>Preparing for the right shot often requires hours of observation to determine the critical instant that will best showcase the behavior we're seeking. How to finesse your way close enough to capture the magical moment is another matter altogether.
>Since the publication of the first edition of our book in 1999, fish watching has taken us halfway around the world to record Indo-Pacific marine species for field guides. Each year we invariably made it back to the Caribbean for a month or two to gather additional material for our favorite pet project — the next edition of Reef Fish Behavior.
>Beginning underwater photographers initially concentrate on animal portraits and then branch into seascapes before venturing into the realm of behavior photography with its endless challenges and untapped possibilities. In most circumstances, behavior photography doesn't require sophisticated equipment. Knowledge, patience, tenacity, luck and slow movements are far more critical for success than multiple strobes and long lenses. Today's small, light-sensitive, point-and-shoot cameras in watertight housings can often produce quality images.
>I'm a minimalist and take most of my images with a Nikon D800 with a Micro-Nikkor 60mm lens inside a stripped-down Ikelite housing with a single Ikelite DS160 strobe centered above the lens port. I use manual focus, manual f-stop and low ISO settings, and I tend to keep the power output on my strobe dialed down for rapid-fire situations.
>There are two basic approaches for capturing behavior shots: roving around like an opportunistic predator searching for chance encounters or planning dives that target a specific behavior. Falling into the first category, three classic fish behaviors — gaping, yawning and predation — are fleeting and require a quick response.
>Gaping occurs when two members of a social group such as a harem face off with their mouths open. The ritualistic confrontations, in which fish compare the size of their open mouths as a proxy for their body size, help establish and maintain hierarchy in groups where size dictates dominance. In instances where the mouth of one rival is wider, even by a hair, the lesser of the two opponents relents, and the provocateurs peacefully go their separate ways.
>Many fishes, especially lie-in-wait predators such as frogfishes and scorpionfishes, occasionally stretch open their large mouths so wide you can see their gullets. No one knows the purpose of the impressive yawns. The practice may keep the jaws limber for the fast action required to inhale prey or perhaps serves as a threat reaction. The fact that fishes yawn most frequently as divers approach gives credence to the second hypothesis.
>It is preferable to shoot from the front and on the same level as the subject with your strobe aimed directly at the mouth to minimize internal shadows. Most important, will yourself to wait until the last moment when the yawn is at its widest and most spectacular before pulling the trigger. If you fail to get the shot you want, remain in place; about half the time a fish will quickly follow with a second yawn.
>Although fish predators (known as piscivores) regularly capture prey, prized images of a fish eating another fish are rare. The difficulty arises from the speed of feeding strikes as well as the piscivores' preference for small prey that quickly slides down their throats. Luck comes when predators make the mistake of grabbing prey too large to easily swallow or taking a fish tail-first, forcing the predator to swallow against a phalanx of backward-pointing spines. These miscues often lead to prolonged life-and-death struggles, providing ample time to get multiple shots.
>If you're drawn to the dramatic and undaunted by a challenge, photographing the sex life of reef fishes might be of interest. If so, get your trigger finger ready for fish ballets, courtship displays and high-octane spawning rises capped by explosive open-water gamete releases, known as broadcast or pelagic spawning. Dusk is the best time to be underwater to try to capture these behaviors.
>Fortunately, courtship typically continues for an hour or longer before the first spawn. The lengthy preludes offer an opportunity to take numerous shots of males displaying and cajoling their hydrating females. Stay alert for spawning rises that send gamete-swollen pairs spiraling toward the surface at unexpected times. If you follow a pair up, there is always the outside chance of capturing a split-second gamete release — a trophy in any portfolio.
>Cleaning stations showcase graphic interactions between parasite-plagued fishes and the attending shrimp and small fishes that remove the pests. Images of cleaners picking parasites out of open mouths and from beneath gill covers are classics. Much like with jawfish, cleaning stations also require a lot of time to maneuver close enough for the shot you want. Start by selecting an actively working station with shrimp waving their long antennae and clients arriving regularly. Settle out of the way and study the interplay for a while to get an idea of the best shot available. If clients stay away after you've moved closer, back off and try again later or just wait them out. The cleaners need to eat and their clients want relief, so time is on the side of patient divers.
>One evening after returning to the dock with a bucket full of our little treasures, a Bahamian fisherman told us about seeing young marlin that would fit in his hand. For 25 years the story remained in my imagination until one summer night while drifting off Florida's West Palm on the opposite side of the Gulf Stream from Bimini, I photographed a half-inch larval marlin, only weeks old, already sporting the bravado of the great animal it would become.
>In another opportune incident, luck came my way in the form of baby balloonfish the size of ping-pong balls that hovered in tight-knit groups along the shore of Dominica. So many balloonfish were about that they even gathered beneath the dock at the hotel where our dive boat was moored. I slipped in from shore for a look. Through 10 feet of inshore haze I saw the same tightly packed group, but this time all the fish were facing the same direction. If I were giving out gold stars for cute, these little fellows would be awarded all five. Trying not to disturb the silt or the fish, I pulled myself along the pilings and gingerly balanced on the tips of my fins at the end of the dock where my target group seemed comfortable gathering. But as expected, the fish drifted apart at my arrival. A half hour later they formed again only an arm's length away but impolitely faced in every direction but mine. At some point well into my second attempt to take the shot the following afternoon, 24 balloonfish eyes peeked at me in unison for an instant — that critical instant was all I needed.
>Publisher's Note: The second edition of Reef Fish Behavior is a 447-page compendium of wonderfully illustrated fish behaviors. Documenting reproduction, feeding, camouflage, symbiosis and other aspects of fish lifestyle, the book is further organized into behaviors of many of the species typically found on coral reefs. Capturing the behavioral diversity represented in this book is the result of incalculable hours in the water, a keen eye, vast knowledge of marine life behavior, and pure passion. — Stephen Frink
>© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2019