Under the Sea – Part I of II…by Brad Marks

As you read this, we are on our way to catch the Gulf migration. We had to cancel this trip last year and looking forward to giving the Average Year efforts a booster shot (a few ticks behind, but link here). Thanks to some local finds, the count sits at a healthy 240 with just a shade over 9 months left. A few days in Dauphin Island will assuredly push me closer to the 300 goal. We first head to Florida for a boys agility competition and then make our way back across the panhandle to Gulf Shores. While we travel to our first base camp, Brad will be taking the helm to boldly go where no Intrigued post has gone before! Thankfully there are people like Brad (and his wife) that are willing to risk it all and live to post about it. …catch you later in the week, meanwhile, take it away Brad…(note, you can hit the image link to see larger versions of his shots)

With the exception of Hawaiian green sea turtles, nearly every Intrigued article has been about something with feathers, or at least above sea level.  This one is going to completely different.  The only air you will see is what’s reflected on the underside of the surface of the water, or the “underside of air”.  There’s also an evolution of photography woven throughout the story.  Grab your reef-safe sunscreen and a towel, because we are going snorkeling.

But first, set the way-back machine for a bit of history before we “dive” in.  Our friends from Boston scored a “free” condo on Kauai (kah-oo-ah-ee) for eight days in February 2000.  Of course, we said we’d go with them.  We found babysitters for Allyson (she was not quite four years old then and retired grandparents are wonderful).  Once we booked flights from frozen Chicago to Kauai (known as the Garden Isle), we were on our way.

Jan and I were in Hawaii!  We were very excited to squeeze out every ounce of fun during our first trip to the islands.  We decided to snorkel at Ke’e (KAY-ay) Beach on the northwest side of the island.  We were looking forward to some sunshine and warm water.

This was going to be our first underwater photography experience.  Not knowing what to expect, and not wanting to spend a bunch of money on a camera if we didn’t like it, we used disposable film cameras.  Five of them if I remember correctly.  Each little “camera in a box” had 24 exposures of ISO 400 film, a nearly microscopic (smaller than most smart phones) fixed focus plastic lens (only in focus for about 3-10 feet away), and a thumbwheel to wind the film. (Kids, go ask your parents or grandparents about manual winding film cameras)

After arriving at the beach, I jumped right in.  Holy crap the water is cold!  We were in Hawaii, right?  Shouldn’t this water be warm?  After the initial temperature shock, I eventually remembered to breathe and started snapping photos.  The water around Hawaii is very deep and never gets a chance to really warm up.  The ocean currents push very deep water up the steep slopes of the islands (upwelling) towards the surface.  Here is the first fish I saw, and photographed, underwater.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2000)

It is a surge wrasse (Thalassoma purpureum).  They are about the size of the 2-3 lb. bass from a farm pond but much more colorful.  The surge wrasse likes heavy surf areas (hence the name) and is usually within 30 feet of the surface.

Hit the jump to read more about this underwater adventure!

After snorkeling for most of the morning and afternoon, I had already gone through two complete disposable cameras.  Jan reminded me that we still had more snorkel days planned and to save a camera (or two) for later in our vacation.  Two days later we found ourselves on the south side of Kauai at Po’ipu (POY-poo) Beach.  It is a lovely two-part lagoon, with a spit of sand down the middle where monk seals like to sun themselves.  By the way, Kauai has more beaches per mile than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands. One of them is 17 miles long.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2000)

This is (ready for the DON, Department of Obvious Names nomenclature) . . . drumroll please . . . an orangespine surgeonfish (Naso lituratus).  The orange-colored spines I could figure out.  The surgeon part is because their spines can inflict a nasty wound if you get too close, like surgeon’s scalpel.

Yes, these are sort of crummy fuzzy photographs.  Remember, they were taken with a plastic fixed-focus lens underwater in highly aerated surf and then converted to digital.  Enough excuses already, let’s see some more fish photos. 

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2000)

These bluespine unicornfish (Naso unicornis) were just cruising around the water at Po’ipu Beach.  They typically grow to be just over two feet long.   This pair looked fully grown from where I was swimming.  Like many reef fish, these have leathery skin instead of scales.  The male in the photo has long streamers from the tips of his tail.  Both sexes have the unicorn feature on top in front.

Back in the day, we were used to waiting days to weeks to find out what sort of photos we ended up with.  I remember taking the camera boxes and rolls of film to Wal-Mart or Target to be “developed” into digital negatives.  I ask for the film back so I could scan the negatives later.

The rest of the underwater photos in this story are from the Big Island of Hawaii. 

Jan and I returned to the Big Island with our friends from Boston in January 2002.  (remember Foggy Hike?  Same trip.)  On a very sunny day in January, we took a snorkel cruise to Kealakekua Bay.  While the rest were still putting on our fins and masks, Jan jumped in with our new hardshell Sealife Reefmaster underwater camera (35mm point-n-shoot with built-in flash; no more disposables for us) strapped to her wrist.  This eel was just gliding over the coral, probably surprised by all of the snorkelers that just invaded its territory. 

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2002)

It is not uncommon to see a whitemouth moray eel (Gymnothorax meleagris) poking its head out of the coral.  It is uncommon to see the entire animal swimming outside the protection of the coral.  Our guide told us later that the eel wasn’t in a threatening posture (mouth wide open), it was just “breathing”.

This side of the Big Island drops off very quickly.  In front of us was this wondrous coral reef with all manner of undersea life.  Behind us was the Pacific Ocean and deep blue nothingness.  Coral can exist in water down to a couple hundred feet deep.  Since the slope is so steep here, the band of dense colorful coral is very narrow (remember your geometry?).  After lunch on board the catamaran, we went into the water again.  After all, we had nearly two dozen rolls of film at our disposal.

First in the water after lunch, Jan saw this beauty nearly immediately, probably even before I was fully in the water.  Again.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2002)

It is . . . are you ready for this . . . a pinktail triggerfish (Melichthys vidua).  (DON working overtime again) They move about by wobbling their top and bottom fins only.  The “trigger” part of the name comes from the two dorsal spines.  The very large one can be held erect and literally lock in place when the second smaller spine “triggers” it to lock.  The fish can use these as a defense mechanism.  No, not to spear predators, but to lock themselves in place, hiding in a hole in the reef.  They swim into a small hole, “trigger” the spines, and they are locked in place until the danger passes.

A couple of days later Jan and I went on a scuba excursion.  She was already scuba certified; I was not (at the time).  We found a local dive shop that gave me a provincial “resort” certification, as long as I was with at least two other certified divers and could demonstrate enough skills to NOT drown anyone else.  For my first dive EVER, we did the most complicated entry possible:  a bench entry** at Two Step Beach.  The “beach” is located next to Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau (poo-oo-HO-new-ah oh HAW-now-now) National Historical Park (or Place of Refuge) on the west side of the Big Island.  The “beach” itself is not much more than a lava shelf at the edge of the ocean.  We took a deep breath and jumped in.  (See more of the story in the NOTES below).  After only a few minutes in the water at 35-40 feet beneath the surface (I think that’s a record depth at Intrigued, just like I think Ravenpalooza was at a record altitude of 14,115’), here is one of the very first locals we saw.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2002)

You may recognize the Hawaiian green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), or honu, from a prior post.  It was peacefully gliding by us on its way to the deep.  Again, we really didn’t know we had a good photo until we developed the film a couple of weeks later. 

Fast forward the calendar to 2005.  We took our daughter Allyson to Hawaii for the first time.  She was excited to get in the water to try out her new snorkel gear.  One of our favorite places to go is Kahalu’u (ka-ha-LOO-oo) Beach Park on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The park has a nice lagoon mostly separated from the open ocean by a shallow reef.  On calm days between tides, the water here is warmer than Kealakekua Bay . . . for the most part.

In the middle of her first day snorkeling, Allyson popped up and said a fish was eating her fins.  We were skeptical at first because the tide was out and the water was shallow, thinking she scraped the rocks underwater.  But a few minutes later we saw this guy attacking her pink fins.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized* film photo, 2005)

This Picasso triggerfish (Rhinecanthus rectangulus), more commonly known as humuhumunukunukuapua’a (hoo-moo-hoo-moo-noo-koo-noo-koo-ah-pooah-ah), or just “humu”, must have thought Allyson’s fins were a competitor because it kept attacking them.  The “humu” is Hawaii’s state fish.  We decided to move on and snorkel in another part of the lagoon.  But when we returned two days later to the same spot, guess what happened again?  Yup.  A humu, maybe even the same one, was attacking Allyson’s fins.

By now we were having our film developed on the islands as we shot it.  We used Longs Drug based on a referral from a local photographer.  (Longs also has a very fine selection of after-sun products for those that tend to burn and not tan, like me.)  She told us they know how to properly develop underwater photos, where most mainland labs do not have much practice with it.  On this vacation we shot 24 rolls of film total; five of those were beneath the waves. 

A couple of days later, the three of us went to Kealakekua Bay snorkeling.  A few minutes into the trip I noticed water sloshing inside the hard-shell case.  Three grains of sand were caught in the seal and were letting in sea water.  I was able to get to the boat and get the film safely out of the camera, but the damage to the camera was done.  The seawater had already shorted the electronics and corroded the battery.  Our underwater photos for this trip were over.  Once we were home again, I tried to get a replacement camera for the housing.  But by this time, everything had gone digital.

Stay tuned as our tropical photographers decide whether or not to enter the unknown realm of . . . underwater digital photography.  Gasp! Thank you for reading.  If you want to see more underwater photos from our Hawaii adventures, please visit here.  Just don’t look too far ahead for Part II photos.  Those will be coming soon to Wildlife Intrigued.


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan for many of the photos in this article. 


*I digitized the 35mm film negatives via two methods:  1. I purchased a dedicated Nikon Coolscan V ED film scanner.  2. I built a rig for my Nikon DSLR with a macro lens and backlit the negatives.  I have digitized about 400 rolls of 35mm film over the past few years through both devices.

**A bench entry involves timing the outgoing waves so you jump from the two-foot high bench right when the wave begins to retreat, pulling you away from shore.  The bench is on the edge of 10-15 feet of water so you do NOT have to worry about hitting the bottom.  You DO have to paddle like hell for a few seconds to make sure the next wave doesn’t push you right back into the hardened lava.  This was our view as the bubbles cleared after jumping in.

Under the See by Brad Marks
(digitized film photo, 2002)

As we surfaced after the first dive a few yards offshore, the dive master tapped me on the shoulder and told me we simply had to reverse the process to get out of the ocean.  Being the largest and presumably the strongest in the group he wanted me to help him.  He went first to made it look easy.  He asked me to fully inflate my vest and be ready to kick like crazy with the waves TOWARD the lava bench.  When the right wave was coming, he yelled “Now!” and I paddled for all I was worth.  The wave lifted me above the bench, pushed me a few feet inland then started to pull me back out again.  That’s when he grabbed my vest and held on.  Once I was stable on the rocks, he said “now you have to help me grab the rest of them”.  It was Jan’s turn next.  An extra-large wave lifted her and brought her in above the bench.  However, since the water was so high it was also going to pull her right back out.  I grabbed her scuba tank and held on until the water receded.  Then the instructor and I lifted her a few feet inland so the next wave wouldn’t carry her back out again.  On our second dive of the day, we walked about 100 yards to a shore entry where you simply walk into the ocean and back out again.  That would have been much simpler overall.  But then where would the cool story come from?

29 thoughts on “Under the Sea – Part I of II…by Brad Marks”

      1. Amen to that. I used to love to swim when I was a kid. I shy away from water these days, other than drinking it. I’m down to a shower a week as an old guy. I’ve finally taken the cats advice and roll in the dirt. It saves a lot of water. Water is scarce here. If you can smell me, you’re too damn close!

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Same here – when I was a kid I remember splashing around in the ocean with my two brothers – not a care in the world… then you get a bit more educated, see some more nature programs and then …not going in there ha. The Midwest has been absolutely hammered with rain, hail and few tornadoes cruising by over the last two weeks. Had to keep an eye on the security cameras to make sure the house was still standing. One of the local car dealerships lost all the cars on their lot to smashed windows and mega dents from the quarter+ sized hail and were offering them at liquidation prices – would be a nice deal for a body shop guy. Luckily for now we are not at shower rationing levels although that may be the perfect social distancing mechanism in today’s new age.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. Cheryl, I agree on the disposable cameras. Great for helping make a memory. Not so good for really good photos. I really want an underwater housing for my DSLR, but by the time I have one, I’ll probably have stopped snorkeling and diving. Thanks for swimming by.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tanja. We have enjoyed the process of being in the undersea environment and learning a new form of photography. It is certainly different than anything else we’ve done with our cameras. Thanks for dropping by.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ll leave actually going “under” the water to Brad… I much prefer just driving to the nearest aquarium and walking from tank to tank throwing out lines from Finding Nemo – until my wife gets so embarrassed she makes me leave.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Hahahaha..yes, I’ve given myself away … Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Note, I do the same thing whenever we see a flock of Gulls – “Mine! Mine! Mine! Mine!”…and yes, Sea Turtles – “Remember: rip it, roll it, and punch it.” or “Gimme some fin”. Linda has threatened to disown me over it.

          Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Sam. I saw your Part II comments first, so this is a bit out of order. I, too, wonder sometimes where all of the specialized shapes and colors and features came from. Some adaptation to something long ago I’m sure. Just like bird variations I supposed; each developed for a survival advantage at some point. Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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