Marine Life

Marine life articles for underwater photographers including creatures and critter biology, behavior, food, habitat and photo tips.
Marine animals show their secret life under high magnification.
By Adam Martin

Secret Worlds Magnified

Adam Martin
Marine animals show their secret life under high magnification.

"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Organisms such as corals and sponges are a vital component of reefs, yet little is known about their behavior.  While they often seem like fixed objects, they are actually very mobile when viewed up close and to scale.

BioQuest Studios specializes in ultra-high definition underwater cinematography, fine art photography, focus stacking, supermacro, precision motorisation, low light, microscopy, and stereography.  They have created a video showing vivid detail of macro life on the reef by creating time lapses.  Each video segment is said to have durations ranging from 20 minutes to 6+ hours.  The video is best viewed on a large screen and at high resolution.  The colors have not been enhanced other than basic white balance correction along with special lighting techniques.  The video can be viewed below:

 

 

More of BioQuest Studios' work can be found at http://bioqueststudios.com.au/.

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Photos, shooting tips and unusual stories of macro subjects in Dumaguete, Philippines
By Ron Watkins

Three Crazy Critters of the Dauin Coast

Ron Watkins
Photos, shooting tips and unusual stories of macro subjects in Dumaguete, Philippines

The Dauin coast near the city of Dumaguete, in the Philippines, consistently rates as one of the top muck diving spots in the world and is home to some of the strangest and most rare critters.  On a recent Bluewater Photo workshop aboard the Philippine Siren and a stay at the luxurious boutique Atmosphere Resort and Spa, I was able to rack up a lot of bottom time along the Dauin coast.  Adding to the quality of diving here year-round was the fact that from February through March there are baby frogfish everywhere, including numerous species with eggs and lots of mating behavior.

When asked what my favorite critters of Dauin are, it is a bit like picking your favorite child.  There are the mating mandarinfish on the Atmosphere house reef, several species of ornate ghost pipefish, colorful nudibranchs littering the seafloor, flamboyant cuttlefish hunting at night, highly sought after octopus (mimic, blue-ring, wonderpus, coconut, etc.), interesting crustaceans and those cute little baby frogfish stretching their jaws and fishing with their lures.  So when choosing my top three crazy critters of Dauin, I picked three interesting subjects that have interesting stories behind the photograph to share.

All of the images below where taken with a Nikon D800 and 105mm lens in a Sea&Sea D800 housing with dual Sea&Sea YS-250 strobes and Sola 800 focus light.

 

Orangutan Crab (Achaeus japonicas)

ISO 200, F/18, 1/250 sec

 

At first glance, one might think this type of spider crab is a commonly photographed subject. Those that have found them know they are typically found in bubble coral.  But many of the photos I have seen and that I have taken seem a little blurry, and the hair on the crab is hard to distinguish.  I spoke with the resident biologist at Atmosphere Resort, Daniel Geary, and he instructed that I have to find a crab that is perched on the outside of the coral that is in current so that the hair looks like it is freshly combed.  That allows you to take a sharper and more impactful photo.  Equipped with this new knowledge we went out on the house reef and found several Orangutan crabs that I passed for photos until finally discovering the one pictured here.  The result is much better than I had taken before. 

 

Orange Bobtail Squid (Euprymna scolopes)

ISO 200, F/22, 1/250 sec

 

Bobtail squid are one of my favorite cephalopods to try and find on a night dive and the Dauin coast is prime territory for them.  We had spotted two of the common blue/purple colored bobtails on the night dive already and then came across this less frequently seen orange one that was about an inch long.  It was the first one that Daniel had ever seen on that site and we were both quite excited.  We watched it hunt around the bottom and eventually burrow down in the sand so that only its eyes were peaking out.  If you have ever photographed a bobtail squid you may have noticed that the edge of the squid is always blurry.  It turns out that it is not your photography skills, but rather a bioluminescent bacteria that filters the light and creates that blur to help conceal its silhouette.

A tip for photographing cephalopods is to use a focus light with an amber filter so that the pupil of the eye will dilate more.  The first picture was taken when I first found the squid and before I had switched the light to amber, so the squid is closing its pupil.  The second one was taken with the amber light mode.

 

The Donald Duck Shrimp (Leander plumosus)

ISO 100, F/29, 1/250 sec with a ReefNet SubSee +5 Diopter

 

When I asked my dive masters what they consider to be one of the craziest sought after critters that divers want to photograph, they all said the Donald Duck Shrimp!  I had never heard of it and when they started to describe it to me with this big long orange bill like a duck I thought they were joking with me.  Then they started to talk like a duck and all laugh and I thought for sure I had been punk’d.  But two dives later when they were pointing inside a small white sponge at a tiny orange thing floating around in the water column and making a duck bill sign over their regulator, I realized they were not joking around.  The shrimp, which was less than half an inch long, actually did have an oversized hairy bill (or more precisely, a rostrum).  It was pretty funny looking for sure and made for an interesting, but challenging photo subject.  In order to get the necessary detail of the tiny shrimp, I had to flip on my diopter, which has a very narrow depth of field but razor sharp focal plane.  Using my back button to focus down to the minimum distance I waited until the shrimp became parallel with the lens and in focus before firing away with the shutter.  It took several attempts, but I was able to capture a nice portrait of this funny little guy.

 


 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ron Watkins is an international award winning photographer and writer. He has been passionate about underwater photography since 1996 and his photography has appeared in magazines, websites, juried art displays, national aquariums, libraries and private collections. More of Ron’s photography may be viewed at www.scubarews.com.

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Exploring natural shark encounters on North Carolina's shipwrecks plus photo tips
By Tanya Houppermans

The Sand Tiger Sharks of North Carolina

Tanya Houppermans
Exploring natural shark encounters on North Carolina's shipwrecks plus photo tips

 

“North Carolina?!?! Really? I had no idea!”

I am still surprised how often I hear that reaction from fellow divers when I tell them about the world-class diving found off the coast of North Carolina. Known as ‘The Graveyard of the Atlantic’ because of the large number of shipwrecks found within easy reach of the coast, the waters off of North Carolina also harbor a multitude of big marine life including southern stingrays, barracuda, sea turtles, and even the occasional whale. But the stars of the show are the sand tiger sharks.

 

 



Tanya's Gear Profile

Olympus OM-D E-M1 with Panasonic Lumix 8mm Fisheye Lens

Nauticam EM1 Housing, Nauticam 4.33" Dome Port, Dual SEA&SEA YS-D1 Strobes




About The Sand Tiger Shark

The sand tiger (Carcharias taurus), also known as the ragged tooth or grey nurse shark, resides in temperate waters worldwide. Although ferocious-looking with rows of pointed, protruding teeth, sand tigers are quite docile. Adult sand tigers average 6-10.5 feet in length and can weight up to 350 pounds. Their diet consists of bony fish, skates, rays, and even smaller sharks.

 

Sand tigers are found year-round in the waters of North Carolina, although their numbers tend to be higher in the May-October timeframe. No bait is used to draw the sand tigers to the area; the sharks are already there. They congregate around the many shipwrecks, although no one is quite sure why. One theory is that there is more food around the wrecks due to the abundance of fish on these artificial reefs. Another theory is that water temperature may be slightly warmer in and around the wrecks, producing a more comfortable environment for the sharks. Whatever the reason, North Carolina is one of very few places in the world where divers are able to experience the thrill of both a wreck dive and shark dive simultaneously.

 

The sand tigers are very tolerant of divers if approached from the front or side (where the shark can see the diver). If approached from behind, the sand tiger may become spooked, in which case it will warn the diver with a sudden “thump” of its tail, producing a startlingly loud noise sure to get the diver’s attention. As with any wild animal, approaching slowly and cautiously will yield the best results.

 

In the July-Aug timeframe every year off of North Carolina, sand tigers congregate by the hundreds, particularly near the wreck of the Caribsea. They tend to stay in mid-water, at the 40-60ft range, where they meander lazily, providing an amazing spectacle for divers lucky enough to witness it.

 

Photographing Sand Tigers

I highly recommend using manual mode since lighting and visibility may vary significantly during a single dive due to shifting currents, depth, and your location in relation to a shipwreck (whether you’re above, in, or to the side of a wreck). Having the ability to quickly adjust your aperture, shutter speed, strobe power, and ISO is important.

 

My preference is shooting at higher shutter speeds, typically 1/250-1/350. Oftentimes schools of baitfish will surround sand tigers, and using a fast shutter to freeze motion often results in a sharp image of baitfish nicely framing the shark. When photographing the large groups of sand tigers, I’ve found that using a fast shutter speed with a wider aperture (f/3.5-f/5) produces sharp images of the closer sharks while still correctly exposing the sharks father away in the group.

 

Shooting upward from beneath a swimming sand tiger can make for a lovely image of the shark against the lighter-colored blue water of the surface; however, the underside of the shark is nearly white, making this area easy to overexpose. Keeping strobes at 1/3-1/2 power while using a medium aperture (around f/10) tends to yield the best results in this situation.  

 

Dive Conditions

North Carolina diving can be somewhat challenging, and it is not for the inexperienced. The boat rides are typically 1.5-2.5 hours, and dives can be as deep as 125 feet. The seas are sometimes smooth and calm, but can be choppy and rough. The good news is that during the summer months, water temperature is typically around 80°F, and visibility can reach 80-100 feet or more.

 

Final Thoughts

Coastal North Carolina offers a marine environment like few other places in the world. Where else can you dive on a World War II German submarine (the U-352) and swim with dozens of sand tiger sharks in the same day? For the wide-angle underwater photographer, North Carolina truly is a dream destination.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tanya Houppermans is a professional underwater photographer, marine conservationist, and writer. She especially enjoys photographing sharks, and is involved in several shark conservation efforts. She is also an advocate for adaptive scuba programs for those with disabilities, as her own son is a certified scuba diver who has autism. For more information about Tanya and her work, please visit her website at www.BlueElementsImaging.com, and follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/blueelementsimaging.

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What do you do when approached by an unpredictable shark in the open ocean?
By Jeffrey Milisen

Encounter with an Oceanic Whitetip Shark

Jeffrey Milisen
What do you do when approached by an unpredictable shark in the open ocean?

Laughter could be heard echoing out of the steel hull of a schooner drifting 40 miles offshore from Hawaii.  The occupants were reviewing footage shot on the maiden deployment of an ROV that was designed to clean the world’s first drifting aquaculture pen.  Almost as soon as the unit hit the water it was dragged sideways for a few hundred meters.  The culprit showed up on the first images captured by the vehicle and continued to circle our robot even after the initial strike.  Large fins tipped in white flashed across the screen.  As our injured robot limped back to the boat for retrieval, I contemplated the encounter I had with the same animal a mere hour before.

The animal in question was an oceanic whitetip shark.  At first glance, it is easily confused with its peaceful reef-dwelling doppelganger, but don’t be fooled.  Whitetips of the oceanic variety show up downing an extra pint of adrenaline on an empty stomach.  The result is an agile, quick-tempered animal with the gall of a drunk on St. Patty’s Day and strategy that would baffle a velociraptor.  They don’t have the fame of tiger sharks, the legendary status of great whites or even the ability to swim up rivers like the bull, but they have more notches on their belt than all of those brutes combined.   Because they clean up at-sea disasters, the exact number of human fatalities is vague since their victims are often only reported as “lost at sea,” but their resume includes such legendary tales as Brett Gilliam’s tech diving thriller and Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis debacle referenced in Jaws.  In spite of their harrowed history, oceanics remain at the top of many a diver’s bucket list.  Their swaying swimming pattern mixed with sweeping long pectoral fins makes for an enchanting view.  To a working diver, however, an edgy oceanic whitetip can mean the end of the workday.

 

oceanic whitetip shark

 

Earlier that day I splashed hoping to scrub fouling from the cage.  Before I could yell to my buddy, a medium-sized oceanic whitetip had zeroed in on me.  The animal started nosing a carabiner that I was carrying, so I dropped it only to watch it disappear into the mouth of the animal.  Soon, the shark lost interest in the new toy and came back towards me.

Divers on the project always carried a shark defense device.  Most preferred an item we dubbed “shark pokers” that were simply a length of 3/4“ PVC to prod the animal away.  My camera was big enough to serve as a sizable bite, so I relied on it instead.  Besides, animals that want to eat you make great photographs. 

After making a couple of darting charges, the shark started circling well inside of arm’s distance.  I simply spun around with it, keeping my camera housing between the beast and myself.  The word the captain used to describe the scene was “wrestling.”  With the shark distracted by me, my dive buddy was recalled and made his way up the ladder.  I resorted to trying to push the animal away with my strobe arm, except the animal was too quick and would dodge each attempt.  Finally, as I was making my way back to the vessel, I jabbed one too many times and the frustrated shark spun and snapped, narrowly missing my plastic camera housing. 

We saw many oceanic whitetips during our 6 months diving at sea, but this is the memory that sticks.  The ability of the relatively small shark to take control of the situation was fascinating, and it is this very same tenacious nature that has helped drive them to the brink.  In the 1950’s, oceanic whitetips were considered the most common large animal on earth.  Sixty years later it was listed on CITES Appendix II.  Some studies estimate that, in that 60 years, more than 95% of the oceanic whitetips disappeared, victims of both commercial bycatch and the barbaric shark finning industry.  I shudder to think of a world without top predators, and that’s exactly where we are headed.  Oceanic whitetips may be dance-on-the-ceiling crazy, but that’s exactly what makes them so special.  They are a reminder that, no matter how big your truck or well-groomed your lawn, we are all still a part of the food chain somewhere.

 

oceanic whitetip shark in hawaii

 

hawaii aquaculture cage

 

 

 

Further Reading

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

From cone snails to sharks and many things in between, Jeff Milisen has interests firmly rooted in anything related to marine biology. Such a varied career has led him to spend considerable time in remote habitats. When not plying the open ocean or poking around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he visits the multitude of dive sites around his home in Kona. Wherever his exploits go, he is sure to have his dive gear and camera packed and at the ready. Visit milisenphotography.yolasite.com for more of Jeff’s imagery.

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

How to Find Nudibranchs

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

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

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. 

 

 


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

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

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

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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Caribbean Creature Feature for Novice & Experienced Shark Divers
By Jonathan Lavan

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

 

 

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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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