It’s taken hundreds of dives to learn this lesson, but I think it may finally be sinking in: If you just stay calmly in one place, the reef will incorporate you into it and life will happen all around you. It’s true that on some dives there is a place to go, or a plan to follow, or a buddy or group to stick close to. But sometimes there is simply nowhere else to go be but where you are.
I was diving in Raja Ampat (Indonesia) in December 2012 when this awareness finally took. One of the divemasters was my buddy on the final day of the adventure. We were diving a site with moderate current. Current, and all that gets swept up in it, tends to attract larger animals and huge schools of fish. It also tends to sweep me away. So I’ll sometimes choose to leave my camera behind on such dives. One less thing to deal with.
Early in the dive we found ourselves near a massive school of hundreds of jacks. Many would say the jack is not a pretty fish. It can even conjure images of dementors from Harry Potter. But there’s also an eery beauty to ‘em, particularly when experienced as a whole school. They were all oriented in the same direction facing directly into the current, mouths open as the sea swept past.
Initially I was about 10 meters away from them. Over the course of a meditative 15 minutes, they ever-so-gradually moved en masse closer and closer to where I was. Soon I found myself at the edge of the school, now part of their peloton. I felt a moment of nerves—jack fish have sharp teeth and they strike quickly—were they actually slowly hunting me? My rational mind knew I’m not their type of cuisine, and a glance over to the calm divemaster gave assurance that I wasn’t in danger.
What happened over the next few minutes is something I still can’t quite believe. Without me moving at all, the school gradually morphed around me and incorporated me into its very center. I was now one of them, seeing the world as if through their eyes, actually feeling the school-body exist as one, me an integral part of it.
None of that would have happened if I’d had my camera with me. I wouldn’t have stayed still in the same way. I wouldn’t have looked in the same way. I wouldn’t have remained receptive in the same way.
As it came time to start our ascent, the divemaster suddenly became uncharacteristically excited, frantically waving me over to something that had just caught her eye underneath a massive coral table. I was reluctant at first, because the current had picked up some more, and to get where she was, I’d have to fight it. But she made it clear that this was a must-see. I clumsily ambled over, contorted my body to get into a position to see into the narrow space underneath the coral table, and let my mind register what my eyes were still trying to believe: There underneath the table coral was a tassled wobegong shark resting comfortably….with a white-tip shark pancaked directly on top of it!
None of that would have happened if I’d had my camera with me. I would have found it too cumbersome to get to where the divemaster was. And even if I’d gotten there and had my camera with me, the shot was virtually impossible to access.
Of the approximately 500 dives I’ve gotten to do, this remains one of my very favorite. All this, and I didn’t have my camera with me. What luck!
Fast forward a few years to the Yellowstone trip I’m on. We’re not in the Park yet. There is prelude and buildup to what’s to come. But we’re in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, driving on a road through a little town. Alongside the road, there’s a tree with an owl’s nest in it, plain as day. Momma Owl is sitting bold and strong, eyes closed. No babies are visible.
We are grateful for this much, and contentedly take shot after shot with long lenses from a significant distance. At some point David Skernick, our multi-talented trip leader for these adventures, wryly points out that we’re all just taking the very same shot over and over again. And hey, we’ve got Yellowstone ahead!
Eventually as a group we start wrapping up our shoot, removing cameras from tripods, putting gear back in bags, and preparing to roll on.
I’m still waiting in one place, balancing the imperative of being respectful to our talented group on the one hand, with the awareness on the other that at any moment a baby owl could decide to take a peek out at the world. Just as my fellow photographers are starting to get back into cars, and it’s really time for me to pack up my gear, it happens: A freshly-minted baby owl peeks up above the edge of the nest, leans against its momma, and poses briefly for one lucky photographer.
banner photo by Scott Friedman