You think you’ve seen every picture there ever was of a coral reef – glassfish in numbers, a reef shark hiding in the cracks, a protective clownfish in an anemone – and then suddenly you’re face to face with an image that redefines the way you look at a reef. As colourful as a pride rally, as beautifully chaotic as a New York subway – few underwater photographs have captured the scenes of the Asia-Pacific coastline quite like Luca Vaime’s image of a coral reef in Komodo. Pictured below, and featured in the SD OCEAN PLANET Special Edition, the image captured the perfect blend of order and chaos, of colour and pallor.
Born in Switzerland, and now based in Bali, Indonesia, underwater photographer, filmmaker and photography instructor, Luca Vaime, has a unique eye for putting a fresh spin on underwater photography. A surfer in his spare time, Luca first learnt to dive in Italy at the age of 12, and at the age of 18 became a scuba instructor in Australia. The “island of the gods” has provided him with inspiration to create incredible underwater images, and in turn, placed Luca as UW360 Underwater Photographer of the Week. Oliver Jarvis caught up with the man to talk more about his fantastic career and imagery:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
Since I was a kid, I had a strong passion for the sea. Back at home in Switzerland, I would wait for the summer to come and then visit my family in Italy. My mum had a professional film camera that she let me use at an early age. I think the two things were meant to go together!
Your first underwater shot?
I was just a kid and having fun with an old Kodak disposable camera. I must have had loads of them back in the day and had lots of fun skin diving in the Mediterranean Sea taking pictures of little fish.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
Wow. I have had so many memorable shots, but there is one that stands out over all the others. I was taking a break between dives in Sharm El Sheikh, when all of the sudden an oceanic whitetip shark appeared at the surface. Back in the day, and I think it still stands, we used to say among dive guides, “Whatever it is, jump in the water and go look at it!”
That day I did not have a camera with me so I kindly asked one of my guests if I could borrow hers for five minutes. I then jumped in the water and started swimming towards an oceanic whitetip! I remember the beautiful shark covered in pilot fish swimming straight at me several times. The adrenaline was pumping hard and my wife was looking at me from the side of the boat thinking that I was crazy. I think she was right, but I was able to capture some great photos of the shark! Unfortunately, the camera I borrowed was just a four-megapixel camera and the resulting photos are rather grainy looking now!
Where is your favourite dive destination?
Hands down, it’s Indonesia. The biodiversity is incredible and probably unmatched by any other destination. I feel very lucky to be based in Bali and to be able to dive several places including Bali, Komodo, Lembeh Strait, and Raja Ampat several times per year.
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
This is quite a difficult question as there are several sites I would like to visit if I had the opportunity. If I had to choose just one then I would probably choose Chesterfield Atoll, around 560 kilometres off the coast of New Caledonia. Due to its remote location and difficulty to reach, it has a sense of mystery to it. A friend of mine once sailed to it and said that from the surface it was incredible and full of fish. My friend didn’t get the opportunity to dive there, but I would love to give it try!
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
Most definitely a frogfish pooping. It’s an expert in pooping, evidently! It turns itself upside down and lets it out in style. The first time I saw this happen, I really wondered what was going on, but once I saw it I laughed so much that my mask filled with water.
What camera equipment are you currently using?
I use a Nikon D800e with a Sea & Sea housing and Sea & Sea YS-D2 strobes.
What is the highlight of your career?
I think it’s when I created Underwater Tribe, which enabled me to make my business out of what I really love. Having said that, last year we were hired to make a film about the importance of mangrove ecosystems for the environment. This film was shown at COP 21 Climate Summit in Paris. During this event, nations from all over the world agreed to make important steps and improvements safeguarding our planet. I like to think that my film helped contribute a small part in this agreement coming to fruition.
…And the low point?
I generally don’t get discouraged if things don’t go the way I wish. I always try to see the positive out of any hard situation. However, this year I found myself in Manta Alley in south Komodo when all of a sudden I saw a dozen manta rays feeding just below the surface. I remember telling myself, Luca, this is going to be good, but as I approached the mantas I noticed that all of them were feeding in a place surrounded by garbage and plastic. The plankton settled in this small bay but it was also the same place a lot of rubbish was brought by the current and tides. It was heartbreaking to see such beautiful and graceful animals swimming with their mouths open through garbage-infested water. I only took a few pictures and then I tried to clean as much of the garbage as possible. We need some radical changes in the way we live and produce nontoxic material for the environment.
Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
Learn the basics of underwater photography, especially wide angle. Be humble with a positive attitude so that you can learn from other photographers that you meet during your adventures, and most importantly, take pictures of interesting things! That will make your life easier!
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
I am in continuous search of my next shot. I think this will never stop. In the past four years, I have had many dives with manta rays with a big pregnant belly – I hope I am able to get a shot of a manta giving birth someday.