Life in Salt: A Talk with Wetpixel Editor, Underwater Photographer and ROV Pilot Trainer Adam Hanlon

by Owen James Burke

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“I grew up in the bush. I had a pretty good childhood—I disappeared every day, ran around, and came back. I was never indoors.”

Adam Hanlon is the editor at Wetpixel, the world’s premier underwater photography website. I met up with him in Singapore, where he’s training ROV pilots to ‘fly,’ or operate, today’s most technologically advanced ROVs.

When he was just a kid, Adam Hanlon moved from the UK to South Africa, where he went from prim and proper England to the rugged South African bush. Soon enough, he discovered breath-hold spearfishing, and fell in love with the ocean. In order to support himself, he’d sell his catch to mongers.

Then, like many spear fishermen, he graduated into scuba diving, which allowed him a little more time with the precious animals he’d been hunting. As opposed to holding his breath just long enough for a quick glance and, with any luck, a shot on a fish, scuba diving allowed him to spend considerable more time with undersea creatures, which led to an interest in photography, and grouper and snapper soon began to look more like cats and dogs than table fare.

Hanlon is also a dive instructor, and somehow, amidst all of his other aquatic engagements, he continues to run his own dive school in the UK.

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Scut: So you were born in England, how did you end up being raised in South Africa?

AH: My mother remarried a South African, so I didn’t have much of a choice. That sounded negative, but it was a positive thing. I went out there and my mother had a farm, so I grew up in the bush. I had a pretty good childhood — I disappeared every day, ran around, and came back. I was never indoors.

We used to go out spearfishing — that’s where I started out. Breath-hold. I used to do a lot of spearfishing. Actually…I used to do spearfishing commercially. We’d go shoot our fish, and sell them to the fishmonger. But it is quite hard — breath-hold spearfishing is a pretty athletic discipline — it’s not an easy thing to do. So we used to get a freezer full of fish, but we certainly worked for it.

We used to go up to this place called Sodwana Bay, which us up near the border of Mozambique. At that stage, it was a very wild place, and you needed a four-wheel drive vehicle to get in there. So we’d go spearfishing there, and for various reasons, I tried diving in 1984 and that was it — I was hooked. I’ve been diving ever since. I’ve done other things — I’ve been involved mountaineering, skydiving, and other little bits and pieces, but I’ve always come back to diving. And now it’s just diving.

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Scut: Diving is excellent — and speaking about fishing, I think that as you dive more and see more fish, you become more of an ecologist whether you choose to or not, which is great.

AH: One of the things I made a conscious decision of recently — well, in the past few years, as I’m an underwater photographer as well — is that I find it very hard to eat fish now. There is an environmental reason, I think we do overfish and I don’t want to be a part of that process so by opting out I’m not — but it’s also really hard to look at a grouper who seems very tame, like it almost likes human attention…

Scut: They turn into cats and dogs when you start diving.

AH: And then you see on the menu: “grouper” — I can’t do it.  I do eat fish sometimes, but I try and avoid it.  Generally, now, I’m moving away from the idea of eating fish altogether. I love fish as a foodstuff, I think it’s great, but I find it very hard to eat — it’s like eating your friends.

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So I started diving and taking pictures underwater in South Africa, and I basically paid my way through university by diving — I was a diving instructor. At that stage, diving in South Africa was tiny, and underwater photography was even tinier. I used to say that we knew everyone in South Africa who was taking pictures underwater, because there were only five of us.

I had a break from diving for a little while—did some climbing and mountaineering in South America, the Himalayas, Canada, and Greenland. But then I came back to it, and I’ve been diving and taking pictures ever since — for the past twenty years.

Scut: So, growing up diving in South Africa — you must have scared yourself a few times, right?

AH: It’s very rarely that creatures or animals scare me underwater; I’ve yet to bump into anything that frightened me — with one exception. I’ve frightened myself doing stupid things because I was eighteen and immortal as we all were, and had some reality checks that way. But the one exception was around 1986 or 1987, and there had been a huge sardine run that year. The sardines always come up the East coast of Africa, and they’re followed by predators. They don’t always make it as far as Natal, but this was a year in Natal where they were throwing buckets in off the beach and pulling them in, full of sardines — it was just ridiculous.

So we decided, in our wisdom, to go diving and see what it was like. No one had ever done it before, or at least we didn’t know anybody who had — it was probably the shortest dive of my life. What happens is that you go in the water, and the sardines look at you as being something big that they can hide behind. But of course that’s in 360 degrees, so you basically end up in the middle of this bait ball because they’re all being preyed on.

There were all these big tuna, dolphins and sharks going whizzing by you. The dolphins were usually able to see us, I’m pretty sure the tuna didn’t, and I doubt that the sharks did — they were just trying to break the bait ball up — but that was really scary. It was one of the few times that creatures have frightened me under the water.

I’ve had encounters with most of the things with teeth, and I’ve seen great whites on dives, and they’ve been great — it’s a very different experience when it’s a cage operation and they’re being fed. When you see them cruising by on the outside of a reef, they pretty much ignore you — they’re not interested. I never try to swim towards them, because they’re bigger than me, but they’re there. And on a few occasions, I’ve been lucky enough to see them. But I can’t say they really scared me.

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Scut: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen underwater?

AH: Things that stick the most are ones that are humorous.

I remember early on in my career I was very proud of myself for learning how to dive. I was diving on a reef off Durban — sitting there and thinking how cool how I was — and we had a [breath-holding] spear fisherman on the boat with us. I thought I’d moved onward and upwards with scuba. So we’re all very cool, off we go and dive, and this guy came down with us. He sat cross-legged on this rock for what seemed like ten minutes — of course it couldn’t have been that long, but it felt like it. I remember thinking, “I’m not really so cool, am I?”

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Going and seeing amazing critters in the Lembeh Strait, but then equally going to the green waters of the UK and finding strange things at the bottom of the sea and photographing them. It’s the whole package. The favorite is probably the one I’m diving on that day. I remember swimming with a couple hundred manta rays in the Maldives a couple years ago. I guess I’m very lucky and privileged to have experienced the things that I have. That’s why it’s so hard to pick just one.

Scut: Do you have any ocean stories you’d like to share?

AH: In the very early days, in the 80s, we had a different attitude towards interacting with marine life compared to what we do now — we were very naïve. In retrospect, we were wrong. We used to be a lot more tactile with marine life than we are now. I can remember finding triggerfish — and their defense is to swim into a crack into the reef, and put their triggers up, and that lodges them in — I discovered that if you slip your fingers over the top, you can depress the trigger and pull them out. Then, if you scratched them between the eyes — they’d go catatonic. I think we scared the crap out of them.

I was doing this, and there was a group with me that I was teaching — they were all scratching the fish and loving it. There was a big grouper that would swim with us that was named Archie. So I had this fish out, everyone had a scratch, I let go of the fish and Archie had it so quickly — and wham! [Archie ate the triggerfish.] I had girls crying — they’d just pet this triggerfish, and then…they loathed me for a while. I’m probably going to get into trouble for this.

Scut: Ha! Well, I think you’re probably past the statute of limitations on that one. No one is getting in trouble for things they did in the 1980s anyhow.

AH: Yeah, we wore a lot of bad clothes, too.

Scut: Well, what’s next for you?

AH: At the moment, Mexico for the whale shots at the end of the July or early August, and then there’s an underwater shootout in Israel in September — it’s an annual event — and I’m going out to cover that for Wetpixel. I haven’t been to the Red Sea for a while, so I’m looking forward to that.

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And in between, of course, I’ll be diving out in the UK because my dive school is still going on. So I get back from Singapore on the 16th and I’ll be back in cold water on the 19th, back into my dry suit. I’ll be diving at home a fair bit.

One of the things on the horizon is that Nikon will be releasing some new cameras in the next few months. At Wetpixel, when there are new camera releases, we like to get them into the water pretty quickly and write feedback on their performance. I’m hoping there will be a new D800, which would be nice.

Scut: Do you like Nikon?

AH: Yeah, I’m a Nikonian.

Scut: Do you have an entry-level Nikon you’d like to suggest or recommend?

AH: The D7000 or the D7100. I shot a D7000 for a long time, and the D7100 is a better camera than the D7000. It’s not cheapest camera you can buy, but it’s not expensive, and the results are very good. It’s crop sensor — and surf photographers get anxious about crop vs. full frame — but underwater there are actually a lot of advantages to a crop sensor camera that surf shooters might not get. There are some disadvantages to full frame, particularly lens choices.

You can pick up a D7000 body secondhand because it’s the older model, and it’s still a really good underwater camera.  It’s an excellent choice.

Scut: What millimeter lenses do you like to work with?

AH: Underwater, we shoot in two disciplines: wide-angle and macro. The best wide-angle lenses on a crop sensor camera will be a 10-17mm Tokina lens — it’s quite a cheap lens, and not particularly well made, but they get great results.

For wide-angle, on a full frame, I’ve been experimenting with a Tokina 10-17mm which is quite old and they no longer make it, but it’s really good — but the standard is a Nikon 16-35mm. For macro with Nikon, we’re very lucky, because the 60mm and the 105mm are both excellent lenses.

If I was setting out with a D7000, I’d probably buy the Tokina 10-17mm and a 105mm — that’s a good combination.

The Tokina 10-17mm is not a lens you’d use on the surface very much, but underwater it’s a good lens—on a crop sensor. It’s a funny lens, because it’s inexpensive and they’re not particularly well made, but they produce stunning results underwater because the focal length is really good for that.

The other thing that’s going on in underwater cameras is that I really like what GoPro are doing. We’ve had the iPhone democratize digital stills, to some extent, and GoPro is doing the same for underwater and adventure sports. It’s amazing. The results are excellent. …I really like the effect they’ve had on image making — almost anyone can go out, get one of these cameras, and get results. It’s brilliant.

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I think this may have been filmed with GoPros — have you heard of Cristina Zenato, the Shark Whisperer?  She’s loose in the Bahamas — she does something called tonic immobility where she turns the sharks upside down, which immobilizes them. She’s a shark wrangler, that’s what she does, and Stephen Frink recently got some video of her with a black tip — she literally had it in her lap. It’s described as the puppy shark. That clip of video was edited by my colleague Abi Mullens from Wetpixel, and it went viral. It was picked up by ABC, it was on Good Morning America, and it has over a million hits on YouTube. That’s the impact of social media. It’s awesome.

You’re looking at a shark that’s enjoying the experience of being in Cristina Zenato’s lap, and surely people look at that and start to get over Jaws. I don’t think people think of it like that, but it has a beneficial effect on how people view sharks — it’s a PR job, really. I think that’s really important. It’s good to get the message out.

Scut: That not all sharks are man-eating.

AH: And sure, there are individual sharks out there that are keen on eating people, but there are people out there that are keen on eating people! We shouldn’t be afraid of sharks because there are a few that are interested in eating people. Great Whites have the intelligence of dogs, and that means that they’ll have behavior.

Statistically, getting eaten by a shark is up there with getting hit by lightning twice, electrocuting yourself in the bath with a hair dryer or any of those things.

Scut: Do you have a book you’d like to recommend?

AH: If we’re talking about underwater photography, I think the best book is by Martin Edge, and it’s called The Underwater Photographer. A lot of people refer to it as the bible, and it’s the biggest and best collection of resources for underwater photography.

Scut: Well Adam, thanks for sitting down to chat, but you’ve got to get up early, and I don’t want to be responsible for sinking any of those ROVs in the morning.

AH: Oh god, please, no!

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When he’s not on photography expeditions, editing for Wetpixel or running his diving school, Adam Hanlon can be found training ROV pilots or enjoying a day with his best friend and favorite underwater model — his wife.

The latest ROVs, he explained, are making dives of up to 4,000 meters, and are now capable of performing self-diagnostic repairs. Unlike fish, ROVs are comprised of metal and electricity, two elements that become very compromised in water. These advancements will hopefully pave the way for longer deployments and less time spent surfacing for repairs. 

Adam Hanlon is a brilliant photographer, appears to be a loving husband, and is undoubtedly a man with a lot of passion for the sea.

Follow Adam Hanlon:

@adam_hanlon

adamhanlon.com

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