The Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, both above water and below,” says award-winning photographer David Hall, whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, Time and many other publications. From 1995 to 2010, he made a dozen trips to British Columbia — a total of about six months of diving — shooting Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest ($45, 160 pages, University of Washington Press). Sport Diver chatted with Hall about this stunning new work.
What was the inspiration for the book, and how long was it in development?
Prior to 1995, I had been scuba diving for more than 20 years, nearly all of it in tropical water, visiting more than 30 countries and photographing on some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world. Every now and then I would see an interesting photograph taken in colder water and I began to suspect that I had been limiting my efforts to tropical water for too long. In 1993 my wife Gayle and I acquired scuba drysuits, and less than two years later we headed up to British Columbia for the first time.
At first I had no plans for publishing an underwater photography book. However, after the first half-dozen scuba diving trips to British Columbia, I realized that the photographic material I was accumulating might be worthy of a large format book. Very few underwater photography books dedicated to a single cold-water destination have been published. I became focused on getting a sufficiently varied collection of underwater photographs, including a reasonable number of wide-angle images, to make for a visually interesting book. Accomplishing this in cold water was not easy, but the challenge made me all the more determined.
What is so compelling about that underwater environment?
The diversity of invertebrate life, especially nudibranchs, anemones and sea stars, is absolutely amazing. Most of the fish are not so colorful as on a coral reef, but many of them are quite interesting as photographic subjects. And of course the marine mammals of the Pacific Northwest are a major attraction, both above and below the surface.
The physical size of much of the marine life is also very impressive. For example, these waters host nudibranchs more than a foot long, 3-foot tall anemones, enormous sea stars with 24 arms and an octopus that can weigh a hundred pounds or more. These and several other record-holding species are endemic to the North Pacific.
What are three of your favorite images in the book and why?
» I have always been attracted to images of jellyfish, and some of these are among my favorites in the book, including the ones of large lion’s mane jellyfish that appear on the cover and on page 12.
» I particularly like the hooded nudibranch images, especially the wide-angle photograph on page 85 and the over/under image on page 88. I spent many years trying to photograph these unusual molluscs, and getting a pleasing composition with effective lighting was quite a challenge.
» I think that my very favorite image in the book is the Steller sea lion portrait on page 109. This image evokes strong memories of being surrounded by several dozen of these huge animals, the largest sea lions in the world, who made me the center of their attention for a few action-packed minutes, which are described in detail in the “vignette” on page 108. The action was so intense that I had no time to check camera settings or even to look through the viewfinder while shooting, which makes it all the more surprising how well some of these images turned out.
What was the most challenging shoot?
There were many challenging moments. One that comes to mind was standing in the middle of the swiftly flowing Adams River with water up to my waist, as the sun sank below the horizon. I had come to photograph the largest run of sockeye salmon in a century. Dozens of these fish swam between my legs as I struggled to stay on my feet. Some of the resulting photographs are quite striking because the underwater strobes reflected light off the fish and turned the surface of the water blood red. (This experience is described in more detail page 98, along with several accompanying photographs.)
How do you describe the region to divers who have not yet experienced it?
Imagine surfacing after an exciting scuba dive and being surrounded by 100-foot-tall evergreen trees, a bald eagle perched above you on one of the branches, and snow-capped mountains in the distance. If you are looking for something different and are willing to learn to use a drysuit, you will not be disappointed. It is my hope that Beneath Cold Seas will encourage more divers to visit British Columbia and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.