Photos and words by Becky Kagan Schott
♪ ♫ Pre-dive Jam : Imagine Dragons – Whatever It Takes ♪ ♫
“All of these shipwrecks have compelling stories of tragedy and survival. Some are stories of mystery. Each one is very unique. What I’m trying to do with each is capture a bit of that story with a powerful image and match the two.”
“Out of all the shipwrecks that I’ve shot in the Great Lakes, from shallow to over 300 feet deep, the Cedarville was one of the most challenging shipwrecks for me to photograph because of the lighting. It is very harsh with being in such shallow water and it being so big. And then with it being almost turtled, it’s very dark underneath, so it’s very shadowed. This image is special to me because it was about three years in the making. Every year I would go and experiment with new things, just trying to capture an image that really showcased the bow of the shipwreck—this massive freighter—where these fatal decisions took place in this wheelhouse. So, that’s why I have the wheelhouse illuminated, and I’ve got a diver up there sort of helping to illuminate the deck of the ship. Again, this one is special because it wasn’t just that I went and captured the image the first time around. It really took thinking and about it for three years to finally capture an image that I was happy with.”
Daniel J. Morrell
“Seeing the Morrell really gives me chills. The bow section, the stern section, obviously the engine room here is in the stern. I wanted to capture an image that looked like somebody just went in and turned the lights back on. And since the shipwreck is covered in quagga mussels on the outside, there’s not a lot of features on the outside. But when you enter and you go inside, it is so clean. This image was another year in the making. And it was like a coordinated dance. I closed my eyes and I walked through every step of the dive so many times in my mind, from descending down the line and entering through the skylight. I had a safety diver that you can’t see pictured here because this is about 205 feet deep (62 meters) in 38°F/3.3ºC water, so it’s very cold. And I knew with three of us going in there, we would not have much time to execute the shot before it would get stirred up because it’s silty. But we got in, we did the light placements, and I probably only took six or seven shots. At that time, it wasn’t about quantity, it was more about quality. And I did end up capturing pretty close to the image that I wanted, one where you can see the diver looking at the telegraph. And then you’ve got the tool bench behind the diver where, if I were to take a close-up picture, there were still hammers and screwdrivers and everything. To me, this is where somebody worked, and this was the last place somebody worked before or while the ship went down. So it’s not about taking a picture of an engine room, but capturing that emotion and that human element.”
Cornelia B Windiate
“This image is a pretty special one to me. It was the first time I ever dived the Cornelia B Windiate. This wreck just captured my imagination. When I first saw it it was like being transported back in time, being on a piece of history. Like when I pictured a shipwreck as a kid, this is what I pictured as a shipwreck. And growing up in Florida, this isn’t what we’d see when we dived. So, dropping down on the Windiate the first thing I saw was the big wooden wheel on the back and then the freestanding masts and the lifeboat off to the side, which just captured my imagination. And this is a shipwreck with a lot of mystery still surrounding it. It disappeared in 1875 with a crew of nine, and the crew of nine was never found. And then the ship was actually thought to have sunk in Lake Michigan, but it was found in Lake Huron. So who knows what happened to the crew. But, since obviously the lifeboat is with the wreck, they didn’t make it. But it’s one of the most intact schooners that I’ve been able to dive with its intact cabin. There’s a spiral staircase leading down and two woodstock anchors on the front. And those standing masts are pretty special.”
The Sidewheel Steamer Detroit
“This was also a pretty unique wreck; diving it is like you’re going back in time because it sank in 1854. There are not a lot of intact wooden sidewheelers with intact paddle wheels on the side and with the walking beam engine. There used to be a bell, but unfortunately it was stolen. Here you see two very good friends of mine, Jim and Susan Winn, who passed away a couple of years ago on a different dive, which makes this photo even more special to me, even though it was special before that just because of the shipwreck itself. This is around 210 feet deep (64 m) so it’s a deeper wreck.”
“I just shot this one a couple months ago during this summer. And it was one of those days where it was dark and raining, and this wreck is in about 145 feet of water. So we knew it was going to be dark down there. Which can be disappointing in some ways, but in other ways, when I know something is going to be dark, I just know that lighting is everything. Lighting could really make this pop. So Kevin Bond helped me out by illuminating one of the anchors. And there’s like four different anchors on the bow of this wreck. It has this beautiful bow. It’s an interesting wreck. If he would’ve illuminated from the other side you would’ve seen this mushroom anchor that you can kind of see down on the far right-hand side. I like moody. And they don’t always have happy endings, so I think moody plays well with a lot of these wrecks.”
“The Gunilda sits in 270 feet of water. I mean we’re not at 270 feet in this picture, probably more like 250 feet (77m). We just had such limited time. So my goal with the Gunilda was I wanted to create a photo that nobody had ever seen before. When I saw photos of this shipwreck before I’d been there, they were all close up shots and details of just the bell or details of the wheel or the binnacle. Small details. So I wanted to see if I could execute a shot that gave you a little bit more of a wide-angle look. It’s difficult because there is snow-like particulate in the water. So it was more difficult than I had imagined. And the visibility isn’t as good in Lake Superior. But I had two divers helping me out with this shot to help illuminate the flying bridge with the wheel and the binnacle and the telegraph and another one to help me illuminate the chart house. And then I also had some lights inside to help the windows glow, and put lights around the wreck as well. I think I’m the first to capture a wide-angle shot of the Gunilda. I’ve never seen another one like it.”
“This photo is special because it was extremely hard to execute, and it was a team effort. Everybody had to be on the same page, so this was a planned shot. It’s around 250 feet (77m) deep, and there’s absolutely no ambient light whatsoever. It is pitch black, and you are very far north in Lake Superior, so it’s just cold, dark, and deep. And you have very limited time at that depth. So the idea here was to have a couple friends illuminate through the skylight as if natural sunlight was pouring back into the wreck for the first time. And I had no on-camera lighting for this shot, so I just wanted it to appear as if the ship was floating again and the sunlight was pouring in through the stained glass window.
As you can see, the chairs and the table are bolted to the floor, and there is a fireplace in the background, and there is still a clock. Off on the far right-hand side, you can see the bend from my lens with the window there. The difficult thing with getting this shot is we couldn’t go inside these rooms. They are very small. So I had to gently stick my camera through a window. And you can actually see some of the glass shards at the bottom of the frame. When you’re in 37°F/3ºC water and you know that you’re going to have two hours of decompression to do, you don’t want to rip your dry suit. So you have to very carefully stick your hands or your camera through so you don’t cut or rip any part of your dry suit. My dive buddies did an amazing job helping me to achieve this image.
One of my favorite comments I ever got on this photo was, ‘I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal over this photo.’ Since there is no diver in it, somebody thought it was actually on land and it was just a dusty old room with sunlight coming through. And then when it was explained that it was 250 feet (77m) underwater, and it was pitch black with no light, they were a little more impressed.”
“This is another new shot that I just shot a couple months ago. The FT Barney was another very intact wooden schooner that I really wanted to get to. And this is also a very old schooner. And having an intact cabin and wheel and being just within technical range, around 150-160 feet (46-49m) deep was very appealing to me. But I just really liked the way the shot came out—kind of moody—with my buddy Bob illuminating the wheel and the cabin area. I just love these schooners. There’s something romantic about them. They bring you back in time.”
“The Typo is another wooden schooner and the bowsprit is still intact with the rigging still on it. And you can see Jim illuminating that anchor with that forward mast with the crows nest still standing. The very first time I dived this and I took a photo of the bow of the wreck, just like this, I looked at the back of my camera and it didn’t even look real to me. I looked up at the wreck with my own eyes and just took it all in because it just looks surreal. It just doesn’t even look like such a wreck can exist. And it really does. What I love about this is just the standing masts, the bowsprit. It looks like it’s still sailing on the bottom.”
In addition to photography/cinematography, Schott is an accomplished author and has just begun creating 3D photogrammetric models. Here is some of her work:
3D model: Sketchfab Cornelia B. windiate model
Alert Diver: Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Alert Diver: Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve
Michigan Blue et al: Dark Memories and Underwater Photographer Captures Forgotten Stories Beneath the Great Lakes and a video news series
Becky is a five-time Emmy award-winning underwater cameraman and photographer whose work appears on major networks including National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Red Bull. She specializes in capturing images in extreme underwater environments including caves, under ice, and deep shipwrecks. Her projects have taken her all over the world from the Arctic to the Antarctic and many exciting locations in between, filming new wreck discoveries to cave exploration and even diving cage-less with great white sharks. Her biggest passion is shooting haunting images of deep shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. Becky is a frequent contributor to numerous dive magazines, both US-based and international, and her photography has been used in books, museums, and advertising. She is also a technical diving instructor and leads expeditions all over the planet. www.LiquidProductions.com www.MegDiver.com
Marine biologist Dr. Sonia Rowley, aka the “Gorg Whisperer” takes us for a deep dive into the life of her octocorallia de désir.
Text and images by Dr. Sonia Rowley. Header Image: The enigmatic gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 (left) taken at Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia at 60 m/197 ft depth with Dr. Sonia J. Rowley (pictured right).
At the beginning of 2014, I submitted my Ph.D. thesis on the Gorgonian (sea fan) corals of SE Sulawesi, Indonesia with the following statement: “First and foremost I am indebted to the sea fans themselves, who, through their sheer eloquence connect us to the oceans and wonders of nature; they, are my greatest teachers.”
Gorgonian corals are some of the most conspicuous and highly diverse creatures in the marine realm. Evocative images of exotic dive locations typically sport colorful fans amidst an array of reef fish. Yet, despite their splendor, this group of corals is remarkably overlooked. Why would this be?
Gorgonians, like fish, simply don’t exist, they are not actually a thing! What?!? What does that mean? Gorgonians are within a Class of corals called Octocorallia, ‘octo’ meaning eight; 8 tentacles, 8 divisions within the polyp, all eight! Octocorallia is a monophyletic group, meaning that all the members of this group are related to a common ancestor. However, within Octocorallia, the division is complex and unresolved. Gorgonians are not all closely related to each other. They are polyphyletic; the species that are grouped together do not all come from a common ancestor, yet they all share very similar characteristics (e.g., axis type). In fact, gorgonians are all mixed in with soft corals and sea pens. So, what do we do with a quandary like that?
This is a species within the soft coral genus Siphonogorgia Kölliker, 1874. It makes an excellent gorgonian, don’t you think? So did its early taxonomists. However, it’s not one. Good ideas emerge many times across nature—just look at wings! The term for this apparent similarity or relatedness in form is convergent evolution, whereby distantly related organisms have independently evolved the same characteristics in response to their environment.
Safety in Numbers
A fascinating part of gorgonian research is teasing apart who’s related to who, and why; how did various adaptations arise, and can the mechanics of their existence be superimposed on their phylogeny—their relatedness, if you will? The use of molecular techniques to corroborate what we see in the field continues to increase our understanding of these enigmatic corals, and strengthens our conviction on how much biodiversity is on a reef. This, in turn, enables regulators to take appropriate conservation measures. Yet, biodiversity assessments and subsequent conservation strategies are essentially human constructs against our own human influence.
Nonetheless, the biodiversity in the image below is in safe hands and taken very seriously by nearby communities. Ant Atoll is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with local rangers monitoring the atoll day and night. Here, nature’s adaptations can persist as intended, largely uninhibited by our influence. White gorgonians (Melithaea Milne Edwards, 1857) persist in the same habitat as these yellow-coloured black corals (Antipathes Pallas, 1766). Black corals and gorgonians often look very similar, with both coral groups featuring whip, fan, and bush species. With a keen eye, it is possible to determine the difference between the two coral groups and mesophotic depths are the perfect environment to flex those field ID muscles; the closer you look, the more delights you will see.
But, whilst gorgonians don’t exist as entity [or taxonomic/coral group], they do survive, adapt, and persist. Current estimates suggest that less than 4% of global marine ecosystems on the planet are actively protected (i.e., they are not paper parks). The deeper depths are neither isolated nor immune to the vicissitudes of human existence—fishing line, sedimentation, and pollution penetrate them, too. However, time and again gorgonians make it through. Even during my Ph.D. research in Indonesia, I discovered that a shallow water gorgonian turned to coprophagy to survive on reefs degraded by human effluent to the point that the genetic structure of the coral was even changing!
Many gorgonians have evolved a natural resilience or tactics that facilitate survival in challenging conditions. Not being able to get up and move, sessile (immobile) taxa such as gorgonians get inventive. Many species have a battery of chemicals to ward off unwanted invaders. But, gorgonians develop natural resilience by keeping the right company. Numerous species of Acanthogorgia Gray, 1858 can be very colorful, yet remarkably fragile. Thus, they tend to settle either at the base of larger chemically well-defended gorgonians or other aggressive stinging taxa on the reef, such as hydroids (image below) that pack a serious punch if you get anywhere near them. The gorgonian maintains its glory by sticking close to these knights in chemical armor.
Where some corals like to hang together, others prefer to go it alone. The logarithmic beauty of the spiral has evolved several times in gorgonians. Many species of Viminella sp. (pictured below) can be found popping up in seemingly any reef environment and in waters deep to shallow. Their solitary existence has been an evolutionary success.
This rarely encountered, delightfully delicate, and lyre-shaped coral is one that I see only at mesophotic depths. Typically perched upon the crest of old sea-level stands (ancient reefs), this form is likely capitalizing on a prominent position to catch food and attend to reproductive necessities.
Standing out in a crowd
Some species are all about maximizing space—hundreds of tiny mouths all packed in on the branches, themselves closely aligned. Nothing gets past this natural and highly effective filtration system. When you descend onto a beautiful mesophotic reef and encounter these giants, you know that the water flow is moderate to strong, and its contents rich in particulates. This mighty mouth ensemble is repeated many times in the evolutionary history of any coral group, but few are as ornate as those species within the Primnoidae Milne Edwards, 1857.
The intrinsic beauty exhibited by the Primnoidae Milne Edwards, 1857 is arguably unparalleled throughout Octocorallia. Typically mesophotic and deep-sea specialists, the ornate structures manipulate the flow in which they live by creating turbulence and momentary retention of water in the polyp mouth (Rowley, unpublished data). A micro-CT scan (with Prof. Adam Summers) of the deep-sea Hawaiian Primnoid Calyptrophora wyvillie Wright, 1885 from the geologist seamount, McCall more than 50 miles southeast of the Big Island of Hawai’i. Sampled at 1,027 meters/3,370 ft depth.
Testing the hypothesis
The use of closed-circuit rebreather technology facilitates extended duration at deeper depths for experimental testing. Here, I am testing the mechanics of flow and feeding on the mesophotic gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 at 110 m/361 ft. At these depths, internal waves cause huge variances in temperature, nutrients, and dissolved oxygen (to mention but a few variables). Yet, gorgonians couldn’t care less; with a 20°C variance in a single day, they just keep on feeding. Thus, they’ve been permitted to adapt naturally over the millennia, an opportunity not afforded to many of their shallow-water relatives.
To test a hypothesis, researchers may need to gather multiple lines of evidence on a variety of taxa. Such sleuthing typically generates more questions and subsequent tests that provide insight into the evolutionary processes at play. The gorgonian Annella Gray, 1858 and its network of branches (anastomoses) is an ideal candidate to develop our understanding of growth patterns and responses to hydrodynamic forces. Interestingly, in one specimen, compensatory growth 6 times that of the annual rate patched up a hole in the network in less than 12 months; nature maintains its structural integrity post disturbance.
Getting it on
Moderate to high flow and surge environments also spread the gorgonian seed. The rarely encountered Hawaiian mesophotic gorgonian, Melithaea bicolor (Nutting, 1908) can also be found nestled amidst many invertebrates of the shallow-water sandstone ceilings and pukas of O’ahu. A beautiful white colony is bursting with eggs, where it is actually possible to observe the eggs moving up and down within the tentacles themselves. Using my rebreather to study this Hawaiian endemic–thought to be found nowhere else in the world–in the shallow’s of O’ahu has allowed me to cut my macro skills in the surge for several hours at a time and develop a critical understanding of their functional morphology, particularly at depth. Thus, a rebreather is an excellent field tool irrespective of depth.
When I descend into the ocean in search of these creatures, the true meaning of life comes into perspective, and everything else only facilitates the present moment. That’s it.
Dr. Sonia J. Rowley is a marine biologist; Divesoft Ambassador, Research Associate of the National Museum of Natural History; Fellow National of the Explorers Club (FN18), USA; Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (FLS); and Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology (MRSB), UK. She is the recipient of the Sir David Attenborough Award for fieldwork for her pioneering research on gorgonian octocorals at mesophotic depths. Dr. Rowley has over 38 years of diving and commercial ship experience throughout the world. She sees that the most powerful tool for change is sharing the knowledge and experience gained in the pursuit of scientific understanding and discovery—and to have as much fun as possible doing it while diving.
Disclaimer: All of Dr. Sonia J. Rowley’s diving activities and products thereof are not associated with the University of Hawai’i, nor does Dr. Rowley represent the University of Hawai’i in any way and with regard to any diving activities.”