I was recently featured among the nine finalists in a photography competition run by www.positive.travel that aimed to highlight beautiful underwater photographs and people making a real difference to the ocean. The competition focussed on both the image and the backstory, as in how this image exemplifies the positive example you set and how you are inspiring change to protect our oceans. Although I didn’t win, I was delighted at the chance to be featured among a lineup of such wonderful photos and wish all the best to the three winners for their incredible images and stories!
My entry and story can be found below, as well as on my instagram page: @matthews_uw.
More information on the competition, as well as a full gallery of finalists and winners can be found here
This image of two resident False Percula Clownfish was taken at a dive site called Kaledupa Double Spur, on the north coast of Kaledupa in Wakatobi, Indonesia. Some of you may have seen this image before, but might not have heard the story behind it. It was taken at the end of a dive with the @operation_wallacea reef monitoring team on Hoga, an island just to the south. We had been conducting surveys of the local reefs to gather data on fish, invertebrate and coral populations. The camera only came out at the end of the dive because we had work to do! 😂 . I’ve spent a total of about 5 months volunteering on Hoga as a research assistant and divemaster. There really hasn’t been another place on Earth that has influenced what I want to do more than Hoga. The data we attained there would go on to inform a number of scientific studies, actually making it the most published scientific site in the Coral Triangle. I learnt so much about marine sciences, having to transition from a more lab-based practice of molecular biology to the different demands of field work. It is with a heavy heart that I learnt that the expedition would be cancelled this year due to COVID-19, as I was due to return as part of the monitoring team to continue their important work. . Teaching school and university students from Makassar and around the world scientific diving and reef ecology was incredibly rewarding; so many of them said they’d love to do the same in the future! We also ran two different coral nurseries, seeding multiple species of Acropora (stag horn coral) over a rope tower nursery and reef stars, following the MARRS methodology. We planted over 1000 fragments! . I can’t mention Hoga without a big thank you to all the fantastic local staff too. Getting to work alongside the local Bajau (subject of many documentaries, especially Sampella, a ‘floating village’ next to the site), Kaledupan and other Indonesian staff was nothing short of a privilege. Kampo, Nani, Ola, Ham, Maliani, Ramadin, Yadin, Rowan, Pippa, Maria and Melissa (and all the others): Terimah Kasi! I hope to see you all again soon!
I was recently featured in one of my favourite dive magazines, DIVE Magazine! Click the above image to see the feature that includes a few of my favourite images and a short bio. Please check out the feature and all the other amazing featured photographers on there, many of whom I count as great inspirations. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think of the images!
In the Summers of 2015 and 2018 I volunteered with Operation Wallacea in Cuba and Indonesia as a research assistant and Divemaster trainee. I then returned to Their Site in Wakatobi, Indonesia in 2019 as a contracted Divemaster. I really credit OpWall with allowing me to pursue my passion for the underwater world and would wholeheartedly encourage anyone interested in field ecology or conservation to check them out. They can be found at:
They can also be found on social medias by searching Operation Wallacea. There you can find information about the recent publications they contribute to and how to get involved!
In 2015 I spent 2 weeks on a trip to Isla de la Juventud off the South Coast of Cuba to help collect data and learn about coral reef ecosystems. We stayed at Hotel el Colony, which had been repurposed as a Marine research centre in conjunction with the University of Havana. Unfortunately, the OpWall site has since moved out of Cuba after a dispute with the government. Since I was already a rescue diver at this point, I didn’t have to complete any dive training and jumped straight into Coral Reef Ecology (CRE) Courses and data collection. The CRE is OpWall’s version of a high school level reef ecology course and provides a good overview of the ecology, community structure and function of coral reefs an the associated ecosystems. Other than this classroom based course, we completed data collection dives learning basic coral reef surveying techniques such as belt transects, stereo-video transects and point line intersect transects. In addition, there was a project running using ultrasound to locate Manatees in the wetlands to the South-West of the site, however in the two days I spent helping out we didn’t manage to locate any. Perhaps the best bit of this trip was spending some nights on the University of Havana’s research vessel, the Felipe Poey. We conducted lion fish biopsies following collection with Hawaiian sling spears, finding that lionfish will eat pretty much anything… We also set some long lines out to tag sharks for an ongoing research project into the shark population of the local area, however we didn’t catch anything in the two nights on the boat. We did, however, get an amazing show of lightning while sleeping on the deck at night, definitely something that I’ll remember for a long time to come! This trip was really my first insight into the scientific world of diving, having previously only dived recreationally, and really set the ball rolling for my later adventures.
Indonesia – 2018
Indonesia was my next big adventure straight after completing my degree in 2018. After studying Molecular Biology at University College London, I knew I loved science, but while the virology, immunology and cancer biology that I focused on in my final year was incredibly interesting, I still felt there was something missing. I missed that sense of adventure that being in the field gave me, so when I met Tim Coles, CEO of OpWall at a presentation at UCL earlier that year, I jumped on the opportunity he put forward of completing my PADI Divemaster training and working as a research assistant again for OpWall. This time I would travel to a dream dive destination of mine, Indonesia. The site is on an island called Hoga in Wakatobi National Park, South-East of Sulawesi, shown on the map above. For my sins, it took 5 flights and a ferry ride to get there from London but the journey was definitely worth it.
The first 4 weeks of this two month expedition were spent completing the PADI Divemaster training. This has to be the most fun diving qualification I’ve completed to date. It involves a mix of theory, fitness tests and practical diving and leadership skills to qualify you on the first rung of PADI’s professional scuba program. If there is the interest I can put up a more detailed post on the ins and outs of the Divemaster qualification, but if you’re at all considering it I would go for it! For me, it was four weeks of full time diving and teaching and I loved every minute.
The next half of the expedition were spent completing the Reef Survey Techniques (RST) course and helping out as a research assistant on site. RST is basically OpWall’s university level of the CRE course, offering a more in depth look at reef ecology and practical in-water techniques. As one of the more qualified research assistants from a diving point of view, I was Assigned into the reef monitoring team following the RST week. This team is a semi-autonomous group of scientific divers who visit specified sites around the island and conduct methodical data collection on fish, macroinvertebrate and benthic community structure. This was definitely my favourite part of the trip and a big part of why I would return. I learnt so much about the realities of in-water data collection as well as a host of techniques for analysing data back in the lab, which we would spend hours each afternoon doing.
Each of 9 dive sites was split into 3 zones: reef flat, reef crest and reef slope. These zones were then subsequently split into 3 transects each, making for 9 transects per dive site and a total of 81 transects. Along each 50m transect we rolled a measuring tape between pre defined pegs installed as un-obtrusively as possible in the reef. The first job was to conduct a fish survey using a stereo-video transect to be later analysed in the lab. This was conducted with two GoPros mounted on a pole, about a meter apart to obtain stereoscopic vision, like human eyesight. This enabled us to calculate the biomass and identify to species level every fish seen in the video, using software called EventMeasure which I won’t get into too much here. Next was a macroinvertebrate survey conducted by two divers swimming in a belt 5m wide centred on the transect tape. Here we conducted a tally of key pre-determined species such as feather stars, nudibranchs and sea urchins, tallied on a dive slate. We weren’t too specific with identification for the sake of brevity, aside from a few key species that were identified by their binomial nomenclature such as: Linkia laeviga – blue sea stars, Acanthaster plankii – Crown of Thorn Sea stars and Thelanota anax – a species of sea cucumber to name a few. Finally we would conduct a benthic survey using an action camera following the tape,, stopping every 25cm to show the substrate beneath. This footage was then analysed in the lab after each set of dives and substrate was identified to genus level generally (IDing coral to species level is hard enough for most genera without grainy footage). All this collated data for each two month season goes into a large data set that’s used to inform scientists on the long-term health and community structure of reefs in the local area.
Aside from the science, this was the first dive trip I made where I forayed into Underwater Photography, albeit in a pretty basic sense. I had recently been given a Weefine Smart- Housing Pro for my 21st birthday and was really excited to try it out. While basic, this allowed for the addition of wet lenses, both wide angle and macro. The images I got were…. OK, but of course I thought that with a bit of post processing they were some of the most incredible pics I’d ever taken! I’ll share a few here and while they don’t really stack up to my current standards, you have to start somewhere! As I didn’t have any form of lighting at the time, I used the app Dive+, which generally did a pretty good job of correcting colours. This genuinely blew my mind then, as I was so used to seeing the usual washed out blue tones of underwater pictures. This trip was really what started the underwater photography obsession for me and I couldn’t wait to return with more gear and more experience.
The next year I returned to Hoga as a contracted Divemaster and with a whole new set of gear to try out. In the interim period I’d worked a few jobs including a ski season in the French Alps and had managed to save enough to buy a new camera and housing. My weapon of choice was a Canon G7XII, a Fantasea FG7XII housing and a single Sea&Sea YS-03 strobe on ball arm. I loved this camera and still do, as the manual settings and access to lighting really allowed me to push my creative boundaries… once I learned how to use it. I had a decent amount of experience with cameras, but nothing could have prepared me for adjusting all of that while maintaining neutral buoyancy, especially the lighting. It genuinely took me weeks to get the hang of strobe positioning, constantly getting massively over or under exposed images or just crazy backscatter. After playing for a while, however, I started getting shots I was happy with and so I moved onwards from there.
My role on site this time was a little different, having moved into a staff position. Time was split between helping with dive training, from Open Water students up to other Divemaster Trainees and helping on science dives; the latter of which I tried to jump on whenever possible. On the science side of things, I was mainly supervising divers collecting data for undergraduate and masters dissertations. Although I did get to help out in a few cool projects, such as collecting behavioural data on the butterfly fish Chaetodon lunulatus for Rachel Gunn’s PhD project. This involved filming pairs of territorial butterfly fish and determining their habitat range using markers, as well as determining how they responded to novel objects (a big red Lego cube) in their habitat. As well as assisting with data collection for qualified divers, I was involved with the teaching of both the CRE and RST courses. While my role was primarily assisting with in-water activities, I actually became the CRE lecturer for a brief period, notably over an interesting period where the site was targeted by immigration officials. I also spent a few weeks with the monitoring team again, collecting similar data to the previous year and helping in the lab with mostly benthic transect analysis as well as identification of settlement tiles. These tiles are ceramic plates nailed to the reef at assigned depths and locations which are later removed an assessed for coral recruitment. It was really interesting to see which corals were most prevalent on a ‘naïve’ section of reef: it was mostly Turbinaria with their distinct cone shaped polyps, but Porites, Acropora and a few Pocillopora made appearances too.
Finally and perhaps most excitingly there was a new project running on site this year, as part of the site manager, Rowan’s PhD project at the University Hassanudin, Makassar. A previously established coral rope tower nursery had been running for a few years just off the drop off at our training site, assessing how various species of Acropora (stag horn and elk horn corals) grew in various light conditions. However, the new addition this year was the introduction of a ‘reef star’ nursery built on the reef crest over a large rubble patch. A few years previously the area had experienced a large Acropora die off for some reason, leaving large rubble patches with comparatively lower biodiversity. This project aimed to regenerate these reefs and also assess the viability of this reef regeneration methodology. The concept follows the MARRS (Mars Assisted Reef Restoration System) methodology, whereby sand coated steel structures are secured to the substrate and coral fragments are attached, raising them off the unstable substrate and providing a secure surface for them to grow on to. During the 2 month season, we collected thousands of previously broken Acropora fragments from 3 species that grew nearby and attached them to over 150 reef stars. The eventual plan is to have over 3000 reef stars off Pulau Hoga, allowing for a massive regeneration of the Acropora population.
From a photography point of view, I only got to take my camera out on relatively few dives, as I had a responsibility for the divers I was looking after and their safety. I did, however, get to take the camera out on a few staff dives each week and a couple of dives here and there later on in the season when it was a bit quieter. As I mentioned previously, it took quite a while to get used to the camera set up, and quite a few imaged were hilariously awful to begin with. After a while though, I started getting pics I was happy with and things just started rolling from there. The first picture I got that made me think: ‘Yeah this is pretty decent’, was of a Chromodoris wallani nudibranch, shown below. This gave me confidence that I could take the photos I’d imagined and only made me want to practice more.
Over the course of the trip my photography improved massively. I’ll leave a gallery of pictures from the waters around Hoga below to try and show some of the amazing wildlife we found there. This would only be the start of my adventure in Indonesia that year, however, so over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing accounts of the rest of the diving I got up to in the archipelago and how it advanced my photography and skills as a diver. For now though, thanks for reading this long post if you’ve made it this far and I hope you continue to enjoy my photos!
The Conservation Network is a website and community set up by some friends of mine that helps people interested in fieldwork and conservation find jobs. The initial idea was to put peope with the interests and passion necessary in touch with organisations that are already conducting meaningful work. This work encompasses marine and terrestrial conservation efforts worldwide and is a great place to check out if you’re looking for something like this!
A Personal Perspective on How Underwater Photography can be a Force for Good
– James Matthews
I am an Underwater Photographer and PADI Divemaster currently living in London, UK, but with hundreds of dives around the world. I most recently travelled to Indonesia to volunteer on a Marine Research site in Wakatobi, run by Operation Wallacea. For those of us who work or volunteer in and around the ocean, its beauty and wealth are all too plain to see, as are the issues affecting it. However, many people have either not been able to experience this beauty or are not aware of the wonders beneath the waves. How, as conservationists and photographers can we help protect the ocean we love and depend on? Well, the answer comes in part through the images we create and how these images can bridge the gap between scientific research and the general public. By striving to create beautiful images, we can start conversations about vulnerable marine life. A photograph is more than the sum of its parts, it’s more than a composition; it’s a window into the underwater world, allowing anyone the chance at experiencing some of the wonder beneath the waves.
Especially in urban environments, there is an increasing disconnect between us and nature. If nature isn’t a part of people’s daily lives, then people are less inclined to care. People simply will not care about what they cannot see, as much as we like to romanticise the ideal. By bringing the marine environment into the public eye through photographs, videos and writing, we give people a reason to care. The photo is only the first step, however, as once the viewers engage with the visual image, the story behind it can help to educate and inspire. By providing an accessible medium to people, it allows an easy connection to actionable change. This could be as simple as providing access to sources of information, conservation networks acting in relevant fields or links to other photographers that inspire you.
Photography is a universal language that can be used to shine a light on issues that many people didn’t even know existed. While we are all aware of the grandiose threat of climate change and ‘global warming’, few people are aware of the real issues affecting our oceans, beyond viral videos of plastic pollution in Bali or large-scale oil spills like the recent event in Northern Brazil. Ocean acidification, sea surface temperature rise and plastic pollution are but some of the major challenges we will have to face, and will have to continue to do so. Other issues such as destructive fishing practices, ghost fishing, the wildlife trade for pets and medicine and harmful tourism are having an increasing effect on our oceans. In today’s society with easy access to the internet and social media, photographs are becoming ever more important as a quick and easy way for people to absorb information. By simply getting photos and information out there you can start to open people’s eyes to the issues the ocean is facing. Social media is a particularly useful tool in this regard, as it provides not only an opportunity for sharing images, but for real engagement surrounding those images. Starting conversations and getting people talking about the underwater world is the first step in creating a movement for change.
It’s well known that the ‘charismatic megafauna’ are often used to inspire action, although I’m a firm believer that the weird and wonderful creatures down the food chain can have a similar effect. Photos that explicitly show the conflict between man and nature have their place of course, but I also believe that images that show the natural world in all its glory are particularly powerful too. Finding a balance between highlighting issues and what we actually have to save can help inspire hope for a better outcome, rather than simply inducing a sense of despair.
I choose to shoot primarily macro photographs mainly because of the almost alien nature of many of the small critters in the sea. I regularly see things that would not look out of place in the most far-fetched sci-fi movies, and without photographs to show people, few would believe these creatures exist. To me, seeing something that is so far from my usual frame of reference is really exciting, and I just hope it fosters the same excitement in others. I particularly enjoy taking photos that seem to remove the subject from its environment, emphasising that otherworldly feeling. One of the nicest things I’ve heard about my photos is : ‘I didn’t even know something like that existed’, as it really tells me that I’ve taken someone somewhere they haven’t been before.
Lastly, the platform by which photos are displayed can have a profound impact on their effectiveness as tools for scientific and artistic communication. Of course, getting images published in magazines and websites that see thousands of readers is an effective way of disseminating your message, but it isn’t the only way. You can have a meaningful impact anywhere you share your photos, be it via photo sharing platforms, social media or physical prints. The key here is simply getting the photos out there, as they can’t have an impact sitting on your computer or on your camera. On that note, you shouldn’t be afraid to share your work as we’re all in the process of improving. As photographers, we are often hyper-critical of our own work and this can lead to reticence to share it. I promise you that others aren’t as critical of your photos as you are and often a photo that you don’t even like ends up being received very well! As divers we often take for granted what we can see under the water and sometimes it takes a moment of pause to step back and think just how few of the 7.5 billion people on earth have experienced the world as we have. By showing people what we see, we’re raising awareness of both the beauty of the oceans and the joy we get from experiencing them.
I hope that you continue to support the amazing work that my friends at The Conservation Network are doing and that you continue to use the platform to gain amazing experiences and help the planet! If you’d like to see more of my work or simply get in touch for a chat, check out my website at