Where the Currents Take Them

Underwater Photographers Tell the Ocean's Stories

2019 / June

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Scott Williams

People say that cat lovers have different personalities from dog lovers. Does the same principle apply to people who love cetaceans versus those who love sea turtles?

Innumerable creatures inhabit the waters around islands. The surrounding seas support the island, interact with it, and enable its survival, but the beauty that lies hidden beneath the waves is a mystery to most islanders. Fortunately, there are a few who explore the depths and bring back photos to share with the rest of us.

We arrive in Hualien amid the cottony threads of a light rain, but the weather early the next morning is bright and clear. Ray Chin, our volunteer guide, stands aboard a whale-watching boat docked in the harbor and waits for today’s guests to arrive.

When we spot dolphins just a few minutes after setting out, Chin calmly explains their behavior, while also snapping his own photos of them through his telephoto lens.

Summer in Hualien

There’s power in silence. Narrative photography eschews words to go right to the heart of the matter.

Chin’s photos of cetaceans have been widely viewed, but few people who’ve seen them know who the photo­grapher was. Taiwan’s first professional undersea photo­grapher, Chin’s dynamic, poetic photos of undersea life recall Luc Besson’s classic film on free diving, The Big Blue.

Nowadays, Chin spends about one-third of his year overseas in locations ranging from Sri Lanka, Japan, and Tonga to Norway and Argentina. For all that he’s visited pretty much everywhere in the world known for good whale-watching, the big man with the gentle voice says, “I spend every summer in Taiwan without fail.”

Chin looks forward to the June‡August period of ­every year with cautious optimism: the midsummer calm of the seas makes it peak whale-watching season.

He says that photographing cetaceans off Taiwan’s coast is particularly challenging.

Whenever the Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation’s network sends word of cetaceans in the area and the weather permits, Chin contacts boatmen he knows and goes “hunting” for whales.

But even if they happen to spot their quarry, Chin doesn’t leap straight into the water. Instead, he first tries to predict whether the whales will flee or sound by observing the speed at which they are swimming and their general demeanor. “You can’t outswim a whale. A sperm whale, for example, can stay underwater for more than 100 minutes, and once it sounds there’s no telling where it will resurface.”

Once in the water, every second counts. The two or three snaps you may get over a few brief moments might end up being the total catch from a year’s work.

His home and starting point

Given the difficulty of photographing cetaceans underwater, perhaps the relative paucity of such pictures is less an indication that few people want to take them, than that few have succeeded in doing so.

Chin’s experience taking photos abroad made him realize that one reason why photographing cetaceans around Taiwan is so difficult is that most of them are just passing by and moving very quickly.

Like humans, cetaceans are mammals that nurse their young for roughly the first year and a half of their lives. This has implications for photographing them. For example, humpback whales spend a great deal of time near ­Tonga birthing and nurturing their young. This not only means that the whales stay in the area of ­Tonga for an extended period, but also that they swim relatively slowly while there so their young can keep up.

So if taking undersea pictures of cetaceans near Taiwan is such a high-risk, low-reward endeavor, why does Chin persist?

He responds without a moment’s hesitation: “Because Taiwan is home, and it’s where I began this work.”

Xiaoliuqiu’s sea turtles

Chin’s attachment to home brings sea turtles to mind.

Sea turtles, which live roughly as long as people, are said to have a remarkable ability to remember the place of their birth. In fact, they always return there to breed, no matter how far they roam in the rest of their lives. Chin has similarly traveled to virtually every corner of the globe, yet retains a powerful connection to Taiwan.

“Haven’t you ever heard that different kinds of people are drawn to certain kinds of animals?” asks diving instructor Su Huai, who calls himself a “fool for sea turtles.” We’re near Xiao­liu­qiu Island in the seas off Dong­gang, where he’s snorkeling and shooting “portraits” of sea turtles.

These sea turtles, which surface and submerge with the tides, called to Su just as cetaceans called to Chin.

Perhaps it’s that Su can relate to these seemingly independent inveterate travelers, which wander the world but always remember the way home. Su himself spent years drifting through Australia and Southeast Asia. But he never felt at completely “at home” while traveling and was eventually drawn back to this in­compar­able “sea turtle island” for good.

Su has taken in a lot of amazing sights in his travels, and argues that Taiwan’s maritime resources are on par with the best in the world. He says the only problem is that they aren’t managed or valued. He and his friend Polly Chen have formed Island Divers to make Taiwanese more aware of our maritime treasures. 

Su holds a rare sea turtle specialty diver certificate from the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), an international diver accreditation body, and has gradually transitioned his focus from diving instruction to photography.

The transition was driven by a desire to make Taiwan’s public more aware of the beauty and ecological richness of Taiwan’s seas, and the startling amount of plastic trash on its seafloor. “Teaching people to dive was too slow. Not to mention, there are so many diving instructors that it made no difference whether or not I taught.” So he decided to pick up a camera and make Xiao­liu­qiu’s delightful and ubiquitous sea turtles the subjects of his photos.

Swirling seas, beautiful island

Chin says, “If you ask me or Su Huai about Taiwan’s seas, we’ll tell you they are truly amazing!” He explains that roughly a third of the world’s nearly 90 species of cetaceans have been seen in Taiwan’s waters, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the limited number of species visible in most of the world’s other whale-watching destinations. Travelers boarding a whale-watching vessel out of Hua­lien’s harbor often see more than ten cetacean species. These include the deep-water-dwelling Risso’s dolphin, which swims rela­tively close to shore in Taiwan’s waters because of the steep slope of the seafloor off our east coast.

Taiwan also offers opportunities to see five of the world’s seven extant sea turtle species, including the endangered green sea turtle, which is the most common turtle around Xiao­liu­qiu, and the critically endangered hawks­bill sea turtle. Chin says that visitors to the island have a 90% chance of seeing one, and quips: “This is the only place in the world where you might step on a sea turtle.”

Their undersea photos have not only brought them success, but, more importantly, have also introduced others to an ocean they didn’t know.

People don’t feel a sense of loss for things they don’t see or know about. “But cetaceans often become en­tangled in nets,” says Chin. “And when fishermen operating illegally are involved, they just cut off the ensnared flippers and leave the cetaceans to die.”

When no one watches for these kinds of tragedies, the general public remains unaware that they are occurring.

But not knowing about something doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Su screens an underwater film of a sea turtle that is skittish around people. Having mistakenly eaten marine debris, it excretes a plastic bag. The turtle was in deplorable condition, but luck brought it to Su, who was able to provide it with a new lease on life.

Problems like the proliferation of plastic in the ocean are urgent, but Chin and Su are not as preachy as some environmentalists. Instead, they use their photographs to directly educate people about an environment that cannot speak for itself.                          

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