behind the photograph: Aldabra Snapper
Posted on August 12, 2012
On board the Calypso, Captain Jacques Yves Cousteau was the first to reveal to the world Aldabra’s undersea treasures in his 1954 film and book The Silent World. I returned to the legendary Indian Ocean atoll 54 years later to document the underwater realm.
Diving into Aldabra’s seas is like traveling back in time to a primordial, aquatic world oozing with life and not yet degraded by overfishing. At Aldabra, the top of the food chain is still virtually intact. During high tide the reef flat boils with blacktip reef sharks on the hunt. Giant groupers inhabit and vigorously defend every crack and crevice in the reef. However, the most visible sign of Aldabra’s riotous cornucopia of life are clouds of Bohar snapper (Lutjanus bohar) so thick that they seem to eclipse the sun. Aldabra has one of the greatest tidal ranges of any atoll and photography is governed by the rhythm of the tides. The Manhattan-sized lagoon is linked to the ocean by four channels and during ebb spring tides, water races through the channels at ten knots. It is in the entrances of these tidal channels where large schools of snappers congregate and wait for the currents to deliver prey from inside the lagoon.
To photograph the snappers I first tried swimming against the currents, which proved futile, even during so-called slack water when the currents slow to just under one knot. I also tried drifting with the current, but this technique allowed me only a few minutes with the snappers. Luckily I was working with a scientific expedition that was surveying shark populations. They anchored and baited underwater video cameras in the channel. Long before the first sharks appeared, Bohar snappers emerged and investigated these strange new devices. I decided to wrap one leg around the steel cable that was anchoring the camera, which left both hands free to photograph.
Bohar snappers reach 80 cm (about 2.5 feet) and have the most frightful looking set of teeth of any bony fish I know. And they are anything but shy. Aldabra’s Bohar snappers are drawn to shiny objects and therefore showed great interest in my silvery underwater housing, allowing for some very toothy images. I often had to shoot with just one hand, as I used the other to repel snapper bent on giving me unwanted facial piercings.
Their curious and aggressive nature worked in my favor for these photographs, but elsewhere in the Indian Ocean it has worked against the species. They are very easily caught by hook and line; therefore this species has been greatly depleted elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean. Aldabra is a unique seascape where sharks, groupers and turtles still rule the world beneath the waves. It is my sincere hope that the these pictures will give voice to all life that inhabits this unique marine wilderness and help to safeguard this exquisite jewel of the Indian ocean for future generations.