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How to Take the Perfect Underwater Picture of a Sea Turtle

Jo Piazza

How to Take the Perfect Underwater Picture of a Sea Turtle

A Hawksbill turtle perches on the Dhonfan reef. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

Make no mistake, there is a right way and a wrong way to take a picture of a sea turtle underwater, or so my dive instructor, marine biologist Magali Boussion informed me before we descended 20 meters to the Dhonfan reef in the Baa Atoll of the Maldives.

Approach slowly. Shoot the turtle’s profile from the right and then swing around to shoot it from the left. If you make any sudden moves the turtle will dart away. It’s a myth that turtles are sluggish. They’re merely deliberate. 

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Oh hey, sea turtle. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

My stint as the underwater Annie Leibovitz was part of a program that tries to count and track the turtles of the Maldives. Boussion works as a marine biologist with Marine Savers at the Four Seasons resort on the island of Landaa Giraavaru. One of the many things the research teams there do is identify sea turtles in the wild in an effort to report how the endangered species is faring on the reefs around the archipelago. Both the Hawksbill and the Green turtles are inhabitants of the reef and both stand only a 1 in 10,000 chance of growing to adulthood.

Watch: Diving With Sea Turtles

Marine Savers often enlists regular folks who probably dreamed of becoming marine biologists as kids, to help them count the turtles during turtle monitoring dives.

Using underwater cameras, the scientists have identified 800 individual turtles in the Maldives and 304 in the Baa Atoll alone. Once you take a picture the scientists upload it to their computers and run it through a special software that identifies the turtle based on their unique scales on the sides of their heads (kind of like their fingerprints). This is why those profile shots are so important. You need to get the scales in the frame.

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Sea turtles are much faster than you think. (Jo Piazza)

So I found myself 20 meters underwater, outfitted with a Canon S110 wrapped in waterproof dive housing, attempting to first spot and then photograph a sea turtle. I was hoping for the hat trick. I wanted to find one, snap it, and then have them tell me this was a turtle no one had ever identified before. When you find that special, never before snapped turtle you get to name it. I wanted to name that turtle.

Here is what I learned: Approach the sea turtle with caution, the way you would Nicholas Cage on the set of one of his movies. Like Nick Cage, don’t look the sea turtle directly in the eye. Go slowly, or as slowly and smoothly as you can with a 30-pound tank of gas strapped to your back and 20-inch flippers on your feet.

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Take the picture fast, before he gets away. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

My first approach was not a thing of beauty. It consisted of three distinct phases. First, I grew too excited and tried to yell out to Magali, “Hey I found a turtle, I found a turtle.” It took about a minute to cough the water out of my lungs and replace my regulator. Do not get excited and yell about the sea turtle underwater. No one can hear you. You will drown. 

Next, I kicked my legs and flapped my arms to get closer to the turtle. This caused the turtle to dart away. 

Finally, I took off after the turtle, but that guy knew exactly what he was doing. He dove to a depth well below my open water limit of 20 meters and then peered up at me as if to say, “Who is winning at evolution now?”

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And the turtle leaves me in his wake. (Photo: Jo Piazza)

It took three more attempts with three other turtles before I really got the hang of it. Magali then gave me the universal A-OK sign with her thumb and her forefinger and I stealthily swam up to the side of a large green turtle resting lazily on the reef. I was able to shoot his right side and then his left. He peered at me curiously, but made no move to swim away. In that moment, I was a marine biologist.

Exhilaration rushed through me as I snapped my last shot. Hoping to avoid another breathing snafu, I took an excited underwater selfie instead. By then it was time to ascend back to the surface.

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Is a sea turtle selfie a thing? (Photo: Jo Piazza)

I’m still waiting to find out whether I discovered a new turtle (fingers crossed), and I’m still figuring out what I will name it if I do (Herman … maybe?).

If you’re traveling to the Maldives any time soon and you happen to have an underwater camera, you don’t need to hit the reef with one of the Marine Savers scientists to help count the turtles. Take your own pictures and email them to the Marine Discovery Center at the Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa at mdc.manager@fourseasons.com. They will filter your pictures through their system and let you know if you can name your new friend. 

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