Photography, a teenage dream for Ellen Cuylaerts, first came to her at the click of a compact camera while snorkelling around the Cayman Islands. Then, after signing up for a workshop on the island with Dr. Alex Mustard, she was taught the key skills and techniques that widened her horizons and allowed her to focus solely on photography. Today, Ellen is spreading awareness of conservation and preservation of fragile marine environments through her images. Her unique photographs have won her many awards and granted her a flawless reputation within the industry. We caught up with Ellen to talk about her career and the stories behind some of her favourite shots.
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
I think it was my destiny. I wanted to study photography but that was too expensive so I chose history. Once I relocated to Cayman Islands in 2009, and started to dive in 2011, I picked up my teenage dream and combined diving with photography.
To share the underwater beauty with my friends and to explain which challenges the oceans face became my biggest passion – it felt like coming home. I cannot imagine my life now without wildlife and underwater photography.
Your first underwater shot?
That was with a Lumix on a snorkel with stingrays (Sandbar) close to where I live in Grand Cayman. It was fascinating to see how a compact camera could capture an underwater family trip without the hassle of a housing and with instant results due to the digital age.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
Last July I travelled to Churchill, Hudson Bay, Canada, for the second time. I wanted to experience beluga whales in the wild. The year before, pods of belugas surrounded the boat, but once I got in the water the visibility was so bad I could not get any images – part of wildlife photography.
My second trip I left my home with no expectations. My mindset was that I would return as many times as needed to make it happen once in my life. My captain, Vanessa Wallner, and me worked like magnets on the belugas. From the first moments in the water they were very curious, and I used that curiosity to make them follow me to clear water out of the murky slack line and out of the thermoclines.
One of the last days, after a calm encounter day, we went for a last attempt to approach a pod before we had to return to shore (due to tides). I got in the middle of two pods of male belugas, and some young ones tried to impress me and the other males with dominance behaviour, closing me in, very vocal, even giving me a few bumps. One of the shots I called “The Scream”: a male beluga with open mouth looking straight at the lens, surrounded by his pod members. It was very impressive and the belugas and I got into a thermocline which gave the image a more spooky look. After I got out of the water the animals stayed with the boat. We could hear them singing at the surface.
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
A solitary male dolphin that took an interest in my husband, Michael Maes. The dolphin showed up next to him and since the dolphin’s reputation was known to me, I signalled we should abort our dive and make our way to the surface. Michael misunderstood and kept on filming until he realised the dolphin was extremely pushy. The bottlenose dolphin charged at me, full speed, five times, and my big rig protected my body. Afterwards, he prevented Michael from ascending. Alex Mustard joined us that dive and he distracted the dolphin with his fins while I finally got to the surface and signalled the boat to pick us up. Marine mammals are very smart and think fast. I will never underestimate them when I’m in the water!
What camera equipment are you currently using?
I’m shooting underwater with a Nikon D800 in a Subal housing and a Nikkor 16mm fisheye lens.
What is the highlight of your career?
It’s all been one roller coaster and it seemed my whole life changed: Lots of press came with winning the  online photo competition on underwaterphotography.com (
…And the low point?
I guess I’ll never get used to online bullying and backstabbing, which of course you find in every sector. I’ll try to stay away from all the drama and focus on the positive, but I have to admit it sometimes gets to me.
Where is your favourite dive destination?
My absolute favourite dive destination… has become the “snorkel zone”. Since a Type II DCI in 2013 and following health problems, most of my water moments these days are at the surface, snorkelling with big animals in tropical waters or in the Arctic. My latest trips brought me to Ascension Island, where I swam with dozens of Galápagos sharks surrounded by black durgons, where mature yellowfin tuna came close enough to get a good shot while a
female dolphin showed me her calf and a male green turtle checked out if my guide was a female (he wore a green suit)… but I truly enjoy the cold water too, moderate UK water (seals in Farne Islands) to freezing cold, harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
My choice of destination depends on the marine life and their status. If they can use more attention conservation- or education-wise, I’m in [the water].
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have or never will?
Since I don’t really dive anymore (and if I do it’s very shallow and easy), this could be a long list. But I like to concentrate on what I can still do and what I can achieve in the minds and hearts of people through my images.
Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
Oh yes, a shot of a huge baitball with predators inside and around, taken from the outside and from the inside. Ideally, I would like to have that baitball around for days! So I could work the shot and be creative.
Since January I have travelled a few times to Ascension Island, a volcanic gem in the middle of the South Atlantic. It’s known as a fishermen’s paradise but regardless of its remote location, it also faces the challenges of longliners and trophy hunting (sport- and spearfishing records). To offer something different I now co-own a business there to offer an alternative to on-water and in-water experiences. Snorkelling, photography, tours around the island, catch-tag-and-release of fish, and so on. We also want to introduce the school kids to the water. The more they appreciate the oceans and all its life, the better ambassadors they’ll be. Lots of scouting to be done there in the near future. Until now the destination has not disappointed me: mating turtles, lots of sharks, dolphins, tuna, sailfish, amazing bird life and challenging hikes. Very curious what my next trip will reveal.
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