National Geographic News
Photo of a fish in Florida.

The first underwater color photograph was published in 1927 by National Geographic.

Photograph by W. H. Longley and Charles Martin, National Geographic

Cathy Newman and Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published June 8, 2014

World Oceans Day is Sunday, designated by the United Nations as a time to celebrate the extraordinary diversity of life beneath the waves and to focus on the increasing challenges the sea faces, from acidification to pollution and overfishing.

Over the last century, underwater photography has become one of the most important ways for people to experience and learn about the ocean.

The technology for documenting the deep has made huge strides, with remote-controlled submersible cameras revealing previously inaccessible depths and crittercams affixed to whales, seals, and sharks providing new windows into animal behavior. (See "The Evolution of Alvin.")

Digital cameras, meanwhile, have ended the days of diving with many cameras and endlessly resurfacing to change film.

"I used to take ten cameras into the field," says acclaimed underwater photographer David Doubilet. "Make that ten cameras, 20 strobes, 12 cases of equipment. The best you'd get out of ten cameras was 350 pictures before you had to surface and reload."

A digital camera can hold thousands of images on a single memory card.

But even with the increasing sophistication of the equipment, the photographer's skill is still paramount. Underwater photography presents challenges that no land-based photographer need contend with. Just consider the subject matter.

"The first thing a fish wants to do is not be photographed," says Doubilet. "At some point the fish has to look at you. The fish has to be doing something. You can't pay a fish to pose. You can't act like a paparazzi cornering a fish in a nightclub."

Equipment Needed

Photo of a leopard seal peering through plankton.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL CURTSINGER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This 1968 photo reveals a leopard seal peering through a veil of plankton. (See "How a Leopard Seal Fed Me Penguins.")

Although the technology has improved since that image was made, underwater photography remains an equipment-intensive discipline.

"It requires all the equipment used by land photographers, plus so much more," says underwater photographer Brian Skerry. A photographer sets out for the field, he says, with up to 30 cases full of underwater housings, special strobes, not to mention the diving gear—wetsuits, dry suits, masks snorkels, fins, regulators buoyancy compensators.

"I sometimes envy my street shooting colleagues who travel with only two or three camera bodies and a handful of lenses," Skerry says. "But then, they don't get to spend months with sharks or sea turtles."

Danger

Photo of a diver ringed by a group of rotating barracuda.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DOUBILET, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

David Doubilet made this image in 1987 in the Bismarck Sea, off Hanover Island in Papua New Guinea. It shows a scientist ringed by barracuda. Although the toothy fish can appear menacing, scientists say they aren't aggressive to divers.

But there are plenty of other dangers.

Photographer and filmmaker Wes Skiles, who took breathtaking photographs of underwater caves, died in 2010 while diving off the Florida coast.

Icy Waters

Photo of a polar bear swimming underwater.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Paul Nicklen, who specializes in photographing marine life in polar waters, made this striking image of a submerged polar bear in 2004.

Nicklen tells National Geographic this about working in the extreme temperatures of icy seas:

"You lose feeling in your lips, but you don't worry much about that. Within five minutes your hands get cold. After 15 minutes, your hands and feet are in pain. Then you lose all feeling in your hands, then in your feet. Your body shakes violently. After about 40 minutes, the shivering stops. Now you are getting into the danger zone. Your legs stop working. You haven't felt your fingers for half an hour, and have to check to see they are connecting with the shutter. That's when you think seriously about getting out. You are getting hypothermic and your body core temperature is dropping."

Swimming With Sharks

Photo of a 12-foot-long female tiger shark at Tiger Beach.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

Brian Skerry made this photograph off Tiger Beach in the Bahamas in 2005.

His work takes advantage of the ocean's changeability of light, vibrancy of color, and rich diversity of life.

Long-time National Geographic staffer Luis Marden made the first photo essay of color underwater photos in the February 1956 issue of the magazine.

"I seemed to hang suspended in the heart of an enormous liquid sapphire," Marden wrote of diving over a coral reef.

Vibrant Color

Photo of sea pens and a blue cod appear in shallow waters in Long Sound.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

This image by Brian Skerry reveals brilliant hues of sea pens and a blue cod in New Zealand's Fiordland National Park.

The deep-water dwelling sea pens were tricked into emerging at the shallower depth of 75 feet (23 meters) due to tannin-stained surface water that blocked out sunlight.

Whale Encounters

Photo of a diver encountering a southern right whale.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

This photograph by Brian Skerry from 2007 shows a close encounter between a diver and a southern right whale at a depth of 72 feet (22 meters), off New Zealand's Auckland Islands.

"Many of these southern rights in the Auckland Islands had never seen humans before in the water and were highly curious," Skerry wrote. "Swimming along the ocean bottom with a 14-meter (46-foot) long, 70-ton whale was the single most incredible animal encounter I have had."

Flashy Fish

Photo of a school of spadefish.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

Brian Skerry made this image of shimmery fish off Muko-shima in the Bonin Islands, a tropical and subtropical chain about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) south of Tokyo.

Lighting options for underwater photographers have improved since the time of Luis Marden in the mid 20th century. In those days large cameras were locked in watertight boxes. Flashbulbs often imploded under the pressure, gashing the unlucky photographer's hands. (Marden learned to wear chain mail gloves after suffering an embedded shard.)

Turtles’ World

Photo of remora fish attached to a hawksbill turtle swimming in the Red Sea.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DOUBILET, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

David Doubilet photographed this hawksbill sea turtle in 2009 in the Red Sea. Remora fish can be seen attached on the reptile's underside.

Scientists think remoras benefit from attaching to larger marine animals by receiving protection and access to leftover scraps of prey. They don't seem to hurt their hosts.

Some cultures in the Indian Ocean have long used remoras to hunt for turtles. They attach a line to the small fish and let it go. When the fish attaches to a turtle, the fishers reel both in.

Whale Shark and Fry

Photo of a whale shark with small fry off the Yucatan Peninsula.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

Brian Skerry made this photograph of a whale shark, the largest fish in the sea, swimming through a school of baitfish near Isla Holbox off Mexico's Yucátan Peninsula.

The area is one of the best places in the world to view whale sharks, which are relatively rare animals that sift small life forms from the sea for their sustenance.

Seal Surfing

Photo of a cape fur seal swimming in a wave.
PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS P. PESCHAK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This Cape fur seal surfs a wave in the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area off the Western Cape of South Africa.

Cape fur seals are known to spend significant parts of their day in social and play behaviors, including "surfing" large waves.

Vivid Colors

Photo of pink anemonefish.
Photograph by David Doubilet, National Geographic Creative

These pink anemonefish were photographed in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.

Reef ecosystems are diverse and highly complex, with a wide range of animals taking up different niches. Some fish spend most of their lives in the protective stinging arms of an anemone, to which they are immune.

Dolphins

Photo of dusky dolphins in Argentina.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic Creative

A Southern Hemisphere species known as dusky dolphins were photographed in Argentina's Golfo Nuevo. The intelligent marine mammals work together to corral and feed on anchovies.

Light and Color

Photo of rigid shrimpfish in red whip coral.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DOUBILET, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Rigid shrimpfish seen in red whip coral in Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea.

64 comments
Harriet Vorhes
Harriet Vorhes

The images on my Ipad in my cozy living room make me feel like Alice in Wonderland! I must be dreaming!

Vanda Howell
Vanda Howell

Always amazed by the quality of photographs taken by your crews! Fantastic!

Noel Timbs
Noel Timbs

awsome photos as usual from National Geographic

Mary Finelli
Mary Finelli

Thank you for these awe-inspiring photographs. Many members of the diving community express empathy with our fellow species, the aquatic beings. Through their photos, that empathy can be fostered in others. Aquatic animals are so threatened and harmfully exploited. Educating people about the plight they face, how we contribute to it, and how we can help them is so critical to their existence, the ocean's health, and our own well-being. 


Mary Finelli

FishFeel.org

Ludmila Shtern
Ludmila Shtern

Невероятно таинственный и загадочный мир Бог, должно быть, великий эстет

WESLEY BERNARD
WESLEY BERNARD

Wonderful and mesmerizing images. What a beautiful world. Shalom.

BONITA p.
BONITA p.

wonderful wonderful wonderful life

Alejandra Paulin
Alejandra Paulin

Imágenes fantásticas. Te hace pensar en el universo que existe en el océano.

Bruce Tighe
Bruce Tighe

life comes in every shape and size and it seems to be never ending.

ideogram tianya
ideogram tianya

非常漂亮的图片。心旷神怡,令人向往!

Gary Duggan
Gary Duggan

Absolutely amazing pictures ,testament not only to the advances in camera technology, but also the continuing adventurous spirit of your talented photographers. 

Mark Harewood
Mark Harewood

Great stuff ! gives you an extra hobby and pastime under the water . Dangers though are Novice photographers , getting over excited with snapping photos and forgetting about air and buddies . Also as I found out on a wreck dives with strong currents , having camera  equipment can be more trouble than its worth ! 

Jan Eberts
Jan Eberts

It's another whole world down there.  Awesome!

Tam Minton
Tam Minton

I LOVE underwater photography...I'm an amateur, but I am an addict!

tao observer
tao observer

More evidence of how amazing, marvelous, and beautiful nature is.  What humans have done to many parts of this planet seems like an abomination.  Fortunately, what humans think is permanent, is temporary.  Eventually humans will be a thing of the past and the earth will heal from the scars we have inflicted upon it.

Andrew the Awesome
Andrew the Awesome

It's an anmenemomy!! an anemonomy... nemona... amnomo........... oh whatever... pretty cool by the way...

ADVENTURE MAN C.
ADVENTURE MAN C.

We must take care of the oceans that God gave us, and that means stop polluting, stop over fishing, and stop leaving abandoned nets everywhere so that fish, sea turtles, and other sea creatures wont get tangled in them and become another meaningless death that the ecosystem has to deal with.  

Madison Keith
Madison Keith

Needless to say this is why we need to protect our oceans... 

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

When we think of the oceans I believe we think of maps, skylines, reflections on water, waves crashing on the beach..  But rarely do we think of the life so intimately caught in these photos.  The color, forms, and variety are stunning and incredibly beautiful.  I wish I could frame them to look at all the time. They take my heart away. 

Wayne LoPrete
Wayne LoPrete

I too dive with a camera.

These images are humbling...

Judy Deterville
Judy Deterville

Oh so wonderful photos! These are among the many reasons why we must protect mother earth.

sara jacob
sara jacob

Incredible underwater photographs, keep them coming National Geographic!!

Susan Heard
Susan Heard

Fabulous photographs revealing another world  below the ocean surface and the courage of the photographers to bring us these images

Hung N.
Hung N.

What an amazing! I'd like the underwater world so much! 

Thanks to many photographers, we have chances to admire extraordinay diversity of nature. I hope we together protect it, aren't we?

Sam Hooper
Sam Hooper

I really like the one with the seal by the angle they shot it and just how amazing and beautiful it is.

Diane C.
Diane C.

Amazing!  I always loved to be underwater.  Felt like I was home.

Dianne Holcombe
Dianne Holcombe

What will we see if we don't save the oceans? We would miss all of these stunning creatures!

Rochelle Westwood
Rochelle Westwood

The turtle is my favorite. It looks like a surreal painting to me. The Remora fish attached to the underside look like sharks attached to a huge turtle.

Share

Feed the World

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »