Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fiji Expedition: An Underwater Artist's Perspective - Surrounded by Inspiration

With the 2010 Joint Aquarium Fiji Expedition having wrapped up, I returned home to my apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where I now begin the process of selecting photos, adding keywords as well as reliving the experience and memories of photographing the powerful landscapes, animals, people I met, nearly everything I saw, in fact, that makes up this amazing place. There is something magical about a single photographic image, one that can tell a story, evoke a thought, as well as create an emotional connection to somewhere you've been.

NAI’A in Namena Marine Reserve (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Back in Fiji, anchored near Wakaya Island, we set out for a night dive under the darkness of a new moon. At sea, where there are no land-lights, and away from NAI'A's, (our mother ship) lights, the stars and the clearly defined Milky Way itself, are blazingly working together to illuminate the pitch black clear night sky with the brilliance of far away places and infinite spaces. The regulator in my mouth tightly clenched, we roll off the rubber inflatable skiff for the day's last dive and descend into the dramatically different darkness of the sea. Kicking along a bommie's wall at about 40', I encounter a pair of nudibranchs mating. I can only assume that they were inspired by the darkness of the recent new moon.

Mating nudibranchs Chromodoris lochi with vivid coloration (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Nudibranchs are interesting little creatures that inspire my imagination and fascination (nudibranchs have been featured in previous global explorers posts from Australia here and here, the Red Sea here, and the 2009 Fiji expedition here). As an artist, I am drawn to the diversity of their colors and patterns. As a marine enthusiast, I am intrigued by their physical characteristics, including the often exposed 'naked gills' this group possesses. Their hermaphrodism, which means they possess both male and female reproductive organs, isn't something that we land-based humans think about terribly often. So the voyeuristic sex shot you see is complicated: both organisms are fertilizing the other, and both will lay egg masses. Complicated, yes, but not nearly so as some of the flatworms who engage in something called penis fencing, a type of sexual reproduction between hermaphrodites where one of the goals is to escape the sex act without being fertilized because rearing young is so energy intensive. Weird and wonderful; wow!

An 'inquisitive expression' of a polyclad flatworm (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Something fascinating for me about some of Fiji's reef fish is that species previously thought to be one thing turn out to be another. An example of this is the abundant Red and Black Anemonefish Amphiprion barberi that is typically seen swimming within the soft tentacles of an anemone. It initially looks like another species Amphiprion melanopus, which is found in much of the Pacific. Yet this seemingly familiar anemonefish is native only to Fiji and a few out of the way places (another of Keith's anemonefish photos is in this previous post). So, if you miss it here, you likely won't see it anywhere else.

Red and Black Anemonefish Amphiprion barberi seeking protection in anemone Radianthus magnifica (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

In addition to the diversity of animals, the underwater world attracts my eye on another level. It is filled with an array of shapes, textures, patterns, colors, color gradients and color harmonies that I imagine would have inspired the works of artists such as Georgia O'Keefe, who so effectively visually-described delicate sensual beauty in her work. If Georgia had only been scuba certified, think of the possibilities! It is this sense of continued discovery that sparks my passion as an underwater artist, photographer and conservationist.

Colors and textures of Dendronephthya spp. soft corals (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Magnified study of an anemone mouth, Radianthus magnifica (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Fiji is a beautiful country, dramatically rich in environments (both above water and underwater), and possessing a unique cultural heritage. But like the rest of the world, it is not immune to the pressures of climate change, introduced species, deforestation, overfishing, and maybe more importantly, cultural change, all impacts that will transform its coral reef ecosystems and its forests from places of abundance to places of absence.

Unique coloration and patterns of Longnose Filefish Oxymonacanthus longirostrus pair (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Fijian cloud pattern study (Photo: Keith Ellenbogen)

Yet, I remain optimistic that with the support of individuals (local and far-flung), more marine parks will be established, more forests replanted, more policies established, all combining to preserve these natural resources for future photographers to discover.

I hope you enjoyed all the images and stories.


All images were photographed with Sea & Sea Housing and Strobes. None of the images were digitally cropped altered or manipulated. Read more observations by Keith and see his photos from the 2009 expedition in this post.