A Snorkeler's Love Affair with Photography

By Joel Simon

While researching an article in Bonaire, I had the opportunity to meet many avid snorkelers. Among them was an entertaining couple, Bob and Carol Mclsaac, from Amherst, New York. Carol was distinctive; when we met, she had a single use camera attached to each wrist and a bright orange Nikonos V on a strap around her neck. Clearly, here was a person who loved photography as much as she adored snorkeling. While sitting together on the beach, I couldn't resist asking her a question I often ask myself: 'Why take pictures?'

'I just can't get over how beautiful it is down there. I love being in the water. Bob says I should have been born a fish. The photos help me remember the feeling of the marine environment, especially when we go back to the cold, snowy winter in New York.'

Carol's response embodies her ebullience for both visual imagery and the underwater world. Pictures, especially ones you've taken yourself, can evoke great memories. For many snorkelers, this is enough.

Carol continued, 'Each time I go in the water, I see fish I've never seen before. It's really hard for me to remember how many spots a particular fish had or if its fins were yellow, green or black. I get my film processed each day, then Bob and I usually get a couple of drinks and come here to look at the prints and watch the sunset. I try to match my photos with the ones in the fish identification book. Of course, mine aren't nearly as good but it's the best way I know to learn the names of the fish.

'In the beginning, I couldn't keep track of all the different kinds of fish, there were just so many,' Carol said, 'but it's amazing how quickly they become familiar. When we first arrived I could hardly tell a filefish from a flounder but now I know most of the common types.'

When she compared her photos to the published ones, Carol hinted at another issue. I asked her 'What makes a photo good?'

'Well, I'm just learning about photography. Although we've been snorkeling for years, this is the first time I've tried underwater photography. That's really why I'm using all these cameras. I wanted to compare the results.'

I asked her what she had discovered. 'I like the ease of these little plastic cameras, she said pointing to the single use models. 'They're small, light and simple. But with Bob around to tell me what settings to use on the Nikonos, I can focus closer to the fish. It's more to think about, but the shots are nice and sharp and the fish look bigger in the photos.'

What Carol didn't emphasize was her ability to approach the fish. Remember, she'd been snorkeling for years. In general, the quality of photographic images improves with a snorkeler's proficiency in the water.

Even for the best snorkeling photographers, fish are challenging subjects. Carol, however, had a helpful suggestion. 'I've had excellent results taking pictures of the fish near the little wooden dock. It's shallow and there are lots of fish, including a large school of Silversides and some big French Angelfish. They just stay by the dock and they're usually close to the surface.'

I asked Carol one more question: 'Now that you've had experience snorkeling with and without a camera, does photography add or detract from your overall appreciation of the reef?'

'Oh, that's easy,' she replied. 'Taking pictures has added an entirely new dimension to snorkeling for me. I'm learning the names of all the fish and watching their behavior much more closely than I ever have before. Sometimes I'll just follow one around for hours. Plus, looking at the photos with Bob is so much fun.'

Bob looked over at me, raised his cup to the setting sun and whispered in jest, 'My favorite part is when she runs out of film!'