PHOTOS AND ARTICLE BY BETTY BASTAI
Whidbey Island Magazine Guest Contributor
April 29, 2014
Imagine the collisions of ancient micro-continents. Advancing ice sheets hundreds of feet thick. And uplifting forces released by the retreating Vashon Glacier, raising the land and lowering the level of an ancient sea. These geological phenomena shaped the landmass that we now call Whidbey Island.
I moved to this northern corner of Puget Sound in 2004 after working for the Forest Service at Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mt. Rainier. As a passionate hiker and artist who is fascinated by nature, I eagerly began to explore the island’s many beaches, filling countless drawing pads with sketches and memory cards with photographs.
Every time I looked over the water and glanced at the surrounding wooded land—distant snowy volcanic peaks like Mount Baker and Rainier and the Olympic Mountain Range—I marveled at the variety of viewpoints the island offered.
At a closer range, on the water’s surface, I would often spot the slick body of a river otter swimming sinuously to shore, a seal’s round head peeking above the water, a variety of elegant sea birds diving relentlessly and whales blowing waterspouts into the cool air. Meanwhile, bald eagles would soar nonchalantly above my head and great blue herons would crack the air open with their startling raucous squawks. I had never before witnessed such an abundance of wildlife in the other parts of the world that I called home—a treasure that made me realize what a special place Whidbey Island is.
Observing the most impressive seaweed I’d ever seen—bull kelp swinging gently in current as well as rocks jam-packed with small anemones and bright green eelgrass beds exposed at low tide—made me think of Jacques Cousteau’s ocean documentaries that I’d watched as a kid growing up in Italy. My curiosity to explore that chilly water from below increased and filled me with anticipation of wild and exciting marine encounters.
As a child I learned to swim and snorkel in the balmy waters of the Mediterranean Sea. My first plunges in cold water took place in Scotland where, after hiking along coastal trails, I would do brisk swims in the North Sea and drink hot tea from a flask to warm myself. So when I settled on Whidbey Island I had already experienced the harrowing, yet invigorating feeling of immersing my body in water temperatures that many find unappealing.
However, after a while, those short cold swims increased my appetite for experiencing more. So one day I borrowed my husband’s wetsuit and snorkeled at Keystone Underwater Park, armed with a camera I had enclosed in a waterproof housing. At last I was able to hover comfortably in the water among bull kelp blades, observing some of the creatures that hide in them and taking pictures for a long time.
But my ability to do long free dives was restricted by my physical limitations and lack of training. In 2008 I enrolled in an Open Water diving class at Whidbey Island Dive Center in Oak Harbor and became a scuba diver. Since then I’ve logged more than 400 dives and explored the underwater worlds of different dive sites on Whidbey Island and the Puget Sound, British Columbia, Central America and Italy.
Taking photographs underwater is more difficult than on land because water is denser than air and affects images by reducing colors, sharpness and contrast. It’s crucial to get close to my subjects if I want satisfactory results. Colors dramatically disappear with depth so to bring them back I use a flash unless I’m in very shallow water with sunlight. Water in an ocean or lake is rarely free of suspended particles, which are the underwater photographer’s worst foe when shooting with a flash; if the light beam hits them they show up in the image as light specks that are collectively called “backscatter.”
The water that surrounds Whidbey Island is green rather than blue and the visibility varies from a few inches to 30 feet or more on a lucky day. It’s usually better during fall, winter and early spring and deteriorates in summer during the plankton blooms. I can roughly predict what the visibility may be at a specific dive site by keeping an eye on the weather but I don’t take my predictions for granted to avoid disappointment.
Temperatures vary from 46°F in winter to 55°F in summer. Having an efficient exposure suit is essential if I want to spend time on a subject, while hovering or planting myself motionlessly on the bottom, without getting cold.
Shooting with a close-up macro lens is more forgiving than with a wide angle because most of the time it’s possible to get good results even if the visibility is terrible. In this case I look for subjects that crawl on a rock or the bottom instead of swimming in the water column. Taking successful wide-angle photographs is more frustrating and requires me to use a great deal of patience.
Another factor that limits me when I take underwater photographs is time. Air supply underwater is limited due to the amount of air I can carry on my back at any given dive. Air consumption increases with depth and environmental conditions, so the amount of air available dictates how long I can stay underwater.
Being an underwater photographer on Whidbey Island is more difficult than on a tropical island; the water is cold, visibility is often poor and most of the year there is limited available light.
So why do I keep immersing myself in this challenging marine environment? Because Puget Sound’s marine ecosystem is one of the richest in the temperate oceans. The variety of curiously shaped and colorful invertebrates is mind-blowing, and the possibility of encountering unique fascinating animals such as the largest octopus in the world is addictively tantalizing.
And now, finally, winter is behind us. Whidbey Island’s gardens and forests are displaying a profusion of colors and hues of green.
Spring is a marvelous time of the year on land, but also underwater too. The bull kelp forests are growing back by developing long graceful stipes (the equivalent of stems in terrestrial plants), spherical floating bulbs and sensuous long blades. The island rocky bottoms will be soon covered with a tapestry of green, brown and red seaweeds teeming with marine life.
I cannot wait to hover above this lavish carpet and gently navigate through the bull kelp on my next dive, capturing this magical world with my camera.
Photo at top: Red Octopus (Octopus rubescens)
Elisabetta (Betty) Bastai likes to play with a variety of media. Her photographic work has been published by the national magazines Orion and The Sun. She writes two personal blogs about the creative process and water. You can view more of her underwater photographs at openwaterbubbles.blogspot.com
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