Gerald Nowak: Extreme Environments

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. 

I discovered that personal strategies for leveraging marine photography into a lifestyle might be similar, but the magazines and clients tend to differ. It is strange that photography markets are not more homogenized in this age of digital image transmission and the ubiquitous internet. Nowak has successfully navigated this disjointed environment for the past three decades.

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. 

The small riverside Bavarian village where he lived was idyllic in many ways. There were enough accidents on the river, however, that they needed rescue swimmers. In a twist of fate, one of his water-rescue instructors was Stefan Michl, now an executive with Mares, who at the time was a dive instructor from the neighboring village. You might say something in the water there set both of them on their dive industry trajectories, which brought them together again later in life when Mares sponsored 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

By age 20 Nowak was ready to try something new beyond the small-town life. He moved to the city and became a dental technician in a lab his father owned. The next chapter of his life, however, drew him closer to his eventual career. 

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

His next film-era equipment acquisition was the Nikonos RS. He eventually owned four of them but flooded three. By the time digital photography came around, he had started using Subal housings during his progression from a Nikon D200 to the D300, D700, and finally a D800. He has been fully immersed in the Seacam line of underwater housings and strobes since 2015 and now shoots with a 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. Other European dive publications followed, including AquanautUnterwasserSilent WorldDiveMasterdan Sporttaucher.

Six years later Nowak was contributing images to big stock photography agencies such as Getty Images. With the industry rife with mergers and acquisitions, he once participated in a network of 150 worldwide stock agencies.

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 and Gerlinger became a perfect team. They freelanced together for Unterwasser starting in 2000 and added more work as the years went on, contributing to German dive magazines and various travel and outdoor publications (Nowak is also a whitewater kayak instructor and travel photographer). They published three to five magazine articles a month at their busiest.

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

© Penyelam Siaga — Q1 2024