Published: May 2005
Tim Laman

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

The best part of an underwater assignment is just being able to dive all day every day for weeks. It's such a thrill to be in the totally different underwater universe. And spending a lot of time down there is the best way to encounter the unique subjects I want to photograph, such as a wrasse changing colors right in front of me, an octopus allowing me to follow closely as it feeds on prey trapped under its tented webbing, or a very rare cleaner shrimp tending a huge moray eel.

But only once do I remember bursting out laughing underwater. It's kind of hard to do, and bubbles gush from your regulator, but I just couldn't contain myself. On one night dive my assistant and dive partner, Zafer Kizilkaya, swam over excitedly and led me to a rock outcrop with a hole through the middle. Several spectacular emperor angelfish were cramming into the hole from both sides, all trying to squeeze in and sleep together. It was hilarious to see them vying for the same sleeping spot, and we both burst out laughing.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

Zafer Kizilkaya and I were diving in the cold currents around Padar Island, Indonesia. We were based on a small, live-aboard dive boat anchored out of sight in a cove around the point of the island. The boat's tender, a small skiff, had dropped us in the water and was supposed to wait above us to pick us up when our dive was over.

After an exciting dive to an underwater rock pinnacle completely covered in beautiful, brightly colored invertebrate life, we surfaced when we ran out of air. But the skiff wasn't there. We saw it several hundred yards away, and one of the two men aboard was waving at us with a paddle as they drifted away. The boat's engine was obviously broken, and we couldn't do much except to start swimming. But Zafer and I couldn't make much progress; we were fully loaded with scuba gear and large underwater camera housings. At least the current was carrying us in the general direction of the main ship. Our swimming combined with the paddling efforts of those on the skiff eventually reunited us. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the dive boat to pick us up.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Divers have a standard set of hand signals for communicating underwater because talking through a regulator doesn't work too well. They're pretty mundane signals for things like "Let's go up," "I'm low on air," "Shark!" Stuff like that. But Les Kaufman, the author, took this to a whole other level. He's a top marine biologist and just bubbling over with enthusiasm for everything that's going on underwater. He gets excited especially when he sees something he may have read about and taught for years but never saw firsthand.

One day he motioned for me to come over to where he was looking at a small green sea slug on a patch of reef. He pointed at it and then started in with a lecture of hand signals I'd never seen before. Something was coming down from above, whirling around insideā€¦ I had no idea what he was talking about. After we surfaced, I asked him what all those new signals meant. Les explained, simply, that what he had been telling me was that the nudibranch contained symbiotic blue-green algae that were using solar radiation to produce carbohydrates that the nudibranch harvested for food. OK, Les. I guess I better practice up on charades before we go diving next time.