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Go Get Wet

Go Get Wet

This white-tip reef shark Triaenodon obesus allowed the author to come within a few feet of him. Sharks have an undeserved reputation for being dangerous killers. Photograph by Vandit Kalia.

The furious hand-gesture caught my eye and its meaning was unequivocal – a shark! Following the sign, I looked down into the depths where the deep blue sea appeared almost black, and sure enough, I could make out the faint but distinctly torpedo-like shapes of two leopard sharks, both a little over two metres in size. Dropping closer to their level, I noticed that they appeared to be frantically chasing each other’s tails, circling in ever-tightening and expanding circles, completely oblivious of everything else. Their preoccupation with this mating dance allowed me to get my fisheye lens to within a foot of them and take shots of this extremely rare behaviour. In hindsight, I was probably a bit too close, as I inadvertently got a sharp whack on my head from one of their tails – hard enough to bring tears to my eyes and make my ears ring! One of my recent – and ongoing – projects has been documenting the amazing marine life of India, especially in the Andaman Sea, which falls on the periphery of the Indo-Pacific confluence region, home to the world’s greatest underwater biodiversity. And even today, after over eight years and almost 2,000 dives in these waters, I still have a lot more to learn and see.

The Coral Reef

Contrary to what we are used to on land, where wildlife is fairly evenly dispersed in a given ecosystem, most of the ocean and ocean floor is actually barren and devoid of life, barring schools of wandering pelagic (deep water) fish. An overwhelming majority of marine life is found in the underwater equivalent of oases – coral reefs, which occur mostly in tropical waters. Thus, tropical reefs are the cornerstone of the ocean’s diversity.

Clownfish and anemones share a mutually beneficial relationship and this 100 mm. Photograph by Vandit Kalia.

At the heart of a coral reef is a small unassuming animal called a polyp, which secretes a stony cup of limestone around itself, forming a skeleton. As the polyps divide and grow, these skeletons fuse together to form coral colonies. Many such colonies make up a reef; and in doing so, not only do they add an amazing array of colours, shapes and textures to the underwater world, but more importantly, they provide the base layer for an ecosystem that houses a majority of the world’s marine species.

Fish, crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters), molluscs, starfish, sea-slugs, worms, sponges, anemones and more – you name it and the odds are that it is either found on a reef or it depends on one for its existence. Seeing over a 100 species of marine life in an hour’s worth of time is commonplace – in fact, some reef ecosystems have been known to house more than 1,500 species! It is literally a nature-lover’s and photographer’s paradise down there.

Taking The Plunge

Despite widespread common belief, underwater photography is surprisingly easy to pursue. It is true that the best results require expensive gear (at a point where a U.S. $4,000 system is truly entry-level), but for non-commercial usage, a simple compact camera and suitable housing (available on the Internet for as little as U.S. $200) allows access to surprisingly high-quality images – even publication quality, if the user puts in the time and effort to understand the nuances and challenges of underwater photography.

There are three main issues to be addressed. The first is ensuring one’s own safety underwater, which is best accomplished by training in scuba diving from a qualified instructor. The second is overcoming lighting limitations – water absorbs the colour red much faster than air (which is why everything appears blue): this requires the use of external strobes (underwater flashes) to restore the colour balance in the image and bring out the real colours. The third issue is proximity – even the clearest of water has enough particulate matter suspended in it that any object more than a couple of metres away will lose sharpness, detail and contrast. To combat this, underwater photographers have to get very close to their subject, either using a macro lens (for small subjects) or an extreme wide angle or fisheye lens (for large subjects).

These paddletail snappers Lutjanus gibbus swam purposefully towards the author, swerving away at the very last minute. Photograph by Vandit Kalia.

You Never Know What You Will See

And there is a fourth factor, which actually applies to all wildlife photography. One cannot simply dive into the sea and expect to find the species he or she is looking for. Marine animals have their choice habitats (sandy bottom, rocks, reefs), depths and water temperature. It is therefore vital that you research the subject and its preferred underwater environment.

Take sharks for example. Despite their fearsome reputation, they rarely pose any danger to humans, especially when left alone (there are only a handful of shark attacks a year despite millions of people diving with them and most of these attacks are accidents!). Thanks to rampant, uncontrolled over-fishing and lack of protection, these magnificent animals are now critically endangered. To see sharks is a privilege – one that is getting harder to realise every year – and generally involves going out to depths ranging from 20-50 m. Ironically, given public perception, the hardest part is getting close enough. The smaller sharks tend to interpret approaching divers as a potential threat and flee, and it isn’t prudent to get too close to bigger sharks (they too see it as a sign of aggression, but can react quite differently to the provocation).

Do we want an India in which mating leopard sharks Triakis semifasciata can survive.

Photograph by Vandit Kalia.

Sometimes, one gets lucky, as I did with the mating leopard sharks (see cover image). More often than not, it becomes a matter of knowing the subject’s body language, and approaching it in a manner that is not threatening. The white-tip reef sharks in one particular site are somewhat used to divers, but still not fully habituated. It typically takes me 20 minutes of crawling on my belly for a distance of 15 feet (4.5 m.) to get close enough to take high-quality shots… and even then, they may flee.

Underwater Critters

Just as old Africa hands say that the most dangerous animal in the bush is not the lion, but the hippo, most experienced divers are not as wary of sharks as they are of the far smaller titan triggerfish. Growing to a little over a foot at most, the female titan patrols her territory during nesting season with a vigour that is best avoided – a task easier said than done, as her nest typically tends to be hidden under a rock and her territory an invisible cone extending upwards.  So there you are, swimming along, minding your own business and trying to look for a little critter to photograph when all of a sudden, there is an explosion of dust and two kilogrammes of furious fish, with very strong teeth, comes barreling at you, looking to bite or ram whatever they can.  Definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Indeed, the aggressiveness of marine species is not always linked to their size. I have seen two-metre bullsharks leaving the area when divers entered, and have been buzzed and head-butted by a tiny anemone-fish, barely bigger than my thumb, simply because I came too close to its anemone!

Indeed, the ‘little stuff’ is where the ocean sheds its mask of familiarity and starts to amaze and captivate you. While big fish – such as sharks, mantas and turtles – never cease to fascinate, divers enter a whole new realm once they start getting interested in what are fondly referred to as “critters.”  This is the realm of the unusual, the fantastic and the bizarre.

Take nudibranches, a member of the sea slug family. Brightly coloured, toxic to predators, cannibalistic, hermaphroditic and carnivorous to boot, these tiny animals are a photographer’s dream. With over 65 genera, and a staggering array of colours and shapes, one can spend years seeking out nudibranches and still come across new species. Even today, I still find species in the Andamans that I have not seen before… and it is still as much of a thrill now as it was in the beginning.

The anterior-to-posterior positioning of these two unidentified nudibranches suggests a mating posture. Hermaphrodites, they pass sperm sacs through a tube located behind the head.  They lay one to six egg masses, each of which can contain millions of eggs.
Photograph by Vandit Kalia.

Or consider marine invertebrates – a mega-category which includes creatures ranging from the various species of octopus, to the hundreds of tiny shrimps and crabs (ranging from the commonplace to the extremely rare, including a variety that I have spotted only on one location in one reef – nowhere else). One could spend a lifetime looking for invertebrates and barely scratch the surface of what’s out there.

Our Blue Planet

And that sums up the appeal of the underwater environment. For anyone with an interest in nature, it gives access to animal life of a scale and scope that dwarfs anything land has to offer. It is perhaps ironic that we chose to call our planet ‘Earth’ when over 70 per cent of it is water, and a large part of it still holds many mysteries waiting to be unravelled. Indeed, the promise of many discoveries still seeking finders is a large reason why I jump into the water laden with over 25 kg. of camera and life-support equipment.

But keep in mind that the sea is not a limitless resource. A sad fact of life is that what remains out of sight also remains out of mind – and the oceans are being pillaged (there is no better word for it) at a rate that brings to mind the shikar that was unleashed by the maharajas and the British in India’s forests a hundred years ago. A good gauge of the health of an ecosystem is the status of its apex predator – and by that yardstick, the oceans are in critical danger. Humans fish out tens (some figures say hundreds) of millions of sharks every year. This is not sustainable and has an adverse impact on the system of checks and balances that keeps marine ecosystems healthy. Already, the impact is visible even in a relatively pristine region such as the Andamans.

You can do your bit. Speak out against shark finning or the serving of shark meat in restaurants. Help avoid a repetition of the same environmental collapse that took place in our forests. Learn more about the ocean and its amazing biodiversity. Go, get yourselves wet!

Text and photographs by Vandit Kalia, Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVIII No. 5, October 2008.


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