How to Find Nudibranchs

Linda Ianniello
Tips, tricks and advice for finding and photographing nudibranchs underwater

 

How to Find Nudibranchs


Tips, tricks and advice for finding and photographing nudibranchs underwater

Text and Photos By Linda Ianniello

 

nudibranch photo underwater

 

 
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Since nudibranchs come in such a huge variety of colors and shapes, they are a favorite subject of underwater macro photographers.  It also helps that they are often sitting still, or at least moving slowly, so they can be relatively easy to photograph.  But despite their bright colors they can be hard to find if you don’t know what to look for.  This is where local knowledge is a huge help. 

 

1.  Local Knowledge

At home in southeast Florida, I have this local knowledge.  I know what species are likely to be found, and that certain species can be found on hydroids, others in rubble, and still others on sponges.  Some are out during the day, and others only come out at night.  I have done hundreds of dives in the same area and know what to look for and where, which really helps my success rate at finding them.

 

Above is a Plocamopherus lucayensis from southeast Florida.  It only comes out at night, and is generally found on this purplish bryozoan which is its food source.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 200, f/29, 1/250

 

This is a Lomanotus vermiformis which is seasonal, generally found in the daytime during the summer.  It is found on its food source, the feathery hydroid Lytocarpus philippinus.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 100, f/16, 1/250

 

 

2.  A Good Guide

When I am traveling to a new location I find that the best way to find nudibranchs is to use a local guide.  They know what species are in the area, how big they are, and where they can be found.  If you tell your guide that you are interested in seeing and photographing all the nudibranchs he or she can find, you will soon learn the underwater sign for nudibranchs and should have productive dives. 

 

This Miamira alleni is quite rare.  It had been seen in the same area for a couple of weeks, but I never would have seen it if the guide hadn’t found it on prior dives and knew roughly where it was located.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 100, f/32, 1/250

 

I probably wouldn’t have seen this well-camouflaged Melibe engeli if the eagle-eyed guide hadn’t pointed it out.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 200, f/32, 1/250

 

 

3.  Research

If you are going to be on your own in a new location, first do some research on the Internet to see what nudibranchs have been seen in that area.  This will give you an “imprint” image of what to look for and it will make spotting them easier.  Check out the liveaboard/resort’s web site or Facebook page to determine what they have been finding recently.  Then study the substrate the nudibranch is on (assuming it hasn’t been moved for the image).  Or send them an email and ask!  Two other good sources are the Facebook groups Nudibranch Central and Nudibase – Sharing Nudibranch Knowledge.  Currently the two best reference books are Indo-Pacific Nudibranchs and Sea Slugs, which is out of print but an updated version is due out this fall, and Caribbean Sea Slugs.  This research is a good idea even if you have a local guide; when he shows you a nudibranch, you will recognize what it is and have a better idea how to approach and photograph it.  You will even know where the head is, which can be a challenge with some of them!  (When photographing nudibranchs, you generally want the rhinophores in focus – those things that look like horns on the top of their head.  The “feathery” things are the gills and focusing on them usually results in a butt shot!)

 

The rhinophores of this Phyllodesmium briareum are very similar in color and shape to its cerata so it is important to look closely and find the rhinophores before taking a shot.  (The head is in the lower right corner of the image.)

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 200, f/32, 1/250

 

 

4.  Food

Then do some additional research to try and find out what the local ones eat – nudibranchs are usually on or near their food source.  This will give you an idea of where to look for specific ones.  Once you find a species and want to learn more about it, a good resource is the Sea Slug Forum.  It is no longer being maintained, but Dr. Bill Rudman spent a lot of time documenting a huge number of species, where they can be found, what they eat, and in many cases, what their eggs look like.  The General topics section also contains a lot of interesting information about sea slugs.

 

Arminas feed on sea pens.  Since the sea pens come out of the sand at night, whenever I do a night dive and see sea pens I start looking for Arminas.  This one has its mantle folded back and you can see the gills between the mantle and the foot.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 200, f/32, 1/250

 

Favorinus feed on the eggs of other opisthobranchs, notably the eggs of the Spanish dancer, Hexabranchus sanguineus.  This image shows two species of Favorinus feeding on the eggs of an unknown sea slug.  Whenever I see a string of eggs, I stop and check for the presence of Favorinus.

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm lens. ISO 200, f/32, 1/250

 

 

You will note that I have used the term “nudibranch” throughout this article.  Technically I should use the term “Sea Slugs” which covers numerous orders within the taxonomic group Opisthobranchia, one of which is nudibranchs, but also includes sap-sucking and solar-powered slugs, headshield slug, sidegill slugs, etc.  But it has become common practice to use the term nudibranch to cover all of these.

My final message is “please do not move them or collect them for an aquarium”.  They are usually on or near their food source, and if you move them they have to find it again.  You may move them onto something that will make a pretty negative space, but it may attack the nudibranch.  For example, some hard corals will attack a nudibranch placed on it.  Or you may put them on something that the nudibranch would normally not crawl onto and therefore it is pretty obvious to those in the know that the subject has been moved.  No photo is worth stressing or injuring the subject!  And if you collect them for an aquarium, the chances are you won’t have their food; they are all very specialized feeders and they will likely die a slow death from starvation.  I have even heard that “the nudibranch must be doing fine because it is laying eggs.”  That is often a final effort by the nudibranch to propagate before dying.

Enjoy your slug-hunting and photography……  Hopefully these tips will help with the hunting!

 

 

Further Reading

 

About the Author

Linda Ianniello has been diving and doing underwater photography for almost 30 years, progressing from a Nikonos V to her current Nikon D300S in a Nauticam housing. Her favorite type of photography is macro, where half the challenge is finding the small, unusual subjects. She especially likes to find and photograph nudibranchs and finds their variety of shapes, colors, and habitats fascinating. She travels frequently to Indonesia and the Philippines, which are both excellent for critter-hunting.  lindaiphotography.com

 

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Tips for Interacting with Dolphins and Whales

Jeffrey Milisen
How to appoach mammals, their behaviors, trust and advice for capturing incredible photos

 

Tips for Interacting with Dolphins and Whales


How to appoach mammals, their behaviors, trust and advice for capturing incredible photos

Text and Photos By Jeffrey Milisen

 

 

 
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We humans have much to be proud of.  We have cured many diseases and also developed ways to avoid getting sick in the first place.  We have created beauty in art and music.  We have plumbed the depths of the ocean and climbed the highest mountains.  And not only have we mastered flight, but we have used it to visit other celestial bodies.  And we owe much of these achievements to our intelligence.  So what would you do if you met creatures even smarter than us?

Members of Cetacea - dolphins and whales - have a larger brain to body mass ratio with more folds in their cranial tissues than humans.  Much of this extra mass is in the communications center.  So while we value our rich languages, Flipper communicates on levels we cannot even comprehend and can do so over enormous distances.  Take a hunting pod of false killer whales for example.  They spread out over many miles working as individuals until word gets out of a hunt in progress.  Suddenly 4 or more whales will show up to join in the kill.  How dolphins and whales communicate information over miles of ocean with clicks and whistles has been the subject of many PhD dissertations.  We still have little idea what they’re talking about.

No other animal has the ability or intelligence to impart such a sense of awe as a whale or a dolphin.  Even when viewed from the surface, the power of a diving humpback or the intense energy of a dolphin in play can be overwhelming. Swimming with large, sentient and often predatory animals means we must play by a special set of behavioral and legal rules that most other reef organisms don’t require. 

 

Legalities

As a disclaimer, no other aquatic animal enjoys the same protections as marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act covers all marine mammals in the United States, and some are afforded additional special protections.  While it is recommended that divers read this act in its entirety, the gist is that divers, swimmers, and boaters may not intentionally approach a marine mammal in such a way that it alters that animal’s behavior. 

 

Gaining Their Trust

Most of the battle of photographing marine mammals lies in finding a photogenic subject, and much of that depends on how you interact with them.  It is best to think of dolphins and whales as intelligent animals.  For example, dolphins and whales must rest and do so by using half of their brain at a time.  Approaching a resting marine mammal is not recommended.  It is akin to waking one of your sleeping neighbors in the middle of the night.  They are just going to awaken grumpy, tired and just want to be left alone.  It is best to find a tour that specializes in whale and/or dolphin encounters with people who can read the animals’ behavior.  These animals can swim MUCH faster than you, and any wrong move might cause them to swim away or worse, react defensively. 

It is important to conduct yourself appropriately in a non-aggressive manner so as to not spook them. For starters, it is always best to let the animals approach you and let them decide how the encounter is going to go.  Behaviors such as tail slapping are often signs of aggression, so it is important to keep your fins from splashing.  Rotating your body such that the fin strokes are horizontal and the fin tips never break the surface is a good start.  Furthermore, do not swim with your hands.  The less splashing the less intimidated the animal will likely be.  Turn your strobes off for these encounters. Don’t ever try to touch a wild animal.  Finally, always watch for signs of aggression.  Tail slapping, blowing bubbles, jaw gaping and any other strange behaviors can be a sign that you should leave the animal alone. 

Dolphin and whale intelligence is precisely what makes interacting with them so interesting.  They cannot be baited and they don’t visit cleaning stations.  The best and only legal way to interact with cetaceans is to gain their trust and arouse their curiosity.  You can start from the surface by whistling or clicking when the animals come up to breathe, listening as they often mimic you back.  You might try diving down and balling up or spinning or flipping underwater- anything you can do to appear interesting and playful.  Hawaiian spinner dolphins play a game of “pass the leaf,” and will often let you join in if you bring your own leaf.  Other dolphins enjoy mirroring, or mimicking the way they behave. 

 

Photographing Whales and Dolphins

It is a good idea to have two cameras for marine mammal expeditions.  The first should be a topside, dry camera with a long lens (100mm or more) to capture the animal surfacing, breaching, spy-hopping, or any other interesting interactions with the boat.  A super fast shutter speed will help freeze the action. Creative opportunities abound from the surface. 

A second camera, in an underwater housing, should be fitted with a wide-angle lens.  I always recommend the Tokina 10-17mm lens for wide underwater work.  It has beautiful color rendition, focuses very fast and has excellent sharpness.  The fisheye effect is not noticeable underwater where few straight lines exist.  For the underwater rig, I usually use a shutter speed of 1/160 or faster to capture the action.  While most underwater photography articles will encourage you to shoot up at a subject, that isn’t always the case with marine mammals.  In many cases, diving underwater will scare the animal away and often shooting down will better capture the background scenery of a coral reef or sunrays filtering through the depths.  As far as framing, the old adage of “get close, then get closer” is a little skewed.  Because the animals glide so much faster than you can swim, getting close is a matter of timing when to pull the shutter.  Also, try to capture the animal looking at you, as a successful interaction will allow for lots of photos of the animal actively investigating your camera.

 

Humpback whales are among the largest marine animals that have ever existed and must be treated with extra respect.  Often, the best interactions will be from a boat, dangling your camera over the gunwale if they swim in close enough.

 

Pilot whales are capable of diving thousands of feet down in search of their favorite prey - squid.  They are best approached when lazily “logging” at the surface.  Be on the lookout, however, as another ocean predator often accompanies pilot whales... oceanic whitetip sharks.

 

False killer whales are a special kind of mammal.  They cover an enormous amount of ground in a short amount of time and must constantly be hunting.  They are equally adept at hunting epipelagic tuna, reef-dwelling jacks and deep-water snappers.  Their hunger also makes them a frequent victim of longline bycatch.  This animal is a member of the Hawaiian insular population, of which an estimated 125 animals remain.

 

Offshore dolphins portray their personalities in unique ways.  Rough-toothed dolphins have a certain prehistoric look and don’t often encounter freedivers.  They can become quite curious, using their extra-flexible neck to investigate newcomers to their environment.  They are also one of the main enemies of tuna fishermen, capable of filleting a caught fish while it is still on the hook.  

 

 

In Conclusion

There is no surefire way to guarantee a marine mammal is going to take an interest in you.  As intelligent as they are, marine mammals have moods and sometimes they just don’t want to play.  But when everything aligns properly, marine mammal encounters can be one of the most enriching encounters a diver can experience underwater. 

 

 


Want to Dive with Dolphins and Whales?

 

Bluewater Travel can help you plan and book the perfect big animal dive trip. Visit BluewaterTravel.com for more info.
 

 

 

Also by Jeffrey Milisen

 

About the Author

Jeff Milisen is a relatively new content writer for the Underwater Photography Guide who specializes in black water and big animals.  When not behind a camera, Jeff is a marine biologist working to reduce overfishing by improving methods for farming fish.  Milisenphotography.yolasite.com

 

photo: Kelsea Sanborn

 

Author's Gear Profile

Canon T1i with Tokina 10-17 fisheye lens in an Ikelite housing.

 

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Caribbean Creature Feature: Glass Blennies

Jonathan Lavan
Time to Invest in a Diopter for these Little Fish!

 

Caribbean Creature Feature: Glass Blennies


Time to Invest in a Diopter for These Little Fish!

Text and Photos By Jonathan Lavan

 

 

 
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This month we will look at one of the smallest denizens of the Caribbean Coral Reef, the Southern Smoothhead Glass Blenny (Emblemariopsis bottomei). They are part of the recently re-identified and delineated Glass Blenny Complex that also includes various Glass Blennies over a broad geographical range of the Caribbean. These blennies are virtually impossible to distinguish visually from each other in the field. The most frequently seen is the Southern Smoothhead Glass Blenny, which we will be looking at today.

 

A great technique for photographing Glass Blennies is to use a shallow depth of field, resulting in a pleasing bokeh.

 

About the Smoothhead Glass Blenny

They are called “Smoothhead“ as they are one of the few blennies to not have cirri above their eyes. Cirri are typically branched antennae-like structures that blennies are thought to use to sense water current direction. Since cirri are pretty much the fundamental feature of blennies, this can make these tiny fish (1/2 in. to 1 ¼ in. maximum) even more difficult to identify. They do have two small clear single cirri on their noses, but since the fish are so tiny these are very hard to see. To add insult to injury, they are called “Glass” as they are virtually see-thru - but not in all cases. When the male is in its breeding phase its head turns dark (see photo). In fact, until recently the common name of this fish was the Darkhead Blenny, which you will still find in many fish identification books. This is misleading in that only the male fish has a dark head and then only when it is breeding.

If you dive slowly and look carefully on the tops of live coral heads you will often see a tiny see-thru fish wiggling around between the polyps of the live coral. Trying to then figure out whether the fish was a female Darkhead Blenny was confusing at best. The renaming of the fish to the Smoothhead Glass Blenny will make an easier time for everyone interested in fish identification. The breeding male fish is usually found not out and exposed, but in an old worm hole (like many blennies in the Emblemariopsis and Emblemaria genus) looking to attract females to lay their eggs. I have found these fish, both female and male, to be quite plentiful in Key West Florida, Bonaire and particularly the islands of Roatan and Utila, Honduras.

 

This male blenny has a black head - a sign that he is in his breeding phase.

 

Photographing Blennies

Capturing good shots of these fish takes a couple different tactics. The truly tiny see-thru females who are almost always out and in plenty of light tend to be a bit skittish, so approach slowly. I suggest a 105mm lens with a diopter of 5+ or 10+ so you can keep a bit more distance between you and your subject. A 60mm lens with a 10+ diopter will work also as long as your subject is cooperative. The dark headed breeding males are more difficult for a couple reasons. One, usually only their head is apparent, and two, it is very hard to capture detail on that very dark head and upper body. Adjustments of your f-stop and aperture may be necessary. Make sure to hunker down, using expert buoyancy, to get as parallel to the fish as possible. These cool little fish are worth searching for, observing, and snapping a few shots of on a Caribbean Coral Reef.

 

This Smoothhead Glass Blenny blends in well with the reef.

 

 

Further Reading

 

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan: The owner/operator of Underpressure Diving & Nature Photography is a citizen scientist and wildlife expert and has been SCUBA Diving for thirty years and taking photographs both above and below the water for about 10. He was pleased to have been made Volunteer of the Year for 2012 by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. As a SCUBA Diver he has been a photographer, teacher and research associate for many different organizations.He is a staunch environmentalist and educator of young people. Jonathan is committed to making a difference on this planet through his images and his message of good will to all creatures. www.underpressurephotog.com 

 

 

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The Mimic Octopus: Photos, Behavior and Best Dive Sites

Brent Durand
Detailed info on the Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) including underwater photos, behaviors and the best dive sites for encounters.

 

The Mimic Octopus


Photos, Behavior and Best Dive Sites

Text and Photos By Brent Durand

 

Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

 

 
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The Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) is one of the most remarkable cephalopods in the ocean, delighting scuba divers and underwater photographers with every encounter. Like all octopuses, the mimic has chromatophores that produce color pigments in a range of patterns and colors, as well as the ability to change skin texture. The combination of these features allows octopuses to camouflage themselves on the reef, sand, rubble or open water and hide from would-be predators.

So what's different about the mimic octopus? Like the name implies, the mimic octopus can mimic serveral different fish and critters with startling accuracy. It happens very quickly, with creativity that would make a superhero jealous.

 

About the Mimic and their Behavior

Mimics are most often seen by divers on sandy substrate and when they want to cover ground quickly will form a shape that looks like an oval spaceship floating over the sand. Or does that look like a flatfish? They generally live and seek protection in holes in the sand, often leaving two banded tentacles of of the hole - one in a defensive posture and one extended and waving slightly. Or does that look like a banded sea snake?

It's remarkable to think that the Mimic Octopus has evolved to mimic certain creatures in its environment when it will be advantageous. A flatfish is not very interesting moving quickly across the sand. And most predators have no desire to approach a poisonous sea snake. The Mimic Octopus also has a few other impersonations that are less frequently seen, including forms that look like jellyfish and lionfish.

 

Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

 

Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

 

Range, Habitat and Diet

Mimic Octopuses are found in the Indo-Pacific (Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, etc). These are UWPG's favorite locations for Mimics, where you can find them along with many other critters:

 

Naturally brown in color, they prefer open sand / silt bottom in relatively shallow water. Often dive guides will look for mimic octopuses right at the start of the dive or at the end during a surface interval. Muck dive sites make an ideal habitat.

Mimics are most active early morning and in the evening, finding their way across the substrate while feeling inside holes and under rocks for small crustaceans and fish. Once located, the mimic will trap the prey in the suckers on any of their 8 tentacles, then moving the prey to their mouth.

 

Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

 

Photo Tips

1)  Use a Mid-Range Focal Length

Your macro lens will provide too much magnification while a wide-angle lens will render the mimic octopus very small in the frame.

  • Compact Shooters:  Remove your wet diopter and wet wide-angle lens
  • Mirrorless:  The 60mm lens is a great choice.
  • DSLR:  On crop sensors, a 60mm lens is a great choice. On full frame, I shoot at either 100mm or 40mm.

 

2)  Move Carefully

No photo is worth injuring yourself, the reef or any critters there, so make sure to look where you're going. I often find myself frog kicking sideways or backwards when shooting mimics so it's critical to make sure you know what's "in front of you".

 

3)  Don't Harass the Octopus

Why is this a photo tip? Because once harassed, the Octopus behaves differently than if you stalk it naturally hunting, swimming or remaining frozen. You might get some likes on your post with a photo of a defensive subject, but that photo would never win a contest with experts who know the octopus behaviors. It pays to be patient and wait for the right moment to push the shutter.

 

Mimic Octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)

 

 

Not to be Confused with: 

The Wonderpus Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus). While the Wonderpus has fixed bands on its legs, the Mimic may or may not have the bands, so that's a tough way to distinguish between the species when underwater.

The best way to differentiate the mimic form the wonderpus is the white line that runs along the bottom of each tentacle of the mimic. The wonderpus doesn't have this line and the mimic will always have it, allowing for clear identification.

 

Wonderpus Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus)

The Wonderpus Octopus (Wunderpus photogenicus)

 

 

Further Reading

 

About the Author

Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, photographer and writer dedicated to capturing unique underwater, ocean lifestyle and adventure images. Brent is editor of the Underwater Photography Guide. Follow UWPG on Facebook for daily photos, tips & everything underwater photography!

 

 

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Caribbean Creature Feature: Hamlets

Jonathan Lavan
Facts, Biology & Behavior of these Little Hunters of the Caribbean Reef

 

Caribbean Creature Feature: Hamlets


Facts, Biology & Behavior of these Little Hunters of the Caribbean Reef

Text and Photos By Jonathan Lavan

 

Butter Hamlet

 
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Hamlets in the genus Hypoplectrus are unique among sea bass for two reasons. First of all, they only live in the Caribbean and therefore are a perfect subject for this column. Secondly, there is a long-standing debate as to whether or not there is more than one species. At present, they are officially listed as different species and we will treat them as such, but will examine some unique qualities and habits that may suggest otherwise.

Small in stature (averaging 5 inches) but mighty in attitude, hamlets are easy to photograph because they usually will stand their ground. One reason, it is theorized, for their different colors and pattern is that they are mimicking whatever Damselfish or Chromis species is most numerous in the area. Damselfish are well known herbivores, always tending and defending their little algae gardens. So if a similar sized, shaped and colored predator can take advantage of being mistaken for an herbivore, you know they will. The best examples of this are the Yellowtail Hamlet mimicking the Yellowtail Damselfish and the Black Hamlet mimicking the Longfin and/or Dusky Damselfish.

 

Barred Hamlet

 

Hamlets have unusual mating habits as well. They mate everyday at dusk rising up in the water column cupping around each other to spawn. What makes this ritual truly unique is that all Hamlets are simultaneous hermaphrodites. What this means, quite simply, is that the fish are both male and female and will trade places, back and forth, during the course of each mating rise. In fact, it has been observed that if one fish in the pair feels as if he/she has not gotten their fair share of male or female time, they will chase their mate around the reef in dissatisfaction. And you thought you had it tough in your relationship.

 

Indigo Hamlet

 

Usually Hamlets of the same species will seek each other out and live in close proximity to each other for easy access. However, if that same species is not available a Hamlet will often mate with the species that is available. This leads to a hybridized Hamlet. When observing offspring it might or might not be easy to pick out which two species have mixed. Typically it is scientifically accepted that any two animals that can successfully breed with each other and have viable offspring that can also breed are the same species. Hamlets’ mating behavior is a clear example suggesting that they all may in fact be the same species. Another reason to speculate that they are the same species is that all juvenile Hamlets or “fry” look exactly the same and then will morph into one species or another (see photo).

 

Juvenile Hamlet

 

As I had mentioned, they are a great starter fish for the beginning underwater photographer. They are dynamic, colorful and will suffer close approach most of the time, usually giving some nice profile and full front views. When you are diving, always move slowly, as it is easy to swim past these small fish. They frequently can be tucked into a crevice or observing you from behind a gorgonian. They are there watching you, watch for them on a Caribbean Coral Reef.

 

Yellowtail Hamlet

 

Black Hamlet

 

 

Further Reading

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan: The owner/operator of Underpressure Diving & Nature Photography is a citizen scientist and wildlife expert and has been SCUBA Diving for thirty years and taking photographs both above and below the water for about 10. He was pleased to have been made Volunteer of the Year for 2012 by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. As a SCUBA Diver he has been a photographer, teacher and research associate for many different organizations.He is a staunch environmentalist and educator of young people. Jonathan is committed to making a difference on this planet through his images and his message of good will to all creatures. www.underpressurephotog.com 

 

 

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Oceanic Whitetip Sharks; Predators on the Reef!

Jonathan Lavan
Caribbean Creature Feature for Novice & Experienced Shark Divers

 

Oceanic Whitetip Sharks; Predators on the Reef!


Caribbean Creature Feature for Novice & Experienced Shark Divers

Text and Photos By Jonathan Lavan

 

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

 

 
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So a little reality check now that shark week is over. Diving with and photographing sharks when done safely can be a thrilling and incredible experience. Going with a trained guide and understanding their behavior is the key. Oceanic Whitetip Sharks (Carcharhinus longimanus) are a great starter shark as they are big, graceful and impressive but not particularly aggressive.

Oceanic Whitetips are Requiem sharks, a family of pelagic sharks that must keep swimming to ventilate properly. They will often pass over reefs in search of prey, particularly at dawn or dusk. During the rest of the day they will be found in open water from the surface to well below recreational dive limits. They are truly beautiful and photogenic sharks having very large rounded pectoral and foredorsal fins, usually with white tips, hence the common name. It is a viviparous species meaning that it gives birth to live young. Its gestation period is about twelve months and will give birth to 5-15 pups from 2-2.5 feet in length. The pups, of course, immediately start swimming as soon as they hit the water and from that moment on they are on their own.

 

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

 

Naturally curious and intelligent animals, they will readily approach, which will afford you the opportunity for some great shots. As long as you have a large camera (or failing that a piece of pvc pipe) in case the sharks get a bit too curious, you should feel completely at ease. Usually they will approach and then turn at the last minute, particularly if you continue your own approach. On the rare occasion that they do start actively bumping you or other divers and the behavior continues, it is time to move slowly back to the boat. Remember, they want to go to as little trouble as possible for their meal so the likelihood of them trying to make you one is extremely remote.

 

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

 

Photographing Oceanic Whitetips

You will get as many good shots while snorkeling at the surface as while actually diving. This takes a bit of aerobic work but it is well worth it. The light is usually fantastic and the accompanying Pilotfish (which prefer the shallower water) will really add to your composition. There are many dive operations that can give you a great and safe shark diving experience, but I can’t recommend Epic Diving (epicdiving.com) more highly. They know just how to make the sharks come around but not get too agitated. Epic Diving runs out of Cat Island, Bahamas, which you can reach through Nassau.

 

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

 

Protecting Sharks

Sharks are fascinating and beautiful creatures worthy of our respect and protection. If you are lucky enough to see a species like the Oceanic Whitetip Shark over a Caribbean coral reef, share your shots with the world so people can better understand that these majestic creatures should be cherished and appreciated, not feared.

 

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

 

 

Interested in diving the Caribbean?

Our sister company  can book your next dive trip for you, and it won't cost you more. Their website has resort & liveaboad reviews, dive site maps, underwater videos and more.

 

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan: The owner/operator of Underpressure Diving & Nature Photography is a citizen scientist and wildlife expert and has been SCUBA Diving for thirty years and taking photographs both above and below the water for about 10. He was pleased to have been made Volunteer of the Year for 2012 by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. As a SCUBA Diver he has been a photographer, teacher and research associate for many different organizations.He is a staunch environmentalist and educator of young people. Jonathan is committed to making a difference on this planet through his images and his message of good will to all creatures.  

 

Further Reading

 


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Diving with Devils - Ultimate Guide to Manta Rays

Jeff Milisen
Your Guide to Finding, Photographing and the Biology of Mantas

 

Diving with Devils: The Ultimate Guide to Manta Rays


Your Guide to Finding, Photographing and the Biology of Mantas

Text and Photos By Jeff Milisen

 

 

 
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If you listen to fishing lore, the ocean is a scary place full of sea monsters. There are sharks. Then there are squid the size of school buses. And then you have whales that dive down to unfathomable depths to eat those squid. Even smaller animals like sea snakes and jellyfish have the ability to send you right to the ER. And then you have “Devil Rays.” These swimming stealth bombers have horns that stick out of their heads.

Fortunately, the advent of scuba diving has been slowly setting the tall fishing tales straight. Sharks aren’t as terrible as we thought; whales are actually quite friendly; and as it turns out, manta rays don’t have spines, teeth or even pitchforks with which to cause injury. Their giant size, graceful nature and gentle disposition have earned them a top spot on nearly every diver’s bucket list. So what should you know about manta rays that may help bring home that perfect shot?

 

DESCRIPTION

The modern name is derived from the Latin American Spanish term “manta,” which means large blanket. As blankets go, “large” is an understatement - manta rays can reach 23 feet from wing tip to wing tip. They are usually black on top with white slashes on the shoulder and often white fin tips. As such, mantas are hard to mistake for other animals. They come in two varieties:

 

Coastal Mantas (Manta alfredi)

These are the smaller of the two species, smaller being a relative term. They can attain a width of 18 feet and as their name suggests, generally stick close to shore. Coastal mantas come in one color variety. Look for shoulder slashes that run parallel to the angle of the mouth and white underbellies with black spot patterns. These black spots are actually unique for every coastal manta ray and have been used in photo-identification studies to tell the mantas apart. 

 

 

Pelagic Mantas (Manta birostris)

The overriding memory of my first encounter with a pelagic manta ray is a huge, black animal. The fact that it appeared from behind me in the middle of the ocean made it seem ominous at first. As the name suggests, pelagic manta rays are highly migratory and their home range can cover vast stretches of open ocean. Pelagic mantas come in three distinct color morphs, all of which are considered the same species:

Normal morph - These animals have black mouths and more angular shoulder slashes that can cut straight over the top of the body. On the underside, look for larger black blotches and a charcoal lining to the wings.

Melanistic morph - These animals are solid black all over with small white patterns in the area of their gills. 

Leucistic morph - These animals are mostly white on both surfaces. They are incredibly rare.

 

 

MANTA’S PLACE ON THE FOOD CHAIN

Their gargantuan size leaves them off the menu for most oceanic predators. Powerful wings enable mantas to outrun the rest. So if nothing eats mantas, where do they sit on the food chain? Similar to most natural giants like whales and dolphins, mantas eat plankton. Five percent of their body mass per day is required to keep an adult manta swimming happily. At an average of 100 pounds per foot of wingspan, a 15-foot wide manta must eat 75 pounds of plankton every day.

Their specialized diet means that mantas must spend their days filtering through high concentrations of plankton. Their usual habitat includes areas of upwelling currents, reef channels or other high nutrient areas. Oftentimes, high nutrient loading translates into less than optimal water clarity. One of the best places on Oahu to find mantas, for example, is Kaneohe Bay where the visibility, unfortunately, rarely exceeds 20 feet.

 

WHERE TO FIND THEM

Both species of manta ray occur circumtropically. If you are traveling specifically to see mantas some good bets include the Maldives, Bali, Isla Mujeres, Socorro, the Great Barrier Reef and Yap. If you really want an experience though, Kona Hawaii proclaims itself as the manta capital of the world. Kona’s reefs have many cleaning stations where mantas can be encountered during the day with some degree of reliability. Once the sun goes down the action really starts to heat up. Divers gather at one of two sites and work together using their dive lights to concentrate the plankton. And to the delight of the guests, as many as 40 mantas have been known to cue in and spend their evenings swooping through the plankton clouds. You can expect closer-than-close encounters.  The mantas will cruise within inches of your head, often giving you a slap as they swim past. The lights from hundreds of divers create an atmosphere more akin to a Vegas show than a coral reef, complete with giant, dancing stage performers. This really is the ultimate manta experience.

 

 

CONSERVATION STATUS AND RESEARCH

Both species of manta ray are considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as near threatened, and as recently as last year they were listed on the Conventions for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II. Their population worldwide is declining. Threats to manta rays include entanglements with marine pollution, climate change and ingestion of plastics. The biggest threat comes from overfishing. Artisanal fisheries and bycatch in other fisheries may be taking unsustainable numbers of manta rays locally, while a market for manta gill rakers as medicine in China is driving a commercial market. Mantas are especially at risk because they start as relatively low populations, reproduce slowly, take many years to mature and have a low rate of distribution.

To monitor the take of mantas and find out what we can about their movements, a number of studies set up worldwide are utilizing the unique spot patterns on mantas’ ventral surfaces to tell the animals apart through photo identification. Photo identification is an effective way to gather similar information as tagging studies without the related stress of capture. Studies in Mozambique, Brazil, Socorro, Japan, Mexico, Ecuador and Hawaii are helping to identify distinct populations for more effective management.

 

 

NAIL THE SHOT

Here are a few quintessential manta shots. Use these as a creative starting point and then feel free to add your own twist, be it a diver, marine life, boat or other unique aspect to make the shot yours. Whatever your desired shot, the only lens you will want with mantas is a fairly wide one. I prefer the Tokina 10-17mm at 10mm for cropped sensors, but full frame users do well with a 14mm or 15mm prime.

Manta in Sunburst - This shot is pretty self-explanatory. The premise is to shoot from under the animal, placing the sun behind it. The trick is to expose for the surface water about 10° off from the sun and use your strobes as a fill light to get detail in the shadowed underbelly. Use live-view or the viewfinder to compose the shot and wait until the moment where manta and sun are in perfect eclipse. For a neat trick, try to find an animal near the surface and take advantage of Snell’s window to capture some clouds or elements above the surface.

 

Night Mantas - Attracting a manta to your dive lights is one thing. Nailing a wide-angle shot at night can be a little trickier. The problem is the plankton. Try holding your primary dive light away from the camera and lens to attract the plankton and resulting backscatter out of your image. The animal will be feeding excitedly, so wait until it is posing just right before pulling the trigger. Power the strobes low so as to not blow out the bright white underbelly. There may even be enough ambient light to try bumping up your ISO and shooting with just ambient light.

 

 

Reefscape - To pull off a reefscape, it really helps to have a cleaning station where the animal will predictably come through the composition multiple times. It is best to think of reefscapes in three parts. The foreground could be the manta or it could be an interesting coral formation. The mid ground will usually be whichever reef or manta was left out of the foreground. The background is going to be some variety of blue, perhaps with a diver or boat in silhouette, but often it will just be the rippling surface.

 

 

A large part of the skill in any marine animal encounter is in how you conduct yourself.  While the first impulse is to swim directly at the animal in an attempt to get closer, mantas can swim much, MUCH faster than you and will do so if spooked. A better alternative is to sit back and allow the animal to become comfortable with your presence. Mantas are highly intelligent and will often become inquisitive on their own. The point is to let the manta come to you. Only after a rapport has been established is it appropriate to compose your shot and hit the shutter button.

Our understanding of manta rays has come a long way since fishermen first coined the term “Devil Ray.” But we may be loving them to extinction through overfishing. The dive tourism industry is offering hope. Mantas have already been protected in many areas because tourism has shown they are worth more alive than dead. So the next time you travel, support the conservation cause by asking to see the area’s manta rays. Your ticket purchase will be sending a message that these are animals worth saving, and you will be in for the encounter of a lifetime.

 

 

 

About the Author

Jeff Milisen is a relatively new content writer for the Underwater Photography Guide who specializes in black water and big animals.  When not behind a camera, Jeff is a marine biologist working to reduce overfishing by improving methods for farming fish. Milisenphotography.yolasite.com

 

Further Reading

 


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Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

 
 
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Caribbean Creature Feature: The Secretary Blenny

Jonathan Lavan
Get the Big Picture by Slowing Down and Seeing the Small Stuff

 

The Secretary / Spinyhead Blenny

- Caribbean Creature Feature -


Get the Big Picture by Slowing Down and Seeing the Small Stuff

Text and Photos By Jonathan Lavan

 

 

 
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So you’re getting more serious about your diving and underwater photography – perhaps even fanatical about it. Hopefully you have mastered the art of buoyancy control and learned that the slower the dive the better the dive will be. If you’re concentrating on Macro or Super Macro you could easily spend the whole dive searching the nooks and crannies in a less than twenty square foot area. That is when you will start to see and find the likes of the Secretary and Spinyhead Blenny.

Secretary and Spinyhead Blennies are both tube blennies in the genus Acanthemblemaria and are closely related. As the description suggests, they live in the vacated tubes of Calcareous Tube Worms and seem to prefer locations in plenty of light at the top of coral heads. At no more than two inches in length they are very hard to see and even harder to tell apart. Blennies’ eyes can function independently, giving them that goggle-eyed look that enables them to look in two directions at the same time, keeping careful track of both prey and predators.

 

 

The most effective way to tell a Blenny from other small fish, such as Gobies, is by their cirri. Cirri are the antennae-like projections on top of the head and frequently the snout of all Blennies. These can vary wildly in size and shape depending on species. It is believed the cirri are an additional sensing organ that helps the blenny know which way the water is flowing, enabling them to read the current and know which way the food will be coming from, as well as to help them to anticipate the approach of predators. If you watch long enough, you will often see a blenny dart out of its hole and grab a meal out of the water column.

 

 

The only other time you might see Blennies out of their hole is if a territorial dispute were to occur. Sometimes a Blenny will decide that he likes his neighbor’s home better than his own – then the games begin. If you are lucky enough to catch two of these tiny titans locked in battle you are sure to get some great photos. Whether perched on their pectorals watching, feeding or fighting these truly animated little fish put on quite a show. On a Caribbean coral reef it’s often the smaller creatures that are harder to find who engage in fascinating behavior and create great photo opportunities. Blennies, with all their fussy behavior and animated features, will provide all the macro opportunities you are looking for.

 

 

Interested in diving the Caribbean?

Our sister company Bluewater Travel can book your next dive trip for you, and it won't cost you more. Their website has resort & liveaboad reviews, dive site maps, underwater videos and more.

 

About the Author

Jonathan Lavan: Thee owner/operator of Underpressure Diving & Nature Photography is a citizen scientist and wildlife expert and has been SCUBA Diving for thirty years and taking photographs both above and below the water for about 10. He was pleased to have been made Volunteer of the Year for 2012 by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation. As a SCUBA Diver he has been a photographer, teacher and research associate for many different organizations.He is a staunch environmentalist and educator of young people. Jonathan is committed to making a difference on this planet through his images and his message of good will to all creatures. www.underpressurephotog.com 

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

 
 
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Tips to Capture Vibrant Manta Ray Photos

Craig Dietrich
Underwater Photo Techniques for Giant Pacific Manta Rays

 

Tips to Capture Vibrant Manta Ray Photos


Underwater Photo Techniques for Giant Pacific Manta Rays

Text and Photos By Craig Dietrich

 

 

 
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I’ve taken two trips to Socorro, Mexico in the last two years, where I was fortunate enough to have some awe-inspiring encounters with manta rays. Manta rays are in the eagle ray family, and the rays I encountered had an average wingspan of between 18 and 23 feet across. Regardless of manta ray size, there are basic fundamentals that can help you capture great manta ray shots.

 

Here are some tips to help improve your images:

 

Use a Smart Approach

The approach should really be more of a non-approach. Sheer photographer instinct and adrenalin will make you want to swim toward the mantas, but here’s where I say “Stop.” Let the manta approach you… for a couple of reasons.

First, it allows them to set the tone for your encounter and allow them to establish their comfort level with you as a diver. Second, it allows you time to position yourself in relation to the sunlight so you don’t lose a great shot because you were too busy swimming toward the mantas, forgetting about the sun’s positioning. I would expand this positioning tip to say, “When possible, separate yourself as much -- and as safely -- as you can from other divers” to help avoid bubbles, a random leg or equipment from other divers ending up in your otherwise perfect shot.

 

 

 

Lighting

In my opinion, the sun is the most important lighting tool when photographing manta rays. The sun serves as a great backlight and can add drama and mystique to any photo. Due to the size of the mantas I swam with, a two-strobe setup is a must, as one strobe can’t handle the job of lighting such a big subject. The strobes will even out the lighting and fill in the shadows, creating a properly lit image.  

 

 

Lens Choice

This is simple: go as wide as you can (for example: SLR: Tokina 10-17; Compact: any wide-angle wet lens). The wide-angle field of view allows the photographer to fit the scene into the frame and to get as close as possible to the manta. It also helps provide good clarity and allows the strobes to light the subject properly.

 

 

Conclusion

Swimming with manta rays is an amazing experience in itself. It’s important to remember that not every image will be perfect every time. I encourage my students to plan, to think and to take a chance in setting up for the right shot.  And sometimes, that shot winds up being the perfect shot.

 

About the Author

Craig Dietrich is a former Naval and family/children’s photographer.  An avid scuba diver, his two loves of diving and photography came together and now Craig is based out of Pompano Beach, Florida.  View more of Craig’s work at www.dietrichunderwater.com.

 

Further Reading

 


Where to Buy

Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

 
 
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Nudibranch Self Defense in Action

Cesare Naldi
Incredible Behavior Sequence of Fringehead Stung by Nudibranch Cerata

 

Nudibranch Self Defense in Action

Incredible Behavior Sequence of Fringehead Stung by Nudibranch

Text and Photos By Cesare Naldi

 

 

 
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Several years ago I made a series of dive trips to the Channel Islands as part of the undersea photography class at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. The goal was to apply our classroom knowledge underwater.

During one of these trips we dove the beautiful and cold waters of Santa Cruz Island. For most of the dives I decided to shoot macro since visibility was not at its best and the water is always very rich in amazing benthic life. At the end of each dive I always make sure to spend as much time as I can at 15-20 feet, trying to make the most of these last photo opportunities, and on this day the time turned out to be very well spent. In fact I was able to capture this interesting behavior just before surfacing.

 

Setting up the Shot

I spotted the Fringehead after a long dive, and since I hadn’t seen one recently I decided to take a snap shot just to keep a memory of the encounter. The fish was positioned on a flat rock and there was no possibility of finding a nicer composition or any interesting lighting effect. But as I got ready for the shot I noticed that there were many nudibranchs, including a Hermissenda crassicornis very close to the Fringehead. Naturally, the thought of making a more interesting photograph with the nudibranch and the fish in the same frame came to my mind.

 

The hermissenda enters the frame and moves closer to the attentive Fringehead.

 

The Unexpected Result

I had to wait several minutes before the nudibranch passed in front of the Fringehead, and when the position was right I started shooting, hoping for the nudibranch to get closer and closer. And at the end, it got so close that it stopped and stood up right in front of the jaws of the Fringehead. It stayed like this for ten long seconds until the fish decided to get a little taste of this boldfaced sea slug.

The Fringehead kept the nudibranch in its mouth for less than a second and then abruptly spit it out. The action unfolded quickly, and when I checked the images on the LCD screen I was very happy that I was able to freeze the action at the right instant. But I was also excited to have witnessed one of the most amazing defense mechanisms employed by nudibranchs.

 

Self Defense, Nudibranch Style

These tiny, colorful creatures do not use a shell to protect themselves from predators. Instead, they have developed the ability to eat poisonous prey and store that prey’s stinging cells on their dorsal cerata without being affected by the poison. They basically just use the self-defense cells from their food source as their own protection.

The result is that nudibranchs are not a very desirable meal, and this bold Hermissenda crassicornis was no exception!

 

Getting closer...

 

and closer...

 

A bold stare-down

 

The fringehead makes a move

 

The moment the fringehead gets stung by cells in the hermissenda's cerata

 

The fringehead cringes post-stings

 

The hermissenda moves along casually

 

Capturing the Shot

Patience and luck were the key elements to capturing this behavior sequence, but having the camera settings ready was also essential to avoid missing the action.

For this reason, whenever I shoot macro with a 105mm lens, I always set the camera on manual mode, usually at ISO 200 and 1/250s @ f/16. The two strobes are also set on manual mode and placed on the sides right next to the lens port. Considering the minimal distance between the camera and the subject their power is very low.

Focus is also set to manual and at the closest focal distance (thanks to the zoom gear), so that if I spot something interesting I only have to aim at the subject and get closer and closer until it is in sharp focus. With just one or two clicks I will have a sharp image.

Afterwards, depending on the subject and if conditions are good, I will begin to work on a more sophisticated and intriguing framing and/or lighting. 

These photographs were taken with a Nikon D300 with the Nikon 105mm lens in a Sea&Sea Housing with two YS110 Strobes. Exposure at ISO 200 and 1/200sec @ f/16.

 

About the Author

Cesare Naldi is an Italian professional photographer and cinematographer. He acquired his lighting and photographic skills at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. He is fascinated by the underwater world, and he has traveled throughout America, Europe, Asia and Africa. His photographs and short films have been part of numerous exhibitions in California and Italy. His reportage of Rajan, the swimming elephant of the Andaman Islands, has been published on several newspapers, magazines and books, including the National Geographic Magazine and Taschen Books.

 

Further Reading

 


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Please support the Underwater Photography Guide by purchasing your underwater photography gear through our sister site, Bluewater Photo & Video. Click, or call them at (310) 633-5052 for expert advice!


 

 
 
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