I originally wrote this article around three years ago, after a great Lembeh trip marred only by this particular event, and have decided that it’s a very topical issue with some of the luminaries of the underwater photography world now at loggerheads about this sadly on trend bad behaviour.
I must thank Alex Tattersall for a great talk about this at DIVE 2016 which I must fess up I didn’t see personally but enough of my friends did and reported back to me. He was also being brave enough to come clean about his own past indiscretions, and pointing out miscreants still directly doing this sort of thing, or allowing it to happen and thus condoning it.
On my first trip to Indonesia I was aware of the guides willingness to orchestrate the marine life for the benefit of the photographer, but to be totally honest I have never done this myself and have always called them out on it. That is if I was aware of it.
Looking back now, there was more than one occasion that I have had my attention alerted to the most incredibly positioned nudibranch, and now in retrospect I think that the murkier waters of the Lembeh Straits and those surrounding Manado have perhaps served the purpose of hiding this sort of thing in less than plain viz.
I wasn’t the only one to witness this event, and in the great scheme of things it amounts to very little.
Unfortunately though it does point to a worrying trend in the world of underwater photography that I feel strongly about.
Not all share my views, granted – so by all means let your own conscience guide you.
Because of the events behind the couple of pictures I took, I could never with good conscience post these pictures without also giving the backstory to them, which really changes things quite a lot for me.
It has made me wonder how many others would do the same, when presented with the opportunity, to get a fairly unusual and unique shot in similar circumstances.
And also, how many others have taken pictures that I have been inspired by and wondered at, that are now tainted with the doubt that all may not be quite as it seems?
Maybe I’m just incredibly naive, and this is my wake up and smell the coffee moment.
OK: Here’s the story
Towards the end of a dive in the Lembeh Straits, famed for its incredible diversity of weird and wonderful marine life, myself and some friends and fellow work shoppers were pootling about in the shallows.
One of our guides – unfair to name him – signalled for our attention as they do by tapping on his tank with his pointer.
He was about 20m distance and invisible to us, as the visibility was less than 10m. Nevertheless we found him quickly.
He pointed triumphantly to a small Mantis Shrimp on the sand, completely exposed.
We saw no burrow and there was no obvious shelter for this creature. They have a tendency to be quite shy, but often also a little inquisitive, so seeing one completely out of its hole was odd, but still appeared quite a credible scenario.
Being photographers we felt lucky that this particular individual was in a great position to get a shot.
As I lined up for the picture I realised through the magnified screen image that it was clutching a mound of eggs.
Amazing I thought, what are the chances of that eh?
I had previously only encountered egg holding Mantis hiding under ledges, and always inaccessible to me in the past.
I had cause a few years earlier to actively prevent a guide from removing one from its mound by poking it out with his pointer stick, and upon admonishment post dive he said that if I wanted to guarantee a shot of one with eggs then this was a sure fire method, and worse still that he had done this dozens of times before for other photographers from all four corners of the globe… without any previous complaints!
Anyway, back to the current situation. I took a shot and my dive buddy Phil waved and pointed behind me – our guide had moved on.
Coming from a broken home
Behind me and a few metres from our transfixed shrimp was the fragments of a broken beer bottle, the neck and the base still intact, but the middle clearly broken with the contents of sand and fragments of shells and remains of small creatures now scattered around.
I have encountered Mantis shrimps living in glass bottles before, and I was lucky enough to get a shot of one living inside an intact bottle last year, which I was even more chuffed with because I’d found it myself without the help of a guide.
So I will regularly check the discarded beer bottles and other containers that make for a great des-res for marine life when diving the underwater dumping grounds that actually make Lembeh such a fascinating and contrary place to dive.
On closer inspection of the shards of broken glass, they looked very freshly broken to me with no dirt build up and very sharp clean edges.Putting two and two together a horrible possibility dawned upon me… that someone had actually broken this bottle and frightened the expectant creature out into the open.
Phil clearly thought the same signalling as such, and to underline this thought, the poor shrimp scuttled back into the neck of the bottle.
I took a shot of it in there with its eggs, and resolved to only publish the picture with this story attached, as my conscience wouldn’t let me do anything other.
Bottle Half Empty
Phil gently pushed the rear of the neck of the bottle back into the sand affording her some protection from the rear, but now her home was a quarter of the size it was shortly before.
We left her be and returned sadly to the surface, where our guides were slowly making their way ahead of us back to the boat.
Now, bearing in mind I have absolutely no proof of our guide’s part in all this, I kept mum, and didn’t let my anger get in the way of rationale. I didn’t need to bring the subject up though, as the guide in question, with a big smile on his face, brought up the Mantis Shrimp find himself – almost triumphantly.
I asked him how he had found it, and he said it was just there resting on the sand. I mentioned finding the bottle and he said he hadn’t seen it, which I doubted in the circumstances. He then contradicted himself by saying that he had seen the broken bottle and it must have been broken by guides on the other boat moored close by.
I have no way of knowing for definite if he was or wasn’t telling the truth, but I am sure that this bottle, intact, had been her home very recently before we saw her out and exposed, and someone had broken the bottle; who, we will never know for sure. What is worse is that it was broken by parties unknown for the benefit of photographers.
Is any photograph worth the wanton destruction of any creature’s habitat? Whoever broke this bottle thought so.
Are photographers such needy and demanding clients that the guides deem it necessary to go to these lengths to please their relatively wealthy clients?
This is not an isolated incident; I have seen other incidents of marine life manipulation for the benefit of photographer clients – not always as bad as this one, but in light of this they are the thin edge of the wedge I fear.
At the time the only possible solution that I could think of that was appropriate in the circumstances was to suggest that the ‘big guy’ watching over everything knew what had happened, as he sees everything.
I’m not in the slightest bit religious personally but am aware that in this part of Indonesia everyone is devoutly christian, so I thought it would maybe make them think a bit if they had done exactly what we thought they had. If they hadn’t then no harm done, they would have clear consciences – but I did notice a fearful look flash across one of their faces, so perhaps my impression was right.
As mentioned in the update at the start of this post, we have come along quite a way since I originally wrote this blog and it has now become the current hot topic, with not only underwater photographers being held to account but also a slew of on land photographers getting up to all sorts of tricks to, in most cases, win big money prizes for their tawdry efforts.
So I’m glad it’s in the public eye, and just like the diving community no longer tolerates manhandling turtles and big fish and dolphins, we will hopefully come to abhor all sorts of manipulation for short term photographic and often financial gain.
I would also say that I don’t blame the guides completely for these actions as there is a massive disparity in income between them and their comparatively rich clients, and in the intervening years I have heard of a well known Far Eastern photographer actually having laminated cards printed with prices in US dollars in tips for the production of differing creatures on dives. This surely puts the guides under a lot of pressure, as $50 is a lot of money to them, which was the amount being flaunted as up for grabs if a hairy octopus was produced in one particular case that I heard of.
And it’s not just Far Eastern photographers doing it; I’ve heard of more than one European behaving badly to gain photographic kudos. One had a guide bring up specimens for them to shoot from greater depths than they were allowed to go because of PFO induced depth restrictions. Really?
I think the solution is easy: I would personally discourage the habit of having lists of desirable creatures, and just shoot what’s there, without any pressure on the guides to deliver, and to also tip based on an overt absence of manipulation at the culmination of a trip.
What to do about competitions though, often with huge payouts and at the very least kudos aplenty? The organisers and judges need to be very very careful with what they reward based on their own experiences and familiarity of the underwater world, and if there is the slightest sniff of doubt then they perhaps shouldn’t place a picture. It’s a shame and perhaps unfairly penalises the honest, but what else do you suggest?
Duxy is the in house photo-pro for UK-based dive tour operator Scuba Travel. To find out about availability on Scuba Travel’s underwater photography workshops hosted by Duxy click here.
Scubaverse Underwater Photographer Interview: Ivan Donoghue
In an ongoing series, Scubaverse’s Underwater Photography Editor Nick Robertson-Brown talks to underwater photographers from around the world that he admires. In this blog: Ivan Donoghue
NRB: Tell us a little about yourself
ID: My name is Ivan Donoghue. I live in a coastal county of Ireland called Wexford and it was with Wexford Sub Aqua Club that I learned to dive in 1990. In 1996 I bought my first small housing for a disposable camera, then moving up through a Nikonos V, several compact digital cameras and now shoot with a Canon 7Dii DSLR in an Aquatica housing.
Over the years I’ve had modest success in some of the underwater competitions including the British and Irish Underwater Photography Championship, the British Wildlife Photography Awards, Hook Peninsula Photography Competition, Diving Life Photography Competition, and this year I was truly delighted to be awarded the Love Your Coast Photographer of the Year.
I have run the main underwater photography and videography competitions for Irish divers and I’m proud to have helped promote underwater photography in Ireland.
NRB: How did your underwater photography start?
ID: I began diving in 1990 with my local club, Wexford Sub Aqua, in the south east of Ireland. After six years of learning the skills, I purchase my first u/w camera, an UNDY housing which accepted disposable cameras. After that I bought a second-hand Nikonos V (now resting on my shelf). After that it was a couple of compacts before moving to DLSR with a Canon 550D and Aquatica housing and then a Canon 7Dii in recent years.
NRB: What is your favourite u/w camera equipment (past & present) & why?
ID: My current Canon 7Dii and Aquatica housing travels home and away with me, but the one piece of equipment that opened my eyes was the INON wide angle wet lens. Adding the ability to get close to the subject is a game changer in everyone’s images. Where once I could only get a diver’s face, now I was getting their whole body and fins. It really was a game changer for my photography.
NRB: What would be your advice to anyone new to underwater photography?
ID: Firstly, if I could go back in time, I believe a dedicated underwater photography workshop would have been so beneficial to me and cut out a lot of mistakes. Secondly, buy a camera and housing set up that allows a wide-angle lens to be fitted. Getting close and adding good light to the image will make your pictures stand out. Shoot RAW and shoot using manual settings.
NRB: What, or who, has been the single biggest inspiration for your underwater photography?
ID: I believe Alex Mustard is the best in the world. Not only does he take award winning images, write books, he also educates people on how they can become better through books, talks and trips.
However, my biggest inspiration is Irishman Nigel Motyer. I first met Nigel when we were discussing introducing an U/W photography course for the Irish Dive organisation. That day he lent me his SLR and I took my first wide angle pic. From that day we have travelled to the Bahamas, west of Ireland and Hook Head and on these dives, I have learnt from him.
NRB: What image are you most proud of and why?
ID: The image I am most proud of is the recent one of the Jellyfish and Diver. The reason is that it was the winner of the Love Your Coast competition 2020, the first time an underwater image took top prize. The picture also shows a dive friend Nick Pfeiffer who kindly took me and my wife in his boat that day to the Aran Islands and also had the good manners to make the background more interesting by posing! That is what divers do for each other – we go that extra mile to help fellow divers.
NRB: Where is your favourite dive location, and is it your favourite for the photography?
ID: I love the Red Sea and have been lucky to have a dived their several times. Egypt and its history is something that grows on you. Now that my son is older and has a dive qualification, I hope to spend more holiday time there.
Back at home in Ireland I love a shore dive about 40 mins from my home. It is a ten-minute walk from the car to the site, but when you get there, it is a shallow site with the Schlesien shipwreck, propellor, hidden caves and a blowhole where you can surface for a chat.
NRB: What are you views on marine life manipulation, moving subjects?
ID: I don’t like the idea of adding anything to a picture and it’s the same when it comes to harassing animals or damaging coral for a picture opportunity.
NRB: What do you look for when you are making your images?
ID: I love wide angle images, so I look for something in the foreground with a diver in the frame. Good visibility is a bonus, but not guaranteed in Irish waters of my home county where either windy weather or plankton blooms affect the seasons.
NRB: What motivates you to take u/w photos?
ID: I love scuba diving and I love photography, so those two addictions are very potent. In addition, for the underwater photographer the gratification doesn’t stop after the dive. It continues through to the download of images and reviewing them on the computer. A good photography dive can keep giving enjoyment for days afterwards.
NRB: If you could photograph any one thing/place what or where would that be?
ID: I’ve always looked enviously at the travel features in Scubaverse, so a lot of the places featured in the magazine would me on my wish list. I’d love to do the cage diving trip to photograph Great White Shark off Guadeloupe. I’d also love to travel to Indonesia with my family, as it’s a part of the world I’ve never been to, but I know offers superb diving and photography opportunities.
The BiG Scuba Podcast… with Birgitte Deda Wilms
Ian and Gemma chat to Birgitte Deda Wilms. Deda came to the United States over 30 years ago from Denmark. She has traveled the world several times over, running a scuba diving and underwater photography business.
Deda co-authored the coffee table photographic book, “In a Sea of Dreams”, a winner of the World Grand Prize for Best Book of Underwater Photography. Deda was inducted into the Women’s Divers Hall of Fame years ago and has recently authored Live Well Beyond Breast Cancer, an Amazon Best Seller.
Find more podcast episodes and information at www.thebigscuba.com and on most social platforms @thebigscuba
WIN a Beuchat Air Light Bag!!!
For this week’s competition, we’ve teamed up with our good friends at Beuchat to give away an Air Light Bag! The Air...
Win a Waterproof BODY 2X Power Stretch Hollow Fiber Undergarment!!!
For this week’s competition, we’ve teamed up with our good friends at CPS Partnership to give away a Waterproof BODY 2X...
WIN a SeaLife AquaPod Mini!!!
For this week’s competition, we’ve teamed up with our good friends at SeaLife to give away one of their AquaPod Minis...
WIN a Sharkskin Performance 40L Duffle Bag!!!
For this week’s competition, we’ve teamed up with our good friends at Liquid Sports to give away a Sharkskin Performance 40L Duffle...
Explore the amazing triangle of Red Sea Reefs - The Brothers, Daedalus and Elphinstone on board the brand new liveaboard Big Blue. With an option to add on a week at Roots Red Sea before or after.
Strong currents and deep blue water are the catalysts that bring the pelagic species flocking to these reefs. The reefs themselves provide exquisite homes for a multitude of marine life. The wafting soft corals are adorned with thousands of colourful fish. The gorgonian fans and hard corals provide magnificent back drops, all being patrolled by the reef’s predatory species.
£1475 per person based on double occupancy. Soft all inclusive board basis, buffet meals with snacks, tea and coffee always available. Add a week on at Roots Red Sea Resort before or after the liveaboard for just £725pp. Flights and transfers are included. See our brochure linked above for the full itinerary.
This trip will be hosted by The Scuba Place. Come Dive with Us!
Call 020 3515 9955 or email email@example.com
Competitions3 months ago
WIN a PADI eLearning Course – 5 courses up for grabs!!!
Competitions2 months ago
WIN an Envirus Everyday+ Mask from Sharkskin – 5 up for grabs!!!
Competitions3 months ago
WIN a Beuchat Air Light Bag!!!
Competitions3 weeks ago
WIN a Sharkskin Performance 40L Duffle Bag!!!
News3 weeks ago
Scubaverse.com’s NEW Monthly Underwater Photo and Video Contest Prizes worth more than £500 each!
Competitions4 weeks ago
WIN a DivePro S10 Compact Dive Torch!!!
Marine Life & Conservation2 months ago
Philippines vital for endangered Whale Sharks
Equipment3 months ago
Liquid Sports announce NEW colours of Hollis F1 LT Fin now in stock