Underwater sphere images offer a whole new perspective for underwater scenic photography. After 40 years or more of close-up specimen shots and little glimpses of parts of a coral reef, we can now enjoy the feeling of being there, hovering over the astonishing crystal jungle of corals and turning around, amazed at the abundance and variety of life around us.
The great underwater panoramas in this blog post were created by Richard Chesher. Richard and his wife Frederique create and publish the Rocket Travel Guide to Vanuatu (more than 100,000 copies distributed), and the Rocket Travel Guide to New Caledonia (More than 50,000 copies distributed). All texts of this blog post is created by them. They are one of the most extraordinary 360 Cities photographer members. See also our interview with Richard from last year.
About 40 km southeast of Noumea Ilot Mato Anchorage marks the entrance into the vast southern coral reef lagoon. Part of the New Caledonia World Heritage Site, the southern lagoon is a vast area of coral reefs and isolated small islands. The corals are vibrantly alive and teem with brilliantly colored coral fish. Unfortunately this part of the lagoon is subject to fishing pressure and the fish tend to be very shy whenever a human comes swimming by. When I first approached this particular location it was really swarming with fish but they quickly moved off or dove into the coral for cover. Only a school of batfish, Platax teira, milled around as I took this underwater panoramic sphere photo.
They did not stick around very long either. I was wondering why they were so spooked until Freddy motioned me over to a little crevice in the reef top. There I saw a little stone fish, about 60mm long, slowly rolling back and forth in the waves, mouth open, lifeless eyes. It had a big hole from a speargun right through it. The hole was nearly the size of the tiny fish. OK, so stonefish have a toxic spine that can really hurt if you are careless enough to step on one. But it was very sad to think that there were blindingly thougthtless macho devil frogs armed with spearguns fining through this splendid world heritage site. Swim quick little fish, it’s your best chance of keeping the world heritage plan working.
Oh the things we do out of frustration. Yellow snappers, Lutjanus fulviflamma, bunch together in tight schools over particular lagoon coral reefs in New Caledonia – each school has its own favorite reef and one particular spot on that reef that they seem to like. At night, school lets out and the fish race off into the turtle grass beds to go foraging for shrimps, small crabs, and the occasional fish that they find sleeping in the grass. If you already know the whereabouts of of these reef-schools you can actually see the school as a bright yellow haze from the surface. This particular reef is about 200 metres off the Escapade Island Resort wharf at Ilot Maitre. The reef corals are, as you can see, in beautiful condition and there are lots of fish because Ilot Maitre is a protected marine reserve and the fish are safe. When I first found this school, I had an irresistible urge to take a sphere image of it.
I tried again and again to get close enough with my camera, but as soon as I’d dive down, the whole school would move away. Individual snappers sometimes split off from the school and I have often been able to get very close to them for photos, but the school is a lot more timid than the individual fish. In fact, the school is as timid as the most jumpy one in the bunch. When they are packed solid, if one fish panics when you dive down, the whole school panics and all you get is a photo of little yellow caudal fins swimming away as fast as they can. Freddy and I would team up. I’d be real quiet, take a deep breath, and just drift down next to a big coral head and not move while Freddy would swim around behind the school and try to herd them towards me. Forget it. Individual fish might fall for it but the school wouldn’t. Oh I’d get a few snap-shots now and then but they were not all that interesting and what I really, truly wanted was to take was a sphere image with the fish all around the camera.
So, out of frustration, I made an underwater robot camera, waited for a day with nice clear water, then put it down in the middle of where the school liked to hang out. As I set up the robo-camera and was fiddling with the various strings, float, weights and such, Freddy said a Giant Trevally, Caranx ignobilis, more a meter long was overcome with curiosity and came close enough to see what I was doing that she thought I’d kick it. She took a photo which I’ve included above. We see Giant Trevally all the time on these reefs and they often follow me around when I am taking photos. If I turn the camera towards them to try to take a photo, they are gone. It’s a game GT play and I’ve been frustrated again and again trying to get a really nice photo of them, too. After my robot was clicking away on the reef Freddy and I got back in the dinghy and left the camera to do it’s thing and the fish to do their thing.I was one happy, grinning guy as I scrolled through the photos looking at the inside view of a big yellow fish sphere with groupers and Giant Trevally like exclamation points in their midst. Yes! Frustration turned to satisfaction is really the cat’s meow.
Ilot Ua is one of the lagoon islands within the world’s largest coral reef lagoon, the World Heritage Site New Caledonia Lagoon. In New Caledonia’s southern lagoon each small tropical lagoon island is surrounded by a fringing reef. These fringing reefs are almost awash on top at low tide and then they drop straight down to 6 or even 10 metres. Pinnacles of coral often grow just off the fringing reef and I stopped on one of these pinnacles to take this underwater scenic panorama of the reef face. Frederique dove down about half way to the bottom to give you a sense of the size of the reefface. It must have been the breeding season for sardines – or perhaps they were anchovies – for great shoals of them flowed around us.
Sometimes, during the summer months, New Caledonia’s SE trades stop completely and it goes absolutely dead flat calm. It does not happen very offen, maybe only a few days a year, and you’d have to be really lucky to be on the water when it happened.Freddy and I hit the jackpot. Talk about luck. We were at Ilot Mato in the great southern lagoon of New Caledonia this past March when the winds stopped for a whole week. It was exhausting. We spent nearly all day every day racing here and there in our RIB, snorkeling, beach walking, photographing. Magic, shear magic.
When there are no waves or ripples you can zip over the coral reefs and look down and see everything just like there was no water there. It’s a chance to check out miles of reefs for those choice super dive spots. When there are even small wind ripples the water is distorted enough that you often can’t tell the condition of the coral or what’s down there unless you jump in. So it’s a treat, a delight, to ride on a mirror sea and watch the brilliant coral fish, rays, turtles, and dolphins playing in their coralwonderland.I took this sphere image of the fringing coral reef at Ilot Ua to try to give you a sense of what it feels like. Look around and feel the magic.If you want to visit the Great Southern Lagoon of New Caledonia and try your luck at having a delightful clear calm day, get a copy of the Cruising Guide to New Caledonia and come visit.
This is a lush, thriving coral reef near Ilot Mbe Kouen, just inside of New Caledonia’s Great Barrier reef. It is a super dense thicket of coral branches, mostly formed by several species of the genus Acropora. At low tide, the tips of the coral branches come out of the water. We waited until mid-tide to explore it. We carefully swam over the thickets, sometimes just belly deep, and I was delighted to find little pockets here and there where the water was deeper and often filled with other species of corals. It was, probably, the other species of corals that kept the Acropora from filling in those areas, too. Corals do fight for their territory, but it is a very slow battle and one you would not be likely to witness unless you went swimming here at night with a powerful magnifying lens.
I tried very hard to capture the feeling of discovery and delight these scintillating tide-pools of coral gave me. The only thing I can compare the feeling to was the laughing childhood wonder of looking into a sugar Easter Egg and seeing a small scene of springtime inside. I took sphere images of many of these coral Easter Eggs from different angles, from the edge of the thickets and the center of the pools, but could not quite capture what I felt. This one came closest and I hope you can see the delight and beauty as I did. If you really want to experience this delight as I did, come see it yourself. Download a copy of the Cruising Guide to New Caledonia or the Rocket Travel Guide to New Caledonia to find out just how to do it.
Panoramic photos by Richard Chesher.
Click the images to open the interactive versions.