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Going to Great Depths to Illuminate Hidden Underwater Worlds

Photographer David Doubilet seeks to understand the effects of climate change and human intervention on sea life.

For photographer David Doubilet, underwater photography is a way of life. Doubilet has been diving since he was eight years old and taking photos underwater since he was twelve. Most recently, Doubilet took to the ocean to discover Cuba's incredible marine reserve, Gardens of the Queen. This massive 850-square-mile reserve is a "liquid time capsule." Inside its borders is a magnificent reef that is nearly untouched by time and climate change, among other natural wonders. Doubilet and his partner, Jennifer Hayes, used their years of experience to illuminate a place that few people have ever seen.

As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we take a look at Doubilet's work and find out what makes him tick.

Silversides swirl through a mangrove forest.

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

Many photographs matter for many reasons—personal, professional, and conservation. One reached out past our planet when I was honored to represent Earth’s ocean with a picture of a Red Sea reef that was selected to be electronically recorded on phonograph records carried on board Voyager 1.

If you weren't a photographer what would you be?

A Navy pilot, a military historian, or a banjo player

Who is your greatest influence?

There are many: Jacques Cousteau, Dr. (Doc) Harold Edgerton, and National Geographic photographers Luis Marden [and] Bates Littlehales, to name a few.

A spine-cheek clownfish nestles in its bulb tentacle sea anemone.

What fuels your passion for photography?

The desire to make an image that makes people think about, fall in love with, and protect the sea

What is the perfect photograph?

The perfect photograph has the power to seize and hold your attention. Pictures have the power to educate, illuminate, or humiliate. I like images that combine the weight of science, conservation, and poetry.

Stingrays swim near the Grand Cayman Islands

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

Perhaps my underwater strobes, because they illuminate a world hidden from our view—but in reality, photographic gear is replaceable and people are not. A good story relies on a good team, from photographer [to] fixer, guide, scientist, and others who bring priceless knowledge to the table.

A lone parrotfish regards a school of grey grunts.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

Photography is a universal language that transcends all cultural divides, but your images are your voice that translates your passion into a vision. Follow your passion, whether it's birds, butterflies, bison, buildings, or balloons. Experiment, make mistakes, take chances.

You can see more of David Doubilet's work on his website and follow him on Instagram. Janna Dotschkal is an associate photo editor for National Geographic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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