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Down to Earth: Q&A With Photographer David Doubilet

David Doubilet, an underwater photographer for National Geographic, discusses how ocean stressors negatively impact the aquatic environment.

David Doubilet, the acclaimed photographer for National Geographic, has spent decades photographing underwater images and has seen firsthand how ocean stressors have negatively impacted the aquatic environment he loves. In this conversation, Doubilet discusses the changes to the ocean that he's witnessed, particularly the effects that climate change is having on coral reefs.

Doubilet spoke with Associate Editor Jessica Knoblauch in September of 2011.

Jessica Knoblauch: David, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. What made you want to first pick up a camera and document the underwater world?

Why do you focus on underwater photography?

David Doubilet: Well, I began to go underwater not very far away from away where we live now in a small lake in the Adirondack Mountains. I was at summer camp. I was a terrible camper. I hated the horse; I hated the mountains; I didn't like to hike. And the counselor said, "Why don't you try this mask? Put your head underwater and look under the dock." I put on a French blue rubber mask, I put my head underwater, and everything that I knew about in life completely changed. Here was an entire world completely different than the world we live in, the world of gravity and air. And it was mind-altering, even for an eight year old, and I knew that this was the direction that I wanted to go in.

You have to think of this planet, really, as a water planet, not as a land planet. It really is the heart and soul of what life is. In this very, very empty, very, very dark universe, here's this one tiny orb that glows blue.

Jessica: So you've been taking underwater pictures since the 1970s. What kinds of changes have you seen in the aquatic environment since you first started?

What changes have you seen over the decades?

David: There's been a lot of sweeping changes that I've seen. Specifically, let's take the Caribbean. In the Caribbean a lot of the sea urchins disappeared. In the Caribbean, almost all of the elkhorn coral, these great brown corals, they've disappeared. But mostly it's the fish.

When I grew up along the coast of New Jersey, there was sweeping schools of menhaden. And one family running one set of fishing boats basically wiped out an entire tribe of fish along the coast of New Jersey. And that was menhaden. In the Caribbean, you go onto an average Caribbean reef and you don't see the great sweeping schools of grunts and snappers and all of the things that used to course over a reef top. They're mostly gone, overfished and fished out.

Bar Jacks, in the Cayman Islands.
(&copy David Doubilet / daviddoubilet.com)

Other fish have disappeared like bluefin tuna. In 1978, I did a story for National Geographic on bluefin tuna in St. Margaret's Bay. There they set up a set of pound nets that have been in St. Margaret's Bay to catch mackerel since the American Revolution. What happens in St. Margaret's Bay is that groups of them would eventually go into these mackerel nets and be caught, and the mackerel fishermen there would not quite understand what these huge fish were. They would call them horse mackerel and some of them were basically cut up and used for fertilizer.

Meanwhile, longline fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, very active fishing up and down the east coast, and a desire for blue fin tuna, which grew and grew and grew until it was basically one of the most expensive fish in the sea, caused the numbers in St. Margaret's Bay to plunge. So, I shot pictures in 1979 and by 1985, most of those fish were gone.

Jessica: That's amazing. Well, in addition to overfishing, one of the environmental problems of our time is climate change and so far much of the focus in the media has been on changes on land, like an increase in wildfires or droughts. For you what does climate change look like in the depths of the ocean? What image comes to mind?

What does climate change look like in the ocean?

David: It's very hard to photograph climate change on a coral reef, but that is the other front line of where this earth and this climate is changing. It's not just the poles and the disappearing of the polar bears and the fact that we now have rain on the Antarctic Peninsula, imagine that. It's a much more insidious situation that's going on right now within the ocean because of climate change and, more specifically, the enormous amount of CO2 that we're putting into the atmosphere, which is absorbed into the sea. And this packing of CO2 into the ocean has basically re-arranged and changed the chemistry of the ocean.

Number 6, Sand Key, Great Barrier Reef.
(&copy David Doubilet / daviddoubilet.com)

Now, how this affects the coral reefs is the fact that all corals develop a calcium-carbonate house, a little tiny house that they live in. The coral reef basically is a biological action that produces a geological fact. And it's all done by a creature smaller than an infant's fingernail, the coral polyp. And as the coral polyp goes to work, it builds this wonderful calcium carbonate house and then dies, and the next coral polyp builds another house on top of it. So you have these massive unbelievable cities in the warm belt of the sea, stretching from the heart of all coral density and biodiversity, which is in Indonesia, all the way across the Pacific, all the way across the Indian Ocean, up into the Red Sea and into the Caribbean.

And what happens is that ocean acidification inhibits the ability for the coral polyp to build these calcium carbonate houses. And eventually, according to Dr. J. E. N. Veron, aka "Charlie" Veron—formerly of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, he is one of the leading, if not the leading coral experts in the world—he has predicted that the Great Barrier Reef within 30 years will begin to change considerably and by the end of this century, will be gone as we know it. That's a hell of a prediction. Because of the way we're living on this planet, we're looking at the total destruction of coral reefs as well as the melting of the polar ice caps and the changing of the entire environments there.

Jessica: When did you first get involved with spreading awareness on the state of the ocean? Do you consider an activist or merely a photographic journalist or is there a distinction?

How do you see your role as a photographer?

David: Well, lines are very blurred these days between being a simple photographer and an activist. I think primarily the job of the photographer is to make images that are compelling. Before you protect anything, you have to know exactly what is going on and what is there to protect. If you look at why we have, for instance, Yosemite [National] Park, it's in many cases because of the ability of Ansel Adams' pictures to communicate the absolute beauty of this place. And his pictures have very long legs in terms of the aesthetics and strength. And that's what a photographer's job is—to make an image that turns people around.

I'm afraid that a lot of the images that I've made underwater are going to be documents of a time passed— and that's a frightening thought.

The biggest problem in photography and in the way we approach everything is we end up convincing the convinced. The hardest job is to convince the unconvinced.

In all the entire history of humanity, humans had never really begun to go into the sea until about 60 years ago. The view through a face mask and the ability to breathe underwater and swim freely gives you an entire view of the ocean. We have just begun to look into the ocean and my realization is that we've, as humans, acted in a normal human way that we do. We are conquistadors. As we discover, we destroy. It's a very sad fact, but if you turn this around at least we have a place now that we just found out about that maybe, just may be worth the justice that humans can sometimes bring to a place. We can preserve.

Jessica: What effect do you hope that your underwater photography will have on people's perceptions of the marine environment?

What do you hope to achieve with photography?

David: Hopefully that people look at the images that I make underwater, they will look at a place in an entirely different light. They will say, "Wait a minute. This is an extraordinary part of our planet." The coral reef is a tapestry of biodiversity. It's more like a Jackson Pollock painting of life. It's a jewel on our planet, and they're going to be gone, and it is caused by this enormous amount of CO2 we're putting into the atmosphere.

I wish it wasn't true. It's like a Damoclean sword hanging over all of our heads. And, for a lifetime that I spent photographing underwater I've always imagined that there's going to be something more, something astounding in the future and the future of other photographers and generations to come. Now I'm afraid that a lot of the images that I've made underwater are going to be documents of a time passed—and that's a very frightening thought. To be quite honest, it's an ungovernable joy to be underwater. It's beyond anything that I can imagine, which is why I did it. My life's there and it's totally joyous

Jessica: You recently put out a children's book about sharks [Face to Face with Sharks]. Why did you decide to focus on sharks for a children's book?

Talk about sharks and their significance.

David: Well, for kids sharks may be the new dinosaurs. The only difference is that they're around right now. We have a lot of kids who come up to us and can identify every single shark that exists, all 350 species, and know their habits and everything else about them. They are something that humans have an atavistic and very ancient fear of, which means that they are totally fascinating. A crocodile eats somebody in South Africa and it never makes the front page. A shark eats a surfer in South Africa and it gets worldwide attention.

Lemon sharks, Bahamas.
(&copy David Doubilet / daviddoubilet.com)

It's very strange. They still have that incredible pull. They're basically the last dinosaur, one of the few things that can swallow a human whole, just about. That being said, we're facing a time and a place on this planet where sharks may very well disappear. In some cases, 90 percent of the population has been taken away, destroyed. And across the Pacific there are great swatches of areas, great reef systems where you don't even see a shark, like in Raja Ampat. We dove in Raja Ampat in the very richest coral environment in the world, which is in the western tip of New Guinea and eastern most province of Indonesia. But in the six months and countless expeditions we've been there, we've seen sharks on the reef about four times.

They've all been taken away for one specific reason and that's the shark fin soup trade. Sharks worldwide are decimated because of this. When you take a shark population out of a system, it doesn't come back. They're slow-breeding, slow-to-mature creatures, and when you do such a thing those populations don't bounce back.

Jessica: You've photographed sharks all over the world. Do you ever get scared?

David: Well, what's scary is to get into a situation and as a photographer miss the picture. That's sort of frightening! There are situations where it can be very tense and then the thing to do is you back slowly out of the situation. And, at other times, it can be absolutely beautiful, breathtaking. Diving with sharks is not necessarily always going to end up with injuries. You just have to be very, very careful.

The biggest problem in photography and in the way we approach everything is that we end up convincing the convinced. The hardest job is to convince the unconvinced.

For instance, we were working with tiger sharks that had been feeding on a dead sperm whale carcass and the sperm whale carcass had been bitten down to something the size of maybe ten hay bales put together. That was all that was left of this great beast. And at one point there were at least seven really big tiger sharks feeding on this piece of sperm whale, and it was being slowly devoured into nothing. And evening was coming along the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. We were snorkeling, and I realized at a point that the sharks were not going to distinguish us from the smell and the oil and the big piece of blubber that was left and we could easily be victims. And these were tiger sharks, some of which were 14 feet long. And that was the time, as the light went lower, that we felt it was better to get out of the water.

With sharks, we sometimes photograph back to back so we can defend 360 degrees around us. It's a funny thing that happens when you work behind the camera. You feel in some ways a little bit invulnerable, but in other ways what you want to do really is get this picture. Your whole being is intensified right down through the viewfinder of the camera.

Jessica: And so when it comes to photographing sharks or other sea creatures, do you try to remain a detached observer or have you ever interacted with any of these animals?

Do you interact with your subjects?

David: Most fish what they want to do most of all is not have their picture taken. There are very few real interactions underwater, but occasionally in this cold sea there is something that's sort of wonderful.

We were diving in a place called Hopkins Island, which is in the entrance to the Spencer Gulf of South Australia. And there's a group of Australian sea lions, a small colony that lives there. When you come up to the island, they'll go into the water when you go into the water and there's a small white sand beach and then after that it gives way to a very rich meadow of sea grass. They come and they lay on the sea grass and roll around and they will nibble our flippers, they'll bite the strobes, they'll come over and look right into your mask. If you put out your hand, they'll tickle your hand with the front of their noses. They like your presence. You could look into their eyes, one to one, and it was a little bit like diving with a group of quite friendly Golden Retrievers.

Jessica: That's gotta be an amazing experience.

David: Oh, a wonderful experience.

Jessica: In your biography, you mention that one of your challenges is to redefine photographic boundaries each time you enter the water. Can you explain a little bit about what you meant by that and give a few examples?

Can you talk about the challenge of redefining photographic boundaries?

David: Here's a good example of a photographic boundary. For years, as long as I worked for National Geographic, I would or somebody else would propose a story on nudibranchs.

These are basically a sea-going snail without a shell that develops the most incredible colors in the world because of their need to have a method of survival and their method of survival is they feed on very toxic things like ascidians and sponges. And then they advertise the fact that they are toxic by being brilliantly colored creatures.

But they're snails, and if you want to do a story on these things, you have to number one understand what they look like and you have to have some kind of intimacy to them. In other words, to be eye to eye to them. Most photographers photograph them looking down on them, and it's a little like doing pictures of children and photographing only the tops of their heads.

Nudibranch.
(&copy David Doubilet / daviddoubilet.com)

So I thought for a long while and I said, "Let's build a tiny studio and take it underwater and treat these creatures like fashion models" because the colors that they have are more robust and incredibly vibrant than any piece of fashion I've ever seen, and that includes Haight-Ashbury in 1968.

So I built a tiny studio, and by tiny I mean it's a ten-inch square studio with a curved back wall like a real studio made out of Plexiglas mounted on a tri-pod. We took it underwater, we took it to the nudibranchs, and, with the help of a nudibranch expert, moved the nudibranchs off the sea floor and into the studio momentarily, which didn't hurt them at all, and photographed them in a studio setting. And I could not only photograph them against a white background, but I could get to their level and look across into their eyes, which are not eyes at all but feather-like appendages called linafores.

That's one approach. We always try to add one more step, one more piece of vision, one more piece of technology. Where technology meets dreams, you make photographs. That's the most exciting thing about photography is to meet that kind of challenge, is to look at a situation and say, "How can I illustrate this? How can I make this picture something more than what we see, something more exciting and put it on the page that incorporates the poetry, and the environment, and the atmosphere of a place that you're shooting?" I think that that's the biggest challenge.

Jessica: Has there ever been an instance where a place or a country wouldn't let you take pictures?

Have you been denied entry during an assignment?

David: Underwater photographers, for some reason, are not really politically suspect as we go into countries. But, for instance, in Cuba, Cuba became a very important country for us. [My wife] Jennifer [Hayes] and I and our colleague Peter Benchley did a story on the reefs in 2000. And Peter summed it up best as he said, "I sat on a side of a boat in Cuba, rolled over backwards, and rolled into a reef that was from 1950." In other words, the first reefs that we saw as divers were just full of life.

You have to think of this planet, really, as a water planet, not as a land planet. It really is the heart and soul of what life is.

And all the things that we remembered that a reef looked like when we first started diving were de facto preserved—preserved basically caused by politics. The question is, when we recognize Cuba, how are we and the Cuban people and biologists going to keep this incredible set of reefs and walls and coral extravaganzas and incredibly rich places as pristine? And that's going to be a real challenge. The rest of the Caribbean, for the most part, has been very much changed by overfishing and other things, too. But the southern reefs in Cuba are incredible.

Jessica: You've been in the field for decades now, taking hundreds and hundreds of pictures. Do you have any tips on how to get started with underwater photography?

Any tips for aspiring underwater photographers?

David: Well, the first thing about underwater photography is you've got to be comfortable underwater. And people say, "Well I'm going learn how to scuba dive and then take pictures immediately." I think that's a mistake. I think what you have to do is learn how to dive. It's relatively easy. But you have to have some time underwater before you take a camera. That's my first advice. Look around. Be very comfortable. Have at least a hundred dives.

And then, when you begin to take a camera, we live now in a digital world where the learning curve of how to become an underwater photographer is very much shortened because you can see exactly what you shoot. There are terrific underwater point and shoot cameras now. You take a picture, you see it instantly. In years back, I mean, I would do assignments where I wouldn't see a picture that I'd made for three or four months, which is a little bit frightening!

Weedy sea dragon, in the kelp forest of Tasmania, Australia. (&copy David Doubilet / daviddoubilet.com)

It's a completely different world thinking about just in terms of lighting. On land, if you light something up in a studio or use a flash in the air, you don't have to ever worry about the return path of the light. Underwater, the return path of a light is absorbed, so the light going out is not the light reflected. You have deal with the fact that the water wants to destroy every piece of camera equipment you've ever owned. And, most of all, you have very limited time. For instance, if you're shooting something in, say, 150 feet of water, deep water, you will have for an entire day about 15 minutes. The price for that 15 minutes down there will be hours of decompression. Imagine doing a story where you're only allowed to shoot a subject for 15 minutes. It's like sports photography, only while holding your breath!

So, the thing is to be comfortable underwater and then go into the water and look around at the seascapes and then look around at the smaller creatures in the sea. Remember that most of the creatures in the sea are the size of your hand or smaller, and so there's an entire world of macrophotography in the ocean as well as an entire world of seascapes and larger animals. You don't have to start in shark-infested waters immediately.

It's great to have knowledge about what you're photographing. In fact, that's basically my entire life is to know what we're shooting! And of course the most important factor in photography is the guide, the person who lives there, the person who knows what the world is that you're photographing is all about. Trust their judgment and then modify it with some of your experience and you come up with something that's new.

We are conquistadors. As we discover, we destroy. It's a very sad fact. But if you turn this around, at least we have a place now that we just found out about that maybe, just may be worth the justice that humans can sometimes bring to a place. We can preserve.

The thing about a [National] Geographic assignment is that it's like a graduate course in whatever we're doing. And the only difference is you translate that into visual material. You're always learning and there's no such thing as a finished assignment. There's always one more thing you have to get, one more thing you have to do. It's a very Sisyphean life because you basically roll an enormous stone up an enormous hill and when you get to the top, if you're successful, your best reward is another enormous stone and another enormous hill.

Jessica: Okay, well that's all the questions that I have for today. Thank you again for your time.

And if our listeners would like to learn more about David Doubilet's underwater photography collection, please visit DavidDoubilet.com or earthjustice.org.

Related:


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Oceans: Stormy Waters

Environmental stressors are battering an ecosystem that was once thought to be unsinkable—the ocean. Earthjustice is working to reverse course on an impending environmental catastrophe.


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Down to Earth, an Earthjustice Podcast

Down to Earth is an audio podcast about the news, events and personalities that make up Earthjustice. Hear from attorneys, clients, scientific experts, and more on Earthjustice litigation.

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