Underwater photography. Yes, hard to imagine it now thirty years later but I once learnt to scuba dive. But I hated it! The only thing that got me in the water was the chance to do some underwater photography.
Hated Scuba Diving Loved The Underwater Photography
How I Got Started With Underwater Photography
Let me take you back thirty years. Picture the scene. I am laying by the side of the pool at a wonderfully exotic hotel in Bali, Indonesia, drinking a cocktail out of a coconut decorated with fancy umbrellas. We are in the middle of a fabulous month long holiday with days full of exotic scents and sights like this guy leading his water buffalo to temple to be blessed. My companion is telling me all about the ‘try dive’ you could do at the resort. Well, I am less than enthusiastic but am a good swimmer. Plus I can see his enthusiasm and it is infectious. So in a moment of madness I agree to give it a go.
Well, dear reader, I hated it! And we were only in the swimming pool! Unfortunately, my companion was completely hooked and I resigned myself to having to learn if I was going to keep him company. Little did I know I would get into underwater photography at a later stage.
Learning to Scuba Dive in Turkey
Our next holiday was Turkey, to a resort specifically picked because you could learn to scuba dive (of course). We studied and passed our PADI Open Water Diver qualification.
I sort of got used to the idea of scuba diving but never liked it. I hated the weight of the air tank which made my back hurt. It is not as if you start in the water, you have to walk to it in your kit and then you have to leave the water and walk back. It seemed so much heavier on the way back. Or you have to topple backwards off a boat (eeek!). And don’t get me started on having to put on and take off your wet suit in hot weather – talk about hard work. It was supposed to be a holiday!
Underwater Photography in Borneo
Orchids and Diving Books
Our next big holiday was a trip to Borneo in Indonesia and of course scuba diving was a part of the holiday. It now seemed compulsory and I was resigned to it. Our beautiful apartment at the resort in Kota Kinabalu was full of orchids, diving books and equipment. The chambermaid even put an orchid in Toby Bear’s hat! This went down very well with me as regular readers of my blog will know he is the best bear in the entire world!
Discovering Underwater Photography
I was a bit down about having to participate in diving activities. Then, talking to a diving instructor, something magical happened. He suggested I studied the PADI Underwater Photographer qualification. His thinking was that it would give me something to do and focus on during a dive. Because in all honesty I couldn’t wait to get out of the water once we got into the sea!
Woohoo! I loved everything about underwater photography. I devoured the technical information on how to use the camera, its components, how to clean it, etc. Let me quickly remind you that this was in the days before digital photography. I used an underwater Nikonos film camera. It was very basic by today’s standards, including a preset focus, but I loved it.
Underwater Photography Requires Different Skills to Land Photography
One thing that was hard to accommodate was breathing while taking a photo. On land you tend to hold your breath when you take a shot with a hand held camera to minimize shake. That is not possible underwater as you can injure your lungs or develop an embolism! You have to try and settle down and time the shot in between breaths. You have to remember not to get the bubbles in the shot from your breathing too. Oh and the water may be crystal clear, but it won’t stay that way for long if you or your buddy stir up the sand. It is a whole new set of skills! You also need to have your buddy watching out for you as you are so focused on the photography side of things you wouldn’t notice a shark until it bit you.
Suddenly I found I was planning dives and talking to other divers about turtles and sharks and light effects. The bidet in the apartment was given over to soaking camera equipment to clean it. I looked forward to the dive. And what a place Borneo was to get into underwater photography.
While in Borneo we spent three days at Sipadan. Sipadan is a tiny island surrounded by coral reef and we were lucky enough to stay at the resort there (which closed in 2002). It is supposed to be one of the best dive sites in the world and it is certainly spectacular. You had to really want to get there as it involved a lot of travelling and final trip by speed boat (I could write another blog about sea sickness on a speed boat). We stayed in a bamboo hut on stilts on the beach. At night there was a big monitor lizard that would dig around underneath the huts which was a bit unnerving.
The Drop Off
Equally unnerving was the drop off from Sipadan beach. You only had to go a short distance from the beach before you approached the edge of the drop off. You go over what looks like a broken biscuit edge and suddenly a huge chasm opens up underneath you that goes down more than 1,000 metres. Instant vertigo! When I was there they had a strategically placed rope – the instructor grabbed my hands and put them on the rope. Afterwards he said he had never seen someone’s eyes so big with fear! He wouldn’t let me carry on until my eyes returned to normal. I think I gained some early grey hairs that day. After the first time it wasn’t so bad but there were some big things swimming around down there chums, the groupers alone were enormous. Then there were the white tip reef sharks…
Turtles and a Barracuda
I enjoyed the wall diving and took many, many photos including some of turtles that seemed to be the size of cars when you were swimming underneath them. It was fun to look in the ledges as sometimes you would find a ray or a turtle snoozing. On the way back to the beach there was a huge barracuda that swam close to the shore. I always went past him a bit nifty – those teeth and he always seemed to have his eye on me!
Gradually The Enthusiasm Switched To Land Photography
Well my companion was well and truly bitten with the diving bug. He wanted to study higher levels of qualifications, go cave diving, wreck diving and night diving. And I began to lose interest. I was at my happiest no deeper than five metres from the surface, photographing coral and the fish that lived in the coral. Not an adventurous diver, I meant it when I said I didn’t actually like it. And I felt I was being pushed into activities that I didn’t feel comfortable with.
Diving in Eilat
I did dive in Eilat in Israel (I took lots of photographs) but it was very crowded with underwater photographers in the shallow areas I liked to be in. It was often difficult to find undisturbed areas where the visibility was good enough for photographs.
I remember once I spent twenty minutes laying on my stomach waiting for some Christmas Tree worms to emerge from their cones for a photograph. Possibly because of this (you think?) gradually my companion lost interest in my endeavors as he wanted to travel distances during a dive and I was happy to stay in one small area.
Diving in Aqaba
I did some diving when we were in Aqaba in Jordan but gradually I did less, switching to snorkeling. That left my companion free to go off in boats on more adventurous dives (did I mention I get seasick?).
By the time we went to St Lucia I had hung up my diving kit and started to get into land photography in a big way. I happily waved him off on the dive boat and then snuggled up in the shade with a good book and a glass of wine. It wasn’t a bad trade, more of a natural progression and we were both happy with the arrangement.
Old Photographs Discovered
Unfortunately most of my photos from that underwater photography period have been lost. So imagine my joy to stumble across a few of them! They include some of my earliest ever photos which were part of my initial PADI qualification. Well, not only has my photography improved since then but I have a few other techniques up my sleeve. I thought it would be fun to take some of the photographs and turn them into photo art. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and decided to create a short video to share
This article was originally written in 2018 and updated and republished in 2022.
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!