IIn July Kerim SabuncuoÄlu climbed off the edge of a boat into the azure blue Aegean Sea off the Turkish port city of Bodrum and began to sink. As a diver with more than 30 years of experience, he began underwater photography in 2002 and has since devoted a lot of time and money to his âout of control hobbyâ – capturing the wonders of the ocean with a camera so that âthe less fortunate up thereâ can marvel at them too.
SabuncuoÄlu has traveled the world, photographed marine life in Palau, Cuba and the GalÃ¡pagos Islands and won several awards for his work. Closer to home in Bodrum, he went on a standard dive with a group of friends equipped with a Nikon D800 camera. The camera had an 85mm micro Nikkor lens and was encased in an underwater Nexus case with a single backscatter snoot to direct the light onto the subject.
Shortly after reaching the sandy bottom and turning right towards a group of rocks, he spotted a broken fishing line on the ocean floor. A grouper was caught alive on one of the hooks, so it took it to the surface, removed the hook, and released it.
âI went back with the tongs to see what else was there,â says SabuncuoÄlu from his house in Istanbul, where he runs an event management company, âand there I found this poor animal: a moray eel. His favorite food is octopus, and when he naturally found an octopus’ arm on the ground, he took a big bite. âA hook hidden in the octopus arm went straight through the moray’s jaw. It frantically twisted its body to free itself, but only managed to get caught in the fishing line. Eventually the eel choked and died.
SabuncuoÄlu had witnessed the result of so-called ghost fishing. âIf a fisherman leaves his gear underwater, like a fishing net or fishing line, it will kill fish for many years,â he explains. “If I had left this moray eel behind, some other fish would have eaten the hook and died too.”
It’s a global problem. Ghost traps make up about 10% of all marine litter. On the west coast of the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported an average of 11 large whales entangled in ghost nets each year between 2000 and 2012, but SabuncuoÄlu runs into the millions. It is also dangerous for divers, âbecause you can get tangled up under water like a moray eelâ.
SabuncuoÄlu took about 60 pictures of the eel, but it wasn’t until afterwards, as he was editing the images on his computer, that he felt a sense of sadness over his death. âYou can tell that it was helpless there,â he says. Everyone he showed the picture to reacted in the same way: “They went, ‘Eeeeee, ai ai ai!‘âAnd shuddered. When he did it at this year’s Awards for marine photography, under the title Silent scream, it was shortlisted in the Conservation category.
the National Geographic Photographer and conservationist Cristina Mittermaier was among the jurors who named SabuncuoÄlu Marine Protection Photographer of the Year. âIt’s a fantastic picture,â she tells me. âUnderwater wildlife communicates very differently from terrestrial animals, and they don’t have the same facial expressions as an animal such as a grizzly bear or a wolf. Hence, it is really difficult to create images that create an emotional connection with people when photographing fish. In this picture, the photographer was able to capture a dramatic moment and the eel actually has an expression on its face that conveys emotion. It caught me as soon as I saw it. “
It’s not just the unfathomability of marine life that makes it difficult to engage people emotionally. Images of environmental degradation can also be daunting. âYou really have to reconcile storytelling with beautiful photography,â says Mittermaier, co-founder of the nature conservation network SeaLegacy, âAnd I think this picture does that really well. When something out of the ordinary comes up that has the power to stop people for even a second and internalize what they’re seeing, then we start moving the needle. “
It helps the technology surrounding underwater photography improve rapidly, allowing for more vivid shots and illuminating parts of the ocean that were previously opaque. SabuncuoÄlu mentions blackwater photography, which involves diving into the deep ocean at night to photograph fish larvae and invertebrates as they rise to the surface.
“Only in the last 10 years has the technology developed so far that we can place our cameras deeper than 30 meters,” says Mittermaier. âAnd the sensors that are now available allow us to see things in the deep depths of the ocean that we couldn’t see five years ago. So it’s developing very quickly and becoming more affordable. And as more and more photographers go to the ocean to take pictures, we are slowly building an army of underwater storytellers who report from the remotest corners of the earth. “
SabuncuoÄlu compares the experience of exploring the ocean to space travel. âIf you don’t have the technology or the money to travel to another planet, just equip yourself and jump in the water,â he says. “It’s a different planet.” Reporting on this other planet and showing the extraordinary abundance of life there is “the most wonderful thing I can ever do in my life,” he says. âI hope I will do this for many years to come and I hope I can teach more people how to do it. Because if we don’t show the beauties of the underwater world, no one will see what’s down there, and if you don’t see it, you won’t protect it. As simple as that.”