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Capturing A Dissolving Landscape

Underwater coral reef photography may be a disappearing art.

PORT LOUIS, MAURITIUS- If you are saving up your nature photography trips for quickly melting glaciers, disappearing Arctic polar bears, the soon to be inundated Maldives, or Vermont’s sweet but northbound sugar maple forests, consider saving some time for the rainforests of the oceans: coral reefs. These unbelievably diverse and productive regions are currently dissolving beneath deceptively cerulean-blue, warm, and increasingly acidic water. Scientists have conservatively predicted that coral reefs (as seen in Photos 1 - 5) will disappear by 2100, while some have warned of a near-total loss as early as 2050.

Coral reef decline is closely linked to ocean acidification, caused by CO2 sequestration and leading directly to dissolution of the corals. Higher global sea temperatures (already up 1°C with a predicted 1-4°C increase by 2100) pave way for higher disease susceptibility and the expulsion of symbiotic organisms providing nutrients to the corals, creating bleached corals and large-scale die offs. Sea levels, which may rise 1 meter higher by the end of the century, leave coral growth struggling to keep up and allowing stronger waves to reach shore and erode coastlines. Adding insult to injury, agricultural and construction projects expel turbid runoff saturated with fertilizers that makes coral regeneration more difficult by promoting algae growth, which steals oxygen, decreases available sunlight, and suffocates the corals. The science is clearly grim, and photographs provide the evidence.    

Photographers are among the few witnesses who regularly observe and document the health and diversity of coral reefs. I was lucky to catch up with photojournalist Linley Bignoux, based in Mauritius, who has documented coral reefs around the world for over seven years. He describes photography as “an art and a science” and hopes that his audiences can reflect on the beauty in nature. “We are in a time of peril with the state of our oceans,” Bignoux stated, and added, “this issue is huge, and we are not tackling it well.”

The underwater world has long fascinated photographers, partly because of its unique challenges and dangers. Getting the perfect shot underwater is infinitely more difficult than doing so on land, once you take in account the limitations of diving equipment, moving through water with strong currents, minimal lighting, and the game of luck inherent in wildlife and nature photography in the first place. The perfect shot quickly becomes a lifelong endeavor, but perhaps the underwater journey is the true gift in the end.

Bignoux shares some suggestions for the art form that may soon disappear with the subject it features. His advice to photographers who may be intimidated by the underwater challenge: “Don’t be afraid to fail. You never fail in photography—it’s a subjective discipline.” An important thing to keep in mind, says Bignoux, is that “a good camera is only as good as its photographer”. He advises practice and patience with the camera, diving, and underwater lighting that can take many years to master. “Read, read, read, and learn from other photographers.” In the end, Bignoux says, “there is no perfect image.” Just, perhaps, a missed opportunity.

Photos 1-5 courtesy of Linley Bignoux,