The Intimate Reef

Robert Delfs is a consultant and underwater photographer who has worked for The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and RARE Conservation. Among other positions, he was formerly the Hong-Kong based China Correspondent, Beijing Bureau Chief, and Tokyo Bureau Chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1981 through 1993. He currently is working with RARE to help plan a suite of community-based conservation training programs at wetlands nature reserves in China. These pictures and the accompanying text are the subject of a photo exhibition at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong through Jan. 23.

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In forest and savannah, nature photographers often rely on "big glass" – fast telephoto lenses that can peer into the lives of animals from distances of more than 100 meters. It is different on coral reefs. Seawater is rarely gin clear. Planktonic organisms such as eggs, larvae, and protozoa are almost always present. The way water selectively absorbs longer wavelengths of light (reds, oranges, and yellows) reduces the spectrum of ambient light from the sun to a monotonous blue/cyan cast even at modest depths of 20-30 meters, while the effective range of underwater strobes may be only a few feet. This is part of the reason photography on the reef is an intimate affair.

If the mantra of terrestrial nature photography is "f/8 and be there", the drill for an aspiring underwater photographer is "Get closer. Now get even closer." For large marine wildlife and reefscapes, we use very wide lenses to approach as close as possible and minimize the water column between the camera and the subject. (Most of the wide-angle images here were shot with the amazing 180 Tokina10-17 mm fisheye.)

With very small subjects, we take macro lenses and strobes into the reef microhabitats, to photograph tiny fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and other creatures. Many live in complex symbiotic partnerships with corals, anemones, sponges, crinoids, fish and other hosts. Here what is often most difficult is simply locating cryptic creatures possessing formidable powers of camouflage and disguise.

Long before the foolhardy concept of taking a single-lens reflex camera underwater ever entered my mind, I had my first lessons in stalking large marine wildlife from Markus Tolang at Maumere Bay on the Indonesian island of Flores. Markus had grown up on the reef, making his living as a spear fisher with his beautiful, hand-carved spear gun. As my first dive instructor, Markus showed me how to approach slowly, breath held to avoid noisy bubbles, while I held back, holding the string of still-living groupers, snappers and angelfish. Spearfishing, too, is an intimate affair.

My introduction to the "micro-world" of the reef, on the other hand, came at the hands of the late, legendary Larry Smith, who almost single-handedly invented "critter diving" in the Lembeh Strait off northeast Sulawesi. Larry was also the dive instructor of my late partner, Sandra Burton, former Time Magazine correspondent. It was our experiences with Larry at Lembeh that prompted Sandy to give me my first underwater camera, in 1999 - 10 years ago.

What began with Marcus, Larry, and Sandy was not just an interest in diving, but a lifelong passion for going deep and getting close in order to bring back images that convey some of the tangled complexity, stunning colors and dazzling beauty of life on the coral reefs.

The real subject of these images is the inconceivable richness of coral reef communities of Eastern Indonesia at the heart of the Southeast Asian Coral Triangle. This is the most biodiverse marine ecosystem on the planet, home to 75 percent of all known coral species, more than

3,000 different fish species, six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles and the playground for dozens of different species of dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals. Many of these species and their habitats are critically threatened by coastal development, climate change, over-fishing and destructive fishing practices, including the unsustainable demand for live wild reef fish in restaurants in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

Help protect reefs by saying no to shark’s fin and supporting sustainable reef fish and tuna fisheries and by contributing to the international Coral Triangle Initiative through Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund RARE Conservation, or else contact me at