Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's a constant fight

Yesterday, I was diving on Manchones Reef, just off Isla Mujers, Mexico. Along with me were six beginner divers, really tourists, who were doing their first dive. I was amazed at how careless they were on the reef. One was stung by fire coral right away. In some ways, I guess fire coral is a good thing.

One of the stops along this dive was to view two of Jason Taylor's amazing underwater sculptures. These sculptures purpose is to relive the traffic on the natural reef by becoming an artificial reef. In doing so, the tourists can visit the sculptures and the natural reef can repair itself, hopefully. One problem I saw, the instant one of the beginner divers saw the first sculpture, she swam over to it and wrapped her arms around it, posing for a photo. And in doing so, cleaned off a few months of algae/coral growth.
It made me realize the constant fight the marine life here has with us. I guess in some ways it is good that we "set aside" areas in Manchones for tourists to view (and destroy) and we also try to make a reef out of art for the tourists to view. There must be a balance. Individuals can make a difference. Every individual that thinks their one little kick, touch or break of coral doesn't make a difference doesn't understand the power of an individual.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Back to Work

Today I am back in Cancun, Mexico following up on a couple of projects I have been working on here in the Yucatan. First, I had a chance to visit Jason de Caires Taylor's studio today. So much has changed in the two months I have been away.
In the morning, I plan to revisited the sculptures that were placed in the water in early December. I want to photograph how much marine life has attached itself to the sculptures in the two months they have been underwater.

It was so nice to see Jason as well as all his staff. They have been very busy working on the second phase of the project. About eighty statues have been produced so far. In all there will be four hundred life size statues placed in the waters off Cancun.

It is exciting to see the progress Jason is making on the epic project. When complete, it will be the world's largest underwater sculpture museum.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Work is Hell

As some of you may know, my latest project is "Xibalba - The Mayan Underworld". I am working with Guillermo "Memo" de Anda and Guillermo Pruneda in MexicoDr. de Anda is a professor at the University of Yucatan and heads up the underwater archaeology department. Over the past years, he has discovered evidence of Mayan rituals in the cenotes around the state of YucatanDr. de Anda has allowed me to dive along with him and assist with the documentation of many of these newly found sites.

What many of you may not know is that I have somewhat to very serious claustrophobia. So what do I do? I go cave diving! No, not to try to overcome my fear but to get great photos as well as a great story. You may think that I am crazy for cave diving with little to no training. Keep in mind, I am working with one of the world's most experienced cave divers and dive masters. After my first cenote dive, I had a long talk with myself. I realized that if I had ever wanted to be a cave diver, I would want Memo as my instructor. And that is exactly what I have.

Underwater photography presents it’s own set of challenges in open water. These challenges are further compounded by working in the harsh environment of cenotes. Not only am thinking of f-stops and shutter speeds, I am constantly thinking of the safety of the dive team as well as myself. One of the biggest concerns is silt. The simple act of kicking fins can have dangerous consequences. Without even knowing it, you can kick up silt that will bring the normally crystal clear water to complete blackout. With little to no current flowing it could take days for the water to clear. I stick to my 'ole dive saying’ - "Stay calm and breathe... in that order.” It's just that I’m saying it to myself more often in the cenotes.

Another challenge in cenotes is lighting. More often than not, the water's surface is underground. One of my last dives was eighty feet underground to the surface of the water. We climbed down through a water well opening on forty foot extension ladders roped together. This opening was about 4 by 8 feet. It doesn't let much light in; not that that would have mattered as the sun had set before we began. Rarely, do I get the luxury of the sun's light as fill light. 

Work is Hell - Images by Don Couch
Lighting these "black holes" is probably the one thing that calms me. Working this puzzle, I forget about the closed in feeling and go into "shooting mode". Now things like lighting ratios, direction of light, fill, composition all run through my mind. It's the best distraction from the walls closing in on me. The water is so clear that it seems as if I am floating in the air. We "fly" over boulders as big as buses. I look down and Memo is pointing his light at a skull resting on a slab of limestone. The jaw is open as if screaming. A few feet away lies the rest of the skeleton. I make six or eight images and we move on. Memo leads me to see more that the ancient Mayan left for us. Pottery, bones and skulls are scattered about like litter.

Our time is limited to our air supply and there is so much to see, I don't get to spend a lot of time on each artifact. It seems that every time I dive, it is better than the last. Memo's underwater world is filled with rituals of the past - offerings to the gods in the form of crops, animals, pottery and even human sacrifices. To the Mayan, these waters are sacred. Many of the cenotes are still protected by the local Maya people. Often we must ask permission to dive them.

The Maya knew water was sacred. In the Yucatanother than rain, it was their only source of fresh water. It was from this water that they had life. It was also these waters that led to the afterlife, to the Mayan underworld known as Xibalba, the Mayan Hell. This is why we are diving in these sacred waters, because "Work is Hell".

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cancun's Subaquatic Sculpture Museum

Underwater Sculpture Museum

In 2009 the first steps of a monumental underwater museum were formed in the waters surrounding Cancun.  I was fortunate to be able to photograph the beginnings of this museum. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor, will eventually install on the sea floor over 400 permanent life-size sculptures, making one of the largest underwater artificial attractions in the world.

The first of 3 sculptures; La Jardinera de la Esperanza, Coleccionista de los Sueños and Hombre en Llamas, were placed in their permanent locations in November 2009.
Here are a few images from my time spent with Jason and his amazing works.

Subaquatic Sculpture Museum - Images by Don Couch