A gateway to the ocean

Words and photographs by Amanda Cotton

These are my earliest memories of the ocean: the clatter of fishing boats in the marina, the salt in the air…

Since her childhood, Amanda Cotton has had two big obsessions – the ocean and photography. Now, she’s a prolific underwater photographer, a member of The Explorers Club and the Ocean Artists Society, an Isotta ambassador and is represented on the Women Divers Hall of Fame. Passionate about marine conservation, she runs numerous diving expeditions uses her photographs to welcome people into her enduring mission to maintain our precious, yet highly fragile aquatic ecosystems. We head behind the lens to find out more about Amanda’s world beneath the waves.

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

Amanda Cotton (AC): My family has lived close to the beach in California for many generations and because of this we would spend hours upon hours playing in the Pacific Ocean. My parents owned a restaurant on the waterfront in Morro Bay when I was very young. These are my earliest memories of the ocean: the clatter of fishing boats in the marina, the salt in the air, a foghorn blowing in the distance, seagulls squawking above, the damp chill, and bark of sea lions close by. My older brother and I would play on the rocks below the restaurant hopeful to glimpse a crab as it scurried by. We’d look for sea otters in the kelp beds only a few metres away, and make up stories about the sharks we were told lived deep in the waters of the bay. I’d later discover those stories were true when we encountered leopard sharks on a scuba dive in the bay more than 30 years later. It’s these moments that shaped my childhood and connection to the sea.

OM: Which came first, a love of the ocean or a love of photography?

AC: The Pacific Ocean was a nanny of sorts for my brother and I from a very early age, so an appreciation of the ocean definitely came first. It was followed closely by my love of photography. About the time I hit my preteen years my uncle gave me his old Nikon film camera, and from then on I was hooked. Through middle school and high school I took every class I could sign up for in photography. The last two years of high school I was the school’s yearbook photographer and spent the majority of the days locked away in the high school darkroom. I adored everything about being there: the smells, the solitude, the creative process.  There was a natural progression into Bachelors and Masters degrees focused on photography in my twenties.

OM: What skills would you say have helped you become a better underwater photographer?

AC: I really enjoy incorporating the studio lighting techniques I learned in college, for both portrait and still photography into my underwater shooting. The five lighting patterns used in studio portraits can all be used with some great results on marine life. Having a good understanding of animal behaviour prior to getting in the water with different species is also extremely useful as an underwater photographer. I try to research the animals I know I may encounter at destinations before going. Knowing what to expect in temperament and traits beforehand, while watching animal patterns and behaviour during the dive, can end up being the difference between capturing images you’re happy with verses not. It also has helped me enjoy my encounters more, having a better understanding of what each animal is doing while I observe them.

Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton cuttlefish
Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton orcas
Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton sperm whale
Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton rays

OM: How can photography help marine conservation?

AC: Photography and video can aid marine conservation efforts by sharing the underwater world with the general public, who may or may not have a connection to the ocean as strong as the underwater photographers who are capturing the imagery. It’s important we share all aspects of the ocean and the reality of the situation, so a focus on both the beautiful and the brutal needs to have a global spotlight. Imagery works as a gateway, a window into a world unknown to some. It can help with research, collection of data, and aid in documenting change. As technology advances and more people move into scuba and freediving with camera in hand, hopefully our appreciation and concern to protect it will grow as well.

OM: How do you remain calm while photographing powerful marine predators?

AC: From a very early age I found myself wanting to push boundaries. Maybe it was, and still is, an underlying naivety or recklessness, but the bigger the risk, the calmer I feel. It pretty much infiltrates all aspects of my life, not just with regard to underwater marine life encounters.  For marine life encounters understanding an animal, especially large predators, goes a long way towards staying calm while encountering them. Knowing what specific behaviour to look for that may be aggressive, fearful, or agitated can be golden information on how to approach and react to a situation. Having a “game plan” in place if and when everything goes awry can help you stay calm throughout an encounter too.

A couple years ago we had a large, around 15-foot crocodile, come into the area where me and another photographer were shooting some other smaller crocodiles. This large croc had a very different temperament than the others. They had calmly laid on the seabed, relaxed and posed for images, but this large croc burst onto the scene with little regard for anything else. The smaller crocodiles quickly vanished and the three of us in the water were left to manage this new energetic player. No one panicked, we all stayed in place, calm, ready with camera in hand to keep distance between themselves and the croc in case he decided to try something.  Our safety diver moved into position, guiding the crocodile out and away whenever he became a little too pushy. In a short amount of time this new croc slowed and settled into place on the seabed, observing and reserving its energy. Calmness and understanding animal behaviour in this situation helped all of us in the water that day.

OM: You run a number of diving retreats – how can diving work as a catalyst for connection and self-discovery?

AC: Diving allows us time to reconnect without distraction from the outside world. When we slip below the waves, whether on scuba or on breath hold, we all feel a disconnect from topside reality. This disconnect allows us to refocus, to shift our attention back to the self, to the present and to be in the moment. It is this that can help a person see the visions and desires we sometimes push away and hide from. The solitude of the underwater world allows us freedom to relax, it grants us permission to just breathe and be. This is a great space to start a journey towards understanding self.

OM: In what ways have you noticed the women-only element of your retreats change the dynamics of an ocean expedition?

AC: Women-only expeditions can offer more relaxed and supportive environment for participants within a group of women who connect with each other. There is an unparalleled energy that happens when you gather together dynamic and unique women, which allows for growth, understanding and bonding like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere.

Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton
Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton dolphins
Underwater photographer Amanda Cotton monk seal

OM: What are your thoughts on gender equality in the world of underwater photography?

AC: Gender equality in the industry is better than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it has one heck of a journey to go to get anywhere close to where it needs to be. Women pressured to do anything they don’t want to do, to fit into an ideal set up outside of their own desires, to fill the expectations placed on them by someone or something else needs to stop. It needs to stop on social media, within our industry, our society, and most importantly within ourselves.

I am inspired by those around me in the diving and underwater photography worlds who look at factors like talent, skill, and a person’s expertise as determining factors first and foremost, but the glass ceiling absolutely still exists. One of the women I admire most in our industry, Jill Heinerth, posted this perfect quote on International Women’s Day: “It takes a lot of work to smash through a glass ceiling. You have to hit it really hard over and over again. Then you crawl through the ragged hole. You get cut. You bleed. You bear scars from the experience. Then someone shows up and replaces the glass. Just like that. But once you taste the fresh air streaming in through the gap, you know you have to break it again so you can breathe.”

OM: Why is it important to you to pass on your skills as an underwater photographer to others through workshops?

AC: I feel fortunate that I gathered a lot of technical knowledge during my time in art school, along with that I have gained experiences throughout the many years in the field, all of which I love to share with others. It’s inspiring to me to watch people take what I may have shared with them in photography workshop and create imagery far beyond anything I could ever come close to creating.  It feels good helping new shooters build confidence and knowledge in underwater photography, even if it’s just a simple tip or technique.

OM: What is one underwater experience that will stay with you forever?

AC: Once I spent 38 minutes on a herring bait ball in the middle a Fjord in Tromso, Norway as forty plus orcas danced around us in the water, eating until their bellies were full, singing and communicating in the most beautiful whistled songs while hundreds of birds darted and danced along to the rhythm high above us in the sky. The action only ended when several humpbacks came barreling up from below to swallow the huge bait ball in a matter of seconds.

OM: You headed to Los Islotes at the end of last year – what marine life did you encounter on this trip?

AC: Los Islotes, just off the coast of La Paz in Baja California Sur, is one of the best places in the world to encounter sea lions. During the months of October and November the water is crystal blue, clear and warm. At this time of year, the sea lion pups are old enough to be playful and adventurous, but so small still they look and act like puppies. Forever curious, they approach divers and snorkelers alike, nibbling on hoses, tugging on fins, then darting off to twist and turn in playful frolicking with each other. It is an absolute dream encounter and photography opportunity.

OM: You’ve described the sperm whales of Dominica as some of the friendliest in the world – why is that?

AC: The waters off Dominica are home to a resident population of sperm whales that have been studied by researchers and dived with by film crews and image makers for decades. These whales are accustomed to the few boats in the area, and many families are comfortable with divers or swimmers being in the water with them. Dominica has strict regulations in place and requires a permit for any in-water encounters with the whales, only issuing one permit at a time for such activities. These strict restrictions have been vital and most certainly have played a huge part in the friendliness of the resident population of sperm whales located in this area. These whales are extremely intelligent, curious, playful and highly social. Many of the whales are known by name, and many of the whales initiate the encounters. It’s so important the restrictions stay in place at Dominica to protect the whales from boat traffic and harassment, which could alter their behaviour, areas of movement and family dynamic in a negative way.