Marine Life

Marine life articles for underwater photographers including creatures and critter biology, behavior, food, habitat and photo tips.
Okinawa, Japan has lots of great critters to photograph - especially Cephalopods.
By Brandon Hannan

Cephalopods of Okinawa, Japan

Brandon Hannan
Okinawa, Japan has lots of great critters to photograph - especially Cephalopods.

Editor’s note: The Sony RX100 V is a very popular compact camera for underwater photography, with excellent performance and image quality packed into a small camera body. Brandon’s amazing photos below really attest to this. If you are interested in learning more about this camera, check out our detailed RX100V/VA camera review.

My wife and I moved to Okinawa, Japan in late 2017. The waters here in Okinawa are absolutely stunning. Easy access to diving in such a remarkable place is exhilarating. However, it wasn’t until I met Rob Kidston (an underwater photographer) that my love for photography began. I purchased my Sony RX100V, Nauticam housing, and my Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes from www.bluewaterphotostore.com, and jumped right in.

My love for cephalopods is undeniably strong, after spending many nights watching National Geographic and Discovery Channel. I was fascinated with how many species of cephalopods there are and just how unbelievably intelligent they are.

"Leap Of Faith"
Sony RX100 V, Nauticam Housing, Two YS-D2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

First encounter with a Hapalochlaena Lunulata “Blue-Ringed Octopus”

My first encounter with the venomous blue-ringed octopus was one to remember. My dive buddy found one sitting on a beautiful soft coral. You can imagine the excitement of finally spotting one of these amazing cephalopods. We watched him for about twenty minutes moving around on the reef. I was watching my dive partner take pictures when the blue-ring decided he had enough of photos. The octopus left the reef and came straight at me. You can imagine the sheer panic. I didn’t see where he went, so I thought he was on me. We surfaced, and I stripped my gear but didn’t find him; needless to say I ended the dive due to the adrenaline and anxiety.

As it turns out, they are not aggressive unless provoked or cornered. You just have to allow them space and view them from a distance, and you won't have any issues. Even though my first encounter wasn’t what I wanted it to be, my love and respect for this octopus has only grown with each of my future encounters.

 

"Freefall" 
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/300 F11 ISO100

 

We normally spot these octopi once every few night dives. The Indo-Pacific species is quite a bit smaller than its Australian relative. They can range in size from ½ in to 3 in, and are not as shy as most species of octopus, probably because they carry enough venom to kill 26 adult humans. They move around hunting for small prey or crustaceans, and will not show their bright blue rings unless they feel something is too close or if they feel threatened. For me the highlight of shooting this species was getting a fully extended open water shot of one. I challenge myself to wait for the perfect timing, rather than just being happy with getting decent photos of the subject sitting on the reef. For this octopus I shot 1/250, f/11, ISO 100. I use a +7 macro wet lens that screws right on the front on my housing.

 

"Arrow"
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

The Beautiful Metasepia Tullbergi “Flamboyant Cuttlefish”

Off the coast of Okinawa, an incredible cuttlefish can be found. The Paintpot Cuttlefish, better known as the Flamboyant Cuttlefish, are slightly smaller than their close relatives in the Philippines, the Matasepia Pfefferi. These cephalopods can be tough to spot if you don’t know what you are looking for, and are mostly found in depths of 25ft-70ft of water. They can be all white and camouflaged to look like the rocks surrounding them, or, depending on the threat level, they can range in colors from white, purple, yellow, and black, to the famous flamboyant radiating color scheme that everyone loves. This color scheme lets all the other predators in the ocean know that they are poisonous.

 

"Colors"
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO150

 

I have spent night after night diving to see these spectacular cuttlefish. We dove multiple spots along the coast of Okinawa searching for flamboyant habitats, and found certain rocky locations had rich populations. Watching cuttlefish in their natural habitats can be so rewarding. The way they move around the bottom of the ocean is quite unique, as they mostly walk wherever they go. This unique trait of walking, and not swimming, can only be found in a few of the cuttlefish species.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

The Spotty Bobtail Squid, Sepiola parva

The spotty bobtail squid really puts on a show. Did you know that bobtail squids actually belong to their own group, separate from cuttlefish and squids? This species is one of only a handful that uses a light organ, which is located near the stomach. Spotty bobtail squid collect bioluminescent bacteria from the water, and store them in their light organs. They use the light produced by the bacteria for counter-illumination when they are swimming at night, and then each morning they return to the sandy bottom to completely expel and renew their bacteria.

 

"Disco"
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes,Ucl-67  +15 wet lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

Spotting bobtails in the water can sometimes be quite tricky. Usually they are found at night on the sides of reef, by a sandy bottom. When looking for this species you will see little squid shaped ink spots, known as pseudo-morphs, in clusters of three.  Bobtails use these to try to fool any potential predators from spotting them as they make their getaway. After being spooked, they immediately head toward the reef for an opening, or to the sand. Once in the sand they bury themselves with only their eyes and top of their body exposed. Photos of this bobtail are unique, with each individual displaying different rainbow colors produced by its iridiophores.

 

"Golden Nugget"
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Ucl-67 +15 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

There are a few different species of bobtail here in Okinawa, Sepiola parva being the most common one “spotted”. I recently had a rare encounter with the tropical bobtail squid, Sepiadarium kochi. This bobtail has distinct orange skin, white around its eyes and tiny blue-ish white circles on its body. This species is a real treat to observe, and unlike Sepiola parva this species buries itself much faster, is very shy, and doesn’t have a light organ.

 

"Blue"
 Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Ucl-67 +15 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

The Mysterious Undescribed Pygmy Squid

Diving can be full of surprises; you never know what you might find! One night off the east coast of Okinawa, we were diving when I spotted a small pygmy squid. The squid was about 3mm in length, or the size of a grain of rice. It was incredibly hard to get a good close-up photo with my Subsee +10 wet lens. However, I did manage to get a few shots, before moving on.

I posted some of the shots on our local Facebook page, and quickly received a message from Jeff Jolly, a marine biologist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. This species is an undescribed pygmy squid and they had been searching for them to study their biology and describe the species. He had collected some in the past and sequenced their DNA. When the DNA was compared to existing samples of all squids in DNA database, it was found to not match any others that have been described.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Ucl-67 +15 wet lens stacked with the Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

Over the next few months, we dove and searched for more of these squid. Eventually I located two and collected the specimens to be studied. The specimens laid many eggs in the lab while being isolated. What does this tell us about the females? Even though the female was separated from the males, it stored sperm and fertilized the eggs when it deposited them. After collecting a few more of these and taking lots of photos, there were a few features that were obviously unique to this species. Under each eye they would display a ridge that comes to a point. Obviously it is not yet known why they display this because it’s not always present. Some other interesting characteristics include several white dots near their fins and a sticky part of their skin they can use to attach to rocks, coral, and sea grass. Although it will take some time to study this species and describe it, I am excited to see what the name will be. We have nicknamed this species Hannan’s pygmy squid!

 

"Mustache"
Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Ucl-67 +15 wet lens stacked with the Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

The Octopus Joubini “Wolf Pygmy” 

These amazing octopi can be found in shallow reefs around Okinawa. They like to stay hidden behind corals and are mostly spotted at night, reaching up to 2 inches in size. The first one I ever found was on a night dive on the west side of Okinawa. When I spotted the Pygmy he was in the sand and very frightened of me. I was perplexed as to what kind of octopus this was. He was so small and it wasn’t the season for juvenile day octopus to have hatched. Researching on the internet and looking at my photos I figured out that it was in fact the Wolf Pygmy octopus.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/300 F11 ISO150

 

This octopus has a very distinct color pattern, showing either all white or sometimes reds with hues of blue. The octopus’s eyes are different from other species, as they have red eyes even when they change colors. When you spot any cephalopod you want to have a red light at night. It allows them to become more relaxed and comfortable with you around. It's good to be patient and let them move for a while. Once they become used to you, then you can get some really beautiful photos. Sometimes they have a pattern on them that I like to call a “starburst” or “galaxy” pattern.

 

"Galaxy"
Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes, Bluewater +7 lens. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

 

The Sepioteuthis Lessoniana “Bigfin Reef Squid”

The bigfin reef squid can be found from depths of 10ft down to 100ft. Squid are usually found in groups of three or more. In my experience squid are the only cephalopods species that will stay around if you use white light. In fact, the first time I spotted squid I immediately switched over to red light, and they quickly disappeared. After a few tries I noticed if I left my bright white lights on it would actually confuse the squid, making them stay in the area and not bolt to the surface. When shooting this species you have to be aware of your surroundings and depth, especially if you are over a deep reef. It’s better if you have an experienced partner watching your depth while you take photos and then vice versa. I love to get photographs of this squid, the black backgrounds with the florescent colors make for wonderful images.

 

"The Show"
Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YS-D2 Strobes. 1/250 F8.3 ISO100


Lighting and conditions affect cephalopod photography. When I photograph these on my Sony RX100 V compact I keep my F-stop in the middle around 6.8 and put my shutter speed at 1/250. How I take my photos also depends on the size of the squid. Sometimes I will leave my settings at 1/250, F11, and ISO 100, keeping my YS-D2 strobes in TTL and moving them as far out as my rig will allow.  Squid do not stay around long, leaving your camera in TTL and moving the strobes out eliminates backscatter, and lighting will never be over exposed. The adjustments made to the strobes while underwater can be the difference of a good shot before the squid leaves and an overexposed/underexposed shot.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 


The Octopus Macropus “Spotted Octopus”

The spotted octopus is one species I don’t see too often. This octopus can be found in depths up to around 60ft and prefers grassy areas or coral rubble and sand. The first one I found I was very excited. The octopus had white spots on it, which never changed color even when the octopus did. It was fascinating to see such a peculiar looking octopus.

 

"On Guard"
Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 

They are shy at first but after spending some time with them, they become relaxed and inquisitive about you. They often want to come near you and touch your camera or your hand. They will continue to hunt and move while you are photographing them, almost like they want to pose for you.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes. 1/250 F11 ISO100

 


The Octopus Cyanea “Day Octopus”

This is the most common octopus to see here in Okinawa. Spotting this species is quite easy. It is often found at depths between 10ft to 100ft on the rocky sides of reefs. It can flash different colors with a variety of skin textures, to mimic the reef. Often the Day Octopus will hide in the nearest hole or cave until it deems you as non-threating. When scared the octopus will turn to a pale white to gray color, sometimes shooting a burst of ink trying to get away.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YSD2 Strobes.1/200 F6.3 ISO100

 

The day octopus will hunt mostly around dusk or even early morning. Octopus hunt by sticking their tentacles into rock crevices and expanding their bodies around the reef like a cape to trap escaping prey. Once caught, the octopus bites the prey and injects a toxin to subdue it.  Often times you will find the octopus with a coral grouper - the behavior is unique. The grouper waits while the octopus hunts, and gets itself an easy meal by catching any potential prey that escapes from the octopus.

 

Sony RX100V, Nauticam Housing, Two YS-D2 Strobes.1/200 F6.3 ISO100

 

 

Tips for Shooting Macro with the RX100V

Here are some of my top tips for shooting macro with the RX100V.

  • Don’t over-think the shot. Get to know the camera that you have and practice what’s comfortable for you. Everyone’s setup and settings won’t be the same.
  • When shooting something with a wet lens, you want to zoom in as much as possible on the subject. The lens will give you a closer image. I would suggest using aperture F11 and moving your shutter speed to about 1/250.
  • Having a focus light is key when shooting at night. I use the Sola red light for all my macro shooting, with it mounted on one side of my setup. Some photographers prefer it in the middle on the hot shoe. 

 

Tips for Finding and Photographing Cephalopods

Knowing how to find cephalopods and interacting with them properly really helps maximize your photo opportunities. Here are some of the top things I have learned from spending so much time with these fascinating creatures:

  • Be patient and take your time when searching the reefs. Cephalopods are incredibly smart. If they don’t want you to see them, you will not. Octopus will mostly be found close to the reef edge, and on rocky substrates with crustaceans.
  • After finding them, relax and let them become used to you. If you find them at night, remember red light is key to them staying around. The only cephalopod that red light does not work on in my experience is the squid, use white light for them when spotting them at night.
  • When hunting for flamboyant cuttlefish it's best to look in rocky areas. They are masters of camouflage and will often look like rocks until approached. They are very difficult to spot. Once spotted and relaxed they will continue to hunt and move about while you watch.
  • Enjoy these fantastic species, but the biggest tip of all: respect the cephalopods and their space. Do not touch them. Most octopus have some sort venom, and even if it isn’t toxic to humans, they have very strong beaks and can cause severe pain if bitten.

 

Gear Links

 

Additional Reading

 

 

The Sony RX100 V and VA is available now at Bluewater Photo!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brandon is new to photography but is very passionate about Cephalopods. He uses his free time to dive and to study the different species found off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. He would love to one day write a book and publish photos with the specific cephalopod species of Japan. Japan in general has the highest concentration of un-described/un-discovered species in the world. You can follow him on Instagram for daily photos of cephalopods and more.

 

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Photographing one of the world's ugliest and most charismatic fish
By Nirupam Nigam

Wolf Eels: A Face Only a Mother Could Love

Nirupam Nigam
Photographing one of the world's ugliest and most charismatic fish

There are a lot of ugly fish in the sea. Which one is the ugliest? Well, it’s really hard to say. There are a lot. So many, in fact, this is a frequent topic of debate among divers, scientists, and late-night TV hosts. Having scientifically identified thousands upon thousands of fish at sea in the North Pacific, it’s still quite hard for me to pick my top contenders. But without a doubt, wolf eels (Anarrhichthys ocellatus) rank in the top five. To me, wolf eels resemble the face of an old man who spent a little too much time under the sun, died, and then reanimated as a zombie. 

Neither Wolf nor Eel

Found to depths of 740 feet in the North Pacific from Japan to Southern California, wolf eels are neither wolf nor eel. They are fish. But don’t call them wolf fish – that’s something else.  Wolf eels can reach a remarkable length of 7ft 10 inches and 41 pounds. Although they aren’t a true eel, they fill a similar niche. Wolf eels tend to live in caves or cracks between boulders and feed on crustaceans (crab and shrimp), as well as urchins, mussels, clams, and the occasional fish. Their sharp canines are perfect for crushing through shells. 

Identified by their often brilliant orange color, juvenile wolf eels remain pelagic for up to 2 years and slowly settle benthically into nearshore reefs to find a proper den. They have been known to share dens with giant pacific octopus, lingcod, rockfish, and sculpin. But octopus have also been known to eradicate pesky wolf eels. 

 

Love is blind (clearly)

Despite their frightening appearance, wolf eels just want to be loved. In fact, of all the fish I have ever had the pleasure of diving with, wolf eels are some of the most dedicated lovers. Living for at least 28 years, many wolf eels will mate for life. You can often find them coinhabiting a small cave, day after day, carefully taking care of their eggs and taking turns to venture out to feed. The females will often be smaller and browner in appearance, with males larger and grayer. During casual observation, I have seen large males come halfway out of their den to “fend off” intrusive divers and block their mate and eggs from sight. 

 

To Feed or Not to Feed

But in reality, wolf eels are quite docile, friendly, and very curious. They are easily habituated to divers. As such there is some controversy over divers feeding them. At some popular dive sites, wolf eels will casually exit their dens and approach a diver to see if they have any food. Some wolf eels will even let a cautious diver pet them. I don’t recommend doing this, as petting fish removes a protective slime coating which keep them safe from disease. While they never attack divers for food, feeding encourages the wolf eels to expect food from divers and not go hunting themselves.

Photographing Wolf Eels

Where to Look

Wolf eels can be a joy to photograph or a big frustration. They each have their own personality, and some are more cautious than others. Much of your success can depend on how many divers frequent the site. Sites where wolf eels don’t often see divers will be more troublesome, as the wolf eels tend to be a little more wary of divers. In Southern California, wolf eels are found at the deeper edges of recreational limits (often deeper than 100 feet) in relatively cold water. In the Pacific Northwest, they are found shallower (starting at about 40 feet), as the water is generally cold enough for them to be happy. The best place to search is at the bottom of medium to large size boulders or inside small crevices on walls. Wolf eels are often found tucked deep into their cave, but they can be coaxed out by their natural curiosity. 

 

Tips for Lighting

Due to their habitat, lighting wolf eels can be quite tricky. If you are shooting macro, be sure to position your strobe(s) so that it lights the inside of the cave where the wolf eel is hiding. I find that a snoot is often easier and less intrusive to use for lighting small caves. Proper lighting with a macro photo can sometimes elucidate a green and yellow sheen on their eyes – adding some character to the photo.

It is very tricky to light wolf eels with a wide lens. You’ll almost always need them to stick their head out of their den or come completely out. It can be impossible to get close enough to get a good photo when they are in their den. It’s easy to overexpose their light grey bodies with the dark green water around them. I try to pull my strobes back and bring them in close to the camera. Then I turn the strobe power down to keep the greys in the eel properly exposed and further reduce backscatter. If often helps to bump up your ISO so you can keep the aperture small enough to get a good depth of field. I find that having a diver in the background is nice to provide perspective on the wolf eel’s size.  

A few final tips

1. Wolf eels don’t breathe in and out like morays, but they do open their mouths from time to time. Properly timed, you can capture some of those massive canine teeth. 

2. Use a red light to focus. This helps keep wolf eels interested in you and not reeling in from being blinded by white light. 

3. If you are shooting wide, I have found that when wolf eels are habituated to divers, they can be very interested in their reflection in the dome. They’ll try to size themselves up and then back off.

Wolf eels may be ugly, but it’s not just their mothers that love them. Like many dedicated divers in the Pacific Northwest, if you learn to love them, the wolf eels will love you right back.

 

 

Additional Reading:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nirupam Nigam is a dedicated underwater photographer and fisheries scientist. While growing up in Los Angeles he fell in love with the ocean and pursued underwater photography in the local Channel Islands. He received degrees in Aquatic and Fisheries Science and General Biology, as well as a minor in Arctic Studies, at the University of Washington. Now he works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific. When he is not at sea, he is traveling with his fiancee and taking photos. Check out more of his photography at www.photosfromthesea.com!

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La Paz, a classic big-animal destination, through the lens of a mollusk photographer

La Paz Through a Mollusk Photographer's Lens

La Paz, a classic big-animal destination, through the lens of a mollusk photographer

Editor’s Note: Charles Rawlings is a respected mollusk specialist who has published two books with his underwater photography. You can learn more about his latest offering at this link: Living Mollusks. His previous contribution to the guide was an engaging piece about using a TG-5 to supplement his DSLR rig. Charles looks at things from a different angle than much of the mainstream underwater photography community, making for engaging, interesting, and refreshing reading. I hope you enjoy! -Bryan Chu, Editor


 

La Paz, Mexico – these words, this place, conjures up visions of an arid desert wasteland spilling into a cerulean ocean. The famous or infamous Baja California adjoining the Sea of Cortez; Saguaro cactus meets whale shark. Jacques Cousteau once called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium” and the description is especially appropriate for the waters and dive sites around La Paz.

The dive sites around La Paz are well known for big animals – whale sharks, sea lions, dolphins, manta rays, mobula rays, huge schools of tuna and jack; even whales on occasion – Humpback whales, pilot whales, Sperm whales and rarely Blue whales. La Paz, while not really known for sharks, will also provide nurse sharks, bull sharks, white tip sharks and other sharks that draw divers in droves. But, what about the macro aspect of the La Paz diving fauna? Are there little creatures living on La Paz’s reefs and wrecks? I travelled to La Paz to see for myself; and found myself asking - what macro secrets would it reveal?

Crown of Thorns Starfish. Acanthaster planci. Swanee Reef. Nikon D80 with dual strobes, 60mm macro lens. 1/200 sec, f/22, ISO 100.

I am a specialist diver and photographer. I specialize in living mollusks, which include seashells, nudibranchs and cephalopods. Seashells are gastropods and bivalves such as oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. Cephalopods, meaning “head foot”, include nautilus, squid, octopus and cuttlefish; nudibranchs are those colorful “slugs”. The Sea of Cortez is renowned for its rich molluscan fauna, at least according to shell collectors. So, what could I discover and find diving around La Paz?

Diving Arrangements

I made arrangements with James Curtis and the amazing Cortez Club for a private boat and photographer – Nick Polanszky. I soon found out that Nick was a large animal photographer and a darn good one. Nick, however, is not a macro photographer guide, which he himself readily admits. However, his significant other, Natalia Siguerier, is a macro enthusiast. As a result, we all went hunting for mollusks and macro subjects. Our hunt was well rewarded at most dive sites.

I will not go over each day in detail but we ventured and dove each of the iconic La Paz dive sites including Swanee Reef, Isla Ballena, the Fang Ming Wreck, El Bajito and Isla Espiritu Santo. In addition to all the usual, classic dive sites around La Paz, Nick, Natalia, and I dove multiple unnamed coves and spots along the coast of Isla Espiritu Santo. I totally enjoyed the usual La Paz tourist dive sites but to be honest, the exploratory diving along Espiritu Santo was amazing.

Exploring Isla Espiritu Santo

For instance, the second day the weather was perfect – no wind, 80 degrees, flat calm water and perfect dive buddies – Nick and Natalia. Where should we go was the question? The answer, wherever it looked good along the coast of Isla Espiritu Santo. We dove three times that day – in whatever location looked good for macro. So what did we find?

The boat anchored in a cove surrounded by volcanic rocks which continued under the water. The sunshine caused the rays of light to penetrate the water, illuminating it with a moving array of optics, while the stillness of the cove was punctuated only by the cries of birds. A sea lion popped up in the still waters; we back rolled off the boat and were greeted with an amazing cacophony of macro life.

No Common Name. Hypselodoris agassizii. El Bajito, Isla Espiritu Santo. Nikon D80 with dual strobes, 60mm macro lens. 1/200 sec, f/22, ISO 100.

Where to begin? The oysters were scattered haphazardly across the bottom and on the cascading rocks from the cliffs above. The scallops were hidden amidst the rocks and under the coarse volcanic sand. The conchs, the Pacific Conch, one of the largest in the world, were moving along the bottom of the cove in the staccato haphazardly-flipping manner that only conch shells exhibit. In the sand were trails of moving shells and mounds marking the resting place of hidden gastropods that could be identified only after they were excavated. This was a macro photographer’s heaven. 

El Bajito and Isla Ballena

The next day, we visited several of the named dive sites searching for nudibranchs – rare nudibranchs. With Natalia at my side, we were not disappointed. To begin the morning, we dove the Fang Ming wreck to investigate the possibility of a rare nudibranch and an unusual creature growing on several lines inside the wreck. We never found the rare nudibranch; the “unusual creature” turned out to be a very young juvenile oyster attached to a rope gently swaying with the surge inside the wreck. The photograph, while revealing, is not worth publishing. The wreck? The Fang Ming was awesome but macro it was not. So, off to El Bajito and then Isla Ballena; macro subjects abounded at each of these sites.

We pulled up and anchored at Isla Ballena where Natalia told me to keep my eyes open once we hit the bottom. No advice was better given. The site was an island wall that hit the sand around 60 feet and in a few spots several feet deeper. We immediately found several subjects including an unknown turrid and an amazing olive. Natalia has a great eye for macro subjects, and by teaching/showing her how gastropods moved under the sand she became an expert shell hunter – watching for the “sand that moves.” She found the olive while watching for the “sand that moves” while I found the turrid hunting amongst the algae tufts at the base of the rocks. 

Olive face. Oliva spicata melchersi. Isla Ballena. Olympus TG-5, Sola 1200 Video Light. 1/400 sec, f/6.3, ISO 100.

 

Sea Stars

While discussing the various macro areas, I must emphasize that each dive site contains macro subjects galore; that includes Los Islotes with the sea lions. I was especially fascinated with the various starfish, or sea stars to be accurate. I was definitely not aware that the Crown of Thorn starfish were a problem in La Paz. Evidently they are but whatever their status, they make amazing macro subject material. Other starfish are quite the unique subject as well. 

 

Panamic Cushion Starfish. Pentaceraster cumingii. Fang Ming Wreck. Olympus TG-5, Sola 1200 Video Light. 1/250 sec, f/3.8, ISO 500.

 

One Last Day

The last day dawned bright, calm, warm and with promise of macro delights; well I should say the last day of macro photography. I must admit that I saved the last day to photograph sea lions with Nick.

The weather was perfect for cruising around Isla Espiritu Santo looking for sites. As we rounded the southeast corner, the topography changed. The cliffs led directly to the water, sloping gradually down to about 45 feet depth. The clarity was such that the bottom was visible and consisted of small pebbles and rocks interspersed with clumps of algae. Nick took the included photo while I was photographing a unique living cone at the site. The photo demonstrates the bottom as perfect for macro.

 

Macro Photographer, Photo by Nick Polanszky. Unnamed Cove, Isla Espiritu Santo.

 

Both Natalia and I scoured the bottom for an hour discovering a multitude of subjects. My favorite, included here, was the Cone proboscis with harpoon.

Cone snails have always fascinated me, both from a photographic aspect and a neurological aspect. Cone snails are some of the most lethal creatures in the ocean. All cone shells are carnivorous, feeding on fish (piscivorous), feeding on worms (vermivorous), or feeding on mollusks (molluscivorous). I know what you’re thinking – wait, can snails really hunt down and kill swimming fish, or even worms? Yes, indeed they can, by utilizing a very potent, extremely fast acting combination of poisons that paralyzes and kills their prey in a matter of seconds. Some cones even have poison that can paralyze a human in less than 5 minutes!

 

Cone Proboscis and harpoon. Conus tessulatus edaphus. Unnamed Cove, Isla Espiritu Santo. Olympus TG-5, Sola 1200 Video Light. 1/250 sec, f/4.9, ISO 800.

 

So, what type of compound can do this? A conotoxin, which is a group of neurotoxic peptides (proteins). Each has a very specific action upon an ion channel, synaptic receptor, or even portions of the cell membrane. Whatever the action, conotoxins generally inhibit activity of muscle, physiologically destroying the integrity and coordination of the neural-muscular network, and thereby paralyzing their prey. (Editor’s note: that sounds fun!)

All cones are poisonous, although not all have the capacity to kill a human. The slurry of poisons found in each species in unique to that species only, and the composition of the poisons differs between individuals and varies in time – from day to day and from month to month. When viewing this photo keep in mind that all cones are deadly to some organism, but that their poisons may also hold the key to a multitude of neural diseases in the future, including pain control.

So, back to Isla Espiritu Santo. The site was a mecca for all types of unique macro subjects. We spent two dives there, and I vowed to do a night dive there the next time I visited La Paz. As we rounded the island and were making our way back to the dive shop, we were accompanied by a large pod of dolphins and spotted several blows from a Humpback whale. La Paz was reminding us of its large animal heritage.

La Paz is a magical place with its dive sites filled with wonder. From rocky reefs to sunken wrecks to unnamed coves to the classic sea lions of Los Islotes, La Paz has something for everyone. Although La Paz is best known for its whale sharks, mobulas, mantas and sea lions, it is also a haven for a fascinating array of macro life and photographic subjects. Next time you visit La Paz for the big animals, take a day of diving and search for its macro wonders with Natalia. You will not be disappointed.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

After graduating from Duke University for undergraduate studies, Charles E. Rawlings attended Duke University School of Medicine where he became a distinguished neurosurgeon. After practicing neurosurgery for over ten years, Dr. Rawlings decided to add another career path and attended Wake Forest University School of Law, where he was named a Juris Doctor in 2002. Dr. Rawlings currently owns and operates The Rawlings Law Firm of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Moreover, he has over 56 publications in various journals and dive publications covering a multitude of subjects.  

Although Dr. Rawlings has ventured into the academic areas of both medicine and law, his true passions stem from underwater photography and travel.  For over 30 years, Charles has traveled the globe fulfilling his desire to capture life under the sea in its natural habitat.  With a focus upon living shells, Charles has taken part in over 50 photographic displays and a myriad of worldwide expeditions.  If malachological expeditions in Union Island, Roatan, Manus Islands, Mozambique, North West Sulawesi, and Palawan weren't enough, add in scuba diving, underwater and regular photography expeditions in areas such as the Cayman Islands, Yucatan, Netherland Antilles, Kona Coast of Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Red Sea, Belize, Honduras, and other remote parts of the planet. 

Charles Rawlings' exquisite and seemingly impossible photography has graced the cover of American Conchologist 14 times, as well as being on the back cover twice.  Photography that mystifies the mind, tempts the senses, and exemplifies nature's beauty is what can be found behind the lens of Dr. Charles Rawlings.

 

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Tips for photographing jellyfish in jellyfish lakes
By Paul & Lisa Hogger

Photographing Jellyfish Lakes

Paul & Lisa Hogger
Tips for photographing jellyfish in jellyfish lakes

Jellyfish. Love them or hate them, they are bizarre but interesting aquatic animals to photograph. With an estimated 2000 species worldwide, they can be found in every ocean around the planet in a considerable range of sizes.

The Acclaimed and Recently Closed Koror Jellyfish Lake

One area that is quite popular for photographing jellyfish are the many jellyfish lakes found throughout the Northern Pacific and Asia. Of those the most notable used to be the Koror Jellyfish Lake in Palau. Sadly, the lake was closed to tourists in 2017 due to a rapid decline in jellyfish numbers apparently linked to an increase in the lake’s salinity levels. Prior to the drought in 2016, the lake had approximately 2.7 million Golden Jellyfish. Both species within the lake have no nematocysts or stinging cells. Their isolation from predators over thousands of years resulted in the loss of their ability to sting. Because of the lake’s high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide at depths greater than 15m/50ft, scuba diving is not permitted. It was challenging to photograph them in the lake using snorkelling gear only. But after walking the steep and sometimes slippery limestone trail from the boat jetty, up and over the densely forested hill, and down to the lake’s foreshore with your camera and snorkelling gear, the last thing you’d want to do is have a scuba pack as well!

Jellyfish Heaven

During our extended stay in Palau, we watched excited photographers swim out to the center of the lake (where the densest population of jellyfish are during the daytime), get their photos, and return directly to the floating pontoon on the lake edge.

 

With calm conditions, patchy cloud cover, and the sun high overhead, some great photos from about 3m/10ft are achievable. By staying shallow and looking up, it eliminates the green color-cast that the lake produces when photographing down or at depths below 3m/10ft.

Shoreside Opportunity

In our opinion what visitors to the lake missed by swimming straight out and back was the amazing shore. The available structure can be used as terrific photo backgrounds. With the forested sides of the lake offering wind protection, the surface conditions can be very calm close to the edge. There is an abundance of mangroves, fallen trees, and overhanging foliage that offer many different photo opportunities. There are less jellyfish around the perimeter during daylight hours, but concentrating on just one or two in the frame with a unique background can result in an eye-catching image. After a few days of experimenting, we found the Nikon 12-24mm lens was best suited for the task but a Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens also worked well.

Other Jellyfish Lake Opportunities

Despite the unfortunate circumstance at Koror Lake, there are some fantastic jellyfish lakes in Asia. We used the same techniques utilizing structure around the shoreline when we visited a series of jellyfish lakes in southern Raja Ampat in West Papua. The jellyfish are a different species with longer tentacles. Due to the lakes being open to the sea, some can sting you if you are not careful! With more time (and less camera carrying than in Palau) we could experiment with different lenses and tried the Tokina 10-17mm fish eye, Nikon 12-24mm wide angle and even a 60mm macro lens with its greater speed.

Conclusion

Whilst the world’s most iconic Jellyfish Lake has closed for now, don’t fret because there are others – just not yet as well known and sadly not as easily accessible, particularly for day visitors. If you are lucky enough to experience a jellyfish lake, try some photography around the shoreline with structure in the frame.

But don’t leave a jellyfish lake right until the end of your visit otherwise you’ll want to return with more time….

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul and Lisa are an Australian couple originating from Australia’s East Coast. Of their 20 years of marriage they have lived on their private yachts Purranha and Lorelei for 14 years and have been full time sailing/cruising for 9 of those years. Their latest expedition began in 2011 onboard Lorelei with the main purpose to dive many of the world’s best dive locations. To date they have explored 22 countries in the South Pacific, North Pacific and Asia – covering a distance of over 24 000 nautical miles.

They are independent divers and can proudly say that over 95% of their underwater images were taken whilst diving by themselves from their purpose built dive tender on board Lorelei. They are PADI pros and have over 8000 dives between them. Due to the harsh conditions of sailing life, they choose Nikon, Ikelite and Aquatica photographic equipment.

More information and images of their travels can be found on their blog:

www.yachtlorelei.blogspot.com

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Featuring the Giant Pacific Octopus
By Bob Bailey

The Gentle Giants of the Pacific Northwest

Bob Bailey
Featuring the Giant Pacific Octopus

On a cold, winter night in West Seattle, two young men prepare to go scuba diving. Slipping beneath the dark water, they are in search of something very special. And after a 10-minute swim, at more than 100 feet beneath the surface, they find it. 

Pilings, lashed together, lay along the bottom – remnants of a time when this part of Elliott Bay was a deep-water port. Buried beneath them, in a den carefully sculpted to provide minimal access, lies a female Giant Pacific Octopus, or GPO. Hanging from the top of her den, draped like pale yellow beaded curtains, hangs her nearly 100,000 eggs, each about the size of a grain of rice. Gently caressing them to keep algae-free, using her syphon to aerate them, her only goal in life is to care for her eggs until they hatch. And then she dies.

The Beginning and the End

Typically solitary creatures, the GPO only mates once in its lifetime. The male deposits a sperm sac inside the mantle of the female. The sac has a thick protective coating because she may carry it for months before she is ready to fertilize her eggs. The male will die shortly after mating.

The female finds a suitable den and deposits her eggs in strings that she attaches to the top of the den. Then she spends the rest of her life caring for her eggs. She will not leave the den, will not eat, and slowly wastes away while attending to her offspring. Many females die before their eggs hatch, but if she survives the seven to eight month incubation period she will die almost immediately after the hatching takes place.

Upon hatching, the baby octopuses measure about a quarter-inch – roughly the size of a common house-fly. As they exit the egg casings, their mother uses her syphon to blow them free of the den. The new hatchlings make their way to the surface, where they spend the first few weeks of their lives in a larval state, growing by eating plankton. During this fragile time of their lives, most of them will become prey for fish and sea birds. After a four to six week period, those who survive will settle back to the ocean floor. If they survive predation, they will spend the next two years growing to adulthood. Eventually, of the scores of thousands of hatchlings, only a handful will survive to become adults.

Living Legends

The Giant Pacific Octopus is the stuff of legends in the Pacific Northwest. Despite their short life-span of 3 to 5 years, there have been decades-old tales of “the largest octopus in the world” living underneath the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. But the reality of these creatures is no less amazing than the folklore, and very few experiences thrill a scuba diver more than a chance encounter with one of these gentle giants of the deep. 

An adult GPO can grow to be larger than 20 feet across, weighing more than 150 lbs. With the ability to change skin color to express mood, and skin that enables it to change its texture to mimic its surroundings, the GPO is one of the most peculiar species on the world. It has three hearts, nine brains, blue blood, and carries its stomach where you’d expect its head to be. It has taste receptors in each of its more than 1500 suckers, which it uses to help find and identify prey. Its diet consists primarily of crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp, mollusks such as clams and mussels, and even other species of octopus. It has a prodigious appetite, consuming up to 4% of its bodyweight in food each day. Once captured, the GPO uses its hard beak to inject a toxic saliva to paralyze its prey and aid the digestion of its flesh. Then the octopus settles into its den for a leisurely meal. After eating the flesh it discards the remains into a rubbish pile, called a midden, just outside its den.  Divers often use the midden to identify the location of an octopus den, which could otherwise be so well hidden that it would be difficult to find. 

Much is yet to be learned about the enigmatic GPO. It is thought to be highly intelligent. A GPO displays unique personality traits, can solve problems and puzzles, and can even recognize humans it has had previous contact with. Author Sy Montgomery in his book The Soul of an Octopus said, “There’s not a creature more unlikely on this Earth it seems, and yet here’s somebody who can look you in the eye and recognize you.” 

Threats and Conservation

Because Giant Pacific Octopuses are only found in coastal areas along the northern parts of the Pacific Ocean, the biggest threats to the GPO are primarily human-made. They include pollution due to development, changes in water and ocean acidification due to industrialization, the burning of fossil fuels, and low-oxygen (“dead”) zones created by an overabundance of phytoplankton and macroalgae.

 

Scuba divers travel from all over the world hoping for a chance encounter with the Giant Pacific Octopus in its natural environment.  In 2013 the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife designated seven areas as protected for the Giant Pacific Octopus. These areas were recognized as popular nesting grounds, and places for scuba divers to interact with and witness the miraculous life cycle of these amazing animals.  

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Dive into the world of corals, the incredible diversity you can find on the reef, and tips for bringing home great photos
By Nicole Helgason

How Coral Photography Can Inspire Your Next Dive

Nicole Helgason
Dive into the world of corals, the incredible diversity you can find on the reef, and tips for bringing home great photos

Divers tend to swoon over megafauna, sharks, whales, and dolphins. Or perhaps they take a closer look and zoom in on macro critters, shrimps, and nudibranchs - perfect subjects for photography. But corals often get lumped in as background and only credited with a supporting role.

Corals are a vital component for a healthy marine ecosystem, and are the starting point for scuba divers to explore the ocean. But ask any diver to name a handful of species, and chances are you won’t get very far.

So why is it that coral photography and coral identification are not more popular?

Perhaps it is because of our natural desire to anthropomorphize the world. It is much easier for us as humans to connect with fish or marine mammals by looking into their eyes and observing their distinct personalities. Corals, on the other hand, could be mistaken for rocks even though they are alive; and if you look hard enough they can even smile.

 

 

In my experience, divemasters and dive centers focus on pointing out fish and critters without emphasizing corals. And unless your dive guide has gone out of their way to research corals, they to may be hard pressed to name a dozen species. As a dive instructor, I was also guilty of only pointing out fish and knowing very little about coral reefs.

 

Just Another Angelfish

Let's say you’re in the Caribbean and you set out on a dive looking for a French Angelfish. You tell your guide that it’s what you absolutely cannot wait to find. During the dive you spot a brilliant adult angelfish who isn't shy in front of the lens.

You spend the rest of a dive slowly following this fish, studying its movements, waiting for the perfect shot. The angelfish was exactly as you had imagined and your photo is worthy of Ocean Art prestige. But chances are if you go searching for a French angelfish next dive, it’s unlikely you would come across a purple, green or red variety.

 

 

Coral Diversity

Corals on the other hand, come in a plethora of shapes, sizes, and colors, all within the same species. The excitement of looking for corals comes when you spot a colony in the distance and slowly approach to discover its unique patterns.

Corals make excellent photography subjects, especially if you are just learning to shoot underwater. For the most part corals stay put, which makes adjusting your focusing distance, tinkering with your lighting, and creating the perfect composition that much easier. Taking pictures of coral is a valuable exercise in honing your photography skills.

As you start looking deeper into corals you’ll notice subtle color variations along the edge, minuscule polyps or large fleshy vesicles, and differences in colony shape. You will start to notice slow encrusting species competing for space on the reef with faster growing corals, and cryptic corals tucked under larger branching colonies.

Take for example these four colonies of Porites asteroides. They all have the same nobly appearance characteristic of the species; however, each colony has a distinct shape and color. The larger colonies of Porites asteroids look like they are melting from the top like a bubbling pot, where as smaller colonies can be appear to be round balls sprouting from the reef.

 

 

I will admit to being a self-confessed coral nerd, but there is just something to the unknown discovery of new corals which excites me during a dive. With corals you are never quite sure what you will find, how the environment will affect the growth of a colony or what creature or divers will come into play to enhance your composition. 

We recently spent a week in the Caribbean with a hit-list of corals we wanted to find. One of those corals was a Scolymia. Scolymia is a single polyp fleshy coral that comes in countless color combinations. After nine dives of looking for this coral I finally spotted a lone Scolymia cubensis at 24 feet (8m) deep.

 

 

I couldn’t contain my excitement and quickly pointed out the coral to my partner, who quickly shifted focus to a passing barracuda. While a toothy barracuda is impressive, I’m sure we saw dozens of these fish on each of our dives and, in my mind, the lone Scolymia was WAY cooler than a barracuda! 

So what are you waiting for? Start off by learning to identify a few species of common, and even bizarre looking coral. And, next time you go diving have these coral on your mind and let the treasure hunt begin. 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Check out Nicole's camera gear used in these photos:

Olympus E-PL5  -