With a strong love for Nature, Italian-born Marco Colombo has travelled to some of the world’s wildest places, from fast-flowing European rivers to crawling under the ice of frozen lakes. Graduating with a degree in natural sciences, Colombo tied his adoration for the natural world with his eye for photography and became a wildlife photographer.

His work has now been published in some of the top international magazines – along with the publication of a new book (in Italian) I tesori del fiume (River Treasures), and he has received many awards and honourable mentions in international photography competitions. To him, curiosity and passion, together with a respect and awe for natural environments are the top ingredients for creating honest wildlife images – images that hope to inspire and educate people on conservation. UW360 caught up with the man to discuss more on his career and showcase his top images:

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“I just want people to realise that they have a huge treasure close to their home: biodiversity. And this matters…” © Marco Colombo

What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I’m not strictly an underwater photographer, as I practise most of the fields of Nature photography: macro photography, hiding for birds and mammals, “herp” shots (reptiles and amphibians), and underwater too. I graduated in natural sciences and have a love for Nature and animals, which comes before photography.

Your first underwater shot?
I began taking photos in 1999 when I was 11 years old. After a couple of years, I had a Nikonos V and started taking underwater photos. It was a beautiful experience and since then I haven’t stopped. I usually concentrate on sea during summer and fresh water all year round.

The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
I don’t have a most memorable underwater shot in particular. I could say: a mobula that I encountered in Sardinia, with only nine remaining shots in the film, and only one in-focus shot; or a huge hammerhead shark, which escaped before I entered the water.

As far as fresh water is concerned, I could say something about the European pond turtle. One day I went to the river in order to photograph pond turtles, and once there I realised the harsh summer had reduced the stream to little pools. I entered the water and my strobe stopped working. As I couldn’t open it (covered in mud) without flooding, I decided to concentrate on natural dramatic light, thanks to sunbeams filtering from the branches outside; it portrayed a turtle in this environment of golden lights and shadows – a true “little treasure”.

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“I decided to concentrate on natural dramatic light, thanks to sunbeams filtering from the branches outside; it portrayed a turtle in this environment of golden lights and shadows – a true ‘little treasure’.” © Marco Colombo

"You are the masters of composition and lighting, not the camera." © Marco Colombo

“You are the masters of composition and lighting, not the camera.” © Marco Colombo

Where is your favourite dive destination?
I usually go to the caves in northwestern Sardinia, near Alghero. Here you can find beautiful underwater landscapes, dark tunnels and very interesting animals thriving in the dark. A selection of marine shots can be found here.

The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
I’d like to go diving in the Messina Strait, between Sicily and Calabria. I think it is a very nice diving spot for benthic animals.

The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
Two of the most unusual things I’ve met in the sea are related to hermit crabs: one evening I found one giving birth to its larvae, and another day I saw one changing its shell. Of course, no good photos…

In the rivers, two species in particular were very weird. The sea lamprey, an ancient animal related to fish, unchanged for millions of years: It lives in the sea but in spring swims upstream in order to breed; it has a sucker-like mouth used to feed on the blood of big animals and to move pebbles during nest building on the bottom of the river. The other strange creature is the olm, a blind, white and neotenic salamander that can starve up to eight years and live up to 100 years. It only thrives in underground lakes and rivers of northeastern Italy and adjacent areas, but is very difficult to find and photograph.

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“The other strange creature is the olm, a blind, white and neotenic salamander that can starve up to eight years and live up to 100 years. It only thrives in underground lakes and rivers of northeastern Italy and adjacent areas…” © Marco Colombo

What camera equipment are you currently using?
At the moment I am using a Nikon DSLR camera in an Isotta housing – one of my sponsors – together with ESA Worldwide and MaGear; I also use two old Nikonos SB-105 strobes for lighting. 

What is the highlight of your career?
I do a lot of work as a naturalist: lectures, projections, conferences, articles in magazines, scientific publications, books, exhibitions, guided visits to museums and natural parks, workshops, environmental education with schools… I think the best moments are when you know your message of conservation is passed to the public. 

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“We depend on Nature and have to protect it; I hope that showing the beauty of animals, plants and places, people put them in their heart and try to save what they can.” © Marco Colombo

… And the low point?
Working as a wildlife photographer is not always easy…

Could you tell us more about your newly released book?
The book is a passionate ode to freshwater biodiversity. Using field stories, scientific data and unpublished images, some of the most endangered and precious Italian habitats are explored, from frozen lakes in altitude to lagoons on the coast, passing through streams, rivers and big lakes. Crabs, crayfish, sponges, insects larvae hiding on the bottom; mythological lampreys migrating for hundreds of kilometres; a variety of rare and common fish; toads, frogs, newts, including the very rare olm from underground pools; waterfowl and mammals on the shores. And then conservation issues, pollution, alteration, poaching, introduction of alien species, and some projects a
imed to save endangered species. In order to take photos, hours of diving has been spent in frozen lakes, in the mud of dark ponds and in the strong currents of the biggest rivers.

The preface was written by marine biologist and underwater photographer Dr. Alex Mustard.

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“In order to take photos, hours of diving has been spent in frozen lakes, in the mud of dark ponds and in the strong currents of the biggest rivers.” © Marco Colombo

What do you want readers to get from your images?
I just want people to realise that they have a huge treasure close to their home: biodiversity. And this matters, from many points of view, even medical ones. We depend on Nature and have to protect it; I hope that showing the beauty of animals, plants and places, people put them in their heart and try to save what they can. Sharing information is an important aspect of my work.

Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
I think it is better to not concentrate on huge equipment, but begin with a compact camera and train the eye. If you like underwater photography, after some time you can upgrade your equipment, but I’ve seen so many beautiful photos with cheap cameras too. You are the masters of composition and lighting, not the camera.

Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Yes, many. But that’s a secret!

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“I graduated in natural sciences and have a love for Nature and animals, which comes before photography.” © Marco Colombo