An underwater conservation photographer shares his 10 favorite photos

From sharks in the Atlantic to dolphins in the Amazon.

Keith Ellenbogen
Keith Ellenbogen. –Keith Ellenbogen

Starting at a young age, Keith Ellenbogen was curious about the ocean.

His early interest in marine life started with the fish tanks he had in his childhood Newton home.

Then at the age of 16 he began volunteering at the New England Aquarium in Boston. And that same year his grandfather gave him an underwater camera. He learned to scuba dive off the coast of Boston and Gloucester, marking the start of a lifelong interest in underwater photography and the root of his career as an underwater conservation photographer.

“Diving in Boston is a very different experience to diving in lots of other places around the world,” Ellenbogen told Boston.com. “The water is colder, the visibility is very limited, there are strong currents. So learning to dive in Boston, you really have to practice on your diving skills. And because the visibility is limited, you have to be close to your subjects. So you learn how to do that, and you have to find things. And most importantly you have to learn how to navigate.”

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In August, a 360-degree video Ellenbogen captured in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts of a great white shark swimming within inches of him went viral. We spoke with Ellenbogen, an assistant professor of photography at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology and visiting artist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant, to learn more about what goes into being an underwater conservation photographer and what some of his favorite projects have been. He also shared 10 photos he’s most proud of.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is an underwater conservation photographer?

A group of California sea lions near the kelp forests off the coast of Monterey Bay, California. —Keith Ellenbogen

The focus of my photography is to raise awareness about conservation and environmental issues. People obviously have stylistic ways in which they do things, but, for myself, it’s to use the art of photography to capture people’s attention and to allow photography to engage with the public to raise awareness about critical environmental issues. Things that range from sea temperature change to overfishing. Sometimes it’s highlighting the beauty of an area so that people can be inspired by what is actually beneath the water. I think one distinction between conservation photography and photography is that in this instance the goal is for environmental and positive social change.

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What is it like to be an underwater conservation photographer?

The suns rays illuminate an Amazon river dolphin, or pink river dolphin, in Rio Negro, Amazon River, Brazil. —Keith Ellenbogen

To go underwater is a very different experience than being on land in that we require all sorts of specialized equipment. But the feeling, the sensation, is almost a weightlessness. It’s the most beautiful place because you adapt in this almost gravity-less environment. Instead of your perspective always being one of standing and being adhered to the ground, I can move in three dimensions. I can move left right or up down or at angles, so there’s a lot of freedom of movement in there. And the thing that is wonderful in underwater photography is that you have to get close to your subjects.

If you’re on land and you’re photographing birds, you can sit with a telephoto lens from afar and wait. But in underwater photography you have to find the animal. They don’t often stay in the exact same place. Some animals do, but oftentimes they’re moving around, so you have to find them. Then you have to get close, and the reason why you have to get close is the light can only go so far and the visibility can only go so far. So you can’t focus farther than what you can actually see.

Atlantic bluefin tuna. —Keith Ellenbogen

So somehow you have to develop a connection with the animal and through the medium to be able to capture an image. And the part that I love so much is the discovery and that interaction between the animal and the environment or the habitat and myself — all having to happen at the same time. The three of us need to be integrated, which is a wonderful experience.

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What do you think is the most important thing, or the goal, you keep in mind with your work, as it pertains to conservation? Why do you think it’s important for the public to see?

A hermit crab in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. —Keith Ellenbogen

I try to capture animals, their behaviors that highlight in the best possible way their movement, their abilities, their personality. To give them a voice to communicate with people around the world. From a habitat point of view, you try and show the true essence of the environment so that people can see what it looks like under there.

One of the biggest challenges of underwater photography is that most people can’t get under there to see these places. The currents are too strong, the water’s too deep, the locations too far, or the behavior is just too rare. So as a photographer you need time under there to be able to communicate and to showcase that habitat in a way that people can relate to.

Within the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, scientists find coral fragments within the coral reef and transplant them into a coral nursery. —Keith Ellenbogen

Do you have a favorite expedition or project that you’re most proud of?

It’s tough because I always feel like my last project is the one I’m most proud of. They’re all charming in different ways.

I spent three months with Oceana in the Mediterranean Sea to photograph the endangered atlantic bluefin tuna on their annual migration to reproduce. These fish are absolutely incredible. They’re about 1,000 pounds, and, when I was able to get close to one of them, I could feel the power of the fish. It’s one of the fastest fish in the world and when it accelerated I could feel the vibrations run through my chest.

A close-up of an Atlantic bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean Sea. —Keith Ellenbogen

Another remarkable project I did was with the New England Aquarium. I went to the Phoenix Islands, which are part of Kiribati. The Phoenix Islands are one of the world’s largest marine protected areas. I went there to photograph the habitat, to show people what a coral reef in these remote parts of the world look like. And these pictures were then used by [former] President [Anote] Tong at the World Ocean Summit in Washington, D.C., to share with people what the marine environment looks like.

A school of bigeye trevally, with two blacktip reef sharks in the background, swim over a healthy coral reef in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, Pacific Ocean, Enderbury Island, Kiribati. —Keith Ellenbogen

I went with the International League of Conservation Photographers to Mesoamerican Reef, which is in Mexico. It’s the world’s second largest coral reef habitat. I saw a moment where frigatebirds were diving into the water and catching fish. So for a couple of days I just sat and waited and positioned myself in such a way that I was ready for one of those super rare moments.

After waiting for days I had a lucky moment where the interaction happened — where the bird went in and dove right in front of the lens. I was able to capture this really dramatic picture of a frigatebird in flight, while it’s feeding. What’s incredible is they fly in, they put their head in the water, they get the fish, but they can’t actually land in the water. They have to maintain some lift. So it shows the essence of the animals power right as it stalls right before it takes off.

A juvenile magnificent frigatebird as it dives into the water to catch small silver fish near the Mesoamerican Reef, Mexico. —Keith Ellenbogen

Lastly I’ll share that the project that I’m most passionate about is the local project on Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. I feel like one of the things for me is that I’ve been fortunate to travel to many places around the world to see wildlife, but I do feel that [in New England] we have extraordinary marine life and that through photography I can engage people into some of the natural wonders that are right off of our coast. We don’t always have to travel so far to see such wonderful animals. The problem is that it’s much harder in New England to dive and to experience these things for ourselves.

A great white shark in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. —Keith Ellenbogen

What is the best part about your job?

I love most the discovery and the interaction with the animals. I think the only way to be effective in getting these pictures is to have some instant bond in these moments — where you’re able to create a connection. Because these animals have to come within about 20 feet. So I find the discovery of going into a habitat, learning to look and having these brief moments with different marine wildlife to be one of the best moments. I consider myself lucky every day that I’m able to go into the water and discover places and be places that most people will never see.

Nikumaroro, or Gardner Island, is part of the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati. An aerial view from a kite of Nikumaroro Lagoon with lush tropical plants and trees on June 17, 2012. —Keith Ellenbogen
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