Deep impact: Underwater photographers bring the ocean’s silent struggle to life | Photography

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In July, off the Turkish port city of Bodrum, Kerim SabuncuoÄŸlu stepped off a boat into the azure Aegean Sea and began to descend. A diver with over 30 years of experience, he started underwater photography in 2002 and has since devoted a lot of time and money to his “uncontrollable hobby” – capturing the wonders of the ocean on camera so that “the less fortunate above” can also marvel at them.

SabuncuoÄŸlu has traveled the world photographing marine life in Palau, Cuba and the Galapagos Islands and has won several awards for his work. Closer to home in Bodrum, he embarked on a standard dive with a group of friends, equipped with a Nikon D800 camera. The camera had an 85mm micro Nikkor lens and was covered with a Nexus underwater housing, with a single Backscatter snoot to form light on the subject.

A lizardfish tries to eat a cigarette butt. “This image illustrates the environmental problem of people carelessly throwing away waste and the damage it causes to wildlife,” says photographer Steven Kovacs. Photography: Steven Kovacs

Shortly after reaching the sandy bottom and turning right towards a pile of rocks, he spotted a broken fishing line on the seabed. A grouper was caught on one of the hooks, still alive, so he brought it to the surface, removed the hook and released it.

“I went back to see what else was there, with the pliers,” says SabuncuoÄŸlu from his home in Istanbul, where he runs an event management company, “and that’s where I found this poor animal: a moray eel. His favorite food is octopus, and of course, when he found an octopus arm on the ground, he had a good bite. A hook hidden in the octopus arm went directly through the moray jaw. He frantically turned his body to free himself, but only managed to get tangled in the fishing line. Eventually, the eel choked and died.

A female paper nautilus drifts over rubbish, Anilao, Philippines.
A female paper nautilus drifts over rubbish, Anilao, Philippines. Photographer Steven Kovacs notes that they normally hitchhike on jellyfish for protection and energy. Photography: Steven Kovacs

SabuncuoÄŸlu had witnessed the result of what is called ghost fishing. “When a fisherman leaves his equipment underwater, like a net or a fishing line, he continues to kill fish for many years,” he explains. “If I had left this moray eel, other fish would have eaten the hook and died too.”

It is a global problem. Ghost fishing gear accounts for around 10% of all marine litter. On the west coast of the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported an average of 11 large whales entangled in ghost nets each year between 2000 and 2012. impossible to estimate, but SabuncuoÄŸlu puts it in the millions. It is also dangerous for divers, he adds, “because you can get tangled like the moray underwater”.

Jason Gulley's photograph of a dead manatee floating in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida.
Jason Gulley’s photograph of a dead manatee floating in the Indian River Lagoon, Florida. Pollution destroys seagrass beds, one of the food sources for mammals, causing a record number of deaths. Photography: Jason Gulley

SabuncuoÄŸlu took about sixty snapshots of the eel, but it wasn’t until after, while editing the images on his computer, that he felt a twinge in the heart of the eel’s death. “You realize it was powerless there,” he said. Everyone he showed the picture to reacted the same way: “They went, ‘Eeeeee, ai ai ai!‘”and shuddered. When he submitted it to this year’s Ocean Photography Awards, under the title Silent scream, it was preselected in the conservation category.

The National Geographic Photographer and environmentalist Cristina Mittermaier was among the judges who chose SabuncuoÄŸlu as the photographer of the year for ocean conservation. “It’s a fantastic image,” she told me. “Underwater wildlife communicate in a very different way than terrestrial wildlife, and they don’t have the same facial expressions that an animal like a grizzly bear or a wolf might have. Therefore, creating images that create an emotional connection with humans, when photographing fish, is really difficult. In this image, the photographer was able to capture a dramatic moment, and the eel actually has a facial expression that conveys emotion. He grabbed me as soon as I saw him.

Anchovy fishing boats off the coast of Phú Yên province, Vietnam.
Anchovy fishing boats off the coast of Phú Yên province, Vietnam. Small fish are caught to make sauce but, as photographer Thien Nguyen Ngoc says, this leaves their marine predators without food. Photography: Thien Nguyen Ngoc

It’s not just the impenetrability of sea creatures that makes it difficult for humans to engage emotionally. Images of environmental devastation can also be off-putting. “You really have to balance storytelling with great photographs,” says Mittermaier, who co-founded the SeaLegacy Conservation Network, “and I think this image does it very well. When something exceptional happens that has the power to stopping people, even for a second, and internalizing what they’re looking at, that’s when we start moving the needle.

It helps that the technology around underwater photography is improving quickly, allowing for more vivid shots and illuminating parts of the ocean that were previously dark. SabuncuoÄŸlu mentions blackwater photography, which involves diving into the deep ocean at night to photograph fish and invertebrate larvae as they come to the surface.

A seahorse that has anchored itself to a face mask, Halkidiki peninsula, Greece.
A seahorse that has anchored itself to a face mask, Halkidiki peninsula, Greece. Photographer Nicholas Samaras dives regularly in the area and says Covid waste is the biggest recent change. Photography: Nicolas Samaras

“It is only in the last 10 years that the technology has evolved enough that we can take our cameras deeper than 30 meters,” says Mittermaier. “And the sensors now available allow us to see things in the ink depths of the ocean that we couldn’t capture just five years ago. So it is moving very quickly, and it is becoming more affordable. And as more photographers come to the ocean to capture images, we are slowly building an army of underwater storytellers from the far corners of the earth.

SabuncuoÄŸlu compares the experience of exploring the ocean to space travel. “If you don’t have the technology or the funds to travel to another planet, just brace yourself and take a dip in the water,” he says. “It’s another planet.” To report on this other planet and show the extraordinary profusion of life there is “the most wonderful thing I can do with my life,” he says. “I hope I will do this for many years to come, and I hope I can teach more people how to do it. Because if we don’t show the underwater beauties, no one will realize what’s out there, and if you don’t realize it, you aren’t protecting it. It’s that simple. “

A seagull caught up and drowned in a ghost fishing line in Norway's Saltstraumen Strait, photographed by Galicia Hoarau.
A seagull caught up and drowned in a ghost fishing line in Norway’s Saltstraumen Strait, photographed by Galicia Hoarau. “These are deadly traps for wildlife, especially seabirds,” he says. Photography: Galicia Hoarau


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