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Interview with Underwater Photographer Bill Curtsinger: "I've Seen Animals Do Unbelievable Things"

Bill Curtsinger is one of the world's best known nature photographers and one of the few who dives in the icy cold waters on the poles. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with him about sharks, whales and other creatures of the deep.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Curtsinger, you are one of the few underwater photographers who work in the sometimes extreme conditions of the Arctic and Antarctic. What is it that fascinates you most about the ice caps?

Bill Curtsinger: You have things that are inside you. You don't really know where they come from, but they keep coming up in your head. The two for me are the polar world and the world underwater. Since I was a little kid, I have had a strong interest in the polar regions. When the first opportunity to go there showed up, I took it -- and specialized in polar diving.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Aside from their aesthetic value, your photos sometimes hold valuable information about exotic species. Do you consider yourself a scientist?

Curtsinger: I'm sort of an amateur biologist. In order to work with these animals, I have to learn as much as I can about them. I have to talk to scientists to figure out where those animals are at a given time and how they behave. Often I end up knowing things about a particular species a biologist hasn't ever seen. I've seen animals do unbelievable things.


Curtsinger: One of my most memorable moments under water was when I was following rough-toothed dolphins off Hawaii. I saw a long line of dolphins swimming in the same direction, sweeping the ocean in search of prey. Then I saw them all come together. They had collectively captured a Mahi-Mahi, also called a dolphin-fish or dorado. That fish is one of the fastest in the ocean, but together, the dolphins captured it. What they did afterwards was unbelievable. There was a group of 10-12 rough-toothed dolphins, and they shared the fish. One would take the fish in its mouth and bite it, exactly like a dog would bite a large chunk of meat. When it had its fill, the dead Mahi-mahi would slowly sink. Then another dolphin would approach very slowly and do exactly the same thing, and then another. It was amazing, because it was a shared meal. They didn't feast in a frantic way as sharks would. It was a social unit that cleverly captured that fish and they were sharing it. That was an amazing moment for me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your work has often put you in some of the coldest places on the planet. During the first years of your career, you have even dived without a dry suit in ice-cold waters. How did you endure such ordeals?

Curtsinger: There are amazing things about diving in the polar ocean that outweigh the discomfort of being in such cold water. For example, I've never ever seen visibility like I've seen in Antarctic waters in early spring. I've personally measured more than 300 meters of lateral visibility. The reason is that during the polar winter there's no sunshine for six months. Phytoplankton is nonexistent. The sea seems like a giant glass of gin.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are not too many scientists who have the means or the training to dive in extreme environments like those near the poles. Do scientists ever approach you to ask about certain species or about what you've observed?

Curtsinger: Actually, I've co-published three scientific papers. The first one was on harp seals. The scientist I worked together with saw my photos and realized that she had no information about the courting behavior of these animals. The scientific paper she wrote was based on my observations and my photographs. Another paper was about pelicans. I had a motor-drive sequence of a hunting pelican. You could see that once the pelican lines up on its prey, a fish at the surface, its whole body and wings contort and manoeuvre to stay lined up with that fish. Its eyes, its head and bill never move. The scientist I worked with never knew that before.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: People like you, who venture into remote areas and publish photo volumes of their expeditions, are often referred to as adventurers by trained scientists. Have you ever been criticized for what you do or how you do it?

Curtsinger: I'm a photographer. I don't do science. I've always been driven to bring photographs of animals one hardly ever sees to a printed page. If somebody wants to argue with that, that's their problem. I don't really care. My work is careful and calculating. I don't harass animals. To get these kinds of photographs, you have to try and almost disappear, to go as quietly as you can. Hopefully, the animals ignore you or simply forget about you.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In your book, you describe how a shark nearly killed you. Was that the only near-death experience you've had while working?

Curtsinger: No. I've had a couple of crazy situations and did some crazy things. Sharks can be totally unpredictable. Sometimes one shows up and you know instantly that it's time to get out of the water, just because the way the shark is behaving. Sometimes you don't. However, one of the closest and scariest moments didn't involve any fish at all. I was trying to photograph a fishing net working on the bottom and I was almost drowned, together with my assistant.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is working with marine mammals any different than with fish or reptiles, or is it all similar?

Curtsinger: There is something about being in the water with a marine mammal that is different from any other experience. When a whale comes up to you and swims by, it doesn't look at your feet. It looks you right in the eye. I don't know what animals think, but they are sometimes very curious. They turn around to look at you again, and I'm sure they're trying to figure out what you are and where you came from. You can sense that they are thinking. Some tend to be too curious, sea leopards for example. But I've never been harmed by a marine mammal. Even large whales know where you are and avoid you so they don't hurt you.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would you say is the ultimate goal of your work?

Curtsinger: To make the unseen natural marine community visible, go to places where most people will never go and make pictures of animals most people won't ever see themselves. I'm driven to bring some knowledge, an image if nothing else, and to share these moments with people with animals that are unseen and which people hardly know they exist. I want people to be aware of these polar animals and these worlds they don't experience themselves.

Interview conducted by Markus Becker


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