I think it all started on a night-dive, around 2005. I was on that famed wreck the Barge at Gubal island in the northern Red Sea. This is ostensibly a deeply disappointing collection of broken spars and iron plates, and many people who have dived it by day will think twice about doing so once the sun goes down.
The Barge doesn’t look much but conceals a wealth of treasures by night.
Trust me, however, it’s worth it. This is where I found my first nudibranch (along with all the hundreds of fish, two whopping morays, lionfish, squid and all the rest of it…)
I was amazed by this 5cm animal, purposefully making its way along a rusty piece of metal. It was stunningly coloured; striped black, yellow and white with bright orange appendages that waved in the gentle current.
I knew enough of the natural world to know that the colours were a warning to potential predators that it was not to be eaten or molested. Perhaps that’s why it was pootling along so happily?
It turned out to be a pyjama slug, a common nudibranch from the Red Sea to Tanzania, and it sat amid photos of the most wondrous animals in my copy of the Red Sea Reef Guide. They were creatures of every colour, with polka dots, fringes of electric blue, projections that looked like flames and some, rather disgustingly, resembling piles of mobile vomit. I was amazed that such diversity existed.
First encounter with a nudibranch – the common pyjama slug.
I set about trying to get a photo of a pyjama slug, and pushed my compact camera, as well as my buddy’s patience, to its limits. My initial attempts were OK, but it wasn’t until I had a decent SLR and a proper macro lens that I could begin to try to achieve the results I was after, capturing the fine details of the animal.
I’m not saying that my shots are as good as those the pros take, but as long as I’m learning and showing measurable improvement, I’m happy.
Here’s a little of what I’ve learned about diving with and shooting nudis. Being slow-moving critters, they can spend a lot of time heading in one direction, which is often away from you, into a dense stand of coral or a crevice – not helpful.
The best nudi images are when the animal is facing you and you can get its rhinophores in focus. I’ve heard these organs called “feelers” and even “bunny ears”, and no doubt they contribute to a nudibranch’s cuteness (not in the vomit-like ones, obviously).
A Risbeccia heads in the right direction for once.
Look closely and rhinophores are feather-like or whorled. They are used for sensing chemicals in the water, and if you can capture the very fine detail of these structures, you’re onto a winner.