthings that I feel I must document! Sometimes I’m aware that what I’m looking at is different, and at other times it’s only when reviewing photos that I notice that I have found something new.
When you’re diving shallow you can bimble around, but with limited time at depth, every minute is expensive.
If I have a two-week trip with ten 60-110m dives, that means only 200-240 minutes in which to photograph at the bottom depth. So efficiency is key – you have little time to make camera or lighting adjustments or review photos, and you must move on quickly.
On top of that, the pressure starting at 70-80m often causes the levers of my 100m-rated housing to depress, so you can’t change camera settings or review pictures.
I have brought my glass mini-dome down as far as 75m, but gingerly, because everyone has a different opinion about depth-ratings for glass domes.
THE SUBJECTS I FIND below 60m range from familiar to unusual to likely new species. There are a lot more species of gorgonians and whip corals of all shapes and colours at depth, several hard and soft corals, different varieties of sponge, plenty of nudibranchs, moray eels, clams, anemones, tubeworms, crabs, shrimps, ghost pipe?sh, and brittle and seastars.
I’ve come across many species of fish frequently found in shallower depths such as lionfish, hawkfish, anthias, butterflyfish, triggerfish, surgeonfish, grouper, whip coral gobies and angel?sh, but as I don’t have the time to photograph moving fish, I often pass them by!
One of my favourite finds has to be a Chirostylus squat lobster species that I hadn’t realised was there when I photographed the whip coral, gorgonian, or rock on which it lives, but a dozen individuals at depths between 65 and 115m have turned up in my photos.
They have very thin legs and all colour at that depth is a drab blue, which is why I don’t see them.
One of my favourite photos, which I must add has not been cropped and which I took only as a test shot, was of one such squat lobster. I ended up contacting a Japanese specialist for identification, and after several exchanges of emails and photographs determined this to be Chirostylus dolichopus. This is commonly found in the Indo-West Paci?c, but could be a new sub-species because so far no Chirostylus species has been scienti?cally described in the Red Sea.
It’s rewarding to know that I’m likely the ?rst person to document this species in this part of the world, especially as it is one I commonly find.
Most of my deep diving has involved descending the drop-offs of frequently dived sites outside El Gouna and Hurghada, and each site holds its own distinctive species. Shabroah Umm Gamar is home not only to the 105m Gulf Fleet 31 and 65m Colona IV on the north side, but also has a few fissures that are 2m wide and of unknown length.
These fissures crack down from 100 to 130m, and we have only recently started exploring them. They looked so incredible that I invested in a 150m-rated housing to photograph their features properly.
APART FROM METAL, this site has a high diversity of gorgonians and whip corals, and on these I have photographed a few large xeno crabs and tozuma shrimp that I have never seen in the Red Sea apart from there at 80m.
Careless Reef is another favourite spot. We can find 90m depth at this site, which has a high concentration of Chirostylus squat lobsters and the occasional shark sighting.
At nearby Umm Gamar I was photographing little critters and gorgonians with a 105mm macro lens when my buddy signalled to indicate a thresher shark circling a grouper not 5m away from us!
I have dived the famous wrecks at Abu Nuhas so many times that we often opt to follow the Chrisoula K’s anchorline down the reef to 75m. There are lots of notably long, curly and knotted whip corals I have found nowhere but there.
I have dived the Red Sea hundreds of times but I’m looking forward to seeing what subjects I’ll find in the 40-120m range in other seas in the coming months.
I’m working in collaboration with Oxford University’s Thinking Deep group for a five-week expedition in Honduras this autumn, and although I won’t be searching for critters I’ll also be diving Baltic Sea wrecks and deep inland lakes of Sweden and Switzerland.
The diving I do is quite rock & roll and it does come with its inherent risks, but it’s what I feel most passionate about.
For me, dropping down to 100m to search out and photograph cool critters is the time I feel most alive.