Underwater photographers are sometimes blamed for damaging fragile underwater ecosystems, but could it be that carrying a camera actually turns divers into more sensitive observers? ROSS MCLAREN used to dash around his beloved Scottish dive-sites like a bat out of hell – it took image-capture to calm him down
Over the six years that I’ve been scuba diving, my approach to underwater exploration has evolved.
At first I was driven by my desire to experience a side of our planet that so few get the chance to see at first hand. But in the past few years I’ve become more focused on trying to show others what it is that we enjoy down there, giving folks a glimpse into a side of Scotland that too often goes unseen.
This evolution has, I hope, helped to make me a better diver and to be more aware of my own impact on the environment. It has even unlocked a side of our underwater world that I had often previously overlooked.
I should make it clear at the outset that I am far from the perfect diver. Yup, I still kneel on the bottom from time to time; my back-finning leaves much to be desired; and as for my streamlining, let’s just say that our last Christmas tree had less hanging off it – well, until the cats got at it, anyway. And when it comes to being an underwater photographer, I’m definitely no expert!
But it is taking photos and video footage that has changing my diving style, and the big difference is the speed at which I zip around.
When I started diving, I was like a bat out of hell. No sooner would I catch a glimpse of a lobster under one rock than I would be off to the next one to see what was hiding there.
Mine was the mindset that “if we just go a bit further maybe we’ll find something else”. In reality, and as I found out once I started to slow down, I was overlooking too much.
I was so focused on finding and observing the “big things” – lobsters, conger eels, octopuses and so on, all admittedly great to see – that I was missing out on all the wee things!
Until I started taking photos I had never even noticed a nudibranch unless it was on Instagram. Rushing around busily, I managed to overlook them completely – or, more often than not, lacked the patience to go seeking them out.
Even now, they’re not the easiest creatures to find, although I have found that they’re a bit like buses – once I find one, loads tend to come along at once. It’s almost as if your eyes get tuned into them.
It’s not just the tiny marine inhabitants but the camouflaged ones as well, such as octopuses. Before taking my camera along I had only ever seen one in Scottish waters, and that was because it was sitting right in front of my face. Slowing down has given me the chance to catch a few more glimpses of these incredible animals. Another level of life has been opened up for my delectation.
A photograph captures a snapshot of a scene, a tiny part of a much bigger picture, and that is especially true in underwater photography. The viewer (and often the photographer) is aware only of what was sitting in plain sight at the moment the button was pressed.
What we, viewer and photographer, don’t see is the life that might be below, behind, above and to the side of the camera. At the start, and perhaps still at times, I have been so guilty of tunnel vision.
I would focus solely on the subject and getting the perfect shot, not noticing the life I was disturbing by kneeling on the seabed or even wafting away with my fins as I manoeuvred into position. I’m still far from perfect but I’d like to think that my peripheral awareness and buoyancy have improved a good bit since then.
There is no worse feeling than turning round after taking a photo to see a cloud of silt or, worse, bits of anemone or other marine life floating away, and knowing that you were responsible.
It might mean that I have to take an extra couple of seconds to reposition myself, sort myself out and get the correct balance between getting a shot and not disturbing anything – but, of course, it’s worth it.
Ross McLaren dives mainly at the many sites within easy reach of Glasgow. He produces and presents videos about aspects of Scottish scuba diving on BBC Scotland’s online platform BBC the Social. Also by Ross on Divernet: Nervous Journey From Auto to Manual, Diving With a New Baby, The Long Game and Scottish Star Turns