My dive buddy Sharon Davies points emphatically to a small bunch of algae in the sand flat. All I see is a small bunch of algae. She points again, and the current gently wafts the green algae, revealing a tiny greenish gray… splodge. I look at her questioningly. She nods enthusiastically. I look again. It’s still a splodge, but I can see it’s moving ever so slightly. I glance back at her and, from behind my prescription dive mask, I make the universal wide-eye gesture for “Seriously? That’s it?”
What Davies is showing me is a frogfish. And as I have just discovered, it’s definitely not the size of a frog. In fact, this one is barely the size of a pinky fingernail.
Despite its size, or more likely because of it, the sighting of dwarf frogfish in local waters in February caused a major frisson of excitement among divers and underwater photographers. The one we saw was one of several that macro-photography divers had found at Don Foster’s, Eden Rock and other sites.
Local fans of underwater photography can’t have missed the upswing in the number of incredible shots of a variety of tiny marine creatures that have been posted on social media in recent months. On any dive boat or shore dive these days, those photographers can be found, carrying camera equipment with enough strobe lights and arms that they could be mistaken for Doctor Octopus.
Interest in underwater macro-photography certainly seems to have grown while Cayman’s borders have been closed.
Local dive operators have been trying to find ways to engage the Cayman-based dive community, offering trips to rarely-dived sites, guided underwater tours, and opportunities for snap-happy divers to spend hours checking out sand chutes, hard pans and mini walls for a variety of teeny marine animals.
Many of the photographers on island, including Davies, are members of the Cayman Islands Society of Underwater Photographers, known as CaySoUP, where they can share their images among a group of like-minded enthusiasts.
Professional photographers Gill McDonald and Susannah Snowden-Smith, who run the CaySoUP group, say that with so many local divers becoming interested in underwater photography, and especially macro, it’s very apparent that there are plenty of stunning minuscule subjects to photograph here.
That’s not to say that before lockdown, people didn’t know there was a vast array of nudibranchs, sea worms, slugs, shrimps and other fantastical marine life in the water off Cayman. Photographers Everett M. Turner, Essi Evans and Cynthia Abgarian have published books of photography featuring local nudibranchs and slugs, that many divers use as a reference to determine what it is they’ve taken a shot of.
But it seems now there are more macro photographers than ever donning masks, regulators and tanks, and heading underwater to capture these creatures with their cameras. For example, Alfe Bolos and Don Inose, two eagle-eyed amateur photographers who are members of CaySoUP, were among the first to spot the frogfish off Don Foster’s and helped fellow divers and photographers to locate the elusive tiny creatures.
CaySoUP, which was set up in 2019, is a networking group, Snowden-Smith said. “We’d meet in restaurants pre-COVID. We took a big break during lockdown. It was basically a loose group of whoever wanted to show up. We began having more formal meetings after setting up the Facebook group.”
Jordan Charles from Ambassadors of the Environment at The Ritz-Carlton invited the group to use its space, and they now meet there every second Tuesday of the month.
Charles, a freediver photographer who dives to depths without the aid of an air tank, has been among the guest speakers and recently gave a presentation of his photography. At each meeting, guest speakers present their work, followed by a slideshow featuring the photographs of attendees, who explain how they achieved the effects seen in their shots and the equipment they used.
Snowden-Smith told the Compass recently, “I was talking with another underwater photographer two or three years ago, and we were asking why is there no group like this on the island when there are so many underwater photographers here, where you could get together and talk shop and geek out about underwater photography.”
McDonald said CaySoUP is based on the British Society of Underwater Photographers, known as BSoUP, of which she has been a member for 18 years. The groups, however, are not officially affiliated with one another.
Both women point to the support that is available to all the members within the group.
“The idea is we network and bring each other up so … there is no putting your hands on people’s heads and pushing them down, we’re all here to pull one another up, help each other out. Some are using compact cameras, some have professional SLRs and everything in between. It’s a place to inspire each other and bring each other up,” Snowden-Smith said.
“It’s a hobby. There’s no financial gain. It’s about encouraging, teaching, learning and sharing,” McDonald said.
There is no official membership at this stage, though that may come in time, they said. Currently, there is a core group of 20 to 30 people who attend the monthly meetings. The club’s most recent meeting, on 10 May, saw its largest attendance yet.
“We would like more to come. We hope when the borders open, we can have people come down to our meetings and have in-person presentations. We do remote presentations. For example, recently, we had South Florida Underwater Photographic Society,” Snowden-Smith said.
One of the upsides of local divers exploring more of what is in their own back yard is that it has highlighted that the diving in Cayman is as good as anywhere in the world.
“Maybe when we start getting visitors coming back, they’ll realise they don’t need to go to Philippines or Indonesia, that they can get these amazing dives just an hour’s flight away from the US,” McDonald said. “Indonesia and the Philippines are considered the Mecca of underwater macro. And there are some very unique things to be found there, like frogfish and seahorses… this is the beginning of a sea change. People are starting to realise that these things are here too.”
Sergio Coni, who runs Don Foster’s, has been organising specific boat trips for macro photographers. Last month, for example, Don Foster’s took a group of divers on a three-tank dive to the Kittiwake, but instead of exploring the wreck, the divers spent hours scouring the sand beside it for creatures.
Coni also organised a ‘black water’ drift dive, where divers are dropped in the open sea at night, above the reef, to photograph the animals that feed in the water column in the dark.
That dive resulted in plenty of weird and wonderful sights, captured by several members of CaySoUP, and which were featured on the slideshow at its most recent meeting.