Under the Sea
Diving spots off Florida’s coast are teeming with colorful photo opportunities from coral reefs to marine wildlife.
By Sharon Stello
Sea turtles, manatees, dolphins and vibrant tropical fish are just some of the captivating creatures that can be found in the ocean off the coast of Florida, providing a veritable playground for scuba divers and snorkelers exploring this underwater world. In fact, within the continental U.S., Florida is the only state boasting an extensive set of coral reefs near its shores. This unique habitat helps to sustain the area’s diverse population of marine plants and animals by supplying a source of food, shelter and breeding spots. Much of the Florida Reef Tract—the world’s third-largest barrier reef at approximately 360 linear miles long—runs through the Biscayne National Park and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off the state’s southern tip. This archipelago, paired with many sunken ships in the region, offers a prime setting for sea life photography.
One lensman who is quite familiar with the area is acclaimed photographer Stephen Frink, a founding member of the elite Canon Explorers of Light group. A resident of both Key Largo, Florida, and Rougemont, North Carolina., his work has appeared in several top diving magazines. The author of a coffee table book, “Wonders of the Reef,” Frink also teaches master’s level underwater photography classes and publishes a magazine for the Divers Alert Network.
Frink stumbled across photography when he took a class just for fun while studying psychology at graduate school in California. He fell in love with the pastime and turned it into a job as a darkroom technician. After a trip to Key Largo, he started a business renting cameras to tourists and developing their film. Frink, a competitive swimmer through college, became a certified scuba diver for a job scraping barnacles off boats. That hard labor paid off: In the early 1980s, he began getting photo assignments for dive publications and he hasn’t looked back since. When not working on his publishing endeavors or diving around the world, Frink captures stunning shots of underwater flora and fauna around Florida.
Rainbow Parrotfish and Porkfish
June 16, 2016, near Key Largo
Shipwrecks, including the one above, are popular diving sites in the Florida Keys. Some of the estimated 1,000 ships wound up on the ocean floor after a crash ended their voyage, while others came from mothballed fleets, submerged to make artificial reefs that provide habitat for sea life. Over time, colorful sponges, corals and hydroids attach themselves to the metal surfaces; parts become almost unrecognizable as the vessels they once were. The Benwood is one of nine scattered along the Shipwreck Trail, located a few miles from shore. “The wreck of the Benwood off Key Largo was a casualty of World War II, a collision between two vessels running without lights at night to avoid German U-boats,” Frink explains.
In this photo of the wreck’s bow, a rainbow parrotfish swims amid a school of porkfish. This type of photography requires waiting for the fish to move into just the right position to compose a photo that will delight viewers. Digital photography allows some aspects to be tweaked in post-production, but the subject and its posture can’t be changed, so patience and calm is required in the water, as anything from movement to air bubbles can make a fish skittish. “… You have to watch them and try to have this Zen approach,” Frink says. “You need them to believe you mean them no harm … .” And when the right shot lines up, where a creature is doing something unusual or charismatic, it may be for only a fleeting moment, so the cameraman or woman must act quickly before the subject swims away and the opportunity for the perfect shot goes with it.
June 24, 2008, at Molasses Reef near Key Largo
While diving in his home waters during a class he was teaching, Frink discovered this bright blue queen angelfish swimming around Molasses Reef in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. “I’ve traveled so much for my career and there’s this massive difference between fish in a sanctuary, what we call MPA—a marine protected area—and [nonprotected areas],” Frink says. “The fact that I was able to get this close to this fish implies a significant amount of trust. And there are many places where fish associate divers with spears, but in Key Largo, our reefs are protected and have been since 1960. So we’ve got this long legacy of marine conservation and the subliminal advantage to that is the fish trust us.”
Frink says getting close to a creature is key to a good picture. While most nature photographers can use a telephoto lens, that doesn’t work well in the ocean—the image becomes monochromatic and less sharp. “Water is 800 times more dense than air and, so, if you want good color, you have to photograph something very close with artificial light,” he explains. Notably, an underwater photographer doesn’t have the option of changing lenses during a dive. “[Usually,] the size of the subject determines what lens is most appropriate. It’s kind of the other way around [in the ocean],” he says. “You jump in the water with a lens … and you seek out subjects that fit your lens.” Frink was fortunate enough to come extremely close to the queen angelfish. “That’s what makes the colors so vibrant, the fact that he was swimming towards my camera only a foot and a half away,” he says. “… That only happens in a marine protected area or with extraordinary luck.”
Caribbean Spiny Lobsters
June 13, 2016, near Key Largo
These alien-looking crustaceans seem like something from another planet, but they are actually Caribbean spiny lobsters scuttling around a shipwreck covered in pink, purple and orange growth. Commonly called Florida spiny lobsters, they’re considered a delicacy and can be found on local seafood menus. “The two-day sport season [July 26 and 27 in 2017] to catch the Florida spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) provides an irresistible lure to thousands of dive enthusiasts to the Florida Keys,” Frink says. The lobsters in this photo, however, “are safely protected in the no-take zone at the City of Washington shipwreck” in Key Largo, he adds.
The two-masted sailing vessel was used to transport passengers and cargo between New York, Cuba and Mexico starting in 1887, and was eventually upgraded with a steam engine. On Feb. 15, 1898, the ship was damaged when the USS Maine, moored nearby in Havana Harbor, exploded in lead-up to the Spanish-American War. The City of Washington crew helped rescue Maine survivors and, after it was fixed, the City of Washington went on to transport troops during the war and was later converted into a barge to move coal. However, the ship met its fate on July 10, 1917, when a tugboat pulling it and the Seneca ran aground on Elbow Reef. The City of Washington was too badly damaged and sank; its remains can now be found on Elbow Reef, about 25 feet below the surface, providing a home for marine life like spiny lobsters, which seek out protected crevices in coral reefs and sponge flats. Identified by their long antennae instead of claws, these lobsters remain in their dens during the day to avoid predators and come out at night to forage for food.
Oct. 17, 2014, off Islamorada
The hawksbill sea turtle, a critically endangered species that has been hunted for its distinct “tortoise shell” to make jewelry and other items, can be seen in the Gulf states—including on reefs off the coast of Florida—and up the East Coast to Massachusetts. “The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is often seen swimming through the open water surrounding the coral reef,” Frink says. “However, this turtle was grazing on spon
ge and coral at Davis Ledge off Islamorada, creating a unique background.” While it’s difficult to know the species’ exact population, researchers estimate 27,000 adult hawksbills—named for the animal’s beak-shaped mouth—live in the Caribbean plus a few thousand nesting in Australia, Indonesia and the Seychelles. Occasionally, these turtles nest on Florida’s southeast coast and in the Florida Keys, the species’ only nesting sites in the continental U.S. Frink says he has had the opportunity to swim with several turtles during his dives around the world; some have even tried to take a bite of his camera’s waterproof dome, thinking, perhaps, that it was a jellyfish. When photographing turtles, he says, there’s one feature that’s important to capture clearly to draw the viewer in. “… The eyes always seem to tell the story in any kind of wildlife photography,” he says. When in the water with an animal, Frink says he tends not to think about it as a special moment, focusing instead on taking the photo. “But it’s really exciting and, you know, you feel this privilege of being there with an animal that accepts you,” he says. “It may not be until you get back later and start looking at the images on your computer … and then you feel really grateful.”
Jan. 14, 2014, in Crystal River
Manatees, beloved creatures sometimes called sea cows due to their size and docile nature, flock to Crystal River, on Florida’s western coast, during the winter months to escape the cold ocean. “Most manatee shots you’ve ever seen, that’s where they take them,” Frink says. The river, fed by the freshwater Three Sisters Springs, stays at a constant 72 degrees. It’s one of the few places where manatees can still find a warm water refuge. As the human population grows, using more resources, the Florida aquifer and its fresh water are being depleted, allowing encroachment of saltwater and colder temperatures, Frink explains. Because Crystal River is fed by one of the last freshwater springs without saltwater intrusion, hundreds of manatees show up. This creates a delicate balance between conservation and tourism as too many divers and kayakers can scare away the manatees, which need to be there. Frink says his photo was taken with proper permits in 2014, “probably the last year of free-and-easy, unfettered access.” He was diving without scuba equipment and noticed the opportunity for a special composition with “cathedral lighting.” “I saw the sun going through the trees and … we had these shafts of light, but I didn’t have the manatee,” Frink says. He waited, and eventually one swam by. The challenge was overcoming his wet suit’s buoyancy to dive down. “He didn’t stay there long and I did just one breath-hold thing where I expelled all the air from my lungs and dropped down low enough to be under him so I could get that upward angle and block the sun,” Frink says. “… I probably have three shots in the series and this is the best. And I couldn’t get it again. The cathedral lighting was still there, but the manatee wasn’t.” Luckily, the moment is forever preserved in his photo, one of his many iconic images.
Florida’s coastal waters are filled with picture-perfect places to get up-close with sea creatures both big and small.
For those in the Palm Beach area, underwater photographer Stephen Frink suggests wading into the ocean around Blue Heron Bridge off Riviera Beach. “… In the shallow waters and the pilings under this bridge, there’s really extraordinary diving.” While visibility is sometimes less than ideal, sea horses and a variety of fish await discovery by visitors in this spot.
A treasure trove of marine life can be found around Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. On this vast reef—the most heavily visited in the Upper Keys and maybe even the world—Frink has two favorite sites. The first is Fire Coral Caves at the south end, although currents, which bring marine life, sometimes make diving difficult. Then there’s Deep Molasses at 60 to 65 feet. “… It holds a lot of different marine life than the shallow reef does, so you encounter different animals altogether,” he says.
Sunken ships—and their mysterious pasts—also hold a certain allure for divers. Fish dart among the wreckage, long since taken over by sponges and corals. Frink was involved with the acquisition and sinking of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane and the Navy’s USS Spiegel Grove for artificial reefs, which he recommends as good diving spots in the Key Largo area.
(Top courtesy of Stephen Frink Collection)