Richard Smith

Diver and whale shark (Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia): I tend to avoid having divers in my images, preferring instead to capture an animal in its natural environment. The problem with that is portraying the scale. Our group was snorkeling when one member decided to dive on scuba, which was a point of interest to the whale sharks. On a few occasions, one of the whale sharks passed close by him in the early morning light, which allowed me to capture this image.

The Synergy of Science & Art

In the opening chapter of The World Beneath: The Life and Times of Unknown Sea Creatures and Coral Reefs, his acclaimed combination coffee table book and coral reef reference guide, Richard Smith, PhD, recalls his six months of shore diving and research in 2007 at the Wakatobi reefs in Indonesia. That trip turned into the first doctorate awarded for research on pygmy seahorses. 

The Denise’s pygmy seahorse was his singular focus for that project. He spent months “watching and recording the antics of these mysterious and diminutive fish.” His observations of their social and reproductive behaviors were the first recorded examples of what he said has “presumably been happening for millennia. We just didn’t know how to look.” Searching for pygmy seahorses and other reef dwellers, describing them for science, and recording them at the highest level of photographic art is what Smith does so very well.

The World Beneath will soon have its second edition, and the original 2019 version is the No. 1 bestseller in Amazon’s Coral Reefs Ecosystems category. It all began in his family’s garden in the Cotswolds, England. As a child, Smith was crazy for bugs or any kind of terrestrial wildlife. He learned to dive at 16 as a shared hobby with his father. It might be overstating their early years diving British quarries in a drysuit to call them adventures, but that would come on a 1996 Australia dive holiday with his dad.  

Richard Smith

The Great Barrier Reef was a wondrous revelation, but Smith still had his university education to navigate. His goal was to be a zoologist and end up in a rainforest somewhere. During a gap year at age 18, he spent four months on a marine conservation project in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. The reef minutiae — nudibranchs in particular — intrigued him from the outset, and he began taking identification pictures of them after discovering how tedious and inaccurate it was to draw on an underwater slate. An honors thesis on the rocky shore intertidal zone for his zoology undergraduate degree was his first foray into marine science.  

Bartlett’s anthias (Mapia Island, Indonesia)
Bartlett’s anthias (Mapia Island, Indonesia): My dive partner, Wendy Brown, and I lead group trips to far-flung locations in search of interesting species and diving. We have discovered new species and captured images of species never photographed alive. On this trip we extended the known geographic range of a species. We were at Mapia Island, an outpost of two islands on an atoll 100 nautical miles north of Papua. This wilderness harbors healthy exposed reefs and animals you rarely see elsewhere. I came across this small group of Bartlett’s anthias, which are ordinarily found much father east in the South Pacific and nowhere else in Indonesian waters.
Bartlett’s anthias (Mapia Island, Indonesia): My dive partner, Wendy Brown, and I lead group trips to far-flung locations in search of interesting species and diving. We have discovered new species and captured images of species never photographed alive. On this trip we extended the known geographic range of a species. We were at Mapia Island, an outpost of two islands on an atoll 100 nautical miles north of Papua. This wilderness harbors healthy exposed reefs and animals you rarely see elsewhere. I came across this small group of Bartlett’s anthias, which are ordinarily found much father east in the South Pacific and nowhere else in Indonesian waters.
Biofluorescent xeno crab on gorgonian (Wakatobi, Indonesia): I like to take images that illustrate a particular behavior or species. In this case I used various lights and filters to capture biofluorescence. It is possible to see animals that reflect light in a particular wavelength using special flashlights, lens filters, and a filter over your mask. I was testing an assertion that pygmy seahorses biofluoresce. If pygmies effectively glowed in the dark, it would make future population estimates much easier. I can now confirm that they don’t biofluoresce, but I captured this crab living on a gorgonian.

Knowing his advanced studies should be in the ocean, he pondered whether to stay in England and study algae or go to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he would learn the dynamics of the coral reef. It was an easy choice, and Smith soon joined a local dive club in Brisbane and found his people. 

During a 2002 liveaboard trip, an epiphany happened when he saw his first pygmy seahorse. By 2018 he had identified a new species, Hippocampus japapigu, in Japan’s temperate waters; in 2020 he described the first pygmy seahorse from the Indian Ocean: the South African Hippocampus nalu.

Feeding whale shark (Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia)
Feeding whale shark (Cenderawasih Bay, Indonesia): While everyone else returned to the boat for a well-earned breakfast, I couldn’t tear myself away from snorkeling with several whale sharks still hanging around. Suddenly, I felt quite exposed as the only person in the water with these huge fish, despite them being harmless. The whale sharks and I soon settled, and they began to make close passes to check me out. Being away from a large group of people is often less intimidating for wildlife and opens the door for incredible interactions. I took this shot with a fisheye lens, and it isn’t cropped, showing how close this incredible animal got during this encounter.
Biofluorescent stargazer (Wakatobi, Indonesia)
Biofluorescent stargazer (Wakatobi, Indonesia): Diving with the gear required to photograph biofluorescence is disorienting and cumbersome. After hunting for pygmy seahorses, I moved to the open sand, where maneuvering was easier. I spotted a stargazer hidden beneath the sand, with its whole body obscured and just its eyes and clamp-like jaw protruding. I have seen these ambush predators use their tongues as lures to attract fish even closer, but this one simply loitered ominously. I had no idea that stargazers would biofluoresce, but it made for a wonderful image.
Juvenile Banggai cardinalfish (Lembeh Strait, Indonesia)
Juvenile Banggai cardinalfish (Lembeh Strait, Indonesia): Banggai cardinalfish are found off a few tiny islands in central Indonesia, but over the past few decades they have appeared in a few other locations around Indonesia, including Lembeh Strait. Their range is naturally small because males brood eggs in their mouths like other cardinalfish. Unlike their relatives, however, they continue to brood their young for two weeks after they hatch, while the other species spit out the fry as soon as they hatch to be swept away on currents to other reefs. Just released into the world by their father, these two babies were seeking shelter among the spines of a venomous urchin.
Mating flamboyant cuttlefish (Ambon, Indonesia)
Mating flamboyant cuttlefish (Ambon, Indonesia)

He recorded all the observations for his doctorate on an A4 waterproof slate while immersed at Wakatobi’s shallow, vibrant house reef multiple hours a day for months at a time. After realizing there was a world beyond the confines of a coffee-table-sized sea fan, he began writing articles for Asian Diver and Australian dive publications, eventually giving a keynote presentation at the Asian Dive Exposition for their Year of the Seahorse. 

Courting Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses (Wakatobi, Indonesia)
Courting Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses (Wakatobi, Indonesia): On the way back to the jetty exit point during my fieldwork on the Wakatobi reef, I would always do my safety stop in a little gully, where I got to know the resident creatures. Spending so long visiting the same tiny patch of reef was one of my favorite aspects of this work. I could set my clock by the mating dragonets, I befriended a usually skittish paddletail snapper that would rest a foot from me, and I found all manner of unexpected critters that would occasionally emerge from the reef. A pair of Pontoh’s pygmy seahorses courted every morning and evening as part of their reproductive cycle. On this occasion, the female (closest to the camera) was full of eggs that she was ready to transfer to the pregnant male behind.
Displaying Alfian’s flasher wrasse (Alor, Indonesia)
Displaying Alfian’s flasher wrasse (Alor, Indonesia): I was diving in a remote corner of eastern Indonesia with my longtime friend and guide, Yann Alfian, and the incredible naturalists and conservationists Ned and Anna DeLoach. We moved quickly along the gentle slope until Anna headed for a bommie just off the main reef. Very short, branching corals covered the saddle. Anna suddenly started pointing excitedly at a few flashers that were displaying above the corals. We could immediately see they were different from anything we had seen before. The brightly colored males stood out, with scarlet rounded fins and yellow, blue, and golden streaks throughout their bodies. We all watched in awe before getting down to the important work of capturing an image. A year or so later, per Anna’s request to ichthyologist Gerry Allen, the new species was named Alfian’s flasher wrasse.

Photography became an increasing part of his work once he realized that he had a story to tell about specific marine life and where they lived. Underwater photography was his springboard to communication.

How did you begin your sojourn into underwater photography?

My dad started taking pictures underwater before I did. He was a rally driving champion and felt diving was a bit too mundane, so he added underwater photography to his task load. For me it was more about finding things I couldn’t identify. I logged 500 dives before I took my first photo, using a very basic film camera (a Sea and Sea Motormarine 35). Small things drew me in, and the macro capability was not good enough, so I migrated to a housed Nikon F90 (called N90 in the U.S.) film camera. The 105mm Micro-Nikkor lens transformed my vision.

Magenta dottyback with pair of isopod parasites (Halmahera, Indonesia)
Magenta dottyback with pair of isopod parasites (Halmahera, Indonesia): Parasites and their biology fascinate me. It blows my mind that each species on Earth is believed to have its own unique parasites. I have found many parasites that are completely new to science, but requests from researchers for me to collect them and the fish they are attached to haven’t been helpful, especially when the parasite is living in the nostrils of a 2-foot-long crocodilefish. I have only seen magenta dottybacks with these isopods in Halmahera, Indonesia, where probably one-third of the dottybacks had these nefarious hitchhikers. Parasites such as these are unlikely to kill their host but are fueled by feeding on the hapless fish’s blood.

When did you move to digital for underwater photography, and what is your gear arsenal today?

I didn’t move to digital until 2007. For many of the things I had been shooting, 36 exposures were enough. That’s not to say I’m unhappy with more, but I was not frantic about trying a new technology just for that. Even with digital, I don’t bother downloading every day. 

One thing I absolutely embraced was accurate autofocus in low light. I don’t use a focus light because I don’t want to disturb the creatures in any way. With the Nauticam housing, Nikon D850, and 105mm macro lens I use now, I can stay a respectful distance away. I always travel with a wide-angle lens and dome port but rarely dive with them. I’m a creature of habit, and my habit is reef minutiae.

Birthing Denise’s pygmy seahorse (Wakatobi, Indonesia)
Birthing Denise’s pygmy seahorse (Wakatobi, Indonesia): During my research at the Wakatobi house reef, I worked out the male Denise’s pygmy seahorse gestation period and could be in the water exactly when they were due. This period helped me hone my macro photography skills, as I needed to capture behaviors without disturbing the animals or damaging the reef. I took notes on my A4 waterproof slate and then snapped a couple of images for my records before returning to note-taking. Watching the lives of these tiny fish play out was one of the most memorable times of my diving and scientific careers.

We often lead photo tours in many of the same locations. Is that a big part of your life now?

Absolutely. I’ve been running dive and photo expeditions for more than a decade with Wendy Brown, a dear friend who was one of my divemasters in those early years at Wakatobi. We choose a particular liveaboard or land-based resort that gives us access to some weird creature I’m obsessed about. I lecture on marine life and share science and photo tips with our guests. Our schedule these days is three trips a year with back-to-back departures.

Pair of leopard anemone shrimp (Raja Ampat, Indonesia)
Pair of leopard anemone shrimp (Raja Ampat, Indonesia): I had searched for leopard anemone shrimp for years, but the species has rarely been spotted across a wider geographic range than its origins in Japan. I was puttering along the reef in Raja Ampat’s Aljui Bay at 100 feet (30 meters), which is unusually deep for me. An anemone the size of my thumb from the tip to the joint was growing parasitically on a whip coral. I first spotted the large female shrimp and then the male. Their camouflage was incredible. I’ve seen these shrimp only a handful of times since then, so this encounter was an unexpected treasure.

E know of your abiding respect for your photographic subjects. Can you impart some wisdom on your approach to photographing small and cryptic reef creatures?

I’m happy to share what works for me. I use a Nikon 105mm macro lens, which allows me a little extra distance from the subject to avoid disturbing it. I chose my camera for its good lowlight autofocus capabilities. I don’t use a focus light (aside from a very weak one for night diving) because they often scare a subject, which is the last thing you want when aiming for behavior shots. You could try a red light, because some marine creatures don’t see those wavelengths, but that works only on certain subjects. 

Sometimes there simply isn’t anywhere to place a stabilizing finger, so good buoyancy control is critical. I never use a pointer stick or ask a guide to poke an animal or hunt through its habitat to find it. Unhappy animals make poor photographic subjects. 

I hate stressing nocturnal animals and don’t shoot diurnal animals on night dives. It’s best to approach your subject like you would a nervous horse: quietly, calmly, and confidently without surprising it.

Peacock flounder eating a blue-ringed octopus (Wakatobi, Indonesia)
Peacock flounder eating a blue-ringed octopus (Wakatobi, Indonesia): While in Wakatobi in 2005, I asked about a blue-ringed octopus I had seen in a photo taken there, but the guides told me they were exceedingly rare. I had logged almost 1,000 dives and had never seen one of these iconic cephalopods. Thinking dawn would be the best time to hunt in the shallow lagoon area next to the jetty, I went every day at 6 a.m. On the last day before leaving, I finally saw one swimming in the middle of the water column and displaying its full iridescent blue rings. A flounder suddenly swam up off the bottom and ate the octopus whole. It spat out the octopus and then half ate it again. I was surprised to see this action unfolding before me and quickly took this shot on slide film. I watched the flounder for 20 minutes, but it had no apparent ill side effects from its meal.

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See more of The World Beneath in this photo gallery and video.

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© Alert Diver — Q2 2024

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