Mohamed Abdulla is from the Arabian Gulf, the Middle Eastern sea renowned for pearl diving. Coming from a family of pearl divers and fishermen created a strong bond between him and the deep blue, and kick-started his passion for freediving at an early age, which then led to him taking up underwater photography in 2008. Mohamed has gone on to win several awards for his underwater photography and has been published worldwide. His eye-catching and distinctive style is aimed at pushing the limits of how photographers represent life below the waves. We caught up with him for a quick Q&A and to present him as our Underwater Photographer of the Week:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I used to dive every single day in Dubai and the beautiful islands of Abu Dhabi, and on weekends I would go to the magnificent Gulf of Oman, where I would get to see things that not everyone else gets a chance to see. Excited, I would immediately go to my friends and tell them: “I saw a thousand bigeye jacks”, or “ I saw a sun fish!”, or “A school of golden trevallies swam circles around me, and they were so close I could almost touch them!” Many times they wouldn’t believe me – clearly my story-telling method was not good enough – and that’s when I started saving for my very first underwater camera.
Your first underwater shot?
The first 20 shots I took were a series of a glorious young green turtle that swam by me in the Gulf of Oman. I was freediving back then, and planning to shoot pictures of my friends making funny faces underwater when the turtle came close and ruined our plans. I dived down with one breath and kept shooting as I got closer and closer – until I was too close and scared her away.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
The shot that put my name in the first place winners of Ocean Art 2013. I was diving for nudibranchs on a famous wreck we have in Abu Dhabi called the MV Ludwig. I finished my third dive early because it was getting dark, and I already had enough nudibranch shots. On my safety stop I saw hundreds of jellyfish all over the place, so I went up – me and my buddy were the first divers out of the water. I told the boat captain that I will stay on the surface and he could pick me up when everyone was out of the water. I was so lucky that the water was super calm. It was getting dark so I was getting amazing reflections; the only problem was that I had to get below the surface for a metre and hold my breath so the bubbles wouldn’t break the surface. Fortunately I am a pretty good freediver so I was able to manage. The Gulf is quite warm in the summer, and I didn’t have a wetsuit on – no wetsuit in a sea full of jellies, it was not as fun as it sounds! I got stung over 50 times that night but it was totally worth it, and luckily our jellyfish are not very harmful.
Where is your favourite dive destination?
To be honest I love to dive where divers don’t go. I mean places where I could tell unexpected stories of beauty and wonder. For example, I always accompany fishermen, dive in their fishing spots and get surprised that they always have the best spots! But to answer your question properly, right now I have to say Lembeh Strait – I just can’t get enough!
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
The Arctic – but I know that sounds weird coming from someone who lives in the desert next to the hottest sea on Earth.
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
A very long time ago I was fishing with my uncle in Oman, and when the fish in the first fishing spot were not cooperating, we decided to move to the next one. That’s when we noticed that the anchor was stuck! So my uncle asked me, or should I say “ordered” me, to freedive down to the anchor, release it and come back up. So I jumped in, dived down, released the anchor, looked up and I saw something as big as the 36-foot speedboat right above me. Something that was shaped like a shark and was white from the bottom! I was not sure if it was a great white but I hugged the anchor and stayed put until it passed. Then I slowly swam up and noticed the white spots on the back – thank goodness, it was a whale shark. In a split second my emotions shifted from absolute fear and thrill to extreme excitement! I rushed to the boat and yelled, “CAMERA!” and swam along with the gentle giant.
What camera equipment are you currently using?
Canon EOS-5D Mark III, with various Canon and Sigma lenses, in an Ikelite underwater housing and a couple of Ikelite DS-161 strobes – plus a few custom lights and filters, SubSee wet lenses and CM diffusers.
What is the highlight of your career?
I have won some awards through my “still fresh” career but the one I’m most proud of is our local underwater photography competition by the Emirates Diving Association. In 2013 I competed for the first time and placed last in the DSLR category. At the award ceremony I met the general manager of the Emirates Diving Association, so I said: “You should have bigger prizes next year, because I’m going to be first place!” He didn’t take me very seriously back then. In 2014 I did just that: I came in first place and my shot was printed on the local magazine cover, June issue, of “Divers for the Environment Magazine” (2014). Still, though, I believe the best is yet to come.
…And the lowpoint?
Sometimes being so focused on the art makes me forget to stop, relax and enjoy the dive. When this happens every couple of years or so, I need to do a “camera-less” dive. It feels good at first; then of course you see something awesome and ask yourself, “Where is my camera?”
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
The list is too long, and has many big, small, endangered, exotic marine creatures in it. But I guess right now I’m waiting for April to shoot coral spawning.
For more of Mohamed’s work, check out his page on 500px.com.