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.
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).
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.
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
Dive Into Tik Tok
Intrepid u/w content creator Devina Wijaya takes us for a dive into TikTok
By Devina Wijaya. InDEPTH’s Guide to UW TikTok compiled by Grace Winfree. Lead image created by Georgina Brown.
|Check out InDepth’s Guide to Tik Tok Underwater|
“It’s fun to create TikTok content about technical diving because it reminds us to have fun along the way, while prioritizing safety 😉 and also helps get the next generation of divers excited about tech diving.”—@Scuba.Dev
“I love introducing a worldwide community to a sport that most people know very little about.”—@amberofthesea
“I think the best videos on Tiktok are the ones that teach you something new or show you something you’ve never seen before.—@amberofthesea
“Creating underwater content is true childhood play. It’s telling my favorite stories in my favorite place.”— @realmermaidbryn
“Our content seeks to ignite a sense of adventure and curiosity about the mysteries that lie beneath the waves, encouraging people to consider trying scuba diving themselves.”—@padi
“I like to provide educational content about scuba diving and the ocean, but still have it be entertaining and include some humour.”—@narkedtom
“I think it’s the perfect trifecta of having a creative outlet to mix my outgoing personality with my love for the underwater world.”— @fullysubmerged
Girls Do It Underwater
“I would like to inspire more women to get into tech/overhead and cold water diving. I’m convinced that diving helps with many aspects of your life.”—@girlthatccr
“I want to reach out and be a role model for women seeking to fulfill their dreams using technical diving as a tool for personal and professional development.”—@centotegirl
“I want to see more diversity in creators and divers highlighted in underwater content! I would love to lift up people of different cultures, the LGBTQIA+ community, more women, etc. I want to see the industry shift from rich old white men to a progressive, fierce community of unique individuals who are ready to fight to save what we love.”— @azul.unlimited
Halcyon Gives You Wings
Practice Makes Perfect
“I enjoy creating the content to share my love for the underwater world, and also create awareness for the environment and animal welfare.”— @hartdiversintl
Never A Good Day To Die U/W
“I have and always will provide a ton of free content to help freedivers and spearos dive deeper, stay longer, and become safer. My ultimate goal is to do more to raise awareness about shallow water blackouts than any other person on the planet. ”—@immersionfd
“Honestly, it’s all about creating visually-interesting stories of my memories. If others like it, that’s cool too. I have no underlying purpose; I’m not looking to monetize.”—@nicalarid
“I have been producing content on Tiktok for over 3 years now and I have been very happy to see the rise of many creators dedicated to water conservation, education, exploration and to see many amazing clips from small creators go viral to help bring awareness to the amazing underwater world.”—@moderndiver
“Diving goes beyond just being underwater, it’s a complete lifestyle and community and Divesoft wants to be a part of it and bring more value to the diving world.”—@divesoft
Plug for a Tek Thing
Special thanks to the creators who joined us on the dive; @Scuba.Dev, @amberofthesea, @realmermaidbryn, @padi, @narkedtom, @mads_ocean, @thedivememe, @girlthatccr, @cenote_girl, @fullysubmerged, @azul.unlimited, @ halcyondivesystems, @hartdiversintl, @immersionfd, @diversalertnetwork, @nicalarid, @moderndiver, @divesoft, @buddydiveresort
Devina Wijaya is a Project Manager at the Seattle Aquarium, a volunteer aquarium diver, and Marketing Projects Manager at Global Underwater Explorers (GUE). She received her M.A. degree in communications from the University of Washington, and completed her Project Manager Professional (PMP) certification in 2022. Devina began diving in 2018, passed GUE Fundamentals, is working on her tech pass, and has plans to complete GUE Tech 1 & Cave 1. She began creating social media content in 2020 and is active on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.