What Lies Beneath

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February 27th 2020
Published: March 1st 2020
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Dive photographers are something of a rare breed.

As you’ll discover if you ever give it a go yourself, it takes a certain degree of perverse perseverance. And in our modern world of instant gratification, perseverance is something of a dying trait.

Truth is, once upon a time all photography was this hard. Back when it all began you forked out a fortune for all manner of unwieldy equipment with which to practice your art: cameras, tripods, film, flashlights, developers & darkrooms. All this to create hazy sepia images of wealthy repressed side-burned gentlemen who all looked like they'd previously placed some unwieldy equipment of their own up their nether regions.

It seemed to take an age for folk to discover that foreign objects were not strictly de rigueur, and that photos looked much better if you actually smiled. This led to the glory years of the Austin Powers era photographer, when glamourous models would pout, flirt and flounce their way across the page, leading a whole new generation of wealthy, moustachioed and somewhat less repressed men to fantasize endlessly of exactly where they might like to put their own not-so foreign objects.

It’s all changed again since then, of course, as your phone has magically learnt to take pictures, dispensing entirely with the need for unwieldy equipment or the photographers who went with them. Now your average wannabe starlet just snaps a selfie of her semi-clad self and Instagrams it to the waiting world, in the mistaken impression that anyone much could give a shit.

So far nobody has quite worked out how to make a smartphone work in the murky depths, so you can’t take a soggy selfie to match with a mischievous mermaid. Instead, to get anything near a decent shot you’re still going to need all manner of bulky gear, as well as a full set of scuba equipment to keep you alive whilst using it.

To make matters worse the fish aren’t being paid a cent for the gig and tend to be distinctly camera-shy. It's a bit like trying to take decent shots of a pack of bolshy supermodels on a rainy windswept foggy evening while trying to balance on a rickety bicycle.

Which kind of makes you wonder why anyone bothers.

Most sane people might try it a couple of times, realise their efforts were worthless and simply jack it in, but there will always be a few weird old souls who persist in doing things the hard way.

Of course there are also a staggering number of beautiful things down there to see, so sooner or later by pure luck you'll come back with one or two images that really aren't that bad.

And that’s when you make your fatal mistake.

You show them to one of your buddies.

They grudgingly approve, but then show you a couple of theirs which are just that little bit better.

And so the game begins.

Before you know it you’ve spent half your income on all manner of gear and are busy forking out to fly it all around the world to a series of spots atteneded only a few fellow aqua-nerds. And what you’ll find when you get there is everyone else has ten times as much gear as you. Some of the rigs look frankly less like cameras and more like mini-subs. This can prove a tad intimidating until you realise many have no idea how to use them, and simply have wallets heavier than their wits. Others will endlessly bore you with their encyclopaedic knowledge of the technical specs, but not yet have worked out which way to point them. And a third group will have spent hours achieving great technical proficiency with the camera but never really learnt how to dive. Almost all conversation over the next few days will be from the more insecure members of these three groups trying to out-brag and out-bluster each other. Really everyone should be paying attention to the shady guy in the corner with the battle-scarred kit, flying under the radar while studiously ignoring all and sundry. Come dive-time he simply disappears off into the gloom, returning later with the merest hint of a wry grin, his pictures telling a thousand words.

Even he, though, will generally turn out to be a right royal pain in the arse.

For some reason dive-photography is a magnet for whose report card read does not play well with others’.

It’s a solitary endeavour, at the end of the day, and one that requires patience, dedication, and a certain degree of selfishness. The super-committed will sit in one spot all day awaiting the perfect shot, so denying everyone else their chance. Some of the real pros even have support divers who will come down with a new tank when they’re running low. There’s a surplus of alpha-personalities, the majority being alpha-males. And the trouble with alpha-males is that most of them could do with being just a little bit beta. There’s absolutely no room for consideration, empathy, or anything approaching a sense of humour.

Truth is there’s no more than a handful of real pros, so they’re constantly surrounded by a plethora of hopeless wannabees trying to get a foothold on their dream job, and hellbent on scuppering the opposition’s chances.

Just at our one little resort in the Philippines, multiple nations around the globe seemed to have sent some of their greatest arseholes to the very same spot, as if we’d stumbled upon some underwater reality TV series called The Biggest Knob.

Everyone wants to be ship’s captain, all regard their opinion as gospel, nobody talks about anything but themselves, presuming they talk at all and don’t just communicate in grunts. Not all were like this, of course, but unsurprisingly the ones that were couldn’t bear each other and had to be separated, ensuring at least a couple on every little boat. At one stage the two aboard ours started physically brawling 32 metres down, much to the beleaguered bemusement of the pygmy seahorse we were all trying to snap. One of the brawlers also had the charming habit of peeing in his wetsuit, a not uncommon preference in the diving fraternity despite erroneous theories connecting it with shark attacks. However, unlike most of his pee-ers, who I find only mildly repulsive, he chose to do so not while underwater, but instead while climbing up the boat’s ladder just before stepping in. Said wee would then slowly ooze out the suit all over the deck for the next hour, slowly turning to a sticky mess in the sun. Top marks for etiquette right there mate…

The real mystery here, as in similar scenarios across the world, is not what possesses them to behave in such a manner but just why the rest of us put up with it. It’s not like they can stomach each other, being the first to call out on sleights both real and imagined, but the more mild-mannered amongst us shrink from confrontation and let them get away with it. Psychologists would doubtless label them sociopaths or narcissists, but I prefer a different term.

They’re dickheads.

And ever since I was small I’ve wondered why we tolerate dickheads. Their astonishing lack of self-insight is one thing they all share, so they’re unlikely to change themselves. Instead they rise unchallenged to become head of the boat, head of the company or, dare I say it, head of the free world, when really they should have been sent straight to the naughty corner with the threat of no pudding years ago, and simply left there until they change their ways. A world without these super-predators might be a great place for the rest of us to live.

And underwater in Anilao we can get an idea of what such a world might look like, since all the top predators were fished out years ago by the biggest super-predator of them all.

There are no sharks here, as all the big stuff has been eaten. There are no minke whales, mola molas or manta rays; it’s rare to find anything as big as a mackerel.

But if you’re into the small stuff, as us photographers annoyingly tend to be, the place is 5-star.

With a lack of predators to pick them off, not only are there more of these little guys but they’re much less shy and retiring, and more likely to venture from their hidden crevices out into plain sight in the open. It’s like playtime at primary school on a day all the bullies have been sent home. The formerly sheepish and timid kids slowly come to life and start expressing themselves, and turn out to be not so introverted after all. Without the bullies in tow they’re full of life and wonder and you finally get to discover What Lies Beneath. Given time they may come fully out of their shells and prove intensely creative or arty, which latterly leads to all manner of strange hair colours and adventurous clothing, much more photogenic than your average run-of-the-mill. And so it proves with Anilao’s weird underwater critters, each more implausibly colourful than the last, more otherworldly shaped, so much more evocative than the predators’ dull uniform grey.

There’s only one other downside: the Philippines seems to share that classic third-world habit of being completely unable to deal with its trash. Sure, it’s maybe not so high on your list of priorities when you’re still struggling to scrabble a living, but surely there’s something better than just chucking it straight in the sea, particularly when the sea is otherwise so fabulously stunning.

On the other hand perhaps this really is just a first world problem as, other than the visiting divers, nobody else seems to give a crap. Even the fish seem entirely oblivious to the chip packets, bottles and empty cans strewn all across the sand, except for a few who decide to make them a handy new home, proving the old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Indeed, it’s well known in the diving world that fish like nothing more than hanging round a shipwreck, which are often festooned with life despite being, when you think about it, just the biggest bit of trash of all.

I’m still not convinced, though.

Ships belong in the sea. The remains of your weekly grocery shop, not so much.

They’re foreign objects, at the end of the day.

And as we’ve already learned, both personally and on a global scale, foreign objects are best kept well away from your nether regions, at least if you want to crack a smile once in a while.


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