Q&A: Underwater Photographer Cathy Church
Sierra: Do you ever feel that you build a relationship with the creatures that you're photographing?
Cathy Church: You do build a relationship with the feeling of being there. You may not have a relationship with a particular nudibranch — but yes, you can have a relationship with what a nudibranch is because you know how they behave and what they are going to do next. And yeah, they do talk to you — not with words — but with the way they look at you. I like to be in the water long enough and often enough that when I see something in a scene, that scene talks to me. I relate to it. The photography, the seeing the image, is definitely in your heart.
So, how did you first get into underwater photography?
I was a birdwatcher. I loved nature — anything natural was wonderful for me. But I knew that there would not be much future in birdwatching, and that I should become a marine scientist, because I just always loved the ocean. So, as a marine biologist it was obviously a good idea to take up photography to document my theses. And I fortunately met a fellow named Jim Church who did photography, and we continued to pioneer underwater photography together in the 70's because there wasn't a lot known about it. We had primitive equipment and flash bulbs and we would take our light meter and put it in a Skippy peanut butter jar — so there wasn't a lot of sophisticated equipment, but it was enjoyable to figure it out. And I liked the science part of it.
Science comes into play?
Oh yeah, big time. In a darkroom you just experiment — and there's all different ways you can do it. So, the science is fun. Of course now, there's Photoshop...
What camera do you like to use today?
I have a Nikon D3.
Do you have any tips for people just getting started in underwater photography?
The first tip is to be balanced and buoyant in the water so that you can photograph something with no movement — you don't need to be waving your hands around and sitting on the bottom, you can just be delicately going along and control your camera while you're floating in the water. And the second is familiarity with where you are in the water — familiarity with the creatures. Dive the same place over and over so you know what's going on. That is really what helps you find a picture.
Certainly Devil's Grotto (on Grand Cayman). That's just to die for. There's a place in the Solomon Islands. I'm going back there next year for the 18th trip. It's a little quiet grotto, and (sighs) I just go there and it just feels calm to me. And all the corals are still perfectly alive. I don't take anybody there unless I tell them in advance, "you can't settle on the reef, you can't touch anything." It's all living coral. There's not ten square inches that's not covered with live, hard corals. That to me is a really special place.
Have you seen many changes in the ocean since you first started diving?
It's heartbreaking. It almost brings me to tears. I am very, very lucky that I was there while the oceans were still alive and while they had technology to go down and look at it. I was able to get in there and see it in its heydey. And that is over. I don't know if it will come back. There are a lot of places where I go back and it just isn't there anymore. An area that 20, 25 years ago was hard coral, now it's covered with algae — and algae is colorful, so it makes a really cool picture. But when people look at that picture and say, "Oh wow, that's really pretty," I say, "Yeah, that's really sad."
What can be done?
We need people to stop waiting until it's necessary. As long as they're not extinct, there can always be a rebuilding. The solution to the whole thing is to live in a sustainable way — recycling and population control. Sustainability is to do no harm and pollution, and to recycle, and to not take more than what the environment can cope with, especially in the oceans. We need to totally stop taking things from the ocean for a decade or so. Just totally stop. I go out and keep taking pictures of littler and littler things. I'm now shooting mostly tiny things — but I'm still taking all kinds of pictures. I still find it very exciting. And I still go out and shoot with the hopefulness that, yes, it's going to be terrific.
I think it just does that automatically. Had we not all been taking pictures over the years, people wouldn't even know that oceans exist. If it weren't for all photography, accumulated, people wouldn't do a thing for the oceans. But I'm a tiny, tiny part...
Have you ever been scared underwater, or been around something scary?
Yes! A couple times. One time was when I wanted to go into a little cave in the Solomon Islands, with a little opening. I had heard about there being a pond inside — it's called Mirror Pond, because there's no wind inside, and the trees grow over it, and I thought this would be really pretty. So I told my husband to follow me in there. He shook his head no, because he assumed I had heard about why you don't go into Mirror Pond from that entrance. But I swam under, and he followed me, and I looked over and I see this log on the bottom, and I look closer at that log, and I realize it's a saltwater crocodile. Saltwater crocodiles are about the deadliest thing.... I simply went "DAH!" and he (my husband) turned around, said "now she knows" and dashed out, and in my turning I snagged my regulator against a rock, and it slammed my head back and almost knocked me out. And in order to turn around, I had to put my fins about where the crocodile's mouth was. So, in that moment, I'm visualizing that he is going to bite me. And that frightened me. But I found out later that he was a friendly crocodile and he's never bitten anybody.
So after all that, did you get the photograph?
When I heard that, I wanted to go back in! But my husband said no way.
You must have a real sense of adventure!
There have been scary times — being swept away in a current heading to Japan, diving and watching the anchor to my guide boat pulling away, being shipwrecked in the Philippines — but those were all adventures; nobody died. I don't mind adventure.
Even though you've had some close encounters?
I usually don't dive in scary places. If I know it's going to be scary, I don't go. But once I was in the water photographing dolphins and Galapagos sharks came up from the deep — that was scary. That was the first time I've ever stuck my head out of the water and yelled "shark!" But it was an adventure.
Aw, everything is cute! Everything is gorgeous. In Truck Lagoon, Micronesia, this most amazing comb jelly came by. It was just beautiful — just floating in the water. This amazing thing was just pulsating and going by. Experiences like that — to see a little fish looking at you — if you just slow down and relax and just allow that water to embrace you, it's just, wow. And there's no limit. The ocean, it just goes forever.
What do you enjoy the most about it?
First of all it to bring back an image that maybe nobody's ever seen before. I enjoy catching — freezing — a moment in perpetuity. Like when a turtle crawled up my knees and stared into my camera lens. I loved that. Because now I can share that. It wasn't just me and that turtle.
So, what do you do when you're not underwater?
(laughs) Wish I were in the water!
--photos by Cathy Church.