Freshly Spun

all images © Laura Storm

Freshly Spun

By Laura Storm

Ever since I can remember, rivers and lakes have held a special place in my heart. In Africa, where I grew up, I’d head to the magnificent lakes of Kenya’s Rift Valley for a regular fix of wild and untamed action. And so it’s no surprise that these habitats still have a hold on me. Those early experiences, the sense of freedom characterised by life on the road, shaped my love of exploration. Dusty safaris intensified my obsessive interest in wildlife and alongside that grew a deep appreciation for the value of conservation.

Fast track to the here and now, London is on my doorstep and life down a muddy track has a different meaning. In the UK, I’ve been diving deep freshwater since my tech days – where quarries, murky depth and long decompressions were the order of the day. But other than the freediving athletes I supported, there wasn’t much life at 60 plus metres. Almost a decade later, I’m now a fully-fledged photographer finding my way with a home-turf conservation project. My attention has switched to shallower depths and the liquorice assortment of life found in our freshwater biome.

Take two lakes.

image © Laura Storm

They’re on opposite sides of Britain and have very different ecosystems. One has rich vegetation – splendid, crystal clear visibility – and stunning waterlilies. The other is silty and unassuming with caliginous, cloudy water.  But that doesn’t matter, it is nevertheless teeming with life. The lakes, as the crow flies, pretty much lie on the same latitude, about 250 miles apart from each other. So, what connects them and, how? Far more than you might imagine!

image © Laura Storm

Spread out across the UK’s landmass, seemingly unconnected bodies of water collectively form a freeway. An unmapped trail that enables biodiversity to migrate from place to place, to survive and thrive. Nature’s network. This remarkable tapestry of freshwater systems permeates the land like the holes and veins in cheese. It lives and breathes alongside the seasons, perpetuating cycles of life. A puddle leads to a pond, which lies close to a stream, which flows into a river. Ditches, reservoirs, canals, vast wetlands and lakes, a few raindrops here and there all play their part. It’s the sum of the whole that forms this mosaic,

creating checkpoints for life. The freshwater superhighway passes right under our noses, through our gardens and urban spaces until it breaks free into greenbelt and countryside, leading eventually to coastal shores. It is perhaps easier to string together in a temperate climate such as ours, but by no means is it exclusive to Britain’s lush, green isles. Every country and terrain has a system relative to its climate. But there’s a glitch in the matrix. Holes in the interconnected, carefully woven fabric. A disconnect created yet again by our very human impact resulting in these aquatic habitats becoming increasingly fragmented. Not just in the UK, but globally. So much so that as a biome, freshwater is now one of our most endangered. And it’s the usual story of climate change, pollution, deforestation, over-extraction, development and so on, that’s creating the holes.

With this all staring me in the face, in 2019 I finally flicked the light switch and launched my own conservation project. A long-term photographic venture focused exclusively on British freshwater habitats and ecosystems. Aptly named The FresH2O Connection, it’s all about joining up the dots to highlight the underwater scene of these diminishing waterscapes. Putting my skills to good use, I’ve challenged myself to photograph these environments in a creative or unexpected way – to produce really fresh, artistic work. Making images that spark the imagination and reveal hidden aspects of this often-overlooked realm are at the heart of what I’m trying to do. It’s a journey of discovery and an ambitious dream. So come on in because there’s much to show!

For this article, my focus is on ponds and lakes. The water closest to the edge of a lake or pond is dominated by phytoplankton, aquatic plants and tiny invertebrates. As with our oceans, it’s known as the littoral zone. These shallow margins warm quickly through the spring and summer months, leading to blooms in algae, a catalyst for life cycles to reawaken. And, since algae form the base of many food webs, they became a fitting subject, an unusual story for my project.

The algae shown in this arty Abstract was found on the bottom of the silty lake I mentioned. It lay in-between some clumps of weedy-looking stonewort, just above the silt itself. It is alien-looking stuff. The amazing colours of the algae (and its resident bacteria) were masked by a strange milky layer floating over it – like the effect of drifting clouds. I wanted to incorporate the wisps of white and so positioned a strobe to light up the algae growth from beneath, enabling it to ‘glow’ from within. A second strobe was set on low to help reveal the gaseous mist. This scene is a seasonal happening with a tiny time window of just a few weeks. In a blink, the show is over and the benthic zone of the lake returns to its less colourful look.

image © Laura Storm

image © Laura Storm

Elsewhere in the same lake, a different type of algae had taken up residence. In just the same way that corals and sponges encrust man-made structures in the oceans, the same process occurs in freshwater. Over time, algae and hydroids lay down foundations, rooting themselves to surfaces, like this terracotta warrior.

The statue had been submerged in the silty lake for a while and time had done a great job of morphing it. I wanted to reveal the contours of the statue’s face, covered in fine, hair-like strands. Zebra mussels adorned it and dozens of small snails dotted its face like freckles. To create a spooky, ghost-like atmosphere, I combined front and backlighting to make the most of the encrusting filaments.

Originating from the far-flung shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, the statue-adorning Zebra mussels are an invasive species.  They nestled into British freshwater habitats about 200 years ago, disrupting aquatic environments and wreaking havoc. They’ve colonised the silty lake in the thousands and now play an established part in its ecosystem, helping to cleanse the water by filtering out pollutants. In turn that allows sunlight to reach greater depths – which invigorates algae growth – equating to more food for fish, insects, snails and so on. The mussels are highly sensitive to movement and clamp shut the moment they detect a threat. Capturing them open like this and filling the frame seemed to take an age. But by using a focus light on red, and inching close moment by moment, they gradually unlocked to show their filtering siphons.

image © Laura Storm

images © Laura Storm

Flashing fangs and a fierce pose, a Northern pike lies in wait, hidden in the silty lake’s gloom. Pike employ ambush predator tactics to attack their prey. At the top of this particular food web, frogs and small fish are easy pickings

for a stealth agent. Sometimes shy or stand-offish, other times brazen, curious or aggressive, they’re known for their big personalities. Not unlike barracuda! And because they lie so still they make a great subject to experiment behind the lens with. These three images show some of the characteristics I love the most; camouflaged markings, beautiful colouration, and that feisty attitude. The Abstract of a dorsal fin with its textured, contrasting scales and dotted markings highlight how the pike blends into its cool water surroundings. Green, yellow and olive colours, perfect camouflage for when it hides amongst fluffy algae and submerged vegetation. All three perspectives were taken with a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens.

250 miles away, the second lake with crystal clear waters was a dream come true. It’s a protected habitat, a magical setting that few are permitted to experience underwater. A truly pristine environment and by contrast, at the opposite end of the scale to the silty lake. Working in collaboration with the lake’s conservation team I was able to gain access and capture these hidden views. The lilies were photographed in one long session using a Sigma 15mm fisheye. Logistically tricky in unexpected ways and with only one chance to slip into the water like this, the pressure was on to get things right first time. So for these images, I storyboarded ideas beforehand, thinking through what might be possible. Using a singular prime lens is a great way to push yourself creatively and capture different views – reflections, flower portraits, big picture scenes, split world views, CFWA were all in the mix.

images © Laura Storm

Photographing the scene was surprisingly challenging. Beneath the spread of lily pads, everything lies in shadow. The blooms though are a brilliant white and easily overexposed or blown out – even with strobes set on low and positioned strategically. Through the winter months, the water level rises with seasonal rainfall but there are no flowering lilies on show. Once summer arrives, water begins to seep away through deep fissures in the lakebed. The rate of evaporation increases and stonewort (complex algae that carpet the lakebed) grows rapidly until it more or less breaks the surface. Timing all of this with the flowering season was paramount. During this shoot I had on average about a metre of water to move around in. So I modified my kit to minimise the risk of entanglement and streamlined my camera rig. With these three images, two were shot in natural light and for the CFWA reflection, I used strobe.

Closer to home, I started photographing life in urban ponds. Much like with lakes, some are more productive than others and access can be just as much of an issue. Different types of algae and oxygenating plants prevail in these shallower bodies. This photograph shows Spirogyra algae. Close up, it looks much like bamboo, but infinitely more delicate. It’s an abundant and vital first link in freshwater food webs. This simple life form reproduces rapidly leading to thousands of individual strands. When combined, they form a tangled labyrinth known as water silk. Microscopic bubbles formed during photosynthesis reflect the world around them.

image © Laura Storm

images © Laura Storm

Alongside biodiversity and habitat connections, another area of focus for my FresH20 project is aquatic life cycles. I began by following the life story of some of the Pike’s prey. Enter our very cute Common frog! And, because this is all about interconnectedness, its relationship with Spirogyra. This is an ongoing and fascinating chapter. With pond habitats, I’ve been experimenting, having fun, and generally obsessing over the artistic results. They are microcosms I can follow through the seasons, giving me time to brainstorm, make mistakes, and develop ideas.

Critical to my approach is that I want to show this realm in a new light, to reignite interest and help push these troubled spots into the fore. For these smaller habitats, I’ve embraced super-macro as an initial (and perfect) way to produce something fresh or with rarely seen detail. These final three contemporary images were all captured using a Nauticam SMC1.

So there it is – a brief glimpse, a few pieces of the puzzle that scratch at the surface of an undeniably beautiful and deserving arena. In time, there will be more. The network beckons, my photographic journey continues, there are many more mysteries to uncover.


Underwater Photographer Code of Conduct

Image © Pedro Vieyra

Most underwater photographers are concerned to protect the environment in which they take their pictures and to avoid stressing marine creatures when they are taking their images. This is good for the marine environment and leads to better photographs.

This Code sets out good practices for anyone who aspires to take pictures or video underwater, but many aspects are applicable to general diving.

No-one should attempt to take pictures underwater until they are a competent diver. Novices thrashing about with their hands and fins while conscious only of the image in their viewfinder can do untold damage.

Every diver, including photographers, should ensure that gauges, octopus regulators, torches and other equipment are secured so they do not trail over reefs or cause other damage.

Underwater photographers should possess superior precision buoyancy control skills to avoid damaging the fragile marine environment and its creatures. Even experienced divers and those modelling for photographers should ensure that careless or excessively vigorous fin strokes and arm movements do not damage coral or smother it in clouds of sand. A finger placed carefully on a bare patch of rock can do much to replace other, more damaging movement.

Photographers should carefully explore the area in which they are diving and find subjects that are accessible without damage to them or other organisms.

Care should be taken to avoid stressing a subject. Some fish are clearly unhappy when a camera
invades their “personal space” or when pictures are taken using flash or lights. Others are unconcerned. They make the best subjects.

Divers and photographers should never kill marine life to attract other types to them or to create a photographic opportunity, such as feeding sea urchins to wrasse. Creatures should never be handled or irritated to create a reaction and sedentary ones should never be placed on an alien background, which may result in them being killed.

Queuing to photograph a rare subject, such as a seahorse, should be avoided because of the harm
repeated bursts of bright light may do to their eyesight. For the same reason, the number of shots of an individual subject should be kept to the minimum.

Clown fish and other territorial animals are popular subjects but some become highly stressed when a photographer moves in to take a picture. If a subject exhibits abnormal behaviour move on to find another.

Night diving requires exceptional care because it is much more difficult to be aware of your surroundings. Strong torch beams or lights can dazzle fish and cause them to harm themselves by blundering into surrounding coral or rocks. Others are confused and disturbed if torch beams or lights are pointed directly at them. Be prepared to keep bright lights off subjects that exhibit stressed behaviour, using only the edge of the beam to minimise disturbance.

Care should be taken when photographing in caves, caverns or even inside wrecks because exhaust bubbles can become trapped under overhangs killing marine life. Even small pockets of trapped air which allow divers to talk to each other inside them can be lethal for marine life.

The image in the viewfinder can be very compelling. Photographers should remain conscious of their position and of the marine life around them at all times. In sensitive areas, they should avoid moving around on the bottom with their mask pressed up against the camera viewfinder.

Areas of extensive damage or pollution should be reported to the appropriate authorities. Today, when so many more divers are taking up underwater photography, both still and video, it is
essential that the preservation of the fragile marine environment and its creatures is paramount and that this Code of Good Practice is carefully observed.

This Code of Conduct was introduced by the Marine Conservation Society with funding from PADI’s Project AWARE project. It is endorsed by the British Society of Underwater Photographers, the Northern Underwater Photographic Group and the Bristol Underwater Photography Group as well as being supported by the Sub-Aqua Association, the British Sub-Aqua Club and the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club.


On our doorstep: a conservation blog by Georgie Bull, Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology student

Image BIUPC winner 2020, copyright Georgie Bull

 

Hello all, and welcome to the first of a new blog series for BSoUP!

For those of you who don't know me, I'll start with a brief introduction. My name is Georgie, and I am a Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology student at the University of Plymouth. I've been diving since 2016, but really started to get into underwater photography from 2018 onwards. I am captivated by the ocean and its inhabitants as a scientist and photographer.

Me on a RIB in Torbay (photo by James Carroll)

When I first joined the society in 2018, I was inspired by the vast catalogue of images on the BSoUP website. I loved seeing the variety of subjects and techniques used to capture them, but I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. BSoUP is fortunate to have members all around the globe, photographing everything from whale sharks to anemone shrimps. This diversity makes us thrive. But we are, by title, a British/UK based Society. For reasons I will delve into throughout this introductory blog, I want to kick start a new movement within the society to showcase the amazing aquatic life we have right here on our doorstep. 

Let's start with an anecdote. 

In 2016 I completed a short work placement at London Aquarium. During a school visit, the guest experience team gave the children and teachers a card sorting activity. They were asked to sort pictures of various marine animals into two groups: UK species and tropical species. The cards featured animals such as mackerel, blue shark, humpback whale, orca, corkwing wrasse, cod, ling, conger eel, bobtail squid, and bass. Both staff and students tended to put grey or less traditionally charismatic species into the UK pile, and the more colourful or charismatic species into the tropical pile. The grand reveal at the end was that, of course, all of the animals pictured are found in UK waters either seasonally or permanently. 

Similarly, when I started my degree in 2018, I realised many of my peers weren't aware of how diverse out coastline is. Some students had come to university hoping to study tropical marine ecosystems, and were genuinely taken back when they encountered local marine life on the rocky shore or off the University boat. 

Regrettably, this attitude is more pervasive than my own experiences. Research into the public’s perception of UK Marine life reveals that biodiversity is underestimated. Just like the card sorting activity, public perception surveys show that traditionally charismatic or colourful species are less likely to be identified as native to UK waters. Less colourful and ‘plain’ looking organisms are more commonly associated with UK waters.

The issue is unfortunately more complicated than just getting people to recognise species as native. We also need to inspire people and build connections between communities and their local aquatic habitats. For example, 65% of people in a Natural England survey said they recognised seagrass, but less than 10% of people listed seagrass as a species they would like to know more about. Interestingly, seagrass was one of the most ecologically important species listed in the survey but attracted the least interest from participants. I'd also like to point out that due to my background in marine biology, I have focussed heavily on marine systems, but it's worth noting that freshwater biologists and conservationist face the same communication barriers too.

So, I guess now you're wondering what any of this has to do with the photos you have sat in Lightroom or on a memory stick somewhere. Bear with me. 

I believe one of our key responsibilities as photographers is to share images (even if they are technically imperfect). In my opinion, a sound bite detailing how seagrass stores more carbon than some forests is important, but if people don't feel inspired or connected to that ecosystem, it's unlikely to change their world view or stick in their mind. I believe photography has the power to deliver inspiration in ways that (no matter how hard us scientists try) sound bites and statistics simply cannot. We need those who capture ecosystems to share their work as far and wide as possible. How can the general public be interested in protecting organisms when they don't even know they exist? 

This is where I feel BSoUP has the potential to do amazing things. The global network and huge diversity of images I mentioned earlier is an invaluable source of inspiration. This blog series is going to tap into this resource, and provide current members, prospective members, and website visitors with stunning imagery, stories and facts about native aquatic habitats. By showcasing the beauty, ecology, and conservation issues of native habitats and species, we can connect people to what lives beneath the surface in a meaningful way.

In a 2008 survey of 3003 people in the UK, 44% of respondents considered the seabed beneath their region (or off the coast where they visit the seaside) to be generally, mostly, or utterly barren. If we are able to spread a positive message about the wonders local marine (and freshwater) habitats to such people, then we are taking a huge step in the right direction. 

I know many of our members, if not all of you, are fully aware of the types of species and habitats we have in the UK; I am almost certainly preaching to the converted. But I believe the more proactive we are with that knowledge, the better. 

If anyone wishes to get involved, or make suggestions about the kinds of habitats or animals we should cover, please do get in touch. I'd love to hear from you. Thank you for indulging me, and I look forward to interacting with more of you in the future! 

Georgie Bull - BIUPC 2020 Winner & Marine Biology & Coastal Ecology Student 

If you'd like to read the survey reports relating to public perceptions here are the links: 

Science Direct

Natural England


Blue Marine Foundation - who we are

Image © Paul Colley

BSoUP member Paul Colley works with national and international agencies engaged in marine and freshwater conservation.  One group he teamed up with was the Blue Marine Foundation, providing images that supported a case for a marine protected area in the South Atlantic.  Blue Marine were hugely successful and it is now the biggest marine protected area in the Atlantic ocean.  But BLUE works in the UK too, promoting sustainable fishing practices.  Check out this 60 second video introduction to one of the UK’s most energetic and successful marine conservation organisations.