Jialing Cai: Exploring the ocean's kindergarten

Chinese blackwater photographer Jialing Cai has just been announced 2023's overall Ocean Photographer of the Year with her stunning shot of a paper nautilus. In this interview, she speaks to Oceanographic about her winning shot, her love for blackwater photography and more.

An interview with and photographs by Jialing Cai

Oceanographic: When did you first connect with the ocean?

Jialing Cai: I grew up in the inland city of Chongqing in China, so I had zero physical and spiritual connection with the ocean up until I got into college. I learned about the marine environment and the animals from text books and in a classroom setting before I had chances to explore the ocean in the field. The decision to become an underwater photographer was extremely spontaneous and came out of nowhere. It was in the middle of a marine science lecture in the morning and I was still quite sleepy. The professor was vaguely talking about an ecological phenomenon, called the diel vertical migration of the zooplankton. Basically, the microscopic small animals, called zooplankton, live in the water column and migrate every night from the deep sea to the surface of the ocean. They do this on a daily basis. That one single sentence description hit me so hard. It was like lightning struck. I couldn’t help but interrupt the professor and asked ‘now you’re telling me that if I’m brave enough to throw myself into the open ocean at night, wait in the shallower water around 10 to 20m underwater, I will have the chance to see the deep sea visitors myself?!’

I thought that was insane because throughout my entire life I thought that exploring the deep sea is really challenging. I thought that either you have to become extremely rich and be able to afford a trip in a submersible to the deep sea or you have to work really hard to become a deep sea biologist and use public research resources to go down there. Now the professor was telling me that the deep sea is within my reach. The deep sea would come to me. That realisation was just mind-blowing. In that moment I knew that I had to make a career out of blackwater photography.

Oceanographic: How did you get into blackwater photography?

Jialing Cai: Most people train their underwater photography skills in shallower waters like on coral reefs and so on. They take photos of fish and larger animals like whale sharks but I started off as a blackwater photographer directly from the start. Even after five years of underwater photography, I still don’t have a wide angle lens. I only have my macro lens that I use to take blackwater photos. It’s not because that Im not interested in big animals but I still find exciting stuff even at the same dive sites where I do blackwater photography. I got into blackwater photography because I really wanted to explore the open ocean. I found that there are already a lot of people documenting zooplankton through blackwater photography. That’s how I learned about it. I then was very lucky to learn from amazing blackwater photographers in person. I visited a dive shop in the Philippines multiple times. That’s where I learned my basic skills from the start. I didn’t actually know how to control a camera on land before I started blackwater photography. I was going backwards. I learned blackwater photography first, then mastered the basics of photography, and only then started to take photos on the street of my friends,

Oceanographic: Why are you fascinated with macro and blackwater photography? What’s the appeal? Why do you love this kind of diving?

Jialing Cai: I love that question! This is what I wanted to share for so long! The kind of animals that you can find in the open ocean at night are called zooplankton. This is not a taxonomic term. It consists of a dazzling diversity of marine life. Besides the kind of animals that spend their entire life in the water column like jellyfishes, most marine animals – whether their adult counterparts live in the deep sea or on the sandy bottoms or on coral reefs – spend their juvenile stages as plankton. No matter where you belong eventually, you start your life as free floating organisms and you’re part of the zooplankton community.

For me, the open ocean is just like a giant kindergarten of marine animals. While we’re familiar with the adult stages of fishes and crabs and coral reef inhabitants, we’re probably not very familiar with their juvenile stages. You are constantly getting excitement from the most familiar species. It’s kind of cute. You’re immersed in the kindergarten of the ocean. A second thing is that, just like I talked about, they migrate over varying distances across different taxonomic groups. Some zooplankton migrate hundreds of metres, some migrate thousands of metres. If you’re lucky enough, you can find the juvenile stage of a deep sea fish that lives 3,000 metres in the deep but you can encounter their babies around 30 metres underwater. You feel this philosophical connection to the deep sea. You don’t have to go down there yourself. The deep sea will come to you. That’s why I feel so obsessed with blackwater photography.

Oceanographic: How would you describe your style of photography?

Jialing Cai: I actually only recently started to develop my own style in blackwater photography. Before that, as long as I could get a clean shot, I was satisfied. Then I started to realise that blackwater is not pure black. Besides the subject you’re capturing, there are also a lot of suspended particles, organic materials like the faeces of some plankton, and also very tiny organisms themselves. They’re everywhere in the water column. Before I was only able to capture the subject itself and it looked like it’s in an isolated darkness. Now I try to capture the particles in the water column too. That’s what you see in the winning image.

Oceanographic: Why did you decide to enter the 2023 Ocean Photographer of the Year competition?

Jialing Cai: I saw it on Instagram and a lot of my friends encouraged me to enter. As I said, I only started to develop my style of blackwater photography recently and before that I never thought that the photos I took were results of my own artistic decision. I think the photos are pretty enough – not because I took them but because the creatures look like that – so I never was too confident in my own artistic photography skills but because I started developing my own photography, represented now by this winning image, I find it okay and feel like I’m qualified. I’m starting to have some kind of confidence to enter underwater photography competitions.

Oceanographic: Tell us about the background behind your winning shot. Where was it taken? How did you take it?

Jialing Cai: I took this shot in the Philippines at the beginning of 2020. It was during a volcano eruption. I’m not sure whether the particles in the image were a result of the volcano eruption or not, but not long after the eruption, we went down to blackwater and the water turned out to be extremely blurry. We had very low visibility. You could barely see anything. It looked like we were moving through underwater fog. I was holding my light and trying to capture some interesting stuff. Then I suddenly saw the paper nautilus, only the size of a large coin, sitting on a floating stick. I started to take photos but, at the beginning, my strobes were actually in the wrong position so the light was not shining directly on the subject, the paper nautilus.

There was backscatter everywhere and the background looked really dirty. It did not incorporate really well with the subject. But it was in that moment I realised that there were floating particles everywhere. I thought to myself that I could probably find a non-disruptive way to combine the blurry background and the subject. I started experimenting with my position and I found a nice balanced distance between the area that was being lighted and the subject. So the reason you can see these scatters in the winning image is that I wasn’t directly shining light onto the octopus. It was directed at an area a little bit in front of the octopus so the ‘undesired’ particles also show up in the image.

Oceanographic: On a personal level, what makes the image so important to you?

Jialing Cai: This image really represents my own philosophy of blackwater photography; I want to show that blackwater is not pure black. I have been struggling a lot to enhance my lighting techniques to get a clean shot to shine light directly on the subject. It’s not easy. Every single blackwater photographer should know well enough about that. That’s when I thought why not try to embrace the presence of the tiny organisms and particles? That’s how the winning image is personally important to me.

Oceanographic: Any advice for other young photographers?

Jialing Cai: As I mentioned I didn’t have chances to explore the ocean in the field until I got into college where I took a couple of courses in biology and marine science. When I went into the field for the first time, I started diving. I already knew a lot of marine animals out there. Other people that learned how to dive alongside me focused entirely on learning how to dive and they would see coral and fish but not know what they are. I believe that you don’t see the animals until you already know them. There are countless surprising encounters in the ocean and plenty of unexpected surprises. But you will miss a lot of things if you don’t have the background knowledge. So, my advice for young photographers out there is that, every time you go into the water, do research about the environment and the local culture and the general groups of animals you’d expect to find before.

That way, even within short dives, you’ll see a lot of things that other people might not see. The other thing that we tend to ignore are the common species out there like crynoids, corals, shrimps and things like that. That’s fine; we like rare species. But the more you learn about these animals and their natural history, behaviour and ecology, you begin to appreciate every single species that you encounter in the field. And that will have a huge impact on your photography. Not just your photography skills, but also on your own philosophy, and observing the marine environment. I feel like that mentality is more important than enhancing your photography skills, as a first step.

Oceanographic: What’s the aim behind your photography?

Jialing Cai: Most people have heard of big animals like sharks, whales, corals and jellyfish but very few of the public have heard of the zooplankton such as salps, terrapods, siphonophores… all these terms tend to be unfamiliar to the public. I feel like, as a blackwater photographer, I want to use this opportunity to bring these under-appreciated marine animals to the public. I’m not sure the things I’m doing right now are called conservation photography because I don’t like persuading people to… you know, the ocean is suffering a lot from human activities, but I don’t want to emphasise that too much because I feel like what is more powerful than the emotion of guilt is a sincere sense of biophilia, a sincere sense of wonder and awe that can motivate people to actively protect and care about the ocean. The aim of my photography is to show people the beauty of the open ocean. While this might not have an immediate effect on people’s actions and policy changes, that installs the fundamental mentality required in future conservationists.

Oceanographic: What plans do you have for the future? 

Jialing Cai: I’m interested in science communication in general and photography is just one of the many mediums I want to experiment with. I also want to try writing and even want to make music or fine art. For a blackwater photographer in particular, the species that I have documented so far all come from the tropical oceans. So for my next step I would really like to venture to the cold waters of the world.

You can now see all 2023 Ocean Photographer of the Year category winners and finalist images here. Or for the latest updates on the entry process and more, go follow OPY on Instagram: @opy_awards


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