How Underwater Photography Propels Marine Biology
How Underwater Photography Propels Marine Biology

How Underwater Photography Propels Marine Biology

Marine photographers are helping scientists to document the diversity of coral reefs before the imperiled ecosystems disappear.

Richard Smith
Nov 1, 2019
Apollo Publishers, September 2019

began exploring the aquatic realm at sixteen, learning to scuba dive with my father in a frigid British quarry surrounded by thickly frosted ground. My first time out, an icy November day packed with four dives, the only living thing I saw was a lone crayfish, but thankfully I persevered. Since then, my journey as a marine biologist and underwater photographer has given me unique access to the many overlooked creatures of coral reefs, culminating in my book The World Beneath.  

I captured some of my earliest  photo-graphs in the Maldives in 1998, when the first global coral bleaching event devastated many of the Indian Ocean’s reefs. Although these photos were decidedly average, the subject matter sparked a fundamental shift in my consciousness, and my plan to become a terrestrial zoologist plunged beneath the waves. The following year, I spent several months on a conservation project in Indonesia working on nudibranch (sea slug) biodiversity. I struggled to identify and document the hundreds of different potential species of nudibranchs that inhabited the local reefs. The little sketches on my underwater slate weren’t quite cutting it, so I started to take close-up images of these tiny slugs, most measuring less than a centimeter in length. My work expanded science’s knowledge, documenting new species and greatly extending the known geographic ranges of some that were already known.

Several years later, underwater photography became a vital part of my PhD research on the elusive, but charismatic, pygmy seahorses. These unique fishes barely stretch across a dime, and the two species I studied spend their entire adult lives cryptically clinging to the surface of fanlike gorgonian corals. Through my photography, I was able to observe and record their reproductive cycle for the first time, taking images to help sex the animals. Gaining this type of insight is only possible by taking a very close-up image of the base of the trunk to show a raised circular pore in females, or a slit-like opening in males from which young are released.

In 2002, when I saw my first pygmy seahorses on the coral reefs of Komodo, Indonesia, there was just one named species (Hippocampus bargibanti) in the area. Now there are seven, and I am working on describing another—the first from the Indian Ocean. Underwater photography continues to play an important part in furthering our knowledge of these animals, with many new pygmies coming to the attention of researchers through images taken by recreational divers. In 2017, the SyngBio conference held in Tampa drew the world’s seahorse and pipefish researchers together for only the third time. I was invited to give a keynote speech one evening, and chose to speak about the huge diversity of these tiny fish. One of the images I showed was a pygmy seahorse measuring 1.6 cm in length that I had photographed a few years before in Japan. I was sure that it was a new species, but it wasn’t until I chatted with seahorse taxonomist Graham Short after my talk that he trained his efforts on describing Hippocampus japapigu as a new species, a project we completed in 2018.

My background in natural history observation, photography, and marine biology has led me to photograph many new species. In 2014, I was diving in a remote corner of southern Indonesia with my friend Anna DeLoach when she spotted a stunning male flasherwrasse, an undescribed species that, two years later, would be named Alfian’s flasherwrasse (Paracheilinus alfiani) after our dive guide and friend Yann Alfian. The rainbow of color, just a few inches long, flitted around above the reef, showing off like a frenzied aquatic peacock to a harem of somewhat ambivalent females. The species is a vivid illustration that a surprising number of organisms now being discovered on coral reefs have tiny geographic ranges, possibly spanning only a few hundred square miles.

Through collaboration with researchers, my images of rare or previously undocumented behaviors and species have been published numerous times in the primary literature. But I hope these images can also reach beyond the scientific community to a wider audience. During the past 20 years, the coral reef fish identification books that I pore over have more than doubled in size with new species added thanks to the combined efforts of biologists and citizen scientists. These days, with the fabric of coral reefs changing before our very eyes, it’s encouraging that new species continue to be discovered, but alarming how quickly their homes are disappearing.

Richard Smith is a British underwater photographer, marine biologist, and writer. See images from The World Beneath.