Photographing the Ocean ShallowsInspiration
Freediving with James Monnington
‘I try to represent my experience of the ocean in my photography. It’s an experience that can be very appealing but can also be overwhelming, humbling, and intimidating. Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting and surreal atmosphere, which is a side that I think is important to share as well.’ – James Monnington
James Monnington is a marine ecologist, freediver, and wildlife photographer. He travels the world exploring the ocean’s shallows, capturing the wildlife he comes across in striking black-and-white photographs. But it’s not just foreign waters he’s drawn to – James frequently dives off the coasts of his native Britain, playing with the wildlife around Cornwall and Wales. We spoke to James to hear more about his freediving experiences and where he finds the inspiration for his unusual style of wildlife photography.
Sidetracked: You’re a marine ecologist so presumably you spend a lot of time in and around the water. Did you get into freediving through your marine ecology career?
James: Yes and no – I actually started off as a SCUBA diver and it wasn’t until later on that I got into freediving. I was always obsessed with the idea of SCUBA diving as a kid. My dad’s friend used to do lots of wreck diving and I remember being blown away by his stories. When I was about 12, I spotted a local pool that offered evening sessions and try-dives. I became totally besotted and forced my parents to drive me there every night. From that point on, I was obsessed.
I didn’t actually get into freediving until a lot later on, after an unfortunate event left me unable to SCUBA dive any more. I was in the Philippines, assisting on a research project owned by renowned shark scientist Dr Simon Oliver. On my return to the surface, after a perfectly normal day’s diving, I was overcome by lethargy and my vision became distorted – classic signs of decompression sickness (DCS). Initially I tried to deny it, knowing it would probably mean the end of the trip for me. But since breathing pure oxygen was doing nothing to alleviate the symptoms, I eventually gave in and had to have a trip to the decompression chamber. Two six-hour sessions later and I was pretty much fixed up, but once back in the UK, doctors had some bad news for me. I had suffered Type II decompression sickness – where nitrogen bubbles affect the nervous system, making any remaining scar tissue ‘sticky’ for nitrogen bubbles. It meant a second accident was much more likely. I could still SCUBA dive, but I would need to be extremely conservative and not pursue aggressive dive schedules. That pretty much ruled out a career in SCUBA.
I was of course completely crestfallen. My main passion and motivation for my marine ecology career had been pulled from underneath me. But as it turned out, all was not lost. I was poring over articles, trying to rationalise a return to SCUBA when I came across freediving. Although DCS is still a consideration with freedivers who go very deep, the risks are very much reduced because you are not breathing in compressed air. It seemed like the answer I was looking for and I started training at a club right away, desperate to get diving again.
For you, freediving and photography very much go hand in hand. Was this the case when you were a SCUBA diver as well? Have you always been a keen photographer?
I have always dabbled in photography – my dad is a fanatical photographer and he encouraged me to take photos and taught me the fundamentals about shooting and developing. I played around when I SCUBA dived but never really took it seriously until I got into freediving.
I think freediving has given my photography a sense of purpose. I travel to destinations to photograph little-known areas and am able to get up close to the animals – arguably more so than when I was SCUBA diving. I think there are many instances where freediving is advantageous over SCUBA, particularly when photography is considered. You’re fast, nimble, and silent in comparison to your tank-laden, bubble-blowing counterparts. In my experience, most animals will allow you to approach much more closely, tending to be either entirely disinterested or mildly intrigued by your presence. Cautious, but rarely afraid. And for me, this has pushed my photography on in ways I would never have expected.
Black and white is such an interesting medium for wildlife photography and not one that you see that often. Why do you choose to depict your freediving stories this way and what impact do you think this has on your photography?
I wish I could say that I had some sort of cerebral, high-concept rationale for shooting in black and white, but the truth is, it’s never really occurred to me to do anything else. I’ve always loved the aesthetic, and I have a particular interest in war reportage, especially from Vietnam. There’s something about the simplicity, the immediacy and the way that it abstracts the environment, distilling the photo down to its core components.
I’ve never wanted to take those classic well-lit, saturated, colourful, and super-clear photos. They’re beautiful and require a lot of technical skill, but I find it hard to connect with them emotionally, and they don’t really represent my experience of the ocean, which can be very appealing, but can also be overwhelming, humbling, and intimidating. Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting, and surreal atmosphere, which is a side of the experience that I think is important to share as well. Black and white really helps with this. It can also make taking photos a lot easier when there isn’t much light or colour, which is an issue if you are deep and choose not to use artificial lights.
I also like the fact that black and white is a geographic leveller. It renders images taken in the middle of winter in the UK close to indistinguishable from photos from paradisal dive locations in far-flung locations around the world.
Quite often, it’s a dark, murky, disorienting, and surreal atmosphere, which is a side of the experience that I think is important to share. Black and white really helps with this.
Obviously underwater photography presents complications. How do you plan for that in such an ever-changing environment?
I usually have a pretty good idea of the types of species/seascapes we’re likely to see, so I’ll watch lots of videos online to look for particular behaviours and understand how the animal’s body interacts with the light. You’ll generally find me at depths of 20-40m where there is an abundance of light, wildlife, and scope for inspiration. I love the way the light falls at these depths, and the fact that it takes away the need to use artificial light is great – one less bit of machinery to dive with!
You’ve done a lot of travelling with your freediving and photography – any particular highlights you can share? Where are your favourite places to dive?
Freediving has allowed me to dive to some pretty amazing destinations. It allows me to travel with a specific objective in mind, which has led me to some fairly odd places that I would never have visited otherwise. Baja California in Mexico is one of my favourite places to dive; the sheer variety of wildlife is mind boggling. On my last trip we spent eight days in the water and saw whale sharks, tower-block-sized schools of trevally, scores of sea lions, mako sharks, mobula rays, a fin whale, pelagic swarms of squat lobster, and so much more. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
But for photographic opportunities for freedivers, you can’t beat the cenotes in Mexico. Cenotes are formed when limestone caves collapse, revealing groundwater pools that are considered to be sacred gateways to the Mayan underworld ‘Xibalba’. There are thousands strewn across the Yucatan, each with its own unique shape, size, depth, and colour. The water is crystal clear, the sun pours into the darkness from the jungle above as these rotating bars of light, and they’re enormous. It’s almost impossible to get a bad picture!
Animal-wise, though, my favourite animals to dive with are probably sea lions. They’re incredibly playful and interactive, and their speed, agility and grace put us to shame. One experience that really stands out was in the Galapagos. I watched two juveniles playing with a piece of reed they’d found, passing it back and forth and chasing each other’s tails. After about 20 minutes, they included me in their game, racing up, leaving the reed floating in front of me before careening off, disappearing for a few seconds and racing back to reclaim their toy. It was a really special moment that I’ll never forget.
You also dive all over Britain, particularly in Cornwall and Wales. What draws you to these colder shores?
I love travelling, but I think it’s important to spend time appreciating what’s on your doorstep (or a few hours from it!). UK waters are generally assumed to be murky and devoid of life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When the conditions are good the diving here is absolutely stunning. Unlike the tropics, temperate waters are dominated by seaweeds, so you get these beautiful hues of greens, reds and browns that you don’t tend to see elsewhere. Even when the visibility isn’t great, these come together to create an eerie, ethereal atmosphere that I just can’t get enough of. We also have some amazing big animals, and it’s relatively easy to find ways of responsibly getting in the water with seals, blue sharks, basking sharks and more!
How has freediving impacted your life? If you could go back to that fateful dive where you got decompression sickness and change it, would you?
I think people freedive recreationally for all sorts of reasons but most I know do it because they love being in the water and feel connected to the ocean in some way. That’s definitely true with me. Freediving has given me a sense of purpose and identity and has introduced me to a community of many amazing people. Would I change the past? I try to look forwards (and as often as possible inwards), but rarely backwards. Obviously it would be great if I still had the option to pursue SCUBA more actively in tandem with freediving, and I know I would have taken a different professional path if that had been the case. However, I have no doubt I would have been drawn to freediving anyway so it’s not something I dwell on.
And finally, what advice would you have for someone starting out as a freediver or wildlife photographer?
For freediving, it’s imperative that you train with a qualified instructor – join a local club and find some buddies to train with. They’ll probably end up becoming great friends. Take your time, try not to be frustrated if it feels like you’ve plateaued. You have your whole life to improve. Be safe, respect your body’s limits, and have fun! In terms of wildlife photography – or photography in general – make sure you’re passionate about it. What interests you and how do you like to see it? Your style will grow out of that passion. Also remember that if you’re shooting wild animals they’re unpredictable and sometimes they don’t do what you want them to do. Keep an open mind and if the shot that you’d planned doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, just try to be spontaneous and enjoy what you’re seeing.