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Limestone, Light and Water

These are the elements that British expat photo-alchemist Tom St. George transmutes into pure visual gold.

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By Tom St. George

Located in Southeastern Mexico on the Caribbean coast, the Yucatan Peninsula is the home of cenote diving. The Cenotes are the natural sinkholes that serve as the entrances to the underwater cave systems. In local mythology, they are the entrances to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld where the gods and ancient spirits reside. 

When you dive into the cenotes, you enter a world of crystal clear waters and dancing sunbeams. As you venture further into the caverns and caves, you swim amongst ancient stalagmites, stalactites, and intricate formations ranging in size from tiny soda straws to enormous columns, with room after room of changing vistas.

Julia Gugelmeier hovering effortlessly in the sunbeams, midway between the hydrogen sulfide cloud and the entrance of Cenote Maravilla.
A multi-image panorama of Cenote Kukulkan with Julia Gugelmeier.
Recently qualified cave diver Christine Tamburri hovers transfixed by the stunning formations at Cenote Xulo (lighting by Roger Williams).
Julia Gugelmeier expertly lighting up a stunning chamber at Cenote Otoch-Ha.
Adrian Stapor enjoying a cave dive at Cenote Cristal after completing his Intro to Cave certification (lighting by John Knoepfle).
Anne-Laure Huynh exiting a restriction and Cenote Zacil-Ha (lighting by Arthur Nguyen-Kim).

I discovered my passion for diving over 20 years ago when I emigrated from the UK to New Zealand. A decade later, the wanderlust struck again, but this time with renewed force, so I quit my full-time job to pursue diving in far-flung places. This journey eventually led to settling in Tulum where the magical cenotes truly brought my dual obsessions of scuba diving and photography together. 

The images I take in the cenotes and caves can generally be categorized in two ways. Some are quite clearly underwater landscapes with—almost always—a single diver to act as a focal point and to give context and scale. Others are perhaps described best as environmental portraits that capture divers doing what they love in these stunning locations surrounded by mind-blowing sunbeams or passing through stunningly decorated sections of a cave.

Best known for my images of the cenotes and underwater caves of the Riviera Maya, I am lucky enough to now earn my living as a professional underwater photographer. I mainly shoot a mix of commercial work for dive businesses and scuba brands and photo sessions for visiting divers and freedivers. As well as making images, I have found a lot of enjoyment is teaching underwater photography, videography, and photogrammetry through both one-to-one coaching and group workshops. I am also lucky enough to usually make a few dive trips each year as a photographer for Dive Magazine (pre-COVID, at least).

Cave diver Caroline Rogers posing for a shot amongst the decorations at Cenote Xulo (lighting by Julia Gugelmeier).
A moody capture of a dive at Cenote Jailhouse with Justin Enzmann (lighting by Julia Gugelemeier).
InDepth’s own Michael Menduno enjoying a stunningly decorated section of cave at Cenote Otoch-Ha (lighting by Julia Gugelmeier).
The debris mound at Cenote Angelita looks like an island surrounded by a ‘river’ of hydrogen sulfide gas (model Julia Gugelemeier).

Diving and photographing the cenotes is a sheer joy for me—the crystal clear waters and the incredible light rays always keep me coming back for more. There is something truly magical about the mix of light and the water. For me, wide-angle ambient light shots are perhaps the purest way to capture these scenes. My approach is very straightforward; it is simply about capturing the light, and very much a case of “what you see is what you get.” 

“There is something truly magical about the mix of light and the water. For me, wide-angle ambient light shots are perhaps the purest way to capture these scenes.”

Whether I’m attempting to capture the breath-taking light beams at The Pit or the soft diffused light of Cenote Angelita, the approach is the same. I prefer to capture the moment, with minimal direction of the diver(s), and so I am generally the one working to find the best vantage point to arrange the relationship of elements in the scene.

Things start to get a lot different when we move beyond the daylight zone and start to capture images of the underwater caverns and caves. We find ourselves now constrained much more by our environment (although it has often been said that constraints can aid in the creative process).

Obviously, for starters, there is no ambient light at all and the only illumination is from the primary lights, video lights, and strobes that we bring with us on the dive. 

When using strobes, you need to be able to visualize what the image will be before you take it, as they only fire to light up the scene when the shutter is pressed.

We no longer find ourselves in wide open spaces with the freedom to move in any direction but are instead constrained by the walls, floors, and ceilings of the caves we swim through and the guideline we follow. 

David Green swimming over the island at Cenote Angelita.
Occasionally heavy rains wash tannic water into Cenote Carwash turning the whole cenote a fiery red (diver Mauro Bordignon).
Caroline Rogers pauses to admire the decorations in a smaller section of cave at Cenote Xulo.

These factors make cave diving photography much more of a team effort. I found out that communication underwater is always best kept to a minimum, which is where well planned teamwork and clear procedures make all the difference. 

My favorite way to work is in a team of three: a photographer, a model, and a lighting diver (who also acts as the safety diver). My life is made easy in that regard as my partner Julia is extremely talented with both modelling and lighting.

We use a variety of lighting techniques with on camera strobes, off-camera strobes and video lights used in various combinations.

I do not tend to “stage” scenes very often; I find placing lights and lingering too long in any one area often leads to a loss of visibility due to percolation and silting. While I would dearly love to get a rebreather to help mitigate the percolation issue, it’s not quite on the cards just yet! Placing lights and posing models can also have a negative impact on cave conservation and so these need a very deft touch. Besides, I generally prefer a more run-and-gun style of photography that captures images of divers as they are diving.

One thing I particularly enjoy is the slow pace of cenote, cavern, and cave diving. There is no rush and everything unfolds slowly. Our dives are generally shallow, and we can take our time and enjoy some respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life.—TSG

You can find Tom St. George through his website and on Instagram


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Art

Coral Fibergrammetry

Dive instructor cum fashion designer Erik Speer weaves macramé fiber into phantasmagorical coral-like formations.

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Text, photography and art courtesy of Erik Speer.

“I started off making basic macrame pieces about 5 years ago. I never started off with the intention of making pieces that resemble the underwater world. It just came about naturally. My first couple pieces were conglomerations of different materials and textures that I found interesting and people’s responses were always that it reminded them of coral reefs. I took that feedback and figured that I had found a way to really transfer my love of the underwater world to a medium that allowed me to share my scuba diving experiences with other people.”

“When I was in college I decided to drop out and move to Honduras to become a scuba instructor. For the next 2 years I traveled the globe teaching diving and seeing coral reefs that were both thriving and dying. I had to stop diving so much because I burst both my eardrums and risked losing my hearing for good if I kept diving daily. Those days of scuba diving are some of my most cherished memories and I love to think back on them and try to recreate the reefs and feelings I got from diving. My work is less about recreating the corals exactly as they are, but more about recreating the intrigue and wonder that diving on the reefs brought me. I want to make people curious about the underwater world and actively want to learn more and explore it on their own.”

“Yarns and fabrics were literally given to me when I was working in the fashion industry in NYC. There is such an excess of material in that industry that they are often thrown out or just left on shelves to collect dust. It was the material that I had access to so I decided to see what I could possibly do with it. It’s a great material that allows me to create unlimited amounts of textures and shapes.” 

“One square foot of a piece might contain 100 little knit “corals” where each piece took me 30 minutes to make. I usually give myself about 2 months to work on a piece. I really pride myself on making every little thing on a piece. I have been told I should outsource making sections of a piece that way I can produce more work within a year. However I don’t think the work would be the same. Anytime I feel rushed or questioned why I don’t take shortcuts to finish a piece quicker I just think about how long and coral reef takes to grow and thrive.”

“I definitely do not get to dive as much I would like. Usually just when I am on holiday. It is always a joy to get back underwater but it never lives up to when I was diving the same reef sometimes twice a day for months on end. Diving once at a site is amazing, but seeing a site day after day opens your eyes to the underwater world and how a reef is really a community that exists together.” 

“I am really inspired by the feeling and experience that SCUBA gave me and I hope my work brings a little bit of that to the viewer.”

Dive Deeper:


Born and raised in New Mexico, Erik Speer, moved to South Carolina at 15 and graduated from College of Charleston with a degree in marine biology. Went on a two year world tour teaching scuba diving. Suffered a diving accident and returned to the States and enrolled at Parsons. Graduated in December 2015 with an associate science degree in fashion design and began working in the industry. Was unfulfilled by the hands off design aspect of most fashion design so started experimenting with macrame and fiber arts. Currently focusing more on the fiber arts and experimenting with what is possible with it. Currently living in Georgia working as a full time artist.

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