Chaos and beauty
“Curiosity is the ultimate driving force.” – Todd Thimios
Todd Thimios is an acclaimed underwater photographer, deep sea submersible pilot and expedition leader, currently based in Australia. His work has been feature in The Times, Boat International and get lost magazine, and was highly commended in the 2020 Ocean Photography Awards. In this interview, we find out a little more about his connection with the wild.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When and how did you first connect with the ocean?
Todd Thimios (TT): I’m from North Queensland home of the Great Barrier Reef. Growing up in such a beautiful location it’s hard not a deep connection and passion for what’s below the surface. My earliest memories are that of vibrant colours and being submerged underwater on the reef.
OM: What came first, a love of the ocean or a love of photography/film?
TT: I studied dark room processing for a number of years out of high school, which was fantastic because it mixed the fundamentals of photography and understanding light. This along with being a dive instructor in my early twenties meant it was always a natural progression bring the two together.
OM: What led you to become a submersible pilot and how does this provide you with a different perspective of the ocean?
TT: Piloting submersibles around the world was absolutely incredible for so many reasons. But paramount for me was to be able to witness the incredible change in biodiversity and habit as you travel to depths as deep as 1,000 metres. The invaluable influence between light and life was never more profound. The remoteness is what I loved the most. Witnessing things that no one else will ever see and places no one will ever see, whilst positioned on the seafloor at unimaginable depths, was extremely special.
OM: Do you think that we have an overly simplistic view of the ocean based on your experiences in different areas of the water column?
TT: Yes totally, sounds cliché but we really are only scratching the surface. I think the bigger part is there’s not enough curiosity, of course we know so little about our oceans. But the thing that spins me out the most is that people don’t question or wonder about all the possibilities of what could be below, when there is so much open and deep expanse to be discovered.
OM: What inspires you most about the Arctic?
TT: The Arctic really is a part of the world that’s so unique. For me personally, coming from a tropical region like North Queensland, the Arctic was always going to be a test and that’s something I was really looking forward to. I’ve spent the past five years in the Arctic now over the winters. It is by far one of the most magic parts of the world. The light – or should I say lack of light – is incredible, the landscape is everything and then on top of all that the megafauna insane.
OM: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
TT: Of course, the first goal with my photography is raise awareness and curiosity for our oceans and coastlines. I think with these passions and interests it becomes almost impossible to not want to care and protect what you love. Secondly, I find it’s so important to encourage creativity in your craft. Things can so easily become repetitive – it’s refreshing to see people shooting in their own ways and walking their own creative paths.
OM: Is time spent in nature important for your mental health?
TT: Yeah, it’s definitely important. Really anything that gets you outside doing stuff is vital for improving your mental health. Time spent in the ocean not only creates a great escape from the day-to-day, but also time for clarity. It gives you the chance to slow things down, to notice the little things and the complexity of how everything thing is linked together.
OM: What is one memory from photographing whales that you’ll never forget?
TT: Being in the water with whales is incredible. I think one of the best things about being in the water with big cetaceans, is noticing and learning about their incredible sense of spatial awareness. When sharing close encounters with different kinds of whales, it’s clear who’s in charge.
OM: What has shooting in remote, wild and challenging locations taught you about your own limits?
TT: I’ve discovered that I’ve become more and more comfortable in foreign and new environments. There’s something exciting and real when you sense that little pulse of fear for the first time, it makes you realise that you are present in the moment and that you are doing something out of the ordinary. I guess ultimately that curiosity is about answering questions we have within. We always question what we don’t know, so curiosity is the ultimate driving force.
OM: Can you tell us about your time stationed within the small atoll islands of the Indian Ocean?
TT: My Birds of a Feather series is a body of work that celebrates migration. While stationed within small atoll islands of the Indian Ocean for many months, I began to notice the effect of moon cycles on marine animal behaviours. In the days leading up to the full moon there was a noticeable rise in populations of zooplankton. This buffet of microscopic organisms was especially alluring to filter feeders such as reef mantas (Mobula alfredi).
The manta rays would aggregate in areas that were particularly plankton-rich. They would hunt in hypnotic formations known as ‘manta feeding chains.’ This streamlined technique facilitated efficient and profitable feeding events. Floating patiently while millions of tiny zooplankton crawled across my skin allowed me to photograph mantas as they flew together in mesmerising squadron formations. In the series, I hope to share the feelings of balance and grace that accompany this kind of event. The juxtaposition of speed and elegance certainly evokes a feeling of chaos and wonder, all orchestrated in one single event under a full moon.
OM: You’ve said in the past: “It’s these scenes of simultaneous chaos and beauty that I love the most.” Can you tell us a little more about why that is and why it’s inspired your ‘Abyss’ collection?
TT: The Abyss collection is about layers and complexity. I think underwater more than anywhere a lot of individual details come together to create a scene. I’ve continuously looked to different ecosystems around the world to try and capture that sense of complexity. To try make the eye wander across image, observing intricate detail and layers and then to furthermore step back and see it for the scene it is. It’s been a fun journey to try and interpret across different oceans and vastly different environments.
OM: Your image, Light of the Arctic, was highly commended in the 2020 Ocean Photography Awards – can you tell us a little more about the moment you captured it?
TT: Light of the Arctic is a split-second in time; a fleeting moment, years in the making. A combination of impossible circumstances and repeat visits to the Arctic Circle over many years enabled this brief but ethereal moment to transpire. On this day, gale-force winds created dangerous sea conditions, but as a result formed rolling open ocean swells and breaking surf. I remember the freezing Arctic winds cutting through my body, leaving me feeling immobilised. With strong winds and temperatures of negative 15 degrees Celsius, conditions were rapidly becoming too dangerous for diving.
Arriving late in the season, the Arctic sun was experiencing its last days above the horizon. Soon it would disappear, not to return until many dark winter months had passed. With this low setting sun and rough water, I contemplated the impossible scenario of, ‘what if we actually encounter orcas?’ At the day’s end, we finally spotted a pod of orcas in an unusual setting. They were travelling together in rough, open ocean, rather than hunting along the sheltered coastline for migratory herring. They appeared to be playfully riding the ocean swells.
With much care and preparation (and once I was totally sure that the pod was comfortable with our presence), I had the boat drop me about 200m from the travelling orcas. If they chose to investigate, I was in position and would have only seconds to frame the shot as they passed. There was zero room for error. As luck would have it, they came incredibly close, effortlessly riding the swell to come within metres of me. What struck me most was the formation and the role of each member of the pod. Large, male bull orcas seemed to work the perimeter of the pod with an investigative nature, while protecting the female members that hold the hierarchy of the pod and the security of the young. Their curiosity, intelligence and power, combined with the last rays of Arctic light filtering through the rough ocean surface created one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.
OM: What do you hope to start working on next?
TT: I’m currently driving, diving and documenting my way around Australia’s vast and diverse coastlines as we speak.
Head over to thimios.com to discover more of Todd’s journey.
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