Jumping in the Deep End

Jumping in the Deep End

Do you remember the beginning?  

That feeling: I can stay down here, I don’t have to go up.  

It’s a revelation.  

Suddenly, the seventy percent of the earth’s surface which is underwater, becomes available to us. It’s like being shot into outer space, to an alternative planet, where everything is different. A world where creatures are nothing like us: bizarre forms of life that don’t walk, aren’t bound by gravity, and in such a vast array of bodies and in such magnitude that our familiar world of air seems strangely impoverished. 



I do remember, and I’m happy I do because it leaves powerful impressions and expressing them lies at the core of my work. I am a professional wildlife photographer and together with my wife, Beverly, we make large format photographic books. We have published ten, in the course of our lifetimes, all of them, with a few departures, about the world of air. 


After the success of our last book, Wild Land, we were discussing an idea with our publisher about making a book in a similar vein but with a shift in essence. The oceans, had in recent years become a greater focus of attention as people around the world began to recognize the abuses the oceans were suffering and the dawning realization that those abuses were both caused by and impacting on us. Each of us, no matter how far removed. 


Our work has always sought to reveal the magnificence of the earth, the remarkable wonders that are the natural environments of our planet and how extraordinarily privileged we are to be cognizant of it. There is more than enough bad news in our instant digital world to suffocate even the heartiest attachment to nature. We seek to alter that, to bring to light how great a gift we have, still today, in what remains pristine in the world. And so, we came to the idea to make a book on the last wild coastal areas left on earth and Beverly and I put on scuba tanks and took our first real look at another world: the world that has always been there, beneath our feet. 


I consider myself a waterman. As a youngster I swam competitively. I have surfed since my early teens and remain an active surfer. We have crossed oceans on yachts and have sailed more than 15 000 miles across the seas. I have free dived out of curiosity and a need to eat, but each time the surface has called me back to punctuate the experience. Suddenly, we were down there, unrestrained, silent except for the burst of bubbles and most remarkable of all, weightless. 


I think it is that transformation, from stumbling awkwardly, over-encumbered and heavy, to weightless that thrills me each time I enter the water. Splash. I hold my mask against my face, relax, and then look around.  



The world is blue or green, fading quickly to an obscuring darkness. The sunlight runs in visible shafts, drawn together by the depths and only near the surface are the rainbow colours of white light available. It strikes me as strange when I reach the bottom and turn on my light to see the colours return. Why bother with colour if in the depths only the blue light remains? What do the fish and invertebrates ‘see’? It’s impossible to split the blue spectrum of light into the red of a grouper or the green of a moray. What evolutionary advantage is there to being colourful in a monochrome world? 


I have since discovered that red is the first colour in the spectrum to disappear in blue light. A red fish therefore appears black, a more advantageous colour for hiding than the bright red a coral trout appears in the beam of light. 


Light is absorbed quickly underwater, surprisingly quickly. I remember in our first attempts at photography in the sea, my lights, some of the best available, seemed to have no impact on my subjects. The images were principally a monochrome, the colour of the water, with the fish and the reefs all a rather dull sameness, devoid of spark or vitality. I complained of this to one of my mentors, Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean, an enthusiastic, positive ocean guru who, despite a charming modesty and humility, is probably the person principally responsible for bringing the phenomenon of the sardine migration to the attention of the world. His response was short and pragmatic, ‘get closer’. 


He was right. Water consumes light, just as the sun banishes darkness. For effectively lit underwater scenes, you need to be close, much closer than one would ever dare on land. And this too has raised a fascination in me: why creatures underwater tolerate so much closer an approach than the creatures on land? It is the same distance at which flight from danger is possible that dictates how close land animals will allow approach. Why is it so markedly different underwater? A trevally cruises through a shoal of fusiliers and they only move cursorily to one side. The trevally is capable of extraordinary bursts of speed and could quite conceivably catch one or more in a single dash, but the baitfish allow its close proximity. On the savannah, a herd of impala will give a wide berth around a lion that is walking in the open. A berth that far exceeds that given by shoal of fish underwater to a known predator and by comparison to a shark or a trevally, a lion is slow off the mark. 



It remains a mystery of the undersea to me and one to which I have not yet found a reasonable explanation. Regardless of the cause, it is a principal hinge around which successful underwater photography pivots, get close. It took us some time to get accustomed to this change in approach because it has become so entrenched a principal in our work, not to disturb our subject. An animal behaving naturally offers far more photographic opportunity than one aware and wary of your presence. The same is true underwater but the distance that this can be achieved is drastically reduced. 


I was recently diving on the Ningaloo Reef, off Western Australia, when an octopus I had been following for some time stretched out one of its tentacles and tentatively touched the dome port of my camera. It retracted its tentacle quite quickly, but soon enough tried it again. It is a consuming sensation to have something wild reach out and touch you. It happened to me once with a desert elephant and the memory of it still burns bright in me today. To have a sea creature do the same was riveting. 


Octopus, I know are smart. Smart is the ability to learn and solve dilemmas and smart’s foundation is derived principally from two factors: experience and curiosity. Here was a wild creature whose experience of the past forty-five- minutes was that I was neither a predator, nor inclined to harm it, that was now allowing its curiosity to embellish its learning. A third time it reached out to my dome port and this time the tentacle settled on the glass. It stayed there. And then a tip of the tentacle appeared over the top of the port and gently explored the back of it. I lifted a gloved hand from the camera grip and placed it in the path of the exploring tentacle. It touched my finger, encircled it gently, stayed for a moment and then let go. It withdrew the tentacle from the housing, then encircling it with all its other tentacles, seemed to pass it several times over its hidden beak. I waited with anticipation for a reaction, but none was apparent and the octopus, having learned what it wanted, continued to hunt.  



It flowed over the coral, probing with its tentacles into the nooks and crevices. A jewel damselfish darted at it and tried to nip it for intruding on its small territory of tended algae and coral garden. The octopus paused and turning a deep maroon-red, almost black, held a single coiled tentacle aloft. As the damselfish darted forward to deliver another nip, it shot the tentacle out and effectively punched it on the nose. The damselfish deferred. The octopus returned to a colour of red, blotched with mustard-yellows. It slid under a wide branch of stag-horn coral and then quickly spreading its body and tentacles wide, like a rapidly opened umbrella, it turned almost translucent-white and then hung still. It had something trapped and was slowly working it out with its tentacles. 


Octopus, squid and cuttlefish possess thousands of small cells just beneath the surface of their skins called chromatophores. These are tiny cells, each filled with pigment which the animal can stretch or contract at will, rather like an array of tiny balloons, whereby the pigment, revealed or concealed, changes the colour of its skin. They also have an array of projections on their skin which they can raise, expand, contract or flatten at will, so that they can, in an instant, mimic their surroundings so effectively that they become almost invisible. 


I saw this in action, diving along the edge of a sheer wall on Astove Island in the Seychelles. I was photographing an octopus, when I became aware of another presence and looking up watched as a grouper the size of myself drifted up out of the deep blue to see what I was doing. I looked back to the octopus, but it was gone. A few small reef fish drifted back and forth over the reef where it had been and I began to look for a crevice that it might have dived into, when the reef itself moved. The octopus had not only changed colour to blend absolutely with its surroundings, but it had become an abstract of projections and contours that entirely mimicked the reef and the waving seaweed and soft corals that grew there. 


The octopus I am watching is taking its time to extract its prey from the labyrinth of the stag-horn coral. The Peregrine on my wrist buzzes. I look down, ‘50 minutes’ is flashing yellow. I look up, the surface is close, a greenish-turquoise sheen burnished with silver. My bubbles of exhaled air drift upwards like silver-domed space craft towards the light. 



I don’t need a safety stop but I will make one anyway, because I need the time to transfer in my head from this world of water to the one above. I must return, but it is a revelation to have been immersed in another dimension where the living breathe water and the vast and incredible array of life that this has spawned. It defies even our wildest imaginings and my head is full of images and impressions that I wish to share. 




Born and educated in Africa, Peter and Beverly Pickford are inveterate explorers, conservationists and wildlife photographers. They began their careers in safari lodge and reserve management, before embarking on their award- wining photographic careers.  

Their work has carried them across all the earth’s continents where their primary motivation has been to inspire and motivate the preservation of wilderness and the wild creatures that thrive there. Where humankind, specifically traditional people, are in association rather than domination of wild areas, people have been included in their projects.  

They have published ten books of their own internationally, the most recent being ‘Wild Land – A journey into the Earth’s Last Wilds’, where they travelled to the seven continents to explore and record where wilderness still exists. Their hundreds of magazine articles, contributions to nature books, films of their projects and photographs donated to conservation organizations are their way of making a difference to the way we see the wild places that remain pristine.  

Both being sailors, free-divers and surfers, it is only in recent years that Peter and Beverly became qualified Advanced Enriched Air Divers, taking their cameras underwater and deep into the less explored oceans. They had decided they could no longer stand by as the planet’s oceans became increasingly threatened by over exploitation. They needed in some way to contribute to the awareness of how precious and irreplaceable the remaining pristine ocean and environmentally intact coastal regions are to the future well-being of our planet and humankind. 

When not on a boat diving the remote areas of the planet, or exploring undeveloped, wild coastlines, you will find Peter and Beverly at home in a nature reserve on the West Coast of South Africa.