Years after covering the BP oil spill, a colorful return to underwater photography

on Jun8

When the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened seven years ago, I spent weeks combing the coastline of Louisiana and Mississippi documenting the disastrous effect it had on fishermen as well as on the environment. I saw pelicans trapped in oily puddles, sea turtles covered with chemical dispersants and dead dolphins floating in the Gulf of Mexico.

Working on that story reminded me how much I loved the ocean and how I had wanted to be a marine biologist before becoming a photojournalist. My career has taken me all around the world covering conflicts, natural disasters and man-made tragedies, but rarely anything related to our oceans. Two-thirds of the earth is covered with water, and I was missing that story … until now.

A heavily oiled Kemp's ridley sea turtle recovered not far from the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident site.
A heavily oiled Kemp’s ridley sea turtle recovered not far from the site of the Deepwater Horizon accident site. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

I’ve renewed my scuba certificate, invested in underwater camera equipment and begun to look below the surface, wanting to bring those stories to light.

There’s a learning curve when it comes to underwater photography. Not only do you have to be a proficient scuba diver, but you must learn to control your movements when close to coral reefs or sea life. Each coral is made up of tiny polyps, each with tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their mouths. If you kick up sand with swim fins, corals can actually be starved of nutrients, like having dirt thrown in your face. Stepping on coral is even worse. Coral is fragile, and merely brushing it can kill a whole colony.

During my recent trip to Cozumel, Mexico, for an underwater photography class, I also learned that many common sunscreens contain chemicals deadly to marine life but that there are natural sunscreens available, like those using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, that are much less harmful.

There is so much to learn about the ocean and underwater photography, with over 32,000 species of fish in the world. This is the beginning of a new chapter in my photojournalism career.

Gray snappers along with two blue striped grunt (the yellow fish) hide under a coral head in Cozumel, where the current is more calm.

A trunkfish swims along bright orange coral. They are attracted to the color.

A fire worm crawls along a red coral head. Coral heads are very slow-growing, adding perhaps one half inch in height each year. Red coral is very rare due to over-harvesting. Coral reefs can’t photosynthesize, but algae can. Algae will produce excess organic materials, which can be used by the reefs. For photosynthesis, there should be enough sunlight. Thus, coral reefs locate mostly on shallow sea areas. Excess sunlight on this area also allows absorption of light that gives the coral reefs their various colors.

A porcupine pufferfish swims in waters of Cozumel. Don’t be fooled by it’s cute appearance. The pufferfish is the second-most poisonous vertebrate on the planet. One pufferfish has enough poison to kill 30 adults, and there is no known antidote.

A Christmas tree worm uses its hair-like appendages radiating from the worm’s central spine for respiration and to catch dinner, which typically consists of microscopic plants, or phytoplankton, floating in the water.

An octopus spreads out its tentacles. Octopi are highly intelligent. Their brain neurons are spread out in each of the eight arms, allowing each appendage to think independently.

The spotted eagle ray is considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. A mature spotted eagle ray can be up to 16 feet in length; the largest have a wingspan of up to 10 feet and a mass of 500 pounds.

A moray eel peeks out of its hiding place in the waters off of Cozumel.

A sea anemone with a juvenile yellowhead wrasse at left. Anemones have tentacles mostly used in food capture and defense.

A yellow damselfish looks colorful and friendly, but they can be aggressive when protecting their territory.

A vibrant blue sea worm climbs a yellow coral head.

A spotted trunkfish hovers along the coral reef in Cozumel. They are named for their boxy shape and spots. Although they secrete a toxin when touched, they are only deadly if eaten. Predators as large as a nurse shark can die as a result of eating a trunkfish.

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