Gutsy Tuason: magia en aguas oscuras

Flying Fish Reflection There was a massive thunderstorm on my first blackwater dive in the Philippines’ Casiguran Sound while I was still underwater. The lightning and thunder were tremendous, and I was surprised the boat didn’t hightail it out of there. I suspect the massive amount of rain created the punch-drunk activity on the surface, where it seemed like hundreds of juvenile flying fish were lying motionless as pygmy squid attached to them, possibly mistaking them for clumps of seaweed. I haven’t seen anything like it since, and no scientist can seem to explain it.

I FIRST MET SCOTT “GUTSY” TUASON at a Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) trade show in 2016. “You need to see his blackwater work. You’ll be blown away,” Marc Bauman of Sam’s Tours said before introducing us. Tuason had just published Blackwater / Open Blue. As we sat in the Sam’s Tours booth, I thumbed through the book’s pages amid the distractions of a trade show. I was indeed blown away and later was able to give the photos and captions the slower pace and appreciation that a fine coffee-table book deserves. The book features blackwater macro photography and pelagic encounters with whales and sharks (hence the “open blue” appellation), but blackwater photography has been Tuason’s singular focus for quite some time.

Gutsy Tuason

We connected on Instagram, and I became more familiar with his vision’s excellence and eclectic nature with each photo. His macro photography — not just blackwater but also general coral reef minutiae — surprised me the most. So much of macro photography is reminiscent of a documentary, yet Tuason manages to infuse each image with artistic execution through his use of composition and light. Here is a glimpse of the man behind the photos.

Brazos largos en aguas oscuras Cephalopods are amazing creatures to shoot at night when they are often busy hunting and doing their thing. Like this longarm octopus in Anilao, they do not like cameras in their faces. Octopuses and squids can make you think they are staying put when they are actually slowly sinking deeper and deeper. Before you know it, you’re alone at 130 feet on a blackwater dive.

Lograr este nivel de excelencia muestra un compromiso con la fotografía submarina como estilo de vida. ¿Cómo llegó a ese punto de su vida?

Creo que tuve mi epifanía en la década de 1980 al ver el trabajo que David Doubilet estaba haciendo en National Geographic, lo que usted estaba haciendo en la revista Skin Diver y el trabajo innovador de Chris Newbert en su libro Within a Rainbowed Sea. By then I had a Nikonos V and a 35mm lens, but I wasn’t getting photos like those I saw on your pages. Wide-angle shots were especially hard for me to figure out. Using a 35mm lens meant I had to get farther away if I wanted to shoot something large. I didn’t know about water’s density compared to air and the blue cast subjects have at more than about 4 feet away, so I kept shooting from 15 feet and coming home with blue and poorly focused photos. Then I figured out the secret sauce. You all had the 15mm lens for your Nikonos cameras and could capture large subjects from a short distance. It seems so obvious now, but it was a revelation then.

Pez jabón y peces gato Esta imagen es de mi primer buceo en Anilao después los confinamientos por la pandemia del 2020 en Filipinas. Nunca había estado alejado del agua por nueve meses en mi vida. Me quedé con este banco de peces gato marinos forrajeros durante la mayor parte del buceo, esperando el momento justo cuando el pez jabón que cazaba con ellos se ubicó en el medio de la escena.
Reflejo de una serpiente de mar Walo-walo, la palabra filipina para “serpiente de mar”, se deriva de la palabra para el número ocho. Esta curiosa serpiente (Acrochordus arafurae) de 1,5 metros (5 pies) (una serpiente constrictora no venenosa) se acercó a mí al final de un buceo en aguas oscuras en el seno de Casiguran, Filipinas. Era una noche tranquila, y quería explotar su reflejo en el agua, pero seguía nadando rápidamente hacia mí y pasando a toda velocidad como si su presa estuviera detrás de mí. Verme retroceder para obtener la imagen frontal debe haber sido divertidísimo para la tripulación del barco.

¿Cómo llegó a ese punto? ¿Ya estaba involucrado en la fotografía o fue buzo primero?

For that, we need to go back to my time as a child in Australia and then the Philippines. My mom is Australian, my dad is Filipino, and they met as students in Australia. We lived in Australia for a while, but I was too young for that to be formative for me in terms of diving. Once we moved to Manila, I was only 75 miles from Anilao. This was 1976, and I was just 8 years old, but we often went to Anilao. I snorkeled until I was about 10. My dad saw me tagging around in the shallow waters above him while he dived and finally said, “Here’s a regulator; follow me.” By 1980 I’d done my junior open-water course, and by 1985 I had my advanced certification. 

Anilao remained a weekend getaway for my dad and me. By 1979 I had evolved from finishing whatever air was left in my dad’s bottle to finally having my own gear. But I think the real game changer came when a Spanish professional photographer, who then-president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos had commissioned to do a coffee-table book on our country’s visual wonders, hired my dad and Eduardo Cu Unjieng as dive guides. The team booked a three-week liveaboard dive trip to visit all the Philippine dive hotspots, which divers from North America travel around the world to visit. It was like a backyard to us, even though it was all new to me at the time. I had a 50-cubic-foot tank, a horse collar buoyancy compensator, and my own regulator, and I was keen to take it all in.

Ángel bebé  I don’t often shoot fish identification photos, but when I come across a juvenile emperor angelfish, I can’t resist. They are so beautiful, and their pattern is hypnotic and seems to scream, “Shoot me, shoot me.” And I did — about 30 frames, trying to get just one photo with less of a documentary feel. I also opened the aperture to soften the blow of the messy background.
Tiburón mako The mako shark has always been at the top of my list of sharks to see in the wild. After three days of bobbing around like a cork in the middle of the ocean off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, this gorgeous male briefly showed up. The unusual amount of sargassum in the water created a beautiful backdrop, but it isn’t a good thing as an indicator of climate change.

¿Qué me puede decir de la fotografía submarina? ¿Su padre también era un aficionado de la fotografía?

Lo era; tenía una Nikonos III e intentaba guardarme algunas imágenes para que yo capturara al final de un buceo. Me las reservaba hasta que veía algo elocuente y luego capturaba la imagen. Eso me inculcó buena disciplina, que ha permanecido conmigo incluso después de todos estos años. Para mi cumpleaños número 16, recibí mi kit de ensueño: una Nikonos V con un objetivo de 35 mm y una luz estroboscópica SB103. Llevé ese kit conmigo cuando me fui a la Universidad de Tampa (University of Tampa) en Florida y me inscribí en su programa de biología marina.

I’m not sure that I was passionate about marine biology, but it allowed me to dive. I soon figured out there was more to the program than diving, and most people who had a career in that field didn’t dive much. By then I was getting into photography and took a fine art photo class from Lew Harris, who inspired me and remains a dear friend. They had only two classes, an introductory class and “special problems,” so I took the same problems class every semester for two years, always trying to shoot a better photo or do a better job with it in the darkroom. 

Eventually, I got a bachelor’s degree in economics, which I didn’t need for my first jobs after college: teaching tennis and cleaning yacht hulls. I also worked in a framing shop to earn money, but in the end my dad told me what I already knew: “You aren’t American, you are in jeopardy of overstaying your visa, and you need to come home.”

Adiós a los delfines Durante un trabajo en Australia Occidental para el libro Project Dolphin (Proyecto delfín), navegamos en la embarcación el último día pensando que ya habíamos obtenido todas nuestras imágenes. Pero realmente nunca es así. Antes de nuestro último adiós a los delfines de Monkey Mia, mientras el sol se ponía, uno de los delfines conocido para el científico que los estaba estudiando se acercó a la proa para decirnos adiós también. Fue uno de esos momentos mágicos y excepcionales que me recuerdan por qué hago este trabajo.

¿Qué significaba para usted regresar a casa como un joven graduado de la universidad con un título en economía?

Significaba trabajar en el negocio familiar. Habíamos sido fabricantes de armas de fuego durante 40 años, y yo me ocupaba de las ventas mayoristas. Admito que no tenía ningún interés en el negocio. Tener tiempo libre era difícil, y lo único que quería era irme del trabajo para bucear y tomar fotografías. Logré hacerme un lugar en el negocio que se adecuaba mejor a mí. Mi idea era crear un espacio de venta minorista para vender equipo de fotografía submarina y equipo para golf, tenis, squash y buceo además de armas de fuego. 

There was a photo print shop established in 1905 called Squires Bingham Photo Print, and they mostly created picture postcards. By the 1930s it had expanded to include sporting goods. My grandfather bought the business in 1941, shortly before the Japanese invaded the Philippines. I always found it interesting that the family business had its roots in photography before growing into our sporting goods store, Squires Sports Philippines. It is now my business, and while we sell dive gear, we aren’t a dive shop. We don’t do rentals or air fills, but we do have high-end retail. We also do dive travel, and I get to lead the tours. Before the pandemic, some of our more popular trips were to Tubbataha, Cocos, Socorro, Tonga, and Norway, where we focused on orcas. I will be back to Tubbataha soon, and it’s a good feeling to know our travel business is getting active again.

Do you still get to dive Anilao much since it’s close to your home in Manila? I see so much amazing blackwater work from there, and I heard you started it in the Philippines. Is that true?

I still dive Anilao on weekends whenever I can. It never gets old for me. As for blackwater, I went to Hawaiʻi for a wedding in 2012 and did the famous manta night dive in Kona. The local dive shop offered a second night dive on the manta trip to do a blackwater drift. I was in awe of the creatures we were seeing, but it also occurred to me that I could do this in other places. When I returned to the Philippines I tried the same protocols, but not without resistance. No one wanted to take me out on their boat late at night to drift along in deep water and shoot tiny things some people couldn’t even see. But I persevered, and I think you could safely say I started blackwater diving in Southeast Asia.

¿Cuánto tiempo le llevó reunir las obras que publicó en Blackwater/Open Blue? Blackwater / Open Blue?

Fueron aproximadamente tres años de fotografiar de manera constante con esa temática. Sabía que sería un nicho de fotografía descomunal, y quería ser el primero en hacer un libro. Las identificaciones fueron difíciles. Primero me comuniqué con Jerry Allen, uno de los principales expertos en identificación de peces. Él me ayudaba cuando podía, pero los animales eran tan oscuros y nuevos para la fotografía en estado silvestre que me envió con otros expertos, como un especialista en medusas o un gurú de los cefalópodos. 

¿Cuál es su principal énfasis en la fotografía submarina en la actualidad, y dónde le gustaría ver sus fotografías publicadas?

I think books will always be my thing. My books on Anilao and Bahura are Philippines portfolio books, and I’ve collaborated with others on books about seahorses, dolphins, Philippine coral reefs, and some topside subjects, like one I shot for the Manila Golf and Country Club. I’ve done 11 books so far, and I have ideas for several more that I’m currently working on. Magazine articles are not for me; the pace is too fast, and I can’t deal with the whole writing-on-a-deadline routine. I like to let the ideas germinate more slowly and shoot to a theme.

Pikachu For being such a slow animal to shoot, nudibranchs can be surprisingly fast when you are trying to set up with a snoot. This rare Pikachu nudibranch from Anilao resembles the Pokémon character for which it is aptly named.

Explore más

See more of Gutsy Tuason’s work in a bonus photo gallery and in this video.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2022

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