Marine Conservation Zones – A report

The Photographic Angle & Royal Photographic Society Environmental Awareness Bursary 2014

The Marine Conservation Zones

Project Report

 

This project began from a strong desire to share passion of marine life, and a wish to reach and educate as many people as possible, about the important life that is right on our doorsteps, and so often ignored.

The idea of this project was to travel as many places as possible, and show a variety of marine life, that was either in the process of being awarded the marine conservation zone status, or may have already been awarded it. The label of MaC_Sams_02-1rine Conservation Zone varies from each site, their protection specifics are decided upon through assessment of the habitat and species within it. When this project began, there were already some 27 zones in place, and now, 1 year on, there have been 23 more added to this number. Considering the huge amount of coastline we are privileged to have around England, this number of 50 zones is still fairly low. The decision on the final round of zones is still not confirmed until 2016, and so you could say that this part of the project is still ongoing.

The other main driving force behind an underwater project was not to just highlight the areas that need protection, but also just to engage viewers with the ocean. It’s no secret that in recent years a growing number of children, and adults, C_Sams_05-1are disconnected from nature. Furthermore, it’s arguable that many people are even more disconnected from marine life, and what’s under our seas, purely because it is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. By bringing the marine life out of the water with images, showing the colourful species and habitats, the project aimed to gain viewers interest in interacting with nature, and more specifically the ocean, more. Marine life is so intriguing that if one is only given the opportunity, it is easy to become hooked, to start to become fascinated with this underwater world, to love it, and to care about it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 09.32.54With these thoughts began the origin of the Marine Conservation Zones project, however the practicalities of it were a little more complex. The huge variety in the designated zones, and the possibilities of documenting so many different sites and the complex life within them is almost overwhelming.

The potential for covering this project is huge, one that could be documented over many years and still leave much to be explored. To make it more manageable, more accessible, local zones were selected as the photographic sites.

Towards the beginning of this project, many of the areas visited for documentation were deeper, scuba diving sites, accessed via rhib or other dive boat. These habitats are visually different to the shallower shore sites, but often the life within them is found right up to the shoreline, such as the stalked jellyfish, or nudibranch species, which can be found from rock pools, to deep wrecks.

As the project developed however, it felt somewhat contradictory to try encouraging people to visit the sea, and yet be sharing images of depths and places only reachable through boats and scuba equipment.

With the limitations of poor weather, diving access, and this thought, it seemed right to continue investigating the shore based marine conservation zones; those sites which everyone can enjoy, not just the lucky few divers.

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When visiting certain areas for C_Sams_01-1the first time, such as Padstow and the Surrounds MCZ, it was clear the potential for imagery was vast. The natural shapes and colours within this one area were surprising even to myself, and hours could be spent just in the shallows of the coastal rock pools. From being inspired by the beautiful contours of the rock formations, next to the bright colours of the seaweeds, even in the cold of winter, confirmed that there are always surprises and things to see in the ocean, no matter where you go. Even when visiting beaches and rocky sites on moody, rainy, days, the marine life still held its colour and form, affirming my own love for this almost hidden world.

At this point, the project’s direction began to take a more specific path. By selecting more of the coastal zones, and focusing on the patterns and colours available within them, the images for this story began to follow a more distinct style.

Working in shallow water, not only meant a ream of beautiful species available (reefs are more active in the first 10m of water than anywhere else), but also opened up the possibility of experimenting with the light a lot more. The water surface was usually calmer inshore, and therefore acting as a mirror, reflections of the underwater world were something I grew interested in.

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C_Sams_06-1Moreover, I encouraged myself to not get obsessed in finding rare species. Even the common marine life can be complex in its physical form; the regularly viewed species can be showed in a new light when composed properly. The reality of finding rare species when diving/visiting these zones is slim, and the common species are always underestimated, it makes no sense to simply disregard something that is beautiful, because it is common.

I had originally begun to document not only the underwater scenes but also people interacting with them too, surveying, snorkeling and diving. I discovered that though these images were interesting, they weren’t as powerful visually as the more simple compositions, focusing on just the marine life. These images would feature in a larger documentation of the project, but a stronger sequence was formed from being much more specific in location and style.

The choice of a square crop as opposed to the standard rectangular image was for a number of reasons, to simulate a window, a view into the underwater world, and also to try and highlight the focal point of each image, more obvious in the species as opposed to habitat photographs. By constraining the image to the square shape, it highlights the symmetry within various images, and adds simplicity reminiscent of analogue photography to the overall aesthetic.

The aim of this series of images was always to show variety, in shape, colour, and species. I want there to be something for everyone to appreciate in the sequence, to appeal to as many people as possible. Ultimately, the images taken were through my own love and appreciation for these scenes. Through forcing myself to look closer at the marine life I may have gotten used to, I emphasised my C_Sams_07-1own passion for the sea, and can only hope that this is conveyed by the images too.

From here, I hope to eventually develop an exhibition of these images and this story, though I would like to continue to work on this project further. As mentioned before, it is still ongoing, and I believe there is much yet to discover. In the meantime, I will be sharing my stories, images, and knowledge of the story through social media. Photography is a wonderful tool for conservation and education; and just the simple fact of sharing snapshots of what life underwater can look like can encourage more positive thinking towards marine life, and eventually protection for it too. The first step towards protection is creating a reason to care, and that’s what photography can do. You can’t argue with an image, and every image in this sequence is a statement of what is accessible to everyone. Photography can change people’s minds about what may have been unknown before, and by focusing on these simple bright images, the underwater world is made available to everyone.

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British marine life

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The images that didn’t quite make the cut for my MCZ selection. I love these though, the colours, and the lighting, however they didn’t quite fit into my series, and ultimately the images have to always work as a set.

The stalked jellyfish (top) is probably one of my favourites in this more fine art style of photography. Despite the fact it’s probably just out of focus, I absolutely love blurring and the backscatter here. The sand particles with this narrow DOF look like snowflakes, and I’ve mentioned this before with another image, how I think it really works and only compliments the ethereal scenes you come across underwater.

The second image is a female black faced blenny, and I was happy to achieve this image without any major editing; the spotlighting created from the strobes, and the black background from the aperture. Simple, and effective.

I like these two as a pair, the colours do reflect eachother, and fit with my common theme of black, darker images. The square crop turned out much better than anticipated too, in my next post I’ll try and share a comparison of the crops.

MCZ update

The MCZ project has now got twitter, Facebook and tumblr pages!
If you’re on any of these please do support the project and give us a follow or like.

https://www.facebook.com/MarineConservationZoneProject

https://twitter.com/MCZproject

http://mcz-project.tumblr.com

 

I’ve recently been on my first shoot for the project, which was a seasearch survey dive in Mounts bay. There’s now a blog post on the new tumblr page with more information and images from this shoot, but here’s a couple of images as a bit of a taster…

_DSC2311 (St Michael’s Mount, Penzance, this was the topside view of our dive site)

_DSC2351(Female cuckoo wrasse, and spiny starfish in the bottom of the frame too)

 

Thanks to everyone for all the support for the project so far, I really do appreciate it!

 

 

 

Long overdue update & underwater river images

I have again been neglecting the blogging, but all quiet on the social media usually means I am ridiculously busy, rather than I haven’t been doing anything new.

The recent updates are that in a few days I will be a qualified Divemaster, which I have been spending most of the last few months training for. I also found out last week that I have been awarded an environmental bursary from the Royal Photographic Society, which is going to allow me to pursue and document a project which I feel very passionately about. I will be telling the story of the Marine Conservation Zones, and am so grateful for this opportunity to cover a subject I have been wanting to for so long. I will discuss this project further later on, when it gets underway in a month or so. I’m also off to China in 3 weeks, with my fellow recent graduates and a couple of our lecturers, to work on a collaborative project with a university in Beijing, and also teach some photography workshops. So, it’s all very exciting and busy!

However, the main purpose of this post was to share some images from a couple of months ago. I was commissioned by WWF-UK to document some underwater imagery of a particular chalk stream/river. I also had the pleasure of working alongside the awesome Andrew Parkinson, who had been commissioned to do the topside imagery, and who I must thank for recommending me for the project in the first place!

I won’t lie, I was pretty nervous about this project, because although I’m very comfotable working underwater, freshwater is an environment where I had limited experience, and the rules of underwater photography differ a little between freshwater and marine environments.

I was only shooting for a few days, but I think I still took around 3000 images! So obviously I can’t share them all but I would like to talk about a few.

The main trials I encountered at first was the finding of the species; various fish etc. Even when finding some of the fish, photographing them is a huge challenge in itself without the use of a pole camera. One of my set-ups was the image below, which involved the camera, in it’s housing, on a tripod where there were Trout upstream, the shutter set to interval, and myself on a bridge above, attempting to bait the Trout close to the camera with bread.

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This was the best shot I achieved with this set up and a bit of perseverance, the fish is visible but it’s not really what I was hoping for. So instead of wasting more time, this was abandoned, and other shots ensued…

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This shot of the banded demoiselle is one I had visualised since the recce of the site; watching these damselflies for a while you notice how they land for a little while on anything floating in the water, and as I was in the water, I tried stalking them. Most of the time this didn’t work, as they only settle for a minute, and flew off when I got too close, but I had one successful shot, which I am pretty happy with, especially considering it’s taken with a 10-17mm fisheye lens, so you can imagine how close I really had to be!

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Here’s a shot of Andy working in the river, behind the scenes kinda stuff! And yes, that’s him sat in the river with his rather expensive 600mm lens inches above the water…

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This is one of the more creative images I took, there’s a few more in this kind of style, conveying the “underwater Amazon” as this river had been aptly named. The reeds made a good subject, with their jagged shape, but actually most of the time I was shooting like this I couldn’t see the viewfinder, as I was holding the camera upwards, so it was a little hit and miss sometimes, and again a lot of preserving and repeating of the same shot.

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A last image for this post is this water crowfoot, shown from underwater. I was attempting to capture the reflection in the water level, reflections are great to work with, and I love the sheer amount of green in this particular shot! These flowers are common around habitats like this, and add a little colour to these underwater scenes.

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I will continue with the river work another day and share some more from this shoot, and there’s also a few different images on my website if anyone’s keen to see more – www.charlottesams.com

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Rockpools

Now that I’ve finished my degree, and my latest project, I wanted to have a bit of a play with some different underwater/marine photography before I start the next one. Rockpool photography is something that I haven’t done enough of, it’s the kind of thing that seems like it’s easy until you actually try it. It’s not easy, you find yourself contorting into strange positions to try and angle the camera and strobes, and half the time you’re blind shooting because you can’t see the LCD screen or through the viewfinder. I may even go so far to say underwater photography whilst diving is easier, (sometimes).

Having said this, it’s also really fun. You get to paddle around in water and find fish and crustaceans and simply spend time at the coast. So, I spent a little while doing just this.

I’ll admit it wasn’t the greatest day for species sightings, my eyes weren’t on it today, but I was more enjoying just being there than looking for small creatures.

 

I absolutely love the colours in this first image; the yellow appearing almost golden. This images are all proof of the fantastic colours in British seas, and the importance of using strobes to highlight these amazing natural colours!

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A strawberry anemone, Actinia fragacea, here clings to an underside of the rock. I enjoy using the water surface as a mirror, creating more colour within the images. Strawberry anemones are very common, and I saw plenty of them today, they are usually bigger than beadlet anemones and on this particular site, located nearer to the sea than some of the other anemone species which were more prevalent further up the intertidal zone.

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I found a dead edible crab, Cancer pagurus. It was actually floating on the water like this, I promise I didn’t put it there! But I was very grateful that it was still fresh enough to float, because it allowed me to experiment even more with reflections.

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I often lean towards creating darker images (see above as an example), but I did want to convey how bright and beautiful the seaweeds were in these images too, and the yellows blend pleasingly with the touch of green-blue water here.

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So I may not have found many animals today, but lots of species of seaweed! A fish or a mollusc may have added a bit more to these photographs, and I’ll work on that in the future, I think the simplicity of this composition still works well.

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Floating crab #2. A little more colour in this one by using a wider aperture, and a rather cross eyed looking crab in my opinion.

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This image was my attempt to convey the lovely curls of the underwater seaweed, and kind of my interpretation of the pool. It shows a good comparison between the topside and underwater worlds. Personally I think the underwater side looks much more appealing!

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Continuing this marine theme

Here’s some discoveries from the latest dive at the same site as the previous post, including 2 more species of nudibranch and a sea slug that I had requested a sighting of earlier in the week – what are the chances! I was definitely feeling very happy and privileged after this dive.

The first creature I saw actually provided some of the best shots, a new nudibranch for me, Polycera quadrilineata. These two shots vary to focus on the rhinophores, and then the branches upon it’s back. This was a little larger than most of the other nudibranchs sighted, probably around 3cm long, but the 105mm macro lens works wonderfully for highlighting this minute detail. This beautiful animal was fairly shallow and close to the shore, its amazing to think we have these creatures so close to home. 

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This nudibranch I believe is the same one featured in the last post, on a much smaller scale, as I’d estimate this one was just around 5mm long! I mistakenly intentifieded this nudibranch as a juvenile of a different species, but it was pointed out to me that the species is Ancula gibbosa, another new one for me. I particualrly like the green colours in the background. This nudi was actually floating around for a bit midwater until I took this shot, and as you can see it’s just about hanging onto the tendril of seaweed. _DSC9483

More sea hares! There was an area of about 1m squared which had a few within it, but unfortuntaley they all kept hiding behind this sea lettuce and weren’t the best photographic subject. However, I did manage to see one which was really tiny, as small as the nudibranchs, which was pretty cool. The one below I think was about 2cm long. _DSC9485

Another new species for me! Favorinus branchialis, a very prettily shaped nudibranch. We saw a few of these scattered around the site throughout the dive, but this was the best subject as was a little larger and on some more open seaweed. Though not as colourful as some, I like these types of nudibranchs with the cerata upon their backs. Other British species can look very similar to this shape but much brighter colours as well. _DSC9494

We also came across a Red Gurnard on the seabed, they actually almost crawl and feel they way along the sea floor, but generally are pretty static fish. This was no exception so I decided to take a few images to highlight the detail of it’s scales and the pattern near it’s mouth. These images haven’t had any lighting adjustments, and the fish are actually this fantastic bright red/orange colour, which, incidentally contrasts quite nicely against their blue eyes. _DSC9503 _DSC9499

I was swimming over some kelp and this thing causght my eye. It looked like a hydroid of sorts but was something I’d never seen at this dive site so swam down for  closer look. It was between lots of roots of kelp and I had fun trying to see through the seaweed fronds but this ‘thing’ really interested me, because it had started to move of its own accord, kind of like contracting each tentacle/branch slowly. So, I took a few images of it, in the hope of identifying it later. Later, I discovered it was a burrowing sea cucumber, Neothyonidium magnum, which was not what I expected, but very cool! I was battling with my surroundings and not getting the strobe arms tangled too much at this point so didn’t take many images but here’s one-

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And this next find was quite special. When reading an ID book a few days ago I came across the green sea slug, Elysia viridis. Despite having a fairly conventional form, I thought I’d would be awesome to see because it has iridescent spots along it’s body. On our way inwards from the dive I saw this slug upon some kelp, another tiny creature, about 2cm long. I took one shot, but before I could take another it let go of the kelp and started floating, not even free swimming, in the water. This resulted in me floating upside down for a few minutes, trying to circle this little slug that was gently moving around, and trying to focus on it with the camera too. I was very happy when I imported my images that I succeeded in taking some in focus! Also, in this instance I think the particles in the water work against the back background, and they look slightly like snowflakes. Though arguably, some people would have probably preferred I cloned them all out, I generally like to stick to as minimal editing as possible.

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(I know it’s called a green sea slug and this one isn’t totally green, but the colour can vary and I’m pretty sure I’ve identified it correctly)

One parting shot. In the shallows, just as I was beginning to get myself out the water, my buddy waved me over to the rocks nearby. I turned my camera and strobes back on, and there about 2m deep (if that), right next to the shore, was Montagu’s blenny Coryphoblennius galerita, camouflaged on the rock. Most blenny’s have two little branched tentacles coming of their head, but this one only has one, similar to a crest. And, not to anthropomorphise, but the face on shot does make it look like it’s smiling.

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Isn’t the ocean awesome!?

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More amazing marine life

A quick bit of backstory… Before the last dive/shoot that I posted about, I had been (repeatedly) saying how I was requesting sightings of nudibranchs, sea hares and stalked jellyfish, purely because these are all quite awesome species in my opinion. If you read the previous post, you’ll see that we didn’t see any of these on my ‘wish list’, which was understandable, I thought it would be quite unusual to see them all in one dive, and still had fun anyway. So this dive, I wasn’t expecting any of those above species, just the more common sightings of wrasse and crabs etc.

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Therefore, after being underwater for about 5 minutes, when my dive buddy pointed out a nudibranch to me I was very excited. Especially because it was so big (for a nudibranch)! It was positioned in a particularly awkward place, meaning taking good photos was hard, and I’m aware this isn’t the greatest shot but I’m only using it for reference/ID here. This species is a sea lemon, Archidoris pseudoargus, and was about 3 inches long. 

_DSC07281We floated on a little further, and then happened across another nudibranch! More excitement! This one was much much smaller, about 2/3 cm long. It’s not the most creative image, but from it the species was identified as Acanthodoris pilosa. There were a few of these around at other spots, all very tiny and awkwardly positioned, but lovely to see so many. 

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Next came a pair of tompot blennies, hiding down a crevice between some rocks. (I know there’s only one in this photo but the other one is hiding just out of sight) These are a common fish to see, especially in this kind of habitat as they tend to like hiding out between rocks like this.

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When diving you tend to swim really slowly, and when I have a macro lens I naturally slow down even more because of the nature of the photography, and after the sightings of nudibranch previously I had my eyes geared up. So managed to spot a third species of nudibranch! Even smaller than the last ones there was a group of 3 or so, ranging from just under 1 cm to just under 2 cm (I think), which is the one I have images of here. Much prettier than the two previous species, this is Limacia clavigera, an orange-clubbed nudibranch. 

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After the nudibranch crawled away to spot where I couldn’t photograph it, we swam on, and out of the kelp alongside appears a sea hare! (Aplysia punctata) A smaller one than I’ve seen before, I guessed it was about 1.5 inches, and once illuminated properly by the strobes, the colour against the kelp was fantastic. This was the best subject to work with, being in an accessible place, and so I spent more time with it than anything else, allowing me the opportunity to try out some different techniques, and get a number of shots I was happy with.

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And if you were wondering…”These animals have been called ‘Sea Hares’ since classical times because of their resemblance – at least in European species – to a sitting hare.”

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By this point, I was extremely happy with all our sightings, though beginning to get more than a little uncomfortably cold. (70minute dive in 10 degrees water & a wetsuit – divers will be able to relate!) We turned back and after a few more minutes, my buddy waved me over, and what do you know.. there was a stalked jellyfish! (Lucernariopsis campunulata) It was getting a little ridiculous at this point, I honestly barely expected to see one of the species from my wish-list, let alone all 3 of them! I only managed a few shots of the stalked jellyfish before cold took over and I was struggling to work the camera, but here it is. Doesn’t look your typical jellyfish right…arguably almost like a minute squid in appearance. These creatures are about 1 inch long and act like an upside down jellyfish, attaching to kelp and seaweeds, and then having it’s tentacles facing upwards.

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Also, massive thanks to Matthew Thurlow for being my buddy on this dive and spotting some really cool creatures! I know this post has been more anecdotal than usual, but I just wanted to share my excitement for the whole dive rather than talking about the images as much. My next post shall be different. I plan on visiting this site again for another dive later this week, so fingers crossed for some more amazing marine life.

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