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Kazakh Photographer Takes The Plunge

This mantis shrimp is all eyes!
Maybe I'm the only one, but I was slightly surprised to discover that it was a Kazakh photographer behind an eye-catching series of underwater shots featured recently by "The Telegraph."

The scenes are of great, winding walls and columns of millions upon millions of flickering sardines. They were taken off Cebu, in the Philippines.

That area is part of what scientists and conservationists have dubbed the Coral Triangle because of its unsurpassed biological diversity -- including three-quarters of the world's known coral species and more than one-third of its reef fishes. Its inhabitants include the coelacanth, a 400-million-year-old lobe-finned fish that was long thought to have disappeared from the fossil record before the appearance of a live specimen in 1938 (and, on a different note, a stargazer that's been likened to Homer Simpson).

Many of the most astonishing ocean discoveries come out of the Coral Triangle.

That's what attracted Almaty-born Nadya Kulagina, and so many underwater photographers before her, to the waters of the Philippines.

But I was unprepared for the oodles of great underwater photos that she's taken. So I contacted Kulagina to see if we could share some of them (yes) and to ask a few questions about her newfound love of diving and underwater photography, as well as the thrill of the underwater chase in some of the world's most exotic dive locations.

RFE/RL: It appears that only a small amount of your work is underwater photos.... Are the underwater photos a new pursuit of yours?

Kulagina: It depends on what you consider new. The first time I took my camera underwater was back in the fall of 2009 and I have been diving and photographing underwater since then. So it's been more than two years. For some people two years is nothing, for others it is a very long time. For me, compared to how long I've been doing land photography, it is definitely a new pursuit. However, it feels like I've always been photographing underwater.

RFE/RL: You born and raised in Almaty, Kazakhstan? How does a Kazakh photographer develop an interest in scuba diving and underwater photography?

Kulagina: Yes, I was born and raised in Almaty, a former capital of Kazakhstan, which is a landlocked country with some high mountain lakes and the Caspian Sea far out in the west. For me, being in the southeast of this vast country, it was really hard to find interesting places to dive and diving was not really developed in Kazakhstan at that time. I traveled a lot and once in Hawaii I did one of those intro dives (or whatever it was called), when they put you 15 feet [deep] in the water and, using a long hose, connect you to a tank with air, which is placed on a raft drifting on the surface. So you sort of drag the raft with the tank behind you as you swim. It was a short 15-minute dive, but I was so impressed with what I saw underwater that I decided to do a "real" scuba dive one day.
Nadya Kulagina
Nadya Kulagina

Of course that moment came much later, in seven years, during my vacation in Thailand, when I accidentally stumbled upon a dive school. I was already into photography when I got my first diving certificate and of course I wanted to shoot underwater. A friend once let me use her underwater compact point-and-shoot camera and I loved it so much that I decided to invest into some serious gear. That's how my underwater photography started.

RFE/RL: The first thing that some people I know were asking about your "Out of the Blue: Beautiful Shoal of Sardines" images is: Where are the predators? Did some appear at any point?

Kulagina: Well, if they mean sharks and dolphins, then no, I did not see any there. You have to realize that the scale of the sardine run that takes place near South Africa is much, much bigger than what we saw in the Philippines. The main predators there were us, divers.... Of course, even though we were just enjoying the sardine show, we looked like a real threat to them. Jokes aside, we did see some other larger fish, such as big jack fish and tuna that were hunting sardines. In some of the shots you can see the sardines surrounding a diver in shallow waters. That happened precisely when jacks and tuna were attacking the sardines and the shoal rushed toward and through us trying to escape from the predators and find refuge in shallow waters despite the fact that "bubbling" divers looked just as dreadful to them as the jacks in the blue.

RFE/RL: Had you traveled to the Philippines [or were you diving at the time] specifically to see this annual sardine run? How did you find this particular shoal?

Kulagina: Yes, we knew about the sardines; and no, they were not hard to find. We were visiting different places in the Philippines and one of them was Moalboal, a small village on the west coast of the island of Cebu popular among divers. Before going there we had already heard rumors about a huge school of sardines residing near Pescador Island, a small piece of limestone land located in the Tañon Strait, a 20-minute boat ride from Moalboal. So going there we already had plans to dive Pescador to see those famous sardines. The shoal was not hard to find, as it had already been there for quite some time. Most "sardine dives" were structured in such a way that divers would be dropped off in a shallow part on the western side, they would then swim around the island toward the eastern side, where the shoal was supposed to be. Most of the time, the shoal was there.

RFE/RL: The "Telegraph" photo gallery quoted you as saying you were being "pulled down and further off course." Do you mean that visually you were being spun off-balance?

Kulagina: I wasn't really spun off-balance or knocked over by the shoal ))). It was more like being pulled down together with the shoal as if we were part it. What I experienced was this: I would swim into the bowl at, say, 30 feet and a little later I would look at my computer and find myself already at 50 feet. And it's not because I have bad buoyancy; my buoyancy is actually good. It was because of the power of the shoal.... Another thing that I [and my friends that I dove with] felt was that it was easy to lose any sense of direction. In other words, apart from being pulled down by this mass without even realizing it, we could not tell the seabed from the sky, because the shoal was so dense that it obscured the sun and the wall, and all the reference points were lost. )))

RFE/RL: What's your favorite place to dive or shoot underwater photos?

Kulagina: I haven't been to a lot of places, but of those that I visited, I really enjoy the Red Sea for its wrecks and landscapes, the Caribbean for its diversity and great visibility and, of course, the Philippines for everything their waters have to offer.

You can find more of Kulagina's photos here.

-- Andy Heil

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