Diving deep into the secrets of the world beneath
Saevus: Most of us are easily drawn to wildlife on land, and fascinated by large cats, butterflies, and avian life. Share with us a particular deep-sea memory that captured your serious attention.
David: When I first studied oceanography, all samples were collected by nets. These nets were quite sophisticated and could be opened and closed at particular depths. Almost all the animals we sampled were dead, but like most people, I was still amazed at seeing those first samples come aboard the ship. Then, in 2005, I was part of an expedition on an American research ship off the east coast of the USA and I got the chance to go down in a submersible. Was I apprehensive? No. Was I claustrophobic? No. I was just amazed to see living animals down to 1000m; some of the same species that I had seen dead in bowls on my first cruises, but here they were in their own environment.
Saevus: Tell us about MAR-ECO and your role in it. What, according to you, are the attributes that a photographer brings to a scientific expedition like MAR-ECO?
David: MAR-ECO was part of a 10-year study conducted by the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a series of international and global expeditions to study the world’s oceans. It was aimed at studying the animal life of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Again, it was a multi-disciplinary effort with scientists from around the world. We began on the Norwegian Research ship, the G O Sars. I was asked by the head of the project to go along to record video and take photographs of the animals we collected. The ship had 2 ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles), and as this was an important project with outreach being an important part, it was necessary to have really good images of the material. I participated in the project for six years and went back to the MAR many times on the British research ship, the RRS James Cook, and the American ship, the Henry Bigelow.
Saevus: Marine photography is restricted largely to the shallower atolls and reef areas of our oceans, but a few like you have ventured out into the deep sea. What are the challenges you faced in your expeditions, and how much has technology helped?
David: Man’s ability to venture into the sea is the same as always. We are limited to how deep we can go by the pressure. People have tried to venture into the deep, but it is still a relatively unexplored part of our planet. American and Russian submersibles are able to explore the deeper parts of the ocean but these vessels are very expensive, have limited space for only a few scientists and can only stay down for a limited time because of power and air supplies. They are amazing vehicles but the ROV has a cable attaching it to the ship and can stay down almost indefinitely. They are equipped with HD video cameras and an array of sensors and collecting devices. Onboard, the ship is the control room, where scientists and operators work together to collect data. Now instead of the “hit or miss” method of collecting animals with nets, specific animals can be picked from the sea floor. The added advantages are that they are in pristine condition. Midwater collection is more difficult. This is where I come in, to photograph and record the animals collected in living condition, before they are preserved by the scientists on board, for later identification. Here again, digital photography has made life easier. A variety of pictures of the whole or specific parts of the animals are recorded for illustrating books, magazines or for individual scientists. Once preserved, animals no longer look the same. Colours change, transparent animals become opaque, and they shrink or become hard.
Saevus: Prior to your journey as a photographer, you have had a strong academic career in zoology and oceanography. What inspired you to pick up the camera and the transition thereafter?
David: In my earlier career as an oceanographer, I started recording the animals we had collected, but at that time we used film. This meant waiting until the end of the cruise to see the results of your work. Black animals and silvery animals are notoriously difficult to photograph and many slides were despatched to the bin. However, the challenges I faced made me want to pursue this further, I also wanted to travel more and record more wildlife. I decided to leave oceanography and change my career path to wildlife filmmaking, a decision I have never regretted. I joined Oxford Scientific Films and learned my trade, which led me to make wildlife films for 25 years.
Saevus: The marine ecosystem is huge and beyond comprehension, but at the same time it is very fragile as well. Do share any incident that stands out and makes you unhappy about the way we treat our seas.
David: Every time you fly an ROV over the sea floor you see the remains of man’s “out of sight-out of mind” concept of waste. One of the biggest problems I see are the remains of deep-sea trawling. As “fish finders” become more sophisticated it seems that no regions of the sea are out of bounds. Seamounts are special places as they are the nursery grounds for great numbers of large fish. They are also where cold water corals are found. These beautiful fan corals can be hundreds of years old and a single trawl can destroy them forever. What is left is coral rubble and the remains of trawls snagged on the coral and cut free. Much of it is a monofilament line, which will not decay and is a hazard to wildlife. Our desire to strip the seas must stop!
Saevus: You have shot extensively in hydrothermal vents, deep-ocean fissures that support astounding biodiversity. What is the significance of such rare ecosystems?
David: Vent sites are amazing places. The most recent one we found was named the Dragon Vent Field. It had not been seen before by anyone, so it was a privilege to explore and track it with the ROV. These immense chimneys can reach tens of meters up into the ocean, with “Black Smokers” belching out hot sulfurous water into the surrounding sea. They are normally found on ocean ridges or plate junctions. Water is geo-thermally heated; it percolates through the crust and is superheated by the magma below before being expelled through the chimneys. The animals that are found around them are unique—crabs, molluscs, shrimps that are found nowhere else. How did they get there? Thousands of miles between vent sites, how did they arrive? They have unique diets feeding on chemosynthetic bacteria that can metabolize in the hydrogen sulfide-rich waters. Vent sites are significant because they give us clues to how life might have arisen on earth.
Saevus: Your work on the Blue Planet series has been highly commended, and added a BAFTA amongst your many achievements. What was the experience of working in such a groundbreaking production, and with a legend like David Attenborough?
David: To me, Blue Planet was like coming home. I was asked to participate because of my background. I was a film cameraman but also used to work at sea. Many of my colleagues were still working in oceanography and were able to assist me. Again, modern developments with equipment and sampling gear meant we could target species. Being first to reach the samples meant I could select the best animals for the sequences. We developed special tanks for filming in constant temperature labs. Research ships work 24 hours a day so there was no routine to our sampling and filming. When the sample came on board, you started work. Preparation, filming, etc could take until the next sample came in. Sometimes the animals were not in the filming category but were ideal for still photographs.
Saevus: Macro is still a much-specialized field of photography that isn’t always a mainstream choice. What drew you to it and what would be your advice to beginners interested in the art of macro?
David: Macro photography has always fascinated me. I began with a degree in entomology. My career in oceanography involved the study of deep-sea copepods. When I joined OSF, we filmed the small. If it was tiny or impossible, we filmed it. I suppose I got typecast as a macro cameraman and photographer. I now keep bees. I have always been intrigued by small things. You just have to be prepared to view life from a different perspective. Get down on your knees and look closely, then look closer still. Modern SLR cameras and macro lenses make things possible, but like all forms of photography, it is about being patient, being in the right place at the right time and the right lighting. There are many more successful macro photographers now than when I started. A lot of people are doing it well. Find a niche and exploit it.
Saevus: Do you think upcoming nature photographers can use their art to promote urgent issues of conservation before the world?
David: Absolutely. Look at the images now being taken in ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’. People can make a difference; with the web, people’s ideas and voices can be heard all over the world. Petitions online can make a difference and the things that can make these stand out are images. If you feel passionately enough about wildlife issues, no matter how niche, get out there and photograph it. Make a difference!
Saevus: You were also part of the team that shot ‘Land Of The Tiger’ in 1997. What was that experience like?
David: It was amazing. India is a fantastic country to work in and the wildlife is spectacular. Personally, I do not like cities, I never have and this has come about by working a lot of my life in remote areas. I am comfortable being far away from people and closer to nature. Indian cities – too many people, too much pollution and noise, but get out to the more remote areas and it is wonderful. In the protected areas, and there are many, I believe you see the real India. The people are really nice and helpful. It is not just about the “charismatic megafauna”, there is so much to be photographed.
Saevus: What’s your message to the 10,000-strong community of wildlife photographers in India?
David: Wow, a 10,000 strong community – I suppose there has to be. Wherever in the world, you are there always seems to be a place people want to visit, but thinking inwardly, India has it all. You do not need to travel outside your country. From the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan, to the rainforests in the south, there is almost every type of climate and habitat, and you will never run out of things to photograph. You are only limited by your imagination!
BBC cameraman, David Shale began his career as a deep-sea oceanographer with the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences. But it wasn’t until he worked on the landmark series “Blue Planet” that he began to think about photographing deep-sea animals. Accompanying scientific expeditions to some of the remotest parts of the ocean, Shale uses special tanks and the latest technologies to photograph a host of eccentric life forms as they are brought to the surface. In this way, he has sometimes helped to document species completely new to science. Shale’s astonishing pictures of these seldom-seen creatures have appeared in the traveling exhibition and book “Deeper than Light”, published by Bergen Museum Press in November 2007.
Read also: Chronicles of the Black Forest
Have an interesting article you’d like to share with us? Send articles at firstname.lastname@example.org and get a chance to be featured on our blog site! So what are you waiting for? Hurry!
Have something to add to this story? Tell us in the comments section below.