Story Behind the Shot: Lion-mane Nudibranch
Story Behind the Shot: Melibe Leonina Nudibranchs
An Inside Look at Shooting a Unique Nudibranch Congregation
Story and Photography by Brent Durand
Melibe leonina are fascinating nudibranchs and sought-after by many underwater photographers. Often called “lion’s mane” or “hooded” nudibranchs, they’re frequently spotted in large congregations called bouquets.
Melibes feed by opening their massive tentacle-lined oral hoods in order to capture small prey drifting through the water. I’ve noticed that many of them feed in rhythm with kelp blades swaying in the surge, creating a beautiful display as hundreds of hoods open and close with the rhythm of the sea.
My dive buddy and I recently found hundreds of Melibe leonina nudibranchs covering several large kelp fronds.
Locating the Melibes
All credit in locating our “stash” of Melibes goes to my dive buddy, who spotted them at the very end of long beach dive in Malibu. Hundreds of the nudibranchs covered several kelp fronds up and down the water column. We both descended to shoot but with nearly empty tanks we made a vow to come back asap. With a 45-minute kick to the reef and 53 degree water it’s a dive(s) that take some planning and a lot of time to execute. Before leaving, we made sure to carefully remember where this particular kelp was located.
A Melibe leonina sits with oral hood closed, muching on its last bite.
Photo Shoot 1: Wide-Angle
I shoot with a Canon 5D mk3 in an Ikelite housing and opted to use the Tokina 10-17 wide angle lens for the first Melibe photo shoot, two days after our discovery. My target images were a wide shot of several nudibranchs on a kelp blade with ambient water color as well as a diver looking at the Melibes (we had two more dive buddies join for this dive). Visibility was about 5-10 feet in this area and the sky was hidden by a milky marine layer. The swaying kelp, moving Melibes and their flaring oral hoods created a dynamic scene, but made it very difficult to compose a photo. Every time I found a great composition and brough my eye to the viewfinder the scene would shift slightly. Luckily, I was able to capture the below image and a few others on our 90-minute dive.
When your subject is as interesting as a Melibe leonina it's easy to find dive models.
Photo Shoot 2: Macro
My next window to dive came three days later, and I decided to bring my Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens with a goal to capture detailed Melibe portraits against black water (minimal ambient light).
Several new challenges presented themselves while shooting the Melibes with a macro lens. First, the visibility had deteriorated to a soupy 4-5 feet. Second, the kelp blades were still swaying and the Melibes were still moving, making focusing with a macro lens tough. On top of that, Melibes are transparent, meaning that they blend into the background with little contrast. My 5Dmk3 focuses by detecting contrast and even with a focus light I found the need to focus at a point with high contrast (ie nudi against a kelp blade background instead of the nudi against a water background). The last major challenge was not only finding a Melibe in a nice position, but to find one the right size. The poor vis created the need to be as close as my lens would focus (.03m), and in order to fill the frame the Melibe couldn’t be too large or too small. Oh yea... and you have to anticipate the enormous oral hoods opening and closing. For strobe positioning, I found good results by using one strobe over the subject as a key light with a second strobe as fill light from the side.
Overcoming these challenges, patience and making two dedicated photo dives resulted in the images you see in this article.
A melibe leonina feeds in typical fashion - oral hood and tentacles facing downward to scoop up small life in the water.
Conclusion and Shooting Tips
A Melibe leonina nudibranch congregation is somewhat rare to see, and underwater photographers should jump on the chance to shoot them when the opportunity arises. Wide-angle shooting makes for beautiful images, but should be attempted only when the water color and visibility are ideal. Macro shooting is much more challenging but is worth the effort when you can spend the time to find the right composition with the right camera settings.
About the Author
Brent Durand is an avid California beach diver, underwater photographer and editor with the Underwater Photography Guide. You can follow UWPG on Facebook, and also read Brent's article on Top 10 tips for fun beach diving.
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