A large colony of mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) spawning at night in late summer. - Photo: Alex Mustard
Photographer Alexander Mustard – Grand Cayman, 2018.

Vast, darting schools of silversides, the rusting labyrinthine interiors of shipwrecks, coral bursting into effervescent clouds for just one night a year – Cayman’s underwater world offers up an array of jaw-dropping sights, but it takes special talent to capture them in all their glory.

Now, one photographer with 20 years of experience diving and shooting in our waters has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2018.

Alex Mustard received the news in early June that he was being recognized for services to underwater photography. The 43-year-old Brit has long-standing ties to Cayman, leading sellout courses biannually with Ocean Frontiers from Compass Point Dive Resort.

The honor follows career successes such as the ADEX 2016 Award for Extraordinary Contribution to Underwater Photography and four category wins in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. He’s also the author of two popular books on the subject and the inventor of the Magic Filter, a filter specifically designed for available light underwater photography with digital cameras.

The Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) recognizes the achievements of a wide range of extraordinary people in British society, with this year’s list including a 103-year-old charity worker and a 20-year-old Paralympian.

Alex tells Weekender about mistaking the MBE letter for a tax bill and why he keeps returning to Cayman’s coastline.

How did it feel to get the news?

I was totally shocked – as a photographer I’m used to winning awards, but these are always in photo competitions that I have entered. Whereas with the MBE, which of course is much bigger than a photo contest, I had no idea about it at all until the letter arrived.

It arrived in a letter from the government, saying that the prime minister had put my name forward to the Queen for approval! So very grand. The letter arrived while I was away shooting in Galapagos and it was marked “On Her Majesty’s Service.” I thought it might be a tax bill or something, so I left it until the last letter when opening my post on return from my trip.

A pair of shy hamlets (Hypoplectrus guttavarius) spawning at dusk. – Photo: Alex Mustard

When is the investiture ceremony?

It will take place during the next three months – I don’t have the date yet – at Kensington Palace in London. I know it will be a great day out and I’m looking forward to swapping stories with other people attending, as well as meeting royalty.

How did you get into underwater photography?

I have a lifelong passion for the oceans and started snorkeling at a young age. As I was the only member of my family who went in the water, I wanted to take pictures to show my family what I was seeing. I got my first, very basic underwater camera when I was 9 years old and have been taking pictures ever since. I didn’t get an above-water camera for about another 10 years!

Underwater photography was always a hobby for me as I pursued a career as a marine biologist, mainly working in the open ocean, although in 2003 I also made the first correct predictions for annual coral spawning in Cayman and we published that data at the Zoological Society in London. While working as a marine biologist I continued to take pictures underwater, finally deciding to go full time as a photographer in 2004.

Can you tell us about your connection to Cayman?

I first visited and dived here in 1992 and started coming regularly in the late 1990s, bringing out my first groups of underwater photographers to dive in 2003. In September 2004, I was here to photograph coral spawning and just a few days after the spawn we were in the hurricane shelter in Gun Bay during [Hurricane] Ivan. That experience further strengthened my ties to the island. I’ve brought one or two groups down each year since. My own photos from the Cayman Islands have been on many magazine covers and have won me awards in major photo contests like Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

A school of horse-eye jacks (Caranx latus) swim over the bow of the USS Kittiwake wreck, while diver (Colin Bristow) looks on. – Photo: Alex Mustard

Why is this such a great place for your line of work?

Clear waters and perfect diving conditions make it ideal for mastering the techniques of underwater photography – especially with dramatic reef scenery, friendly stingrays and the photogenic Kittiwake wreck. The dive centers are world class and Grand Cayman has first-class infrastructure on so many fronts. There’s even tax-free camera shopping and an underwater specialist shop in Cathy Church’s Photo Center.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve captured on camera here?

Wow, I have been very lucky to see lots of amazing things through my lens underwater in Cayman. I think my favorite picture would be one I shot back in 2003 of spawning shy hamlets. At the time, I don’t think anyone had ever photographed this behavior anywhere in the world and the photo went on to be awarded at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year. It was so exciting for me to capture something completely new here in Cayman, especially as these reefs have been the home to recreational scuba diving for more than 50 years. It shows that there are always new images to be found, and I guess that is what keeps me coming back.

For further information about Alex’s underwater photography courses in Cayman, visit www.oceanfrontiers.com.