We talk to underwater photographer and filmmaker Norbert Wu on his career and images
Author, photographer and filmmaker, Norbert Wu, has appeared in thousands of books, films, and magazines. With a career that has seen him winning countless awards, through his tireless contributions to scientific exploration and dedication to the documenting of marine life, Wu has created a timeless portfolio of work that few photographers truly ever manage.
Named “Outstanding Photographer of the Year” in 2004 by the North American Nature Photographers Association, Wu has also enjoyed spells at notable broadcasters such as National Geographic, Le Figaro and the BBC. UW360 caught up with the man to talk more on his magnificent career and imagery:
What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
At the age of six I wanted to become a marine biologist. As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, I spent summers snorkelling in Florida waters and became fascinated with wildlife. When the time came to choose a college, I went to California. Like all naive teenagers in Georgia, I thought that California meant beaches, sun, and warm water. I was in for quite a shock during my first encounter with the bone-chilling waters of Monterey Bay.
Once in college, deluged with the advice of dorm mates, professors, and parents, I decided on a degree in electrical engineering rather than a major in my lifelong interest of marine biology. I kept up my diving, however, and explored the waters of Monterey Bay after investing in a wetsuit and basic diving gear. The electrical engineering degree was a pragmatic choice; the job situation seemed much better, and I always figured I could go back into marine biology. The situation seemed the same after four years, and so I obtained a master’s degree in computer engineering and got my first steady job as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. The job paid well, my boss was easygoing, and the work was routine and not stressful. Of course, I was bored. My thoughts kept wandering to tropical breezes and coral reefs.
Your first underwater shot?
After nine months as a software engineer, I took a low-paid job as a research diver with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on one of the San Blas Islands of Panama.
This time I had been much more careful in my choice of dive sites. The island is around nine square metres of sand, and the researchers lived in bamboo and plywood huts right above the water. Most importantly, the water is warm there, and I had all the time in the world to dive. Prior to this trip, I never had the slightest interest in photography. But before heading south, I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, as well as an underwater flash and Nikonos camera system with extension tubes and close-up attachment.
For the four months that I was out in the San Blas, I only shot about ten rolls of film. However, the photographs from those rolls have been published over and over again. Because I was diving the reefs every day, I knew their inhabitants intimately. I was able to return to photograph an octopus, a flamingo tongue (a snail with a spectacular shell), and a spotjaw blenny again and again over the course of my four-month stay. This in-depth look at marine life’s habits and behaviours has become my specialty. Being able to spend weeks working on a project rather than a few hurried weekends has made a big difference in the quality and content of my photographs. I’ve always loved diving and marine biology. I fell into underwater photography as a better alternative to marine biology research. It’s been a great way to travel and see the world. Working underwater requires a ton of gear (sometimes literally) and limited time. The amount of gear that you have to set up and maintain is daunting. It can take me weeks to prepare for 40 minutes in the water. Maintaining all the gear takes a great deal of time. I am always looking for a good machinist to do custom work for me also. Seasickness.
The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
Emperor penguins are the champions of diving birds. They are able to hold their breath for 22 minutes and dive to depths of 1760 feet as they forage for fish and squid. The contrails seen here are streams of bubbles. The emperor penguin’s thick feathers insulate it by trapping a layer of air next to the skin, but often some of that air streams out when the bird swims.
The ice edge is the place where the open ocean meets the frozen sea ice. It is a dynamic place which can change its shape and moods in an instant. It is here that we encountered penguins, minke whales, and orcas.
At the beginning of the season, the ice edge can be over 160 kilometres away from McMurdo Station, impossible to reach or work from. In 1997, we had a relatively “normal” ice edge that was around 48 kilometres away from the base in late October and early November, when I took this photograph. In 2001, we had an exceptionally cold spring, and we were never able to get out to the ice edge, which consisted of thin ice extending over 100 kilometres from McMurdo Station.
We were only able to get into the water at the ice edge on exceptionally calm days. On one day, the wind chill was so severe that my saliva in my mask immediately turned to ice. Trying to rinse my mask out was impossible, as the sea water froze immediately both in and outside the mask. I had to put my gear on without seeing, then clear my mask in the water. If I lifted my head out of the water for more than a few seconds, the water would again freeze until I put my head back in the water. Once I got in the water, however, it was like diving in the tropics: clear water and sunshine, with a white ice beach behind me.
The ice edge can be a dangerous place, as conditions there can change instantly. On one day, I spent three hours filming penguins underwater. I jumped in and began filming. I did not notice that the current had changed. The penguins were doing all sorts of antics for me, diving underneath the ice. Intent on filming their activities, I did not realise that I had drifted underneath the ice shelf until the water turned black around me. Upon trying to kick back, my right leg seized up in a massive cramp. The leg was useless, and I was drifting further away from the ice edge, swept deeper under the ice by the current. The story has, of course, a happy ending. I got back to the ice edge, but not without a lot of pain. Where is your favourite dive destination?
Wes C. Skiles, the renowned cave diver and photographer, had a gift for answering questions like this, in a far more poetic style: “My favourite place is always the place I am next going to.” My favourite places are the places I’ve just been to. Among them have to be deep Antarctica (McMurdo Station) and the kelp forests of southern California.
The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Tough question. I spent some time at Rangiroa many years ago, and would love to return to spend more time there. I’d welcome seeing more of French Polynesia – it’s always seemed like a place that is too expensive, but what I’ve seen is splendid.
I was on the Calypso (Jacques Cousteau’s boat) as their still photographer in 1985 and spent time with a “guest crewman”–a truly magnificent human–named Maupiti. He was named by the crew after the island that he came from. I’d love to journey to that island and see what has become of him. I’ve never met someone so physically gifted and in touch with nature – he’d catch fish with his hands, rescue birds that could not get off the boat, that sort of thing. I bet he’s the chief there now.
The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
Everyone’s seen photos of stargazers. They are super ugly and super cool – they have electric organs above their eyes!
One day, diving in the shallows at Ambon, Emily Seifert pointed out a stargazer to me. I can never find animals; I used to be pretty good but since I started taking photographs, I am terrible. Emily, however, had a great teacher and was not taking photographs at the time. She was becoming an expert spotter, with an ability to find all kinds of critters, including stargazers.
I set up to shoot video on this stargazer, and to my surprise, the stargazer started wiggling its tongue, evidently fishing with its tongue as the lure. It was cool, and being anthropomorphic, it was disgusting – hilarious.
What camera equipment are you currently using?
Things have changed from the film days, when photographers would use a camera body and housing for years at a time. I used Nikon F4 and N90 bodies for ten years. Since 2010, I’ve used Canon 7D bodies in Nauticam housings, Nikon D7000 and D800 bodies and housings, and have been shooting Panasonic GH4 bodies in Nauticam housings for the past three years. I chose the Panasonic bodies for their 4K shooting capability, but I have a full set of Canon and Nikon lenses ready to go if any new bodies come out. For instance, I just bought a Nikon D500 body for a topside wildlife trip to South Africa – a great camera.
What is the highlight of your career?
From 1997 to 2001, I undertook several projects in Antarctica. I spent three seasons working in Antarctica, out of the US base at McMurdo Station. This is deep Antarctica. There are only two species of penguins here, and only one seal that lives there year-round, the Weddell seal. I fell in love with the place. Two books (a large-format illustrated book, and a book for children) came out of this time, as well as a traveling exhibit, and a film for the Nature series, “Under Antarctic Ice” that airs on the US’ Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The film aired on a Sunday night, and if I remember correctly, it was viewed by 14 million people. After getting those numbers, I realised that films [could] reach far more people than any book.
Clearly, if I or any image-maker wishes to bring an important message, such as marine conservation issues, to a large enough audience to make a difference, then producing a film rather than a book is the way to go. On a personal level, producing my Antarctic film was so much work that I have not had the energy to do another hour-long film.
The resulting photographs [of Antarctica] have proven to be very popular. National Geographic published my story “Under Antarctic Ice” in their February 1999 issue. My photographs and text were subsequently published in National Geographic’s international editions. GEO and Le Figaro also published the story. The story has since been published in several other magazines, including BBC Wildlife, and Terre Sauvage, as well as others.
Under Antarctic Ice was a landmark production which showcased new HDTV technology. The film was seen as a ground-breaking effort because of [both] the technology and the subject matter.
What I remember and value the most, however, is not the images. It’s the memories of the good times that I had with my team of divers out there. We all became friends while working hard in an untouched wilderness.
…And the lowpoint?
I have a couple of lowpoints. The first involves physical misery: In 1995, I was hired as an underwater cameraman by Doug Bertran, who was producing a show about sharks for Survival Anglia. Doug chartered a 60-foot fishing boat to film the tiger sharks that gathered around French Frigate Shoals, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, to feed on fledgling albatross.
The remote islands of the French Frigate Shoals, in the Hawaiian Island chain, are virtually inaccessible due to their distance from other islands and their protected status as a national wildlife refuge.
My job was to film tiger sharks as they attacked the albatross chicks. I was the only person in the water, so it was a intimidating yet thrilling experience. During the month that I spent filming these tiger sharks, my preconceived notions about these sharks changed dramatically. I found that these sharks were keenly intelligent, fast, and selective in their feeding. They ignored monk seals and turtles in favour of the albatross fledglings that landed in the lagoon that they patrolled.
On the way back, the small boat took a huge pounding. We were followed by huge swells, and my body and head would regularly rise high out of the bunk and then slam down again. I was desperately seasick for three straight days. I could not even hold water down. It would have been dangerous if I had not been young and in relatively good shape. There’s no way I could take such punishment today. I can close my eyes 21 years later, and still see those huge blue swells.
My lowest point in my career, and in my life, has been seeing the rapid deterioration of the marine environment, and realising that we humans are going to overrun and poison the earth. I don’t believe humans, as a species, have the will to stop our growth until we poison the planet and kill all the large wild animals.
On a personal level, I am disappointed in myself for not being able to convince my Chinese relatives to forego shark fin soup at wedding banquets or family reunions. I am what is called an “ABC” – American-born Chinese. I’ve brought up my opposition to having shark fin soup served at wedding banquets numerous times, in fact every time a wedding or family banquet has been planned by one of my relatives. They just shake their heads and think “there goes Norbert again, complaining about his liberal American issues.”
As far as I know, the Japanese fishermen in Taiji are still killing dolphins – every year – despite 30 years of negative publicity, films, documentaries, etc.
The black and white rhinoceros in Africa are in dire straits, down to a few thousand, because of poaching. I doubt we will have any wild rhinos in 10 years.
The killing of large animals will never stop.
Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
Be your own best critic. Photography contests that various diving magazines and diving shows put on are a good way to learn and to have your work critiqued. There are underwater photography societies–clubs–which have speakers and peers that will also critique your work. That’s the best way. The diving magazines list diving shows all over the country as well as photo contests. “A reel is as much about developing an ability to see yourself — to see your own work from a critical point of view — as it is a representation of your work. People talk about being your own worst critic, and that’s what you have to become. But that only develops over time, as you progress as a cinematographer. You can’t give someone an aesthetic – it’s common sense, and you can’t teach that to someone who’s just starting out. he has to learn it for himself.”
Aaron Schneider, American Society of Cinematographers, December 2000 Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?
I have a huge list of photographs that I’d like to get! I would love to become a better surf photographer, but I know my limits, and I am too old and physically unfit to get really great in-water surf images.
High on my list would be photographing a huge school of eagle rays. I’ve seen a shot by Jeff Rotman from the Red Sea of such an gathering. I’ve heard that these huge schools are sometimes seen off Rangiroa, a place I’d welcome spending more time at.
I’d love to use a drone to get more aerial images of coral reefs and shallow sandy ridges. With more than four hundred stunning colour photographs by Norbert Wu and engaging text by Ken McAlpine, Diving the World captures the wonder and diversity beneath the ocean’s surface. Norbert Wu features in the fantastic SD OCEAN PLANET Special Edition, find out more about how to get your hands on this incredible issue by clicking here.