Interview with a pro:

Burt Jones is one of the many unsung heroes of underwater photography. Since the 1970s, Burt has been dedicated to exploring both dive sites around the world as well as his own artistic expression. Diving Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula long before it was a world-renowned dive destination, Burt and his wife were later instrumental in putting Indonesia’s incredible underwater world on the map with their pioneering books, Secret Sea, Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, and Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape.

For those that are unfamiliar with Burt and Maurine’s lengthy and impressive tenure in the field, read on and consider yourself schooled.

On Cancún, Mexico, back in the day

I grew up in a small town north of Austin, Texas, and became a certified diver in 1969. But it was the early 1970s, during breaks while attending college in central Mexico, that I began exploring the Yucatán coast. At the time I was into breath-hold spearfishing and Mayan ruins. After graduating, a buddy and I opened the first dive shop on the coast, in a little town named Puerto Morelos. At that time, Cancún was just an idea; Cozumel diving was in its infancy; Playa del Carmen was home to three families of fishermen; and it would be decades before the baitballs and whale sharks off Isla Mujeres were discovered.

Having the coast virtually to ourselves, Maurine and I lived an idyllic, stress-free life of adventure. By the early 1980s, the coastline was beginning to be developed, so we constructed a small bed and breakfast and opened a second dive shop. As Cancún’s development impacted the entire coast, we stopped spearfishing and started photographing. Finally, in 1987, frustrated with the changes in our paradise, we sold up and headed to the Solomon Islands, an undeveloped place where we could teach ourselves underwater photography while indulging our passion as “adventure junkies”.

On mapping Yucatán’s cenotes

Weather, especially strong winds, during the prime tourist (winter) months, caused our Mexico dive business to suffer, so we began diving in the cenotes. You cannot imagine what it was like in those days. It literally was a new world, undiscovered, completely untouched and magical. But, unlike today, getting to the cenotes was not easy. We had to hack our way through the jungle, carrying our heavy gear.

We quickly hooked up with divers like Mike Madden, who was serious about cave exploration. As our photographic skills improved, Mike asked us to be the “photographers of record” on the mapping and exploration of the Nohoch Nah Chich system (now a part of Dos Ojos), which was named the “world’s longest underwater cave” by the Guinness Book of Records.

On discovering new destinations

Although at the time, the term never occurred to us, we were beginning to develop the skill set to become, as we now refer to ourselves, “destination developers”. We got a job helping to refit and eventually manage the first liveaboard in the Solomons, the Bilikiki, which is still in business today. We “discovered” most the sites the boat still dives. This is where our photography developed in earnest and we began to document the interconnectedness of the reef as we started to discover the small stuff. What we were essentially doing was “critter diving”, but that term wasn’t coined until Larry Smith popularised it in the mid-90s.

After the positive reception of our first published piece on the Solomons, we realised the quickest path to getting published was reporting on places no one had ever dived. Our first stop was Sipadan Island. We arrived on New Year’s day 1990. What a place! A 3,000-foot drop-off was literally a few fin-kicks from shore and the marine life was off the scale. We were some of the first photojournalists to report on Sipadan.

"Mioskan", Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia: Wobbegong sharks are common throughout Raja Ampat but rarely seen on other Indonesian Reefs

“Mioskan”, Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia: Wobbegong sharks are common throughout Raja Ampat but rarely seen on other Indonesian Reefs

On naming Cannibal Rock

In 1992, Dr Kal Muller, a travel writer who was researching the first book about diving in Indonesia, invited us to accompany him on an exploratory trip to Komodo National Park to determine if it was worth developing as a dive destination. On arrival, we saw a dragon on the beach and rushed ashore with our cameras. The dragon ran along the beach and began climbing a 100 foot-high rock. (This was before anyone had ever been to Rinca and the dragons were still fearful of humans.) We cautiously followed, and at the top we saw the dragon swallowing a juvenile. We immediately named him Hannibal!

While taking shots, we noticed a piece of reef protruding into the bay from the base of the rock. We decided to dive it, and found a place like nothing any of us had seen. We knew this site alone would put Komodo diving on the map. Naming the site was easy. Hannibal had done it for us: Cannibal Rock.

On the birth of “Muck Diving”

In 1995, we joined Larry Smith for a journey through the Banda Sea. Starting in Ambon, we worked our way east, then south, diving spots that Larry knew and exploring new sites. During the trip Larry kept mentioning a fish he had seen while working under the ship where it moored in Ambon. He had no idea what it was, but described it as looking like something the “cat coughed up”. Even though we had never seen one either, his description sounded like a Rhinopias scorpionfish. Together we made a decision to return to port early so we could dive the pier.

What a gold mine! We found two Rhinopias, every pier piling seemed to harbour a frogfish, and the mucky bottom was covered with other bizarre species. We all saw our first flamboyant cuttlefish – even though we didn’t know what it was – and our first fire urchin with commensal zebra crabs and Coleman shrimp. Needless to say this was the birth of “muck diving” in Indonesia. After the Banda trip, in 1996, our first book, Secret Sea, was published. It received numerous awards, including the Benjamin Franklin prize for “best book” published that year.

Meanwhile, Larry’s liveaboard operation was floundering and he relocated to a resort in a then unheard of backwater – Lembeh Strait. As soon as he had the operation rolling we visited, and the discoveries followed. We showed Larry his first pygmy seahorse, which we had first seen in Komodo, and we found a lot of other Lembeh “firsts”, like two species of Rhinopias, the Ambon scorpionfish, another flamboyant cuttlefish, not to mention about a zillion nudibranchs. By this time we were full-on muck fanatics.

On charting the Bird’s Head Peninsula

In 2007, Larry Smith introduced us to a man who has become a constant in our lives, our “boss” Dr Mark Erdmann. At the time, Mark was senior advisor for Conservation International-Indonesia’s Marine Program. In 2008, he hired us for the “dream job”. We were given a budget and the support to dive, explore and create content to promote sustainable tourism initiatives in, first, Raja Ampat and now, the entire Bird’s Head Seascape.

Raja Ampat, Indonesia: A tiny and delicate pygmy seahorse takes refuge in a vibrant coral

Raja Ampat, Indonesia: A tiny and delicate pygmy seahorse takes refuge in a vibrant coral

Mark knew that the only way to protect the area’s unprecedented marine resources was to engage the locals. One method was to build a sustainable tourism infrastructure that offered direct benefits to the natives in lieu of their overfishing the reefs, clearing their forests, or mining. In order to build this infrastructure Mark knew he had to spread tourism throughout the entire region. More dive sites had to be found and promoted so that liveaboards would branch out and dive beyond what was known at the time.

Our book Diving Indonesia’s Raja Ampat was released in 2009. Tourism increased by 20 percent in Raja the year after the guidebook was released, and the numbers are still increasing. Even though Raja Ampat is the epicentre of marine biodiversity and the heart of the Coral Triangle, it is only part of the much larger Bird’s Head Seascape. So Mark and Conservation International commissioned us to produce a more comprehensive update. In 2011 we released Diving Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape, which includes much better maps and many more sites.

We finally realised that printing a book every few years is unsustainable, so we set about creating a website for the Bird’s Head, www.birdsheadseascape.com. As well as being a guide for divers, the site contains a library and a research database for all the scientific and conservation work ever done in the region. The idea is for the site to be the “go to” place before getting on a plane or for anyone doing research on the area.

This article featured in SD OCEAN PLANET (Issue 4/2015)