Adventure

The patience of the ocean photographer

Words and photographs by Taylor Henley

It’s not difficult to find beautiful and captivating underwater images of wildlife, especially with the boom of social media in recent years.

My Instagram feed is a seemingly endless stream of people all over the world enjoying remarkable encounters with mako sharks, orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, whale sharks, manta rays and a huge array of other animals. These photos generate an enormous amount of engagement and are viewed by people the world over. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share the underwater world with other ocean advocates and those who don’t have the means to experience it themselves. However, it does make me realise that people must think these experiences are commonplace and easy to come by. 

I recently took my parents on a trip to the island of Bimini in the Bahamas. We were going on an organised expedition in which the main focus was swimming with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, but after two and a half days and nearly 12 hours of searching, they became slightly discouraged that we had had no luck yet. They opted to stay at home for our final expedition, so I joined to group without them. We searched all morning, dodging thunderstorms and rain showers, and our time was running out. We had a ferry to catch in the evening, and our window for any possible encounter was closing fast. We decided to head in a different direction and check out a couple boats stopped off in the distance. Steadily, twenty grey dorsal fins breaking the surface of the calm, flat ocean. Our days of searching finally paid off.

When I got back to the dock, I had to break the news to my parents. I told them, gently, that patience was the name of the game when it came to wildlife encounters. I told them when faced with the option of staying behind or trying one more time, you never stay behind. I understood their feelings of impatience and doubt and I would have been lying if I said I hadn’t been feeling it too, but I also knew that if we didn’t give it one last go I would always be wondering “What if that had been our opportunity?”

On another recent trip, I made the trek to San Diego in search of blue and mako sharks. The trip started early in the morning; we cruised nearly 12 miles offshore, found our spot, and then bobbed up and down in the Pacific Ocean. We drifted with the current for nearly six hours before someone said out loud what we’d all been thinking: maybe an encounter just wasn’t in the stars for today. The group came to the agreement that we’d wait ten more minutes and if nothing had shown up in that time, we’d call it off and head back to shore. It was a long day, it wasn’t the warmest weather, and our snacks were running low. Then we heard the call: “Blue shark!” We hopped in the freezing cold California waters as fast as possible and enjoyed a great 25-minute interaction with a very curious blue shark.

Hero photograph by Kori Garza.

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I’ve accepted that when I’m hoping to photograph the experience of a lifetime, I’m always at the mercy of the sea. She decides what encounter we will or will not have. Sometimes all of your efforts pay off and you come back with spectacular images and stories to share. Sometimes you see nothing at all. Or, sometimes, you see what you’ve been hoping for, and none of your images turn out. But that’s the beauty of it. Nothing is ever certain, and patience is your best (or worst) friend. Those of us who actively seek out these experiences will wait hours, days, maybe even weeks, spend thousands, go back out again and again, and brave weather conditions any “normal” person would run from.

In my mind, it is always 100% worth it. I have been on boats for hours in choppy seas, on the brink of vomiting from sea sickness. I have been on boats in downpours, relentlessly scanning the horizon while rain stings my face. I have often thought: “What am I doing out here right now? Who convinced me this was a good idea?” while attempting to conceal my unhappiness on long expeditions. But regardless of how I feel or how tired I may be, the moment when the thing you’ve been searching so long and hard for finally shows up – nothing else in the world matters. In fact, the rest of the world just disappears entirely. And that’s what keeps me going back for more.

Photographing wildlife, especially in the ocean, is never a guarantee. However, most people don’t understand the amount of time, money, energy, and patience that goes into capturing the photos and videos they admire every day on social media. On the water, you are searching for a needle in a haystack. In order to have the interaction you’re hoping for, you have to not only physically place yourself in the most optimal geographical location, you also have to be in the right place at just the right time. And that doesn’t even speak to the amount of energy that goes into learning about camera equipment, figuring out the appropriate settings based on available light and visibility, and post-processing techniques. One beautiful image shared to a social media account may be one image selected from 800.

As underwater photographers, we chase these experiences and share our images with the world because we are excited about them – we share our images because we want to spark curiosity in the minds of our viewers. We share because we want others to also witness the beauty of the ocean. We share our images with the hopes of inspiring people to have the same drive, determination, and desire to protect it that we do.

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This is why I believe sharing the story behind some of the images we capture is so important. It takes a lot of effort behind the scenes, and most of that effort goes unnoticed. When discussing encounters with tiger sharks, a friend once told me: “You have to give yourself the opportunity to see them first.” Simple but true. I have always remembered that and since then, I have always done my best to follow her advice regardless of what animal I am hoping to encounter. I am still waiting on that tiger shark.

It’s easy to get lost in the online underwater photography and diving community. It’s easy to see a fellow diver’s photos and become envious. It’s easy to forget about the effort they put in. I forget at times that the majority of all people living on this planet will never encounter the wildlife I have. It is such a privilege to be able to dive into their world, but I also believe it’s our responsibility to share their story and ours to the best of our ability. The ocean is in trouble. Mind-blowing encounters with marine life will become rarer in future years if we do not work together to turn the tide. With technological advances, we have instant digital experiences available to us any time of day or night. It gives the illusion that encountering something like a mako shark or a manta ray is easy. When in reality, it isn’t. It takes hard work and determination. It takes a fierce drive to continue to pursue that experience, no matter how long it may take. And above all else, it takes patience.

This is my way of acknowledging the other ocean explorers, underwater photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts of the world: I see you. I understand the amount of effort you’ve put in. I know how it feels to want to go back out, just one more time, despite all the odds being stacked against you. I recognise the time you’ve dedicated to pursuing your passion and learning the skills required to realise it. I appreciate the story you have to tell. It is my hope that through the images and stories we choose to share with the world, we can help that person living hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, who may have never seen the ocean before in their life, realise what a magnificent place it is. It’s my hope that we as a community can use our work to help people understand that the ocean is a resource truly worth protecting.

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