Precarious and beautiful

Interview by Oceanographic Staff
Words and photographs by Simon Lorenz

Genetically we are part of the natural world, but our human existence often leads us to being out of touch with nature.

Simon Lorenz wears many hats. He’s an award-winning underwater photographer, an Isotta ambassador, photography coach, PADI instructor and tour guide. His company, Insider Divers, creates group trips for like-minded divers and snorkelers who are keen to learn about the nuances of the underwater world, and how best to capture extraordinary moments. We head behind the lens to find out more about Simon’s world beneath the waves.

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

Simon Lorenz (SL): I have always been a water boy and my childhood memories are filled with swimming in lakes and the ocean. My first underwater experience was snorkelling and stalking pike in an Austrian Lake at the age of seven. At 18 I did my first scuba dive on the island of Elba and I was totally hooked. I remember feeling empowered by the feeling of buoyancy and the instructor having to pull me out of some overhead swim-throughs that I foolishly felt comfortable diving through.

OM: How does it feel for you to be able to create underwater photography?

SL: When I could finally afford to get certified years later in Central America, I felt an immediate desire to continue my “topside” hobby of underwater photography. My first ever steps with a point-and-shoot where with the manta rays of Nusa Lembongan, Bali, and I realised that taking a camera seriously impaired buoyancy and dive time. But I was stoked to be able to create underwater photography and it quickly replaced topside photography entirely for me.

OM: You were recently in Sri Lanka – what did you experience?

SL: In Sri Lanka I ran a group trip exploring both the wrecks of Colombo and the whales off the coast of this amazing island. There are so many wrecks in really good condition with tons of wildlife living there. The water is warm and clear, and they have recent wrecks as well as historic ones that are more than 100 years old. Sri Lanka has more than 25 different types of cetaceans, but the main draw is the blue whales. While there are many places where blue whales can be seen only a few places give permits to snorkel with them. The 2020 season hadn’t started well and the groups before us had not seen any whales. We travelled out far and got lucky right away with sperm whales for the first two days. And then on day three and four we saw the blues, including a mother and calf. We topped it off with a day of pilot whales. Our last day got cancelled when Sri Lanka closed down all wildlife activities due to the coronavirus, so we felt extra lucky to have had those amazing interactions.

Simon Lorenz underwater photography
Simon Lorenz underwater photography blackwater
Underwater photography Simon Lorenz blue whale

OM: What do you hope to achieve with your photography coaching and workshops?

SL: From that very first camera I taught myself through several upgrades – all based on trial and error with many bad photos. It could have all been much faster if I had signed up for a workshop or even bought an underwater photography book. With my photography workshops I want to enable divers to skip all my mistakes and get to level of taking memorable photos faster. In Sri Lanka, for example, we first practiced freediving with and without camera and then I gave talks on whale behaviour and on freediving photography. So, when my guests had these interactions, they were able to get a good photo almost immediately.

OM: Why is it so important that we capture the underwater world?

SL: Personally, I love all animal photography – a perfect photo is artistically impressive and tells a story. If I can make my photos deliver both of these aspects, then I am delighting the artistic sense of viewers and educate at the same time. Essentially, we are all on a mission to make the underwater world visible and experienceable above water.

OM: What has been your most significant experience while shooting underwater?

SL: After a baited dive in South Africa’s Aliwal Shoal I was slowly coming up while the oceanic black tips were all around me. Everyone was back on the boat and I was still in the water surrounded by sharks taking split photography. That was one of the key moments when I decided to give up my regular job and pursue underwater photography.

But one of my fondest memories would be a sand tiger dive in South West Rocks, East Australia. The site has underwater canyons which are a daytime hang-out area for hundreds of these sharks. But conditions are often rough. We were very lucky and had great conditions, but the sharks disperse when many divers are around. So, for one dive our Divemaster let me and my photographer buddy go in first. We had 20 magical minutes with 30 or 40 sand tiger sharks gently cruising around us.

OM: How can underwater photography contribute to ocean conservation?

SL: If we underwater photographers and videographers keep bringing the underwater world alive for those who will never experience this world, we can sharpen the minds for the need for conservation. I do think we need to make sure that our viewers get reminded of the precarious state of conservation for many species. Photos, particularly about sharks, surprise non-divers as they would never dream of getting so close to a predator – seeing that we can get close safely to sharks reduces the general fear and disgust for these animals and hopefully increase support for conservation work.

Simon Lorenz underwater photography macro
underwater photography Simon Lorenz Galapagos
Simon Lorenz underwater photography Mexico

OM: What was it that made you decide to launch Insider Divers?

SL: For the first years I often travelled to locations alone or in small groups and realised that you cannot get the best experience unless you book as a group. Once in South Africa I tried hard to get a trip to see the makos and blues but couldn’t as we needed more participants. It frustrated me to bits. Another motivation was the quality of the group. Several times I got stuck with unpleasant groups of divers when booking alone, which impacted the quality of the diving and the social part. When people are interested in travelling with us, I talk to them first and make sure that everyone is focussed on being a responsible diver and is interested in learning. We always offer talks and educational activities on our trips because we want our divers to learn about the natural environment and its challenges. So, when people come on our trips, they already know that everyone have the same mindset.

OM: How do you ensure divers behave appropriately around marine life?

SL: Every dive trip starts with a dive briefing that includes guidelines about interaction with marine life, diving safely, how to responsibly take photos and how to dive that specific environment. The other group leaders and I do not shy away from coaching divers who are having buoyancy difficulties or are not aware of how to behave around the reef and marine life.

OM: Have you ever had to think fast or face challenges while shooting underwater?

SL: That is why I love photography with fast moving subjects so much. Manta Rays, sharks and whales all give us a limited amount of time to make a choice on the style of photography. I often find that this is the hardest part of underwater photography – you may know how to add a slow shutter effect, but can you apply it quickly in the moment you are with an animal? Same goes for sun bursts, if you set up a shot for a shark coming towards you but it then swims between you and the sun you need to act fast to reduce your aperture and increase the power of the strobes fast – or you will lose that shot. Generally, it helps to read up on animals before you meet them so you can anticipate their behaviour – that always results in better photos.

Simon Lorenz underwater photography manta ray
Simon Lorenz underwater photography shark
Simon Lorenz underwater photography Paulau jellyfish

OM: Do you think a sense of adventure is innate in humans?

SL: I think that there is a sense of adventure in all of us, but we often lose it early in life. Genetically we are part of the natural world, but our human existence often leads us to being out of touch with nature. Children should to be encouraged to explore and experience nature early on before screens and city life take a complete hold. I think schools can do more to get kids outside – and underwater.

OM: You’re based in Hong Kong – can you share a little about the diving scene here?

SL: One of the reasons I have really enjoy living here is the ability to dive almost all year round. It is not amazing diving, but for home diving it is good enough. It is subtropical during summer and cool during winter – in fact our soft corals are amongst the most temperature resistant coral in the world, as they are able to tolerate water temperatures from 18 to 28 degrees. The underwater world could be much better if there would not that much fishing and urban construction. Since the historic oyster banks have been destroyed by urbanisation the water is not very clear anymore. But, with a little patience, you can find interesting animals over time. Clownfish, stingrays, scorpionfish, lionfish, nudibranchs and octopi are common – I have found several blue-ringed octopus over the years.

OM: What would be your advice to those looking to start a career in underwater photography?

SL: These days it is hard to make an income as a photographer – and even more underwater. The best approach is to have several irons in the fire as the saying goes. Have other work on the side as an instructor, tour leader, online scuba marketeer or topside photographer. I tried to always have several income streams at the same time to be able to follow my passion.

OM: Why do you think it is that we know more about space than about the ocean?

SL: My guess is that space has been seen as the heavens in most religions since time immemorial, while the ocean was only seen as a food source. Many people still look towards the ocean with fear but with amazement at the skies. Research into the ocean would benefit us much more than space, yet governments invest large sums looking deeper into space than we will ever be able to travel, all the while ignoring the ocean is right on our doorstep.

Words and photographs by Simon Lorenz