Aw Inspired

Silky shark at sunset (Jardines de la Reina, Cuba): Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) often congregate at the edge of the continental dropoff at Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. Since 2013 I have photographed these silkies every February, either in the morning or in the afternoon. In 2017, however, I persuaded the crew to conduct this dive at sunset. I conceptualized this picture, and since then many other photographers have successfully captured a similar image.

Shooter Michael Aw

When I interview the photographers for our Shooter series, I’ve come to expect a certain uniformity of inspiration. Those of a certain age frequently became enthused about scuba diving through the old black-and-white episodes of Sea Hunt. Somewhat younger people may have watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau as a vicarious portal to ocean adventure. Michael Aw’s story was the first I’d heard from any photographer of a childhood without any experience or fantasy related to the sea.

While growing up in Singapore, Aw was on a path of single-minded dedication to school and ultimately earning a college degree. He was 12 years old before he went to an aquarium and didn’t see a beach until three years later. The ocean survival training of his mandatory military service at age 17 was the first time he put his face below the surface. His early life gave few clues that he would one day become one of the most influential print journalists in destination diving and ocean conservation.

A Bryde’s whale feeds off the east coast of South Africa
Bryde’s whale feeding (The Wild Coast, Eastern Cape, South Africa): Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni) appear quietly from the deep with a single mission in mind: swim through the bait ball and engulf as many fish as possible. If you are in a whale’s path, you will either end up inside its mouth or tossed away with incredible force. On this particular day I was thrown out of the water twice. Then I learned to position myself at a distance and wait. It took quite a while, but the patience paid dividends with this image.
An unusual grouping of three mandarinfish photographed in Palau
Mandarinfish threesome (Palau): Following in the footsteps of David Doubilet, in 1997 I went to Palau for a dive cruise on the same vessel he used for a National Geographic feature. Bert Yates, Doubilet’s guide for his Palau shoot, suggested that I work on images of mating mandarinfish. We started the dive just before sunset. Bert was great at spotting and lighting males showing off their dorsal fins to attract willing females. After 30 minutes I got a great shot of a mating pair clear of any obstruction. With some of my 36 frames left, I signaled Bert for one last try. In the next 30 seconds or so, we captured this threesome. When we got out of the water, he told me that it was the first time he had seen a threesome. I smiled at the thought that I might be the first to capture it on film.

With a degree in economics from Bristol University in England, Aw embarked on a marketing career. For the next 15 years he worked for a few mainstream ad agencies and was deployed to their offices in Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and San Francisco. This corporate chapter of his life allowed him to earn a good living but with unending work.

On the ragged edge of being burned out, he turned to scuba diving as a hobby to have something different in his life. He discovered that with Singapore as a gateway, he could leave work Thursday evening, travel somewhere in Asia with good diving and be back home Sunday night. He eventually added a Nikonos III and Nikonos V to his travel kit and began taking his first, and predictably underwhelming, underwater photographs. 

Dusky sharks feed on a sardine bait ball off the east coast of South Africa
Dusky sharks feeding on a sardine bait ball (The Wild Coast, Eastern Cape, South Africa): I have been chasing sardine bait balls off the east coast of South Africa every June and July since 2004. In late June 2010 I encountered the mother lode. This mass of sardines reached from the surface down to about 80 feet and was more than 300 feet wide. We found it at about 9 a.m. and left utterly exhausted after seven hours of nonstop shooting. This image is from early in the day before the onslaught of gannets, whales, dolphins and sharks. I positioned myself at the edge of the ball to meet this dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) emerging from the massive crowd of sardines.
A juvenile polka-dot ribbonfish or deal fish during a blackwater dive at South Misool, Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Ribbonfish (South Misool, Raja Ampat, Indonesia): The polka-dot ribbonfish or deal fish (Desmodema polystictum) is a deep-water fish first discovered in 1897. It was not until 2011 that researchers verified an adult specimen in the Indian Ocean. I found this juvenile during a blackwater dive in September 2018 and was ecstatic to photograph this species alive, especially in its juvenile stage. Since then, more specimens have been photographed in Japan and the Philippines.

Infected by the scuba and underwater photography bug, he experienced the transformational moment in his career when staying in Bunaken on North Sulawesi, Indonesia, for eight months while on sabbatical from work. He refined his underwater photography into a marketable skill and produced enough quality images for a book. While most photographers work long and hard to develop a body of work that will carry a book, Aw used his experience in publishing during his ad agency days to forge a business plan for him to self-publish the book and do his own marketing.

It was the right product at the right time, and his efforts made the book a hit. He sold enough copies to local businesses and the Indonesian government to attain a broad reach. The book served as a calling card to other destinations that might want to similarly showcase their underwater attractions. Since Aw released Beneath Bunaken: A Pictorial Almanac in 1993, he has been the principal author or a major contributor for 43 other books.

An over-under photo of an iceberg with the fast-eroding mountain glacier in the background at Scoresby Sund, Greenland
Iceberg (Scoresby Sund, Greenland): Icebergs are metaphors for the ocean: We pay attention to the 10 percent we see above water but ignore the 90 percent that we do not see. I saw this iceberg with the fast-eroding mountain glacier in the background during a 2015 expedition to Greenland. The dark, clouded sky adds dimension to the gloomy narrative of our world climate crisis. This is one of my most successful over-under photos.
The remains of a once-mighty iceberg beneath a warm blue sky at Scoresby Sund, Greenland
Iceberg remnants (Scoresby Sund, Greenland): Scoresby Sund on the eastern coast of Greenland is our planet’s longest fjord system. Its main expanse stretches approximately 68 miles before branching into a series of smaller fjords extending further inland. The awe-inspiring Greenland ice sheet meets the innermost tips of the fjords, churning out fresh meltwater and a bountiful supply of colossal icebergs. The icebergs in the back of this image average 100 feet high, and the foreground reveals how little remains of a once-mighty iceberg beneath a warm blue sky.

Once the book’s story of the beauty beneath the sea was readily available, dive shops on the island proliferated. In 1993 two full-time dive resorts were in operation, which increased to 10 in 1995, 15 in 1999 and 25 by the mid-2000s. The growth isn’t directly related to any single publication, but Aw sold a few hundred books to SilkAir, which soon began operating a direct flight from Singapore after recognizing the region’s scuba tourism potential. Easy air access contributed to Bunaken’s success as a dive destination.

The publishers of Ocean Realm magazine bought a few hundred copies of the Bunaken book and sold them at the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) trade show. This success led to several destination collaborations and Aw’s first foray into dive magazines. As an Asian photographer, he had found it difficult to be accepted by dive magazines in Europe and Asia in the early 1990s, but this U.S. publisher gave him his first big break.

An over-under photo of an American crocodile at sunset at Jardines de la Reina, Cuba
American crocodile (Jardines de la Reina, Cuba): The reclusive American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is surprisingly easy to find at Jardines de la Reina, a marine protected area off the southeastern coast of Cuba. In 2013 I started including these crocodiles in my annual sojourn. To get pictures of them in a different light, I persuaded the guides to allow us to shoot them against a sunset. I hope to eventually get an image of the setting sun between the jaws of one of these enigmatic reptiles.
A male flasher wrasse shows off its dorsal fins to attract a mate at Triton Bay, West Papua, Indonesia
Endemic flasher wrasse (Flasher Beach, Triton Bay, West Papua, Indonesia): Since my early years of underwater photographic pursuits, I have sought the challenge of shooting flasher wrasses all over Indonesia and the Philippines. In 2009 I learned of a new species recently identified in Triton Bay and the Fak Fak Peninsula in West Papua, Indonesia. I immediately organized a charter to Triton Bay to photograph this endemic species, Paracheilinus nursalim. The best time to shoot is in the late afternoon when the male flashers show off their dorsal fins to attract a potential female partner. Patience and swift shooting in rapid mode are essential for capturing this speedy fish.
An aggregation of reef manta rays at Hanifaru Bay, Maldives
Reef manta ray aggregation (Hanifaru Bay, Baa Atoll, Maldives): I first encountered the aggregation of reef manta rays (Mobula alfredi) at Hanifaru Bay in 2002. After National Geographic featured the events in a 2009 story, I rushed back to Hanifaru before the world descended upon this tiny, no-longer-secret bay. I dived in the middle of a vortex of more than 150 mantas in a feeding frenzy. For this picture, I was at 65 feet and looking up to the surface at the mantas swimming in a merry-go-round.
A playful leopard seal photographed at Astrolabe Island, Antarctic
Leopard seal (Astrolabe Island, Antarctic): During a 2010 expedition to the Antarctic, the best day featured a sunny, clear blue sky and several leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) frolicking around a towering iceberg. We spent an hour or so interacting with these iconic Antarctic animals in balmy 35°F water. I remember donning a borrowed drysuit and shooting in shutter-speed-priority mode for the first time.
A bobbit worm grabs a goatfish at Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia
Bobbit worm (Lembeh Strait, North Sulawesi, Indonesia): After the governor of North Sulawesi commissioned a new book in 2006, I needed some new pictures that no one had seen before. I remembered reading about bobbit worms (Eunice aphroditois) lunging quickly from their burrows in the sand to prey upon unsuspecting butterflyfish and rising high from the seafloor to snatch them in passing. My dive guide helped me find bobbit worms, but we did not know much about their feeding behavior. I thought the best time would be near sunset when fish tend to move more slowly. I selected the biggest worm in the vicinity, positioned myself and steadfastly focused my camera. I waited for 90 minutes on the first evening and 65 minutes on the second. Drowsy fish swam past, but this lazy worm did not strike. On the final night dive, I found the same worm but asked my guide to search for a more active candidate. As he returned despondent, he caused a goatfish to swim into this worm’s path. I pressed the shutter, and it was over in a flash. At five frames per second, I captured this image on the second frame. More than two-thirds of the fish was already pulled inside the burrow by the fifth frame.

Aw also used his marketing skills and background to produce successful dive-related events. In 1999 he conceived a project where he and five other photographers would document a day in the life of the coral reefs in the Maldives by spending 24 hours underwater using semiclosed rebreathers. This experience led to the book 24 Hours Beneath a Rainbow Sea, Maldives: The Pictorial Almanac and a companion television documentary for National Geographic. The project’s success opened the door for the 2003 publication of Richest Reefs: Indonesia.

While books were the currency of his career, generating the images for the books also created a lucrative stock photography business. Getty Images represented him, and in his heyday he was earning $80,000 per year from repurposing his photography. This additional outlet was essentially a sideline business to producing books and writing for Scuba Diver dan Diver in the U.K., Germany-based Tauchen and other magazines.

The same year as his Maldives project, Aw began a string of publishing ventures from Singapore. Asian Geographic was the first, conceived as like National Geographic with an exclusively Asian influence. For someone so immersed in the underwater world, however, there weren’t enough opportunities in a general interest magazine to tell stories about diving. So in 2001 he bought an existing dive magazine, Scuba Diver Australasia. While both magazines are still successful publications in their respective niches, Aw is no longer involved in their production. 

Instead, in 2007 he created Ocean Geographic, the magazine he continues to publish. A quarterly coffee-table publication, the nonprofit magazine features ocean conservation and environmental articles. It is also a vehicle to launch expeditions, including a large one every five years with as many as 50 participants and typically to an exotic region such as Antarctica. 

As for what’s next, Aw says he has pictures in his mind to execute over the next decade — images in which he sees a personal challenge and a story to tell. He’d like to consider passing on Ocean Geographic to a new publishing team and concentrate more time on deep-ocean exploration via submersible.

He’d also like to devote more time to his passion: shark conservation. After a meeting with Peter Benchley on the 25th anniversary of Jaws and subsequent support and inspiration from Stan Waterman, David Doubilet and Sylvia Earle, Aw has been a longtime advocate for banning shark-fin soup in Singapore. These efforts will remain one of his lifelong commitments, and he hopes to raise awareness of the folly of shark-finning and the overexploitation of our marine resources.

Short-beaked common dolphins charge into a sardine baitball off the east coast of South Africa
Common dolphins charging into baitball (The Wild Coast, Eastern Cape, South Africa): These short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) hunt like wolves of the sea by carving out a group of fish from the main shoal and herding it to the surface before charging into the buffet. The gannets, seals, sharks and whales are freeloaders. This image shows the hard-working dolphins escorting the sardines to the surface. Soon sharks will charge in from the left and right, birds will dive from above, and whales will soar up from the deep.
A female brown-marbled grouper releases its eggs during spawning at Fakarava, South Passage, French Polynesia
Grouper spawning 2019 (Fakarava, South Passage, French Polynesia): An annual aggregation of brown-marbled grouper (Epinephelus fuscoguttatus) occurs at Tumakohua Pass (South Pass) in Fakarava, French Polynesia. During this spawning event, a female and several males swiftly rise together in a tight dance up the water column. When you see them dashing upward, you will be too late to get the shot. The secret is to locate a female grouper with a bulging belly. I focused on and tracked this female. Once she started to fidget and rise upward, I began shooting in burst mode. I did not see the spawn when I was shooting this image; it was only in postproduction that I realized I had captured the moment when the female released her eggs.

Explore More

See more of Michael Aw’s amazing images in these videos and a bonus photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q2 2021

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