Gerald Nowak: entornos extremos

Coldwater diving is special for me. There are particularly mystical environments above and below the ice. The ice’s structure, the mood of the light, and the absolute silence can be stunning. You may also encounter a unique creature, making it all the more amazing. © GERALD NOWAK

Over the years I have often admired Gerald Nowak’s underwater photos. There is so little overlap between the markets available to European versus North American photographers, however, that I did not know the backstory of his career. A recent phone call rectified that. 

Descubrí que las estrategias personales para valerse de la fotografía submarina y hacerla un estilo de vida pueden ser similares, pero las revistas y los clientes suelen ser diferentes. Es extraño que los mercados de la fotografía no estén más homogeneizados en esta era de transmisión de imágenes digitales y la Internet presente en todas partes. Nowak ha recorrido con éxito este entorno inconexo durante las últimas tres décadas.

Jacques Cousteau or a fantasy of underwater exploration often defined the early passion of many underwater photographers. But for Nowak it was not being quite good enough as a soccer player. That sport was his first love, but by the time he was 14 he knew he needed to find a new sport in which he could truly excel. He shifted from the terrestrial to the aquatic, becoming a rescue swimmer — a variant of what we call a lifeguard. 

El pequeño pueblo bávaro rivereño donde vivía era idílico en muchos aspectos. Sin embargo, había suficientes accidentes en el río como para que necesitaran nadadores de rescate. En un giro del destino, uno de sus instructores de rescate acuático era Stefan Michl, actualmente ejecutivo de Mares, que en aquel momento era instructor de buceo del pueblo vecino. Se podría decir que algo en el agua del lugar los encaminó en sus trayectorias en la industria del buceo, lo que volvió a reunirlos en la vida cuando Mares patrocinó a Nowak.

Lepard Seal
Leopard seals are one of my favorite animals. People often portray them to be dangerous, but I have had only beautiful and harmonious encounters with them. They are large and impressive, however, and you can see why they are formidable predators. © GERALD NOWAK
Colorful Stiliger ornatus nudibranch, commonly known as a sap-sucking sea slug
This tiny, colorful Stiliger ornatus nudibranch, commonly known as a sap-sucking sea slug, lives on small green algae in the sand off the coasts of the Philippines. © GERALD NOWAK
Sperm whales
Sperm whales are very intelligent animals that live in family groups. There are several places in the world where you can experience them up close, but they are particularly accessible in the warm waters of the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. © GERALD NOWAK

A los 20 años, Nowak estaba listo para probar algo nuevo más allá de la vida en su pequeño pueblo. Se mudó a la ciudad y se convirtió en técnico dental en un laboratorio que era propiedad de su padre. No obstante, el siguiente capítulo de su vida lo acercó mucho más a su eventual carrera. 

Travel began calling to him, so at 25 he became a flight attendant for the German airline LTU Süd. Aviation was intriguing enough that he got his pilot’s license, but he eventually bristled at the airline’s control over his schedule. Those years took him to dive destinations such as Thailand and the Maldives. By age 29 he had quit the airline to take a trip around the world.

Nowak had been taking photos to document all his travels, so it wasn’t a massive leap to try underwater photography, although his early gear was fairly rudimentary. He had a Sea & Sea Motormarine II — an amphibious film camera — but with only the standard lens and a macro accessory. While diving in the Maldives, he found a wide-angle wet lens for the Motormarine on the seafloor to complete his system. He lost the wet lens on a dive only a year later, but it was time for an equipment upgrade anyway, so he got a Nikon single-lens reflex camera in a Hugyfot housing. 

The fastest shark in the sea, the shortfin mako shark
We saw this shortfin mako shark north of Faial and Pico islands in the Azores. Large predators such as blue and mako sharks may come near the surface when baited with fish blood. As the fastest shark in the sea, the shortfin mako shark can be quite frenetic when swimming around the bait box, so you have to be quick to get a photo of one. © GERALD NOWAK
My daughter, Lucie, freedives with the mobula rays
My daughter, Lucie, freedives at the Princess Alice shallows in the Azores. The mobula rays regularly do laps around the underwater mountain, reaching from the depths up to within 100 feet (30 meters) of the surface. © GERALD NOWAK
European sturgeon in a small lake in Bavaria
I photographed this European sturgeon in a small lake in Bavaria that is one of the most beautiful bodies of water in my home region. It hosts dozens of sturgeon and other native fish and is one of my favorite places. © GERALD NOWAK
American saltwater crocodiles off the coast of Yucatán
Crocodiles are not to be trifled with, but there are places where you can get up close for good photos without worrying about being harmed. These American saltwater crocodiles off the coast of Yucatán are used to tourists getting near them. I wouldn’t call them trained, but they are acclimated. © GERALD NOWAK

Su siguiente adquisición de equipo de la era de la película fue la Nikonos RS. Posteriormente adquirió cuatro de ellas, pero tres se le llenaron de agua. Al momento de la llegada de la fotografía digital, había comenzado a usar cajas estancas Subal durante su progresión de una Nikon D200 a una D300, una D700 y finalmente una D800. Ha estado totalmente inmerso en la línea Seacam de cajas estancas submarinas y flashes desde 2015 y actualmente utiliza una Nikon D850.

Travel remained a fundamental aspect of his life, and he became an expedition leader for the tour company Schöner Tauchen. Being on the road, leading travel, and taking underwater photos led him to supply photos for dive publications. By 1994 he had published his first article, one about the Cook Islands, in the German dive magazine Tauchen. A esta le siguieron otras publicaciones de buceo europeas, lo que incluyó AquanautUnterwasserSilent WorldDiveMaster, y Sporttaucher.

Seis años después Nowak contribuía imágenes a grandes agencias de fotografía de archivo como Getty Images. Con la industria plagada de fusiones y adquisiciones, una vez participó en una red de 150 agencias de archivo en todo el mundo.

Jellyfish Lake in Palau
Palau is known for its Jellyfish Lake, but many other lakes worldwide are teeming with jellyfish. These lakes have a few things in common: The jellyfish do not sting, and the water always has a low salt content from being connected to the sea via underground fissures. © GERALD NOWAK
Thousands of mobula rays gather here and migrate together along the coast
Baja California is known for the thousands of mobula rays that gather here and migrate together along the coast. The perfect time to see them is between April and July. © GERALD NOWAK
a thresher shark
An encounter with a thresher shark is always something special. For many years in the Philippines, you could dive with them at Monad Shoal near Malapascua Island. They were always at a reef early in the morning to visit cleaning stations. The sharks have now moved to a neighboring reef, but you can still reliably find them there every morning. © GERALD NOWAK
Diving in and on ice is one of my passions
Diving in and on ice is one of my passions. This photo is from a beautiful iceberg in Antarctica. Diving on the icebergs is particularly interesting because you begin in salt water but enter the fresh water that surrounds the icebergs. © GERALD NOWAK
Scuba diving in Echinger Weiher lake near Munich, Germany
The Echinger Weiher lake near Munich, Germany, is another of my favorites. It is tiny and not far from where I live. As a headwater lake, it is home to an incredible variety of plants and fish and is a paradise for underwater photographers to create images of beautiful animals such as this pike. © GERALD NOWAK
South African sea lion in the kelp off Cape Town
I encountered this South African sea lion in the kelp off Cape Town. The animals are now incredibly trusting and barely fear the now-scarce great white sharks. © GERALD NOWAK

Perhaps the most significant milestone in his life and career happened in 1996 at the Boot Düsseldorf watersports trade fair. “I met my wife, Sibylle Gerlinger, at the Schöner Tauchen booth,” Nowak explained. “A year later I met her at the fair again. Soon after, we started living and working together —  she as a journalist and I as a photographer.” 

Nowak y Gerlinger se volvieron un equipo perfecto. Trabajaron juntos como freelancers para Unterwasser a partir del año 2000 y agregaron más trabajo con el paso de los años, colaborando con revistas de buceo alemanas y diversas publicaciones de viajes y actividades al aire libre (Nowak también es instructor de kayak en aguas bravas y fotógrafo de viajes). En su punto de mayor actividad, publicaban entre tres y cinco artículos de revistas por mes.

They still work together but have slowed their pace. The couple and their daughter live in a little village called Landsberied, which is west of Munich, Germany, and has “more cows and horses than humans.” Nowak also works as a freelancer for the Austrian dive tour operator Waterworld Tauchreisen. He does seven or eight big photo tours a year but enjoys returning home to the quiet little village.

Something that differentiates Nowak’s work is his love for extremes, whether technical, cave, or coldwater diving. He is a dive instructor certified by Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques (CMAS) and Scuba Schools International (SSI) in both rebreather and trimix and has made almost 6,600 dives. 

Nowak is especially committed to coldwater environments. “The tropics have been photographed 10,000 times,” he said. “It is easy and comfortable there.” He is also drawn to places such as South Georgia’s kelp forest, where he has had several great encounters with leopard seals, penguins, and other animals. 

He also finds Russia extraordinary — very few people dive in the White Sea far to the north and experience its vivid winter colors under the thick ice cover. He sometimes ventures under the 3-foot-thick (1 meter) ice in Lake Baikal, far to the east and in the middle of Siberia. Lake Baikal is 395 miles (636 kilometers) long, with a maximum depth of 5,387 feet (1,642 meters), making it the world’s deepest lake and the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume, with almost 23 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. “The atmosphere under and above the water is extremely calm because few people live there,” he said, “and you won’t meet anyone underwater except your dive buddy.”

Nowak effused about his love of diving in cold water: “I have no problem if the equipment is thick and heavy. As long as I can still hold my camera, I’m happy. The main thing is that I can experience my passion: diving.”

Beluga whale in Russia’s White Sea
I had an extraordinary encounter with a beluga whale in Russia’s White Sea. These animals were locked up in a bay until 10 years ago, and you could dive with them under the ice only by special request. Due to many protests from me and several colleagues, the animals have now been released, and belugas are no longer kept in captivity there. © GERALD NOWAK
big hammerhead shark during a checkout dive at the harbor exit of Hulhule Island in the Maldives
We encountered this big hammerhead shark during a checkout dive at the harbor exit of Hulhule Island in the Maldives. To our great fortune, it swam right in front of my wife while I was still descending and could capture their proximity from above. © GERALD NOWAK
Artificial reef is off the east coast of Borneo in Malaysia
This artificial reef is off the east coast of Borneo in Malaysia, not far from Sipadan Island. There was only sand here just 15 years ago, but the constant current around the sandbank has developed a beautiful reef that has given many animals a new home. © GERALD NOWAK
sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s Adams River
The sockeye salmon in British Columbia’s Adams River return from the Pacific Ocean in October to reproduce. A big salmon run occurs once every four years, and we are there every time. © GERALD NOWAK

© Alert Diver — Q1 2024