In a remote corner of the sea nearly untouched by the tide of time, Cuba's Gardens of the Queen (Jardines de la Reina) marine park is home to living things that have virtually vanished from the rest of the Caribbean.
I'd been there before, in 2000, but I didn't know what to expect after 16 years. Our team desperately wanted to explore the park's elkhorn reefs. The fast-growing coral is now extremely rare and critically endangered, with 90 percent gone from most of the Caribbean. How well had these reefs survived as other populations perished? (See more about Cuba's marine reserve in a story by Hayes and her partner, photographer David Doubilet, in the November issue of National Geographic.)
We headed to a shallow elkhorn reef as the wind died down one late afternoon. We dropped over the side of the boat into a gentle current and swam along a dense thicket of elkhorn that meandered as far as the eye could see. Grunts and snappers jostled for space in the broad branches.
The grove of elkhorn was larger than I remembered from years ago. This population had not only held its own, but it had also expanded. The sun began to drop, casting a glow through the sea and creating a liquid gold forest sweeping outward toward the horizon. It was like being in a museum at closing time, when the lights dim and late light dances through the windows.
Conditions are rarely perfect for a what we call a half and half. It seems there's always something: too many waves, a roaring current, lack of an interesting subject above or below water. It's a balancing act to hold the camera still and see both the setting sun and the hidden world of coral. Water droplets ruin the majority of frames, so it's a game of dunk, raise, shoot, swear, repeat.
But that evening, I was swimming through a Monet painting under a wistful sky, so I wanted to make a half-and-half image that would allow others to feel the magical moment I was experiencing.
I swam along, searching for the right stretch of coral bursting with fish as the sun dropped lower and lower, about to disappear—and take the shot with it. I watched the last dancing light, and I stopped swimming. I knelt down, raising the underwater housing so that the large glass dome was half in and half out of the water.
As I stared through the viewfinder, I suddenly realized that this picture wasn't about fish at all.
It was about shimmering light casting a golden glow across the queen’s garden.
Jennifer Hayes is an aquatic biologist and photojournalist. She and David Doubilet collaborate as a photographic team above and below water on projects for National Geographic Magazine. You can follow them on Facebook.