Underwater photographers generally arrive at their profession via one of two routes: they either start out as land-based photographers and then take their skill underwater, or they are experienced scuba divers who later add photography to the mix.
A little over three years ago, Ellen Cuylaerts, historian, IT professional and mother of two, was neither of these. In fact, she says, she had a fear of water. Proof that anything is achievable when one sets one’s mind to it, however, today Cuylaerts is a highly successful freelance underwater photographer with a string of awards to her name, and whose stunning underwater shots have been published in magazines around the world.
Originally from Belgium, Cuylaerts and her family moved to the Cayman Islands six years ago. She was so busy home schooling her children, that for the first three years on-island she did not even take a Discover Scuba course. Even when she did, she says, she was not convinced. “I liked it, but I didn’t think it was for me,” she recalls. “But I read up on the theory, and a month later I took some specialties. I was getting a little bored diving so, after 17 dives, I got a camera – and that’s where it started.”
Cuylaerts hadn’t had a particular interest in photography previously but, she says, “I wanted to show what I saw underwater, and I wanted to do it well. I’m not so much a technical shooter, although I do of course read up on technique, but I don’t think too much – the main thing I love to do is capture a feeling and tell a story.”
Within six months of taking up underwater photography, armed with only a small camera and limited experience, she signed up for an underwater photography workshop in Cayman with world-class underwater image-maker Alex Mustard. The other participants, who had far more experience than her and dove with huge, complex rigs, laughed at her modest gear – until they saw her photos.
These days, Cuylaerts is able to pick and choose the trips she wants to go on – from diving with manatees in Florida to killer whales in Norway.
The combined challenges of motherhood and a successful career in IT, she believes, honed her ability to learn fast and to multi-task – essential skills for any underwater photographer. “It’s challenging,” she says. “You have to think quickly, and adjust your settings, while shooting animals that move in unpredictable ways, and at the same time be aware of undercurrents and changing weather conditions.”
Having overcome her fear of water, she then tackled sharks head-on. Although Cuylaerts never wanted to dive with sharks if they had been baited or the water chummed, when the opportunity arose to join a workshop with Amanda Cotton, (her “great inspiration”), she didn’t let the fact that it was on shark photography prevent her from signing up.
Despite some initial nerves, once in the water it was a revelation, she says. These days she will happily dive with any species of shark.
In the Bahamas, where sharks are rarely seen close to shore, she travels several miles beyond the drop off – where the sea is thousands of feet deep and land is out of sight – to find them in their natural habitat.
“There are a few rules: You must look them in the eye, and not splash or thrash around as they might mistake you for a fish in distress, but sharks do not normally bite people,” she points out. Through photographing sharks, she began to learn about them, about how misunderstood they are, how their numbers are declining and the vital role they play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
“With my pictures I can help to change people’s minds about sharks and teach them how much we need them,” she says. “And now that my photos are being published in photography magazines, as well as dive magazines, I can reach non-divers, and hopefully they will begin to appreciate the underwater world too, and will want to protect it.”
To this end, she and her husband, filmmaker Michael Maes, are in the process of making a documentary film, “Epiphany,” about sharks, which they hope will be completed by the end of 2015.
Her dream would be to see Cayman become a shark sanctuary, where sharks of all kinds would be protected, and divers could come for the unique experience of encountering these creatures in the open ocean.