Inside Look: Training Sharks to Eat Lionfish

Antonio Busiello
Controlling Invasive Lionfish in the Caribbean - A New Meal for Sharks?

Inside Look: Training Sharks to Eat Lionfish

Controlling Invasive Lionfish in the Caribbean - A New Meal for Sharks?

Text and Photos By Antonio Busiello


Shark eating Lionfish



Lionfish have the potential to become the most disastrous marine invasion in history. 

Lionfish are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. With no natural predators in the Atlantic, lionfish populations have exploded throughout the waters of the Caribbean and U.S. in recent years. Biologists and scientists all around the Caribbean are working with the local Marine Parks trying to find a solution for stopping this impending epidemic. On the Island of Roatan in Honduras, local divemasters are even trying to train sharks to include lionfish in their diet. Although endangered themselves, sharks in the Caribbean may help keep the population of lionfish under control, providing yet another reason to protect the beautiful predators.

I have been working with park officials and local divers in documenting the attempt to teach sharks how to eat lion fish, and eventually to include them in their diet. They think that If these predators start to see lionfish as prey, eventually the lionfish may be kept under control as a part of the ecosystem. 


About Lionfish

Lionfish can take over seafloor and reef habitat and establish densities of more than 200 adults per acre. A mature female lionfish produces some two million eggs every year, and those eggs and larvae are carried far and wide by currents—fuelling an ongoing invasion.

George Burgess, director of shark research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, calls them the "Norwegian rats of the sea."


Lionfish Caribbean


Lionfish Caribbean


Eating & Hunting Lionfish

Roatan Marine Park has also made efforts to put lionfish on the menu and make people aware that they can cook and eat them, another idea for keeping the population in check. The fish are said to be tasty once their venomous spines are removed.

Harpoons and spears are illegal under Honduran fishing laws, hovewer the park has acquired an exception to arm trained and licensed divers with fishing spears called Hawaiian Slings. Their sole aim is spearing the invasive lionfish, and local humans are doing as much lionfish hunting as we hope the sharks will. During a competition organized by the park, more than 1,700 lionfish were killed and cooked in a single day. One diver with a rubber band spear gun was able to kill 60 by himself. They really are everywhere.

The spearfishers began feeding the lionfish to sharks, and after a while we saw a shark actually hunting a lionfish and eating it! This spawned the idea and shows the exact hunting behavior that those involved with the Roatan project hope will catch on. Ian Drysdale of Healthy Reefs hopes that sharks are getting a taste for lionfish and will take to hunting them on their own without any human intervention.


Lionfish Caribbean


Shark Caribbean


Shark eating Lionfish


Shark eating Lionfish


Shark eating Lionfish


Shark eating Lionfish


Shooting the Photos

It was very hard for me to get these images. I shoot with a 10.5 fisheye and had to work very close to the action. Sharks get very aggressive during feeding frenzies and I found myself in thrilling situations a couple of times.

I hope this project will catch on and that the lionfish will be kept under control by local predators, just like in Pacific and Indian Oceans.


Shark eating Lionfish


Shark eating Lionfish



About the Author

Antonio Busiello is an award-winning documentary and fine art photographer. A native of Italy, he studied anthropology at the University of Naples and then started traveling the world to focus on photography. Now with home bases in London and Florence he continues his storytelling through photography.


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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The Craziest Critters in Lembeh

Mike Bartick
Amazing Behavior Photos you Need to See

The Craziest Critters in Lembeh

Amazing Behavior Photos you Need to See

Text and Photos by Mike Bartick




There is no doubt that Lembeh Straits is a prime destination for small marine animal life. The area and resorts have been a leader in destination dive travel for many years and offer up a slice of the exotic wrapped in a patina of comfortable ambiance.

For me, a Bona-Fide critterhead, Lembeh was instrumental in spring boarding my obsession for critters to the point of moving to the Indo-Pacific. Justified by the fact that I needed to be closer to the action, right in the epicenter of biodiversity known as the coral triangle. This geographic area covers much of Indonesia and a slice of the Philippines, and has been a never-ending adventure for myself and many others engaged on the same underwater photography path. One thing I have discovered along the way is that it the path has actually narrowed, honing my curiosity for specific things that normally interest no one but myself and (obviously) other critterheads.

As always I encourage everyone to use the best critter guide his/her travel budget can afford, create a critter list prior to a trip and check The Underwater Photography Guide for additional insight and photo shooting tips. It’s important to use these resources as much as possible!


Pharoe Cuttlefish Egg

Pharaoh cuttlefish (Sepia pharaonis) lay their large eggs in the coral heads for extra protection. This massive egg is nearly the size of a golfball and the cuttlefish inside of it is ready to vacate to begin his life. Nikon 105 and +5 subsee diopter


pennate batfish

Juvenile Pennate Spadefish (Platax pinnatus), often called juvenile batfish, are really amazing and fun to photograph. It is speculated that the bright orange band mimics the colors of a poisonous flatworm, giving the little spadefish a bit of protection against predators. Nikkor 60mm


pennate batfish

Pennate Spadefish (Platax pinnatus) in a head-on stand-off. Patience prevailed as I was able to capture this difficult fluttering spadefish the instant it looked at me. Shooting behavior requires total attention for that split-second opportunity. Nikkor 60mm


mandarin fish mating

Mating Mandarin fish (Synchiropus splendidus). Each evening at sunset these amazing dragonettes pair up and mate. The larger female will scoot around the coral head with one or more males in tow and when the time is right they begin to rise above the coral head together in an affectionate manner, eventually broadcast spawning and darting back to the coral head below. The female will repeat this act over and over with several different males.


mandarin fish spawning

The mating mandarin cast spawn and dart away, returning to the reef below. I shot this at 3 frames per second with a high ISO and low power on the strobes in order to capture the action and I still missed the photo I had in mind.


Lembeh Pipedragon

Lembeh Pipedragon (Kyonemichthys rumenangi) - Part pipehorse and part fable. This really cool and very small creature has been on my list since it was described just a few years ago. My guide Nunsix flagged me over to a wall where this little guy was living amongst a small bit of algae. I decided to take a deep breath and position myself under the pipedragon to get the shot I wanted. Again, it briefly glanced into my lens allowing me to get a clear photo with both eyes. I have only seen profile pics (which I also shot) but I wanted to see its face. Nikkor 105 and + 5 diopter. Cropped 20%



These amazing Pygmy Seahorses (Hippocampus severensi) make their home, living amongst the hydroids and bryozoans on the reefs and under coral heads. This pygmy seahorse and the one at the top of the page were very challenging to photograph as they love surgey areas. In addition, their dark coloration and compressed bodys make them very cryptic and tough to find. Nikon D300s 105 and +5 diopter


Butterflyfish Lembeh

Butterflyfish appeared out of nowhere while shooting wide-angle at Angels Window. Although Lembeh isn’t a true wide-angle destination, it does offer some very unique opportunities to utilize your wide lenses. Nikon D300s, Tokina 10-17


Hairy Frogfish Yawn

Hairy frogfish (A.striatus) are always on my hitlist. This small and very active little guy had quite the attitude and yawned at me several times. Hairy frogfish are a bit more sophisticated than their anglerfish brethren. The striatus have a large and unique lure that they use to excite their prey, coaxing them closer for the kill. Nikon D300s, Nikkor 60mm


Special thanks to Kasawari Lembeh Resort and guides Nunsix and Ali. The service is impeccable, guides are fantastic and the resort is stunning. You made our stay very special to say the least. Stay tuned for details for detsils on Lembeh, Macro Madness June 2014


About the Author

Mike BartikMike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish and other underwater critters, and is the official critter expert for the Underwater Photography Guide. Mike is also one of the UWPG trip leaders. See more of his work at



Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



Ultimate Guide to Sea Turtle Photography

Jeff Milisen
A Hawaii-Centric Guide to Sea Turtles, Where to Find Them, Photo Tips & Behaviors

Ultimate Guide to Sea Turtle Photography

A Hawaii-Centric Guide to Sea Turtles, Where to Find Them, Photo Tips & Behaviors

Text & Photos by Jeff Milisen


sea turtle



More than six hundred thousand tourists flocked to Hawaii in April this year. While a few flew in for work, most of the guests were here on vacation. Their motives were mostly similar: lie on a beach, soak up some sun, and go for a swim. At some point hunger drove them away from the beach toward a buffet of tropical edibles. And between the gluttonous cramming and food-induced beach comas, they will sometimes even procreate. Of course, these activities aren’t solely for people seeking a tan. One of Hawaii’s most symbolic and photogenic creatures has made a lifestyle out of similar passions.


Sea Turtles in Hawaii

Sea turtles have had a roller coaster relationship with Hawaii. Early explorers described seeing so many turtles that they were navigation hazards. As happens all too frequently, the human population in Hawaii exploded to the detriment of the local wildlife. Turtles were hunted to near extirpation until the state and federal governments put a stop to collecting and even harassment of such animals in 1978. Over the next few years, they multiplied. A lot. Today it is imperative to keep a lookout at the bow of a small boat moving through Kaneohe Bay lest a turtle pop up for a breath. They have become a staple of Hawaiian tourism and a symbol of the successes of proper management. There is currently a movement to take green sea turtles off the threatened list. Thus, now seems like an appropriate time to appreciate these gentle, floating mega fauna.


sea turtle

A honu proudly shows off a healed war wound at Portlock, Oahu. This animal was likely the victim of a tiger shark, one of the only animals equipped to consume full-grown sea turtles. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/160, f/9, iso 200.


Hawaii’s strict anti-harassment laws have brought the species back from the brink, but they still face many anthropogenic hazards. Boat strikes, poachers, and marine debris all claim an untold number of turtles every year. I’ve witnessed numerous examples of these hazards, but by far the most memorable was a turtle I came across under the ledge of a popular fishing spot. Its front flipper was connected to its head by numerous hooks and lines, pinning both extremities to its side. Reflecting on the same anti-harassment laws that saved Hawaii’s turtles, I nervously reached out and removed one hook from its head hoping that would resolve the situation and be on my way. The turtle swam around and approached me again, creating an extenuating circumstance by turning me into a cleaning station. As I was running low on air and the lines and hooks were mostly gone, I swam off with the turtle trailing behind as the most unique dive buddy I’ve ever had.

This article is taking a Hawaii-centric approach to the topic of sea turtles, which means we are mostly dealing with the abundant green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas). Greens, or honu as they are locally known, are the largest of the hard-shelled turtles reaching a maximum size of somewhere around 1 meter in length. They can be distinguished from their other shelled relatives by having a blunt head and a beak without a hook. In discord with their namesake, green sea turtles are not especially green but are instead named for the green colored fat under their shells. Unlike other sea turtles, honu eat mostly macro algae and seagrass. 


sea turtle

This turtle became so infatuated with its own reflection that I found myself having to swim away at times to keep from scratching my dome port. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/160, f/8, iso 100.


Where to Find Them

Green sea turtles are found circumtropically and are one of the most frequently encountered species in many parts of their range. The turtles in the Atlantic and the Pacific represent their own subpopulations. Major nesting sites exist on Ascension Island, Costa Rica, Hutchinson Island in Florida, the Pacific Coast of Mexico and throughout the Indo Pacific. Look for greens in shallow coastal waters foraging on seagrass beds where available.

In Hawaii, green sea turtles are pretty ubiquitous. The key to any good photo is a compelling and willing subject, and the places that maintain a friendlier turtle population tend to be where they have had the most exposure to people. For example, the sites best known for harboring lots of relatively tame turtles on Oahu include Makaha, Hanauma Bay, much of the North Shore, and the boat accessible Turtle Canyon. Likewise on the Big Island, places like Honaunau, Puako and Turtles Reef are hot spots for cuddling up next to a honu and popular places to go for a snorkel. While these are recommended honu hideouts, nearly every dive site has a few resident turtles. 


sea turtles

A pair of Hawaiian green sea turtles resting in the coral gardens outside Sea Cave off the southeast side of Oahu. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/100, f/8, iso 400.



Photo Tips

As with most animal photography, turtles need to be romanced into behaving for the camera. Take some time to get to know your subject before diving in for the winning shot. Underwater photography isn’t just about getting the exposure and composition right; the unique experiences are what drive the resulting imagery. Most of these rules can be applied to any underwater subject that comes into focus. 


Don’t Chase

The best way to get a shot of a turtle’s tail is to swim after it. Head-on shots are better achieved through patience and playing to the animal’s inherent sense of curiosity. Approach slowly or better yet, let the animal come to you. As long as they aren’t spooked, they can often be entranced by their own reflection in the dome port. When this happens, set the shutter speed to fast and just hold down the shutter.


Wait for your Shot

Turtles can be deceptively difficult to shoot well. Anybody can point and click, but it takes real patience to put everything in the right place. Even if the subject is facing the camera and at the right angle (which it won't often do naturally), the front flippers can awkwardly block the head. When the turtle is being sociable, keep an eye in the viewfinder and a finger on the trigger. Remember, while faster dslr’s may take photos at a rate of ten pics per second, strobes take a few seconds to recycle. Use the artificial light wisely and hold off until the shot comes into view.


Create the Shot

It always helps to have a plan. Visualize the shot before entering the water thinking about the elements of composition, lighting, and exposure. Where do you want the subject? Are there other divers in the image? What are they doing? The more detail that goes into the plan, the better the final image will be.


sea turtle

When shooting most nektonic animals, it is a good idea to shoot at an upward angle to separate the subject from the substrate. In this case, a snorkeler hovers excitedly over her first Hawaiian green sea turtle encounter at Kahe Point, Oahu. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/125, f/9, iso 100.


Be Adaptable

Often, the situation won’t unfold the way it was originally imagined, so instead of wasting the experience, use the added elements to create something exceptional. Did the plan call for a reflection at the surface but the seas are too choppy? Use the stormy water to create a dramatic image instead. Are there more people crowding the animal than expected? Document that. These unexpected elements are what help tell the story of your shot. 


Respect Local Guidelines

Hawaii offers turtles protection from harassment. Harassment is defined as any action that alters the natural behavior of the animal, which means absolutely no touching or riding the animals. The wording on the laws is intentionally vague, so it is in the best interest of the photographer to be conservative in how they act around protected animals.


In General

Unless you are looking for a portrait/head shot, go wide or go home. But if the equipment in question isn’t any fancier than a point and shoot, don’t worry as turtles are fairly forgiving subjects.


sea turtle

This image is the result of an hour spent gaining an animal’s trust. It took many minutes, but eventually, the turtle decided I was not a threat and swam with me for the remainder of the dive, affording me many opportunities to wait for the sun to be shining bright enough for the sunbeams in the background. Taken at Honaunau, Big Island. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/160, f/8, iso 100.


sea turtle split shot

Split shots of static subjects are tough enough. Taking over unders of moving subjects requires lots of planning, even more patience, and a healthy dose of good luck. Puako, Big Island. Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/160, f/8, iso 400.


hawaii sea turtle

A young green sea turtle pokes its head through the wreckage of a Navy LCU off the west shore of Oahu.  Canon 500D, Tokina 10-17mm, 1/160, f/9, iso 200.




Even if the plan changes, the preparation process is key to making your pics pop. Part of the visualization process should include a behavior that the turtle is exhibiting. Below is a short list of the most common behavioral opportunities pertaining to turtles and how to up the chance for success. 



Anywhere turtles are seen frequently provides an opportunity to observe them lying about. However the award for the laziest turtles might have to go to a pair that hangs out on the stern of the wreck of the YO-257 on Oahu. It seems that if they aren’t on the deck itself, they are usually lying out in a hold somewhere or heading to the surface for a breath. If the latter is the case, just sit tight - they’ll be back shortly.



Hawaii is one of the only places (in addition to the Galapagos and Australia) where green sea turtles are known to bask on shore. People frequently mistake these beached animals as injured or laying eggs. More than likely, the turtles are thermoregulating or even just taking a break. They make for engaging and unique over/under subjects when entering or leaving the water or even to set off a pretty sunset. When preparing the shot, keep in mind that laws prohibiting harassment of sea turtles extend beyond the water’s edge. Favorite basking beaches can be found at Puako, Honaunau and at various beaches on the north shore of Oahu. 



When they aren’t resting or lying around on a beach, turtles are generally stuffing themselves with marine salad. Often, they can be found feeding in shallow water where the rocks meet the ocean. The good news for shutterbugs is that the turtles are often so engrossed in their food that they forget their surroundings. Therefore, macro shots of turtles munching on rock fuzz are an easy way to snag a last-minute shot at the end of a dive. 



As much as they would rather remain motionless on the bottom or gorge themselves on seaslime, turtles have to go to the surface to breathe every so often. When this happens, they take one or two breaths and disappear beneath the surface. The two ways to get this shot are while wading in a shallow, protected embayment or spotting one from a boat. The turtle should be positioned such that it is facing toward or lateral to the lens. Be ready with a long lens focused on the spot they are likely to come up because the breath will last only a quick second. 



Much like neighbors who refuse to mow or rake their lawns, turtles don’t clean themselves. Instead, the other reef inhabitants take the task on themselves. Most congregations of turtles have a resident cleaning station nearby. Because yellow hues show up brightly underwater, it is visually optimal to target cleaning stations with a lot of yellow fish. In Hawaii this means yellow tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) that are most abundant on the Kona coast. Be wary that the tangs will scatter quickly, so act fast with the wide-angle lens.



Get lucky. Breeding occurs in the springtime. That’s about all the help anyone can give.


sea turtles mating in hawaii

This pair of sea turtles were found mating offshore from Kihei, Maui. Note the male’s front flipper claws gripping the carapace of the female. The coupling lasted only for a few minutes before they parted ways.  Canon A650is, 1/250, f/4, ISO 160.



The vast majority of nestings in Hawaii occur at French Frigate Shoals, an atoll that sits in a protected section of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That means that the same turtles that are visiting tourists at Waikiki Beach swim 500 miles to this remote location every year to lay eggs before swimming all the way back to Oahu. Recently, and for the first time in decades, turtles have been observed nesting on the islets surrounding Oahu in June and July. Many of these small islands are off limits to the public, so these episodes are best witnessed from nearby shorelines and small boats.



Other Sea Turtles

While green sea turtles are common in Hawaii, there are several other species that prove just as interesting. All of the species mentioned below have been found in Hawaii, but are much more rare than their “green” cousin.


Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)

Hawksbills are extremely rare in Hawaii and considered critically endangered throughout the rest of their range. They can be distinguished from greens by having a curved beak, flatter shells, and overlapping scutes where the carapace (dorsal shell) and plastron (ventral shell) meet. They are endangered because they historically supplied much of the world’s need for tortoiseshell and have yet to recover. Their strange diet is comprised mostly of sponges. The Caribbean and western Indian Ocean (and Red Sea) remains some of the more common places to encounter hawksbill sea turtles.


hawksbill sea turtle

Hawksbill sea turtles are rarely seen in Hawaii. This older specimen was observed just inside of the boat channel at Honokohau Harbor, Big Island. Canon G12, 1/80, f/8, iso 125.


Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead sea turtles are no strangers to life in the open ocean but can also be found in shallow coastal environments. They come ashore only to lay eggs. Loggerheads are notable for having blunt snouts and small plastrons (ventral shells). Food items include most animals they can catch. Frequently this means sessile, shelled organisms like gastropods and crustaceans. Females will often battle it out over territory in a ritual that escalates into biting at each other. The best place to visit loggerheads is off the coast of the southeastern United States and along the Gulf of Mexico. 


Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)

This is the largest sea turtle with an average size over 6 feet long and the largest on record being almost 10! Leatherbacks are very rare, and encounters with divers do not happen often. They have a skin covering on their massive carapace and an overall black appearance. The leatherback’s mouth is full of sharp protrusions that point backward helping to guide jellyfish - its spicy food of choice - down its throat. They are one of the world’s few living giant reptiles and as such they are not likely to be confused with other sea turtles. 



In Conclusion

Underwater Photography Guide readers would do well to follow another practice set by sea turtles. They may devote a few hours here and there catching sunrays on the beach, but the vast majority of their time is spent living life under the waves. Chances are good that your vacation would be better occupied off the beach than on it, dragging a camera in tow and working to capture a mind-blowing image of one of the ocean’s most charismatic reptiles. Aloha.


sea turtles in hawaii

A pair of sea turtles cruise over a sandy area outside the warm water discharge site at Kahe Point, Oahu. Canon A650is, 1/40, f/8, iso 80.


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 for more of Jeff’s imagery.


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



10 Underwater Creature Facts You Don't Know

Jonathan Lavan
Fish that Farm, Sharks with Teeth on their Skin and more Amazing Facts!

10 Underwater Creature Facts We Bet You Don't Know

Fish that Farm, Sharks with Teeth on their Skin and more Amazing Facts!

Text & Photos by Jonathan Lavan





The underwater world amazes us as photographers. Part of being a good underwater photographer is being able to identify the fish and other creatures you're looking at. Knowing where to likely find their habitat, how creatures interact with each other and whether their behavior is unusual or not could be the difference between a good shot and a great shot. Sea creatures have some amazing adaptions for survival. Here are 10 Underwater Creatures Facts We Bet You Didn't Know...


1.  Many bony fish have more than just one set of nostrils. The nostrils of fish also do not open into the back of the mouth like those of mammals, and are not, therefore, for breathing. They lead into organs of smell, which are very sensitive in order for fish to detect the presence of food in the water at considerable distances. More nostrils = more smelling!


2.  Not all Hermit Crabs use discarded seashells as their portable shelters. In the Sea of Cortez some hermit crabs use living, growing Hydrocoral and others, in the Indo-Pacific region, live in the fixed wormholes left by marine worms.


3.  Sharks are covered with tiny little teeth called dermal denticles. That’s why their skin feels like sandpaper.


4.  Damselfish are farmers growing little algae gardens. The next time they attack you’ll just know that they are saying: “Stay off my land, yah hear!”


5.  Moray Eels open and close their mouths, not as an aggressive behavior but as part of their respiration process. They’re just breathing!


6.  At night Parrotfish enclose themselves in a bubble of their own mucus to avoid being smelled by predators.


7.  Nudibranchs can absorb nematocysts (stinging cells) from the prey they eat and later use them as part of their defensive system.


8.  Boxfish do not have a conventional bony skeleton like most vertebrate. They literally have a bone box that only the eyes, mouth and fins stick out of.


9.  Many species of fish are hermaphrodites. They will start their lives as females and then if a male is needed the lead female will become a male.


10.  Barnacles are actually crustaceans related to crabs and lobsters. Since they are fixed to the substrate the male barnacle must use a very long reproductive part to be able to reach his mate!



About the Author

Jonathan Lavan is the owner/operator of Underpressure Diving and Photography and an online fish ID instructor for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation ( He shoots with a Nikon D300 with a 60mm or 105mm lens in a Subal housing, a ReefNet 10+ magnifying diopter, Ikelite 125’s or 160’s for strobe and a Light & Motion SOLA/PHOTO 800 focus light. His work can be seen at


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



Fascinating Creatures of the Pacific Northwest

Patricia Gunderson
Thriving Life, Surprising Behavior and Cold Water Creatures

Fascinating Creatures of the Pacific Northwest

Thriving Life, Surprising Behavior and Cold Water Creatures

By Patricia Gunderson


King Crab



I live in the Pacific Northwest and most of my diving has been in the waters of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the inland waters of British Columbia. When I have had the opportunity to dive in places with warmer water most folks ask how I can stand the cold water. My answer is simple: the abundance of life in cold water is endless, and the creatures I see while diving often deliver surprises.


Giant Pacific Octopus (GPO)

One of the most well known animals in our local waters is the Giant Pacific Octopus, (Enteroctopus dofleini). This cephalopod is very intelligent and inquisitive. They can frequently be found in a den during the day and outside hunting at night. Each GPO also seems to remodel its den just to its liking. On one dive I was swimming along when I saw a huge cloud of sand erupt from a den, followed by the octopus throwing shells and rocks out. You could actually see the arms pushing out the debris that was not wanted in the den. GPOs, especially large specimens, are really majestic animals when seen outside of their dens.

Although GPOs are usually inquisitive and not aggressive, it is important to understand that a larger octopus could do a lot of damage quickly. They have even been known to steal divers' cameras, rip off masks or descend with arms all over a diver. And while it’s exhilarating to watch a GPO exhibit warning behavior (appearing larger by extending legs and billowing out the membranes between legs), we need to remember to respect their space.


Giant Pacific Octopus

This is a large specimen that came out to investigate and let me take a series of photos before it slithered back into a crevice in the rocks.


Giant Pacific Octopus

This is a small GPO peeking out of the concrete pipe it inhabits.


Decorated Warbonnet

During the spring months in the Pacific Northwest there are many creatures breeding and laying eggs. This year I was lucky enough to photograph one of my favorite fish guarding eggs, the Decorated Warbonnet (Chirolophis decoratus). They have an elongated body and can grow to more than a foot long. Decorated Warbonnets tend to hide in crevices, inside logs or sponges, and seem to be quite territorial. Friends in British Columbia have told me they can be quite nasty - even swimming out to bite fingers - although I have never had this happen to me.


Decorated Warbonnet

Decorated Warbonnet keeping a close eye on me.


Decorated Warbonnet

Decorated Warbonnet guarding eggs.


Mosshead Warbonnet

Another favorite fish I find in the spring is the juvenile Mosshead Warbonnet, (Chirolophis nugatory). They are much smaller than the Decorated Warbonnet, growing to about six inches when mature. Like the Decorated Warbonnet, they are long eel-like fish. One of their favorite spots to hide is in an empty barnacle shell, and their tiny faces and punk rock-like haircuts make them a great photography subject! At one of my favorite dive sites, the Keystone Jetty, you can find them poking their heads out of barnacles or swimming about among the tiny orange social tunicates and hydroids. You just have to move carefully and watch for the motion of a tiny fish camouflaged within the profusion of life inhabiting the rocks there.


Mosshead Warbonnet

Mosshead Warbonnets are often tought to spot.


Mosshead Warbonnet

A wider perspective of a Mosshead Warbonnet.


Scalyhead Sculpin

Many fish are territorial and it is fascinating to observe their behavior. The hunt for new fish behavior is one of the things that gets me in the water time after time. I was lucky enough to find this male Scalyhead Sculpin (Artedius harringtoni) warning off another little sculpin. He lunged out of the barnacle quickly towards the other fish while opening his mouth and exposing his yellow gill coverings. After putting on a good show he retreated deeper into the barnacle shell.


Scalyhead Sculpin

A Scalyhead Sculpin puffs out his gills and opens his mouth to warn another sculpin to stay away.



The Lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus), a large fish common in the Pacific Northwest, exhibits territorial behavior similar to the scalyhead sculpin. The males of both fish guard their eggs, and it is common to see Lingcod torn up during the winter months from fighting. I recently witnessed a large Lingcod swimming up to another to bite its tail - certainly appearing to be a territorial dispute. Lingcod are voracious feeders with a great liking for octopus, and I have seen them swimming around with tentacles trailing out of their mouths. The wreck of the Columbia in British Columbia north of Campbell River used to be a good place to find the Giant Pacific Octopus, but the big Lingcod living on the wreck seemed to have devoured all of them when I last visited. I didn’t see a single GPO. I have also seen Lingcod eating all kinds of fish and was lucky enough to see a large Lingcod, probably about 5 feet long, with a spiny dogfish (a small shark) sideways in it's mouth. Unfortunately, the moment was gone before I could capture a photo.



Here is a photo of a Lingcod with a flatfish in it's mouth, quite a mouthful.


Puget Sound King Crab

Puget Sound King Crabs are large with extremely colorful shells. The juveniles are brilliant orange, and as they get older they begin to show the purple markings of adults. The colors of mature individuals can be muted by growth on their shells, and until they molt they can be very drab. After molting, the reds oranges and purples are again brilliant!


King Crab



These are only a few of the interesting creatures to be found in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. I consider the opportunities for photography here endless and know that there will always be something new to witness. I find cold water diving every bit as exciting as the warm water diving and recommend you try for yourself.


About the Author

I have always loved the water and been fascinated with what lives in it. I've been diving since 1995 and began shooting photos shortly afterwards, but it was not until the world went digital and I bought a D70 and Subal housing that any of my photos were worth anything (aside from a sad memory of my diving). I thank the digital era for giving me a passion for underwater photography and underwater creatures of all kinds.


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



Once in a Lifetime Humpback Whale Experience

Bruce Shafer
A Mother Whale Teaches her Newborn the Basics of Being a Whale

Once in a Lifetime Humpback Whale Experience in Socorro

A Mother Whale Teaches her Newborn the Basics of Being a Whale

By Bruce Shafer


humpback whale socorro



Dolphins were riding our bow wake and humpback whales were breaching in the distance as we approached Socorro. Some of us began to envision hearing haunting whale songs pierce the silence of our upcoming dives. We couldn’t begin to fathom the rare treat that awaited us.

Set a course 250 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and in 23 hours you will arrive in the Revillagidedo Islands, commonly referred to as “Socorro.” At Roca Partida, a single rock pinnacle 70 miles from the nearest island, several adult humpback whales were surfacing so near that we felt the boat rock - the sound of their gasps resonated in our ears. Upon spotting a mother humpback with her calf we scrambled into the pangas with fins and snorkels in an attempt to catch a quick underwater glimpse of the pair. Strangely, this mother humpback wasn’t threatened, alarmed, or annoyed by our presence. This unique situation provided ample opportunity over the next two days to be entertained and delighted by this mother teaching her newborn the “Basics of Being a Whale.”


humpback whale socorro


Learning to Dive

Whales are mammals, like humans. And like humans, whales breathe air. The obvious difference is that whales live in the ocean and need to learn how to breathe efficiently. Like free-divers, young whales need to train to hold their breath for extended periods of time.

Young humpbacks are less than 20 feet in length, and this neophyte whale would effortlessly rise to the surface for each breath. Lots of splashing ensued and appeared to be playfulness but was most likely a bit of clumsiness. Since its young, one-ton body was mostly baby-fat, the calf was simply too buoyant. And much like an under-weighted diver, the calf would need to raise its tail and kick down to its mother waiting 60 feet below.


humpback whale socorro


The calf would then gently slide underneath its mother and wedge itself under her chin. The mother cradled the baby between her two long, wing-like flippers.  Her weight prevented them from ascending to the surface while the calf practiced holding its breath for as long as it could. Both mammals would remain motionless, conserving energy for several minutes. At times it was funny viewing the duo from the surface because it appeared that the calf was resting in the mother’s mouth.


humpback whale socorro


The calf would come to the surface three or four times before the mother needed another breath, and many times the playful calf would check out the enamored snorkelers waiting there during their surface intervals. During this time the youngster would come very close to us, making it possible to see the curiosity in its eye.


humpback whale socorro


humpback whale socorro

Evident on the calf's back were many scratches caused from rubbing against the barnacles on its mother's underside.


Whenever the mother needed a breath, the duo would gently swim off to another location near the pinnacle. And using smooth, powerful strokes, mother and child would leave the awestruck snorkelers far behind.


humpback whale socorro


At other times it seemed like a "navigation certification" was being earned as the mother would take the calf several thousand yards away from Roca Partida in many different directions only to have the calf navigate the couple back to the pinnacle. During those occasions, some fortunate divers were able to see the couple swim by in the deep water.


humpback whale socorro


The calf seemed to be a quick learner. I am not sure what other standards still needed to be met, but I feel confident that in the 8 to 11 months it is being weaned, this beginner will earn a “full whale certification.”


humpback whale socorro


When you do a lot of diving, it is very easy to slip into a “Been-There, Done-That” frame of mind. Interacting with these magnificent and majestic creatures would rejuvenate and humble even the most veteran diver. We all felt very fortunate to be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.


humpback whale socorro


About the Author

I consider myself more of a "Diver with a Camera" than an "Underwater Photographer." That said, I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to capture some fairly unique images during my travels around the world. See more of Bruce’s photos at:


Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



5 Critters You Must See in the Indo-Pacific

Mike Bartick
The Most Exciting Subjects for Underwater Photographers in the Indo-Pacific

5 Critters You Must See in the Indo-Pacific

The Most Exciting Subjects for Underwater Photographers in the Indo-Pacific

By Mike Bartick


ornate ghost pipefish

A diver takes a close look at an Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)


The Indo-Pacific region is famous among divers for its diversity of marine life.  There are countless photo subjects, but 5 critters stand out from the rest and are frequently referred to as the Holy Grail.  They are often as difficult to photograph as they are to find.  Inconsistent sightings, conditions and even the ornate nature or size of the creatures can test your dive skills, photography technique and patience.


#5 Bobbit Worms (Uenice aphroditois)

The carnivorous polychaete of the sand flats is a somewhat clumsy yet wicked subject.  A nocturnal feeder, the bobbit worm is most active after sunset.  A calcified set of jawbones at the top of the worm’s head is your first clue that this guy means business.  Chemical receptors and tentacles also come into play when the bobbit worm hunts.  An ambush predator, the bobbit worm conceals itself at sand level and snatches unsuspecting fish from the water column as they pass by.  This is a real science fiction critter that can't be missed when visiting the Indo-Pacific. Read more about the bobbit worm.


Photo technique

A red filtered modeling light seems to work best as the bobbit is very light sensitive.  Try to catch a series of photos showing the behavior or better yet, switch it over to video.


bobbit worm

A bobbit worm (Uenice aphroditois) is a true critter of science fiction.


#4 Hairy Frogfish (Antennarius striatus)

The hairy frogfish is actually one of my personal favorites because it tends to be a bit more sophisticated at its craft than most.  But don’t let its cute appearance fool you; the hairy frogfish is a voracious predator and a rapacious foe that uses pheromones, a lure and its legendary gape strike to hunt and feed.  The A. striatus uses a 3-phase technique to excite and antagonize their prey, while conserving their own engery.

Phase 1:  The hairy frogfish releases pheromones in a chum slick, which drifts with the current to excite nearby fish who think a meal is nearby.  The curious fish, unaware of the danger that awaits, follows the pheromone slick upstream.

Phase 2:  As the unsuspecting fish comes closer, the hairy frogfish switches to more visual stimulation technique by deploying its oversized wormlike lure, creating an irresistible temptation for fish, shrimp and squid of all sizes.

Phase 3:  The strike zone is someplace you wouldn’t want to be if you’re in frogfish territory.  Once the victim is within range the frogfish unleashes its lightning-fast gape strike.  It’s so fast the victim has no chance to react, and unlike the bite strike technique of pelagic feeders, the frogfish drops its lower jawbone with such force that it actually pulls its prey right into its mouth.  The intestinal sphincter muscle extends forward, crushing its victim before the digestion process begins.  On occasion the froggy will spit its victim out and attempt to re-align it for easier entry into their digestive gullet.  They are often seen feeding on prey larger than themselves.


Photo technique

I like using a shallow depth of field to produce a composition different from many traditional images (around f/5.6) and to fill the frame with the subject.  The hairy appendages melt away nicely into the background with the ambient light.  Hairy frogfish aren’t going to swim away, so be patient and wait for the right shot. They are light sensitive so minimizing strobe flashes will yield more authentic behavior.


hairy frogfish

Shooting hairy frogfish (Antennarius striatus) with a shallow depth of field creates a nice effect as the hairy appendages melt away into the background.

Read more about types of frogfish, or the hunt for the rare pink frogfish.


#3 Cephalopods

Blue-Ringed Octopus, Mimic Octopus, Wunderpuss and Flamboyant Cuttlefish are often the most fun to engage, as they are also the most intelligent of marine creatures.  The Wunderpus and Mimic both enjoy feeding on and playing with mantis shrimp, and as a result they tend to share the same habitat.  Hunting on open sand flats, they will move from hole to hole in search of their next meal.  Both are fast moving, animated creatures that are quick to morph colors and shapes.

The blue-ringed octopus can appear out of nowhere at a dive site, sending photographers into a frenzy.  On wall dives, in coral, rocks, the shallows or deep water, the BRO tends to be more nomadic than its cousins. And although all octopuses contain various types of venom for hunting, the blue-rings contain TTX, a potent venom created in its stomach and delivered via saliva into its victims.  The venom is powerful enough to kill multiple fully grown men with just one bite. Read more about the blue-ring octopus and the wunderpus octopus.

Flamboyant cuttlefish can be seen walking about on the substrate using two forward arms, and rarely swim unless threatened.  The colors are generally muted until the cuttlefish is excited, when it flashes its flamboyant colors to ward off predators or to communicate.  The skin tissue is also reported to contain TTX, so contact with a flamboyant cuttlefish is highly discouraged.  Cephalopods are the most intelligent invertebrates on earth, however they have a physical limitation that requires them to rest often.  Their hemoglobin wont carry much oxygen as other critters, and most have two hearts to help pump the blood through their body.  This is a big advantage for underwater photographers.


Photo technique

Take advantage your subject’s playful and dramatic nature by filling the frame for expressive photos and turn the camera to shoot portraits.


mimic octopus

A mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus) traps a mantis shrimp in its web.

mimic octopus

This mimic octopus portrait fills the frame.


wunderpuss octopuswunderpus octopus

Photo Left:  A photographer waits with camera at the ready while a wunderpus octo (Wunderpus photogenicus) huntsPhoto Right:  Wunderpus octopus.


flamboyant cuttlefish

A flamboyant cuttlefish (Metasepia pfefferi) patrols the substrate using two forward arms.



#2 Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus)

Ornate Ghost Pipefish hold a top position in this short list and for good reason; they are both unique and beautiful.  The Syngathidae family (which includes seahorses, leafy sea dragons and pipefish) shares a fused jaw feature that places them into a single category with over 200 species.  Ghost pipefish are quite different from these brethren and only recognize 6 species in their family.

The most obvious difference is body shape.  Common pipefish resemble pencils while ornate ghost pipefish have a downward facing head, allowing them to assume strategic hunting posture with a view from above. The common pipefish spends its lifecycle on the substrate and is only occasionally seen free swimming. In contrast, the OGP rarely uses the substrate and instead hunts from above, often mimicking its surroundings, which include sea grass, algae, halameda or soft coral.  It’s believed that the ornate ghost pipefish kicked off the recent “critter craze” and I believe it.

All ornate ghost pipefish begin their lives as males, but some change into females as they grow from juvenile into the sex phase.  The males tend to stay smaller whereas the female grows in size to accommodate and care for her eggs, which will develop in a pouch between her lower caudle fins.  Eggs are often present with the female as she carries her them in hopes of mating once the right male has been found.  The planktonic juveniles will begin their life as pelagic drifters before settling just above the substrate to grow into adults.


Photo Technique

The ornate ghost pipefish lends itself to portrait photo composition.  Proper side lighting will pull the color through the photo and help to isolate your subject from the background.  Adding the human element with a model is also nice.


ornate ghost pipefish

Several Ornate Ghost Pipefish (Solenostomus paradoxus) hover near a gorgonian.


velvet ghost pipefish

The rare Velvet Ghost Pipefish.



#1 Rhinopias (Rhinopias/Scorpaenidae)

Rhinopia images are much coveted and top the list of many serious photographers when traveling to the Indo-Pacific.  The Rhinopia easily holds its golden heavyweight belt in the top 5 critter list for several reasons.

The first is that they often appear as a drab dull brown or greenish color before exploding with vibrant color the millisecond any light touches their patterned skin tissue.  Their bold colors and body textures become immediately obvious when photographed with strobes, adding to the intrigue of these amazing creatures.  But even with this unique appearance it’s the odd behaviors that give them so much personality.  Swimming forward with their face dragging on the bottom they appear to be injured or helpless fish, enticing their prey to investigate.  Once the curious victim is close enough, the Rhinopia consumes its prey with its massive bucket mouth gape strike.  Masters of deceit.  Despite the Rhinopia colorations, textures and popularity they remain extremely elusive.  This is evident when one is found, because the news sends shockwaves through the local underwater photo community.

Read more about the Rhinopia.

Photo Technique

Rhinopias are a mid sized critter and images need strong depth of field.  Lens selection is primary for me.  I like the Tokina 10-17 fisheye on a small port, Sigma 28-80 zoom behind my macro port or my 40mm Nikon lens (Canon 35mm) to include the entire animal.  Pay close attention the eyes and compressed facial features, this is a very unique critter.


Rhinopia eshmeyeri

Rhinopia eshmeyeri.  Rhinopias are at the top of many serious photographers' critter lists.


rhinopia frondosa

Rhinopia frondosa.  At the top of our Top 5 critter list for the Indo-Pacific.


Publisher's note - where to find these critters

Check out our list of muck-diving sites to find out great areas to see these critters. Anilao is one of our favorites, but Lembeh, Milne Bay PNG and Ambon are other great choices - but not the only ones.



The top 5 critters picks is just the tip of the iceberg in what can be found when diving the Indo-Pacific.  The region is both bio-diverse and dense with these critters year round and makes for a fantastic photo safari for both macro and wide-angle.  Now go out and have an adventure!



About the Author

Mike BartikMike Bartick is an avid and experienced scuba diver and Marine Wildlife Photographer. He has an insatiable love for nudibranchs, frogfish and other underwater critters, and is the official critter expert for the Underwater Photography Guide. Mike is also one of the UWPG trip leaders.  See more of his work at




Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



The Sand Dwelling Slugs of California

Craig Hoover
A Nudibranch Adventure Through the Desert Beyond California's Coastline

Nudis & Nomads: The Sand Dwelling Slugs of California

A Nudibranch Adventure Through the Desert Beyond California's Coastline

By Craig Hoover


Catriona columbiana

Catriona Columbiana.

What draws man to the desert?  Can vast empty plains fill a heart?  Are desert flowers hiding in plain sight amongst the emptiness, seen only by nomads crawling toward the next oasis?  Join me on a venture through the desert beyond California’s coastline and find out for yourself.

Our journey begins near the edge of a large reef in fifteen meters of water.  Brittle stars rule the edges of this reef, dominant where fish are scarce.  Large tube anemones are also common here, building leathery cases that lead deep into soft sediments.  Tentacles wave in the light surge at this depth, ready to instantaneously retreat into the tube if a predator, such as this rainbow dendronotus, grabs hold.  The Dendronotus creeps slowly, waiting for the perfect moment.  If successful, it will grab a mouthful of tentacles and, in an instant, be pulled halfway into the tube, where it will eat a few of the tentacles, leaving the gnawed bases.  A sure sign that a rainbow dendronotus has been feeding in the area is an anemone with amputated tentacles.


Dendronotus iris

Dendronotus iris feeding on Pachycerianthus fimbriatus.


Surge and current is channeled around reefs, energizing the swells passing by the reef’s edge.  Fine grained sand does not settle in places where water is in motion.  Often these areas are marked by dunes of large-grained sand mixed with crumbled bits of shell.  These dunes may extend for many meters beyond a reef.  A savvy nomad can use these dunes to find hidden oases.  Though flatfish and old shells are found here, the dunes are too unstable to support anemones or hydroids that nudis feed on.


Tritonia diomedes

Tritonia diomedes.


The far edges of the dunes are often marked by fine grained sand flats with crumbled little bits of shell.  Areas like this may indicate that dunes are nearby.  The bottom here is stable enough to allow growth of sedentary invertebrates.  Tritonia diomedes is a large cousin of the nudibranchs that may be found in this area, usually near their food source, sea pens.

Far from the reef, bits of shell are uncommon.  The sand is fine grained and surge overturns much of it.  Fortunately, there is prime real estate here.  Many hydroids need more stability than bare sand can provide.  Worms of various sorts provide the solution by secreting mucus that cements the sand around them into a tube.  Drifting bits of algae and blades of seagrass are snagged by worm tubes, forming small clumps.  Tiny hydroids are able to settle here and grow into colonies.

Several aeolids, species of nudis that specialize in feeding on hydroids, take advantage of this food source.  Eubranchus rustyus is a tiny aeolid that reaches a centimeter in length but is often much smaller.  They are usually located by first observing small white egg masses on their food source, Plumularia.


Eubranchus rustyus

Eubranchus rustyus likes to dine on Plumularia.


Another good sign that nudis may be about is the large solitary hydroid, Corymorpha, that may reach ten centimeters in height and can disappear into the sand in a moment.  Flabellina cooperi feeds on Corymorpha.  Cooperis are quite elusive, perhaps because they are the least common of three species of sand dwelling aeolids that share size and coloration.  Cooperis are unique in that they have an upside down white V that sometimes extends back from the forehead along the dorsum. 


Flabellina cooperi

Flabellina cooperi feeding on a small Corymorpha polyp.


Hermissendas, in contrast, have a yellow or orange stripe on the forehead.  Priceis have no stripe on the forehead.  The stripe can be difficult to see in nudis that range in size from one to several centimeters so careful examination of each nudi in this habitat is key to finding the rare ones.


hermissenda crassicornis

Hermissenda crassicornis.


Flabellina pricei is similar to a cooperi.  They both feed on Corymorpha, though Priceis are more common.  The cylindrical projections on their backs, called cerata, are connected at the base.  Priceis also have some of the most prominent eyespots of any nudibranch.  Looking into the eyes of a pricei is one big step towards filling the emptiness of the desert.

Sometimes it is difficult to make heads or tails of a slug.  If this is the case, there may actually be two slugs en flagrante delicto.  They often finish within a few minutes when carefully observed.


Flabellina princei

Flabellina pricei just after mating.


On days when the water is exceptionally calm, the sand may be covered with a thin brown layer of algae.  These are really special days in the desert.  Nomads who like to create images of the places they have been and the animals they have shared these places with know that swell brings a blizzard to the desert.  On days where the sand is covered with a brown layer of algae, the water is usually calm enough to create a good image.


Cumanotus fernaldi

Cumanotus fernaldi burying itself in fine grained sand (Behrens & Hermosillo 2005 list this species as Cumanotus species 1, Identification courtesy of Sandra Millen)


Nomads know that flowers bloom in the spring.  So do many other things in the desert.  It just so happens that animals like to have babies when there are lots of tiny little things for them to eat.  Nudibranchs may congregate to breed during a week or two in the spring and then disappear.  Sharing a special event such as a congregation is best done within a week of the initial sighting.  Such was the case with Cumanotus fernaldi.  Seventy individuals were sighted through the murky spawn of billions of other creatures during the coldest days of April.  They vanished a week later. 

The allure of the desert takes many forms.  Some nomads that I know quest for paralichthyid monsters.  Others believe the next oasis lies over the dune on the horizon.  I found the desert filled with a miniature world, host to a variety of unique desert flowers.  The desert is now a destination, filled with the beauty of the little things.


About the Author

Craig Hoover lives in Southern California.  He has been diving weekly for the past 8 years, logging over 1000 dives along California's coast.  He began taking pictures underwater 4 years ago with the help of the Underwater Photography Guide and its staff.  Since then he has taken a special interest in nudibranchs.  His goal is to photograph all 100 species that are found in Southern California.  When not photographing nudis, Craig is completing a bacheleor's degree in marine science at California State University Northridge.



Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



Diving Underwater With Manatees

Stanley Bysshe
A great guide for how, when, and where to photograph Manatees

Diving With Mermaids

Underwater photo tips for Manatees in Florida

By Stanley Bysshe


Classic Pose

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600


Mermaids, Sea Cows, Gentle Giants, the West Indian manatee goes by many names, to which you can include photographic model. These slow moving giants love to hang out in 4-9 feet of water and are quite accessible to underwater photographers. It takes a little planning however and knowledge about the rules required for manatee viewing.


Up Close and Personal

"Up Close and Personal" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F6.3, 1/50, ISO 250, Inon Flash x2


Florida Manatees

Florida has very strict rules about swimming with, boating around and underwater photography when it comes to endangered manatees. Sanctuaries are set aside that no one can enter. The fines are substantial. So it is best to plan a trip with an outfit that knows the rules. While Manatees can be spotted anytime there is a time of year that is best for photography.


When the water gets cold, the animals will seek the constant temperature of fresh warm water springs (72 degrees) and gather there in large numbers. So the best time to plan a trip is January thru early February. Crystal River and Three Sisters Springs are probably one of the best-known places for an encounter and there are any number of guided tours.


Three Sister Springs

Three Sister Springs at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, F9, 1/50


Crystal River and Birds Underwater

Our trip started with a flight to Orlando Fla., and a two hour drive to Crystal River. While there are several places to stay I have added links to two of the most convenient. They are also very close to two of the best dive operators. I think you will find that Birds Underwater and Crystal River Divers have great service and guides. Look no further! Plan your trip mid-week to avoid weekend and holiday crowds.

Yes there can be crowds, and dangling legs can spoil a nice shot. I would contact either of the shops and try and arrange a quiet time to visit. For an added expense a private boat can be arranged. You can rent boats on your own, but if you don’t know the area, you can waste a lot of time. The tour operators know where the manatees are likely to be on any given day, and the above two will get you out early, which is key. As an aside there are some interesting fresh water dives in the area, which I plan to research on a follow-up trip.


Close Up

"I'm here for my close up", 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F22, 1/125, ISO 1600


Manatee Trip Tips:

·    Unless you plan to try some of the local dives, this is a snorkel trip. But, it will be cold (hopefully, if you want to see lots of manatees); water temp 72 degrees or less and morning air temp in the 40s or lower. So plan on 5mm with a vest or more. Most of the guides snorkel in dry suits.

·    All photography has to be from the surface. That is, you cannot dive underwater (so you don’t need weights). Floating and not standing is key to keep from stirring up the sand. Special permits can be obtained through the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife station to photograph underwater. There is a fee and you get a yellow vest that designates you as someone who can submerge around Manatees. Again, these activities are closely monitored.

Macro or Wide-angle photography?

·    Wide Angle all day long. This is the place for your wide-angle rig; dome ports, fish-eye and wide angle zooms. So you need to get close. The vis outside the Springs can be very poor, so again get close. Inside Three Sisters the water is constantly flushed out, so if there aren’t a lot of people the vis can be spectacular.


Classic Pose #2

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F4, 1/50, ISO 1600

·    Use of flash is restricted and may not be used until one hour after sunrise. So be prepared to do a lot of available light shooting. Know how to use your ISO settings. One trick to play with is to set your camera at Shutter Speed Priority (Nikon terminology) and Auto ISO. That allows you to shoot slowly moving animals with relatively fast SS in low light, as the camera will boost the ISO to compensate.

·    If the day is sunny, fill flash will help. In shallow water you can bounce the flash off the sandy bottom for fill flash.

·    If you are in Three Sisters Springs, look for other wildlife. For this, flash can be used anytime. This is also a good place for split shots (over/under).

·    Don’t chase the manatees. They will come to you or at some point just stop moving. The juveniles are especially friendly!


Photographer Love

"Take me home!" 17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F18, 1/125, ISO 1600


A manatee photography trip is worth the effort. They are great creatures just to see and be near. But while they seem to be holding their own, the manatees are endangered and chances to photograph them underwater may be limited. There are available specialized photo trips or you can go on your own. Either way you have to be with someone who knows the local rules for the best opportunity to photograph a Mermaid.

All photographs were taken with a Nikon D3s in an Aquatica Housing. 8 inch Dome Port. 17-35mm 2.8 Nikon wide angle zoom lens. Dual Inon Z240 flash when used.


Additional Images From These Locations

17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F5.6, 1/60, ISO 1600


17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F7.1, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x 2


17-35mm F2.8 Lens, F8, 1/100, ISO 200, Inon Flash x2


About the Author

Stanley BysscheI have enjoyed diving and underwater photography for over three decades. When I retired, my wife and I spent three years living full time on the island of Curacao and it was there that I was able to dive almost every day. Now back in the States, I don't get to dive as much but I still share the passion for photography that brings divers to this site.




Further Reading


Where to Buy

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



Navigating the Kelp Forest Safely Underwater and Still Getting that Great Shot

Jonathan Lavan
Tips and tricks on how to get some great shots in the maze that is the kelp forest.

Beginners Guide to Navigating the Kelp Forest Safely and Still Getting that Great Shot

Tips and tricks on how to get some great underwater photos in the maze that is the kelp forest.

Text and images by Jonathan Lavan

Kelp Forest
Divers underwater at San Clemente Island, Southern California


Cold water diving can be challenging. Lots of bulky equipment, extra weight and strong currents and surge can make even taking a camera along a difficult prospect. Then add the element of navigating the kelp forest it can get downright nerve wracking.

Whether boat diving or shore diving never just descend into the middle of the kelp forest. That might seem like an obvious instruction but you’d be alarmed how many dives I have been on where, supposedly, seasoned west coast divers have gotten so tangled up in the kelp that they have lost their fins or their buddy has had to spend more than half of the dive extricating them from their entanglement. Any self respecting boat captain will, hopefully, always place you near the edge of the kelp forest anyway.

Spanish Shawl

Photo 1: Spanish Shawl Nudibranch

Buoyancy in the kelp

You’re told when diving dry to only use your drysuit to regulate your buoyancy at depth and only use your BCD at the surface. That’s fine for straight diving but when using your camera you should use whatever combination of drysuit and BCD that gives you the best buoyancy control. Just remember to deflate both sources before surfacing. I always put just enough air in my drysuit to be comfortable and then control my buoyancy as usual with my BCD. It’s always easier to get that shot when air isn’t rushing up into your feet!

Photo 2: Red Sea Star on California Hydrocoral

Navigating underwater

Now, you need to convince your SLR that it’s a compact. Keep those strobe arms in tight until you’re ready to set up the shot. When travelling hold your camera sideways to navigate the kelp easier. Go even slower than you would normally. If you get tangled-stop-untangle and move on with your buddy’s assistance if necessary. Vis can vary greatly so, even more so then warm water diving, it is quite important to keep your buddy within arm’s length in this environment.

Whitespotted Anemone and Feather Duster Worms

Photo 3: Whitespotted Rose Anemone & Feather Duster Worms

Sealions at the edge of the kelp forest in Anacapa

The Edge of the Kelp

You will find plenty of great shots around the edges of the forest anyway and there will be more available light. There are many more colors and contrasts, especially among invertebrate life, in the cold water, then you might initially realize. Particularly nudibranchs (photo 1) and sea stars (photos 2) but also a wide variety of crustaceans of all sizes, sea anemones and various tube worms as well. As can be seen in photo 3 of the sea anemone and feather duster worms there is often a great deal of movement in the water typically known as surge.

Brittle Star

Photo 4: Brittle Star

Dealing with Surge

Unlike the Caribbean or other warmer Pacific waters where there may be some current to push you along, surge is a different phenomenon pulling you both back and forth. The best thing to do is “go with the flow”. Prep the shot, and as you are pulled back into frame by the surge, grab the snap. If the surge isn’t too bad you can get some interesting and artful shots this way. Bokeh is all the rage of late and the movement and vibrancy in the shot can more than make up for whatever detail of focus is sacrificed.

Threespine Shrimp

Photo 5: Threespine Shrimp

Giant Acorn Barnacle Strawberry Anemone

Photo 6: Giant Acorn Barnacle, Strawberry Anemones

Super Macro

Try to familiarize yourself with both the fish and inverts, in advance of your dives, so you have some idea of what you’re looking for. If at all possible, dive with someone with local experience who can lead you to the best shots. Super macro opportunities abound in the kelp forest as well. I never would have known the beautiful colors and patterns of this tiny Brittle Star (photo 4) if not for my magnifying diopter. The tiny Threespine Shrimp in photo 5 (there are two of them there) are virtually transparent so I was fortunate that I could readjust my angle so one of them was along the edge of the rock when I grabbed the shot so it could be clearly seen against the dark background. Giant Acorn Barnacles (photo 6) are another cold water creature worth a shot. Their large size and the fact that you have to catch them when their feeding arms are out makes for a fun challenge. Frequently, as in this shot, they are surrounded by other beautiful inverts like these Strawberry Anemones.

Gopher Rockfish over Whitespotted Anemone

Photo 7: Gopher Rockfish over Whitespotted Rose Anemone

Rosy Rockfish

Photo 8: Rosy Rockfish

The Fish

While fish are not as plentiful as in warmer waters there are still many opportunities for great photos to be had. Rockfish (members of the Scorpionfish family) come in many varieties and are slowly bouncing back from severe overfishing over the last several decades. The great thing about rockfish is that they just hang there. A fine example of this is (photo 7) of the Gopher Rockfish hovering over a Whitespotted Rose Anemone. The colorful Rosy Rockfish in (photo 8) is usually found at depths below 100 feet and near the base of ledges so best to look for them toward the start of your dive. Kelp Rockfish (photo 9) are more wary so there are usually a few good “peek-a-boo” shots to be taken.

Kelp Rockfish

Photo 9: Kelp Rockfish

In sandy areas you can find Blackeye Gobies (photo 10) which have the curious habit of resting on Bat Stars and if you’re lucky you might stumble on the face only a mother could love: the Wolf Eel (photo 11). They spend as much of their day as they can eating sea urchins to no ill affect, a photo I hope to get in the near future. Lastly there are a great variety of Sculpin all of which are very hard to tell apart. Usually quite small and skipping around the rocks they are often hard to see and even harder to get a good shot of. This Coralline Sculpin with the Red Volcano Sponge for a background (photo 12) is one of those rare shot that is the exception not the rule.

Blackeye Goby on Bat Star

Photo 10: Blackeye Goby on Bat Star


Photo 11: Wolf Eel

Final Thoughts

In closing, I would say if you have never experienced the cold and dynamic waters of the west coast and are looking for a new and challenging dive experience then grab that drysuit and dive in! Some truly amazing animals await you and as long as you are cautious, patient and dive smart there are many unforgettable photos to be taken. The post dive cocoa has never tasted so good…

Coralline Sculpin

Photo 12: Coralline Sculpin on Red Volcano Sponge


About the Author

Jonathan Lavan is the owner/operator of Underpressure Diving and Photography and an online fish ID instructor for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation ( He shoots with a Nikon D300 with a 60mm or 105mm lens in a Subal housing, a ReefNet 10+ magnifying diopter, Ikelite 125’s or 160’s for strobe and a Light & Motion SOLA/PHOTO 500 focus light. He can be reached at His work can be seen at and at Underpressure Photography on Facebook.


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