Patterns of nature

Interview with & photography by Chris Leidy

As soon as I slip under the surface my mind stops racing.

The Coral Triangle is an area encompassing more than 10 million square kilometres of ocean.  As the name suggests, it is famous for it’s colourful coral reefs, boasting nearly 600 species of reef-building coral alone. With his new book of the same name, which features a decades-worth of images, underwater photographer Chris Leidy hopes to shed some light on this extraordinary expanse of ocean.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Chris Leidy (CL): I grew up in southern Florida so I was always in the water one way or another, whether it was surfing or fishing or diving – as soon as I could walk I could swim. I was introduced to that beauty way before I discovered my passion for capturing moments in time. I married the two together later. I was brought up to be very at ease in the ocean. Everyone’s got their troubles going on on dry land, but as soon as I slip under the surface my mind stops racing. I focus on what I see in front of me. It’s very tranquil and calming, it’s a new world under there and I love it.

OM: You’ve been shooting the ocean for a long time. How have you seen the underwater landscape change during that time?

CL: I’ve spent so much time diving in the Bahamas over the years, so I can see how much it has changed from what it was 20 years ago. It’s sad. I definitely see the deterioration and the lack of life. But generally, I tend not to visit the same places multiple times. It’s always been a one-stop visit because the list is so long for me. So while I haven’t witnessed much site specific deterioration, I have seen a lot of places where the water quality isn’t great, where there’s garbage floating in the water column, where there’s been bleaching episodes on the reefs. When I see those white corals I wonder what they once looked like. Many places now are not what they were 20 years ago.

coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
red coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
coral fan coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer

OM: You tend to travel alone – what are the benefits of that?

CL: I always travel alone, and then sometimes I’ll build a team with the people that I’ve met along the way. But it’s always just me going solo from A to B. I love being on my own, working with my own timecard. I like to come and go as I please. If I want to dive multiple times a day then I can do that and not have to worry. I love being able to be in the water alone with marine life. I mean, that’s a spiritual experience in itself. However, there are many times that I’d love to have shared the moment with somebody. It depends on the situation. I’m a lonesome traveller at heart, but sometimes I’d like to have a little company and to share beautiful experiences. I’ve definitely missed out sometimes.

OM: Do you think that exploration is innate in humans?

CL: I think it’s takes a certain kind of human being to want to go out and explore and to get lost while looking for whatever their soul is screaming for. But I also think a lot of people are very comfortable in their four walls, and not really knowing or thinking about what’s out there. That’s just not me at all. I’m always curious and inquisitive about what’s beyond the horizon, and what’s around every corner, and I’m always searching for what’s next.

OM: In your photography, there are so many vibrant colours, vivid patterns and complex textures. What is it that draws you to these print-like patterns in the ocean?

CL: I was brought up in a household of colour, pattern and texture thanks to my grandmother [fashion designer Lily Pulitzer Rousseau]. That’s something that’s always been in me as a creative. I’m just more attracted to those minute details. The ocean itself is a beautiful thing but then there’s a more intricate beauty that I’m able to capture and share that is more artistic and abstract. It’s the textures and patterns that I see in the small things that people usually swim over and might not notice. And then to print it on a massive canvas and put it on your wall at eight feet across – you’re taking something so small and giving it the room. I think that’s super cool.

OM: How do you adapt to the constantly changing conditions of the ocean while shooting?

CL: That’s something that just comes naturally. The time that I’ve been shooting and diving, and being able to accept the changing tide, the dimming light, the lack of life in some cases. Maybe there’s not something obvious to shoot, so you focus on something you wouldn’t normally train your eye to and you step outside the box. It’s all about not expecting everything to be confined and perfect. It’s the opposite from a photographer on set shooting something where it’s very contained and controlled, you have your proper lighting and you can direct your models. in the ocean, you can’t have that mindset because it’s never going to be what you expect it to be. To have that mindset from the very get-go, I think it allows me to be able to be more accepting and receptive of that.

reef fish coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
yellow fish coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer

OM: You recently released your book, The Coral Triangle. What are you hoping it will achieve?

CL: Oh boy. It really comes down to showcasing the fragility and the beauty of what exists in the ocean. There’s so many people who have no clue of the peacefulness and the rarities and the beauty that exists just feet off the shore and I want people to get over the idea that the ocean is a scary place. I want to show people that there’s life to protect, that there’s an ecosystem and an environment that, just because it’s under the surface, doesn’t mean it can be forgotten. It needs to be protected. Without it, we suffer in so many ways. I also just love being able to show people a fleeting moment in time that cannot ever be repeated. So to be able to capture something that I find to be beautiful and unique, and to share it with onlookers, that feeds my soul. It’s super rewarding.

OM: What about the Coral Triangle that really intrigues you?

CL: I didn’t really necessarily go there with the sole intention of  creating this book – it was purely the fact that I’ve been diving within the Coral Triangle throughout the past decade and then compiled it later on in life. It was more of a destination pull for me. I wanted to dive in Papua New Guinea. I wanted to dive in Wakatobi. I wanted to dive in Raja Ampat, Komodo. Wanted to visit so many beautiful destinations that just so happened to be within the Coral Triangle, so that later on, after these ten or so years I’m essentially looking back on it, gathering inventory for this one book, it all kind of bound itself together. So it’s the destination that called me to the place for sure.

coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
reef sharks coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer
macro coral triangle chris leidy underwater photographer

BF: What is one memory from your years photographing the Coral Triangle that will stay with you forever?

CL: There was one time when I was diving and I was able to have this one-on-one connection with a wild bottlenose dolphin while I was at around 100 feet under. I heard the dolphin talking and squeaking so I turn around and it’s literally three feet behind me, both of us hovering upright in the water. So we were nose to nose and I don’t know what made me do it, but I just reached my hand out and the dolphin didn’t move. It’s fin was right in front of my hand so I started to rub its fin, and then its belly. We were just locked in this moment for a couple of minutes. I took one photograph and that brought him back into real life. He did a couple of turns and then he slowly swam away. It was pretty spiritual. Getting close to a wild animal in nature and understanding that there’s a mutual respect there is a powerful thing. Those dolphins are just so clever and they have such big brains. There was no sense of threat. It was just a very peaceful experience. I have this one photograph that I look at all the time. It was just a crazy moment.

BF: You mentioned the ocean is a scary place for some people. How did your experience shooting under the ice in the Arctic change the way you relate to the ocean?

CL: That was a trip that really caused me to step out of my comfort zone. I’m generally a claustrophobic person, so boring holes in the ice, tying a rope to me and going under while my Inuit guide is standing up on the ice holding the other end is a lot. I had 300 feet of rope and I was swimming around under these large sheets of ice, hearing them crack and moan, it encouraged me to really step up my endurance game. I have been diving in the tropics my whole life, so to immediately have brain freeze and have these elements that are free-flow and unregulated was a new experience. I had to talk myself out of the idea that the hole would freeze up again before I could get out. It causes you to really think about the elements and respect the fact that you are at the hand of mother nature to just do whatever they want with you. The cold was something that really played a trick on me. That was the first time diving in a drysuit in my life. Throw me under the freaking ice in the Arctic, under icebergs. It was insane. I would do it again, living three weeks on the ice with Inuits and their dogs.

BF: What have you learnt about freedom and responsibility from your work diving and shooting underwater?

CL: I mean, thank god people buy my artwork, because that allows me to travel. Having the freedom that capture the underwater world and have people love those pieces enough to display in their homes is a blessing. To have the opportunity to make money and spread awareness while doing your passion and being ‘free’, is perfect. My office is the ocean, at the beach. When I say I’m going to work it puts a smile on my face. It’s crazy that I even call it work because it’s such a fun beautiful life that I have.

To order a copy of Leidy’s ‘The Coral Triangle’, click here.

Photography by Chris Leidy, courtesy of Assouline.