Underwater photographer Wowie Wong, in the most simplistic sense, wants you to become a diver
About 71 percent of the Earth is composed of water yet only a meager five percent of that has been explored by mankind. Depending on who you ask, these percentages will at some instance bring out responses filled with curiosity. The smallness of the number five signifies both boundlessness and boundary; it tells you that there is so much yet to be explored but also that there is only so much that human beings can explore.
It’s also entirely possible for us to feel indifferent towards statistics: What do we care if a large portion of our planet is left unexplored? We might occasionally be excited about or grapple with the ineffability of parts unknown, but as far as our daily lives are concerned, the mysteriousness of the underwater world is not exactly an issue. So then what can we say about the parts that we know, the five percent that has seen us swimming and diving and fishing?
Not much, it turns out.
“I can’t find words to describe it. The rules are different underwater. Whatever we know above water is totally different,” says Wowie Wong, an underwater photographer and cinematographer who co-founded Studio H20, a video production company that specializes in capturing the deep sea life. Wong’s initial foray into the field had been defined, partly, by the limits of words—they failed him whenever people asked for descriptions of the underwater world. It didn’t take long until Wong, purely an avid scuba diver at the time, found the perfect alternative to words: photography, an art form that needed none.
“The best thing to do was to take pictures. So I bought my very first underwater camera and took photos of everything I could find. When I looked at them [photos], there seemed to be something wrong. Apparently, and I learned this the hard way, colors disappear as you go deeper and deeper into the sea,” says Wong.
It’s the color red that goes out first, and then it’s orange, and then it’s yellow. Dive even deeper and green goes out. The gradual fading of colors indicates a gradually increasing depth, and so, as are the rules underwater, an indication of danger—a sign that warns you that you may have gone too deep—is a photo almost completely devoid of color.
Learning the rules
The early years of Studio H20 (initially called NUDI, which stood for Network of Underwater Digital Imagers) was about Wong and his friends coming to terms with the craft’s obscurity and the complications this entailed. The medium was just as cryptic as the subject. “In 2003, 2004, we couldn’t find anyone to teach us anything about underwater photography. There was no one to ask! So what happened was that we bought our equipment and tried to figure out on our own how everything worked. We compared notes. When we surfaced after a dive, we’d ask each other, ‘What camera settings did you use?’”
After six months of relentless diving, photographing, and note-swapping, Wong and his friends “earned the skill.” They were never short on collective passion and support—the kind that ensured they were bound to indeed earn the skill at some point. The problems were purely technical and mostly had to do with the question of taking what they knew about photography above water and subverting that knowledge in a way that would make sense underwater. “One of the things we had to master was taking photos and videos without any stabilizers or gimbals. There wasn’t any of that underwater, it really just had to be your arms.” Wong himself still uses regular cameras that come in a housing, but the team has since devised other pieces of equipment such as floaters, which allow their cameras to freely float beside them while they shoot underwater.
Reels and images of the deep sea populated by a myriad organisms both known and unknown behaving and moving in ways almost alien to our inexperienced eyes—these are what Studio H20’s efforts of diving and capturing the underwater world have come to.
The explicit message of these videos is simple enough—it’s about the foreign beauty of the sea. But by virtue of the nature of this kind of beauty, these footages are putting to light something much more immediate: the question of exploitation and preservation; the ways we have mistreated the underwater world and what we can do to save it.
“We go as far as inform people about the state of the underwater world. We’ve shot for National Geographic. Right now, what we’re trying to do is make it known within the film industry that we do underwater photography and cinematography. Production companies don’t really know that there are people like us,” Wong says.
Beauty and tragedy up close
“When we go diving in provincial areas, it’s sad because we see people engage in dynamite fishing. San ka nakakakita na magtatapon ng dynamite just to get fish? I’ve seen how the underwater looks like before and after it’s been hit by a dynamite. What used to be a beautiful garden is now all rubble,” Wong laments.
It’s one thing to talk about violence at play against beauty and another to witness it firsthand. Wong has seen beauty up close (corals studded with some kind of crystal-like material, tiny sea slugs, nurse sharks), and he’s also seen it destroyed (coral heads that have turned white after being cyanided, fishes frantically fleeing their bombarded homes).
The realities of dynamite fishing and other destructive practices are not unknown to most. Reading about these facts can go as far as informing us about certain horrors, confirming our suspicions about the extent of mankind’s potential for exploitation—but they only tell half the story. The other half we can know through exposure and consequent action.
Wong recalls one such untold portion of underwater tragedy: “When you talk to the communities in these provinces, they just say ‘bato lang naman yan eh,’ but we’ve seen for ourselves that that’s where the fish keep their eggs, that’s where they live! These people say that they’re just catching fish. But we learned that when they’ve caught most of the fish, after a while, they’ll go deeper and deeper to catch more fish.’”
But there have also been places that presented a more hopeful side to the story. “My line of work has led me to places wherein the communities have initiated rehabilitations. There are actually some provinces that have spearheaded coral rehabilitations.” Asked what regular citizens can do in the face of pollution and exploitation (which seems to go hand in hand with extreme consumerism), Wong, who doesn’t seem to be one for didacticism, gives a careful answer: “Most of us are just consumers… who will stop the companies? That’s the hard part. Some people start with small things like not using straws. But how far can that go? There are a million other factors out there.”
The money shot
A trip to an island called Buayan off the town of San Vicente in Palawan includes one of Wong’s most prized encounters with the ineffable. Turtles and schools of jacks populated the community-protected waters of Buayan. Wong could tell that he was in a safe, clean space then—and it wasn’t the jacks or the turtles that led him to that conclusion. It was the sharks. “Their presence means that the waters have a very healthy ecosystem. Sharks are really smart. They’re not just out there to eat the fish, they actually maintain peace in the colony.”
Movies have painted a rather unrealistic picture of sharks: The truth is that they are awfully scared of human beings. Which is perhaps why, among underwater photographers, a frontal shot of a shark is considered the money shot. “Side view is fine. But a shot of a tail? Forget it.” Obtaining such a photo is extremely difficult as sharks become suspicious once they see an underwater photographer—that is, someone with a loud heartbeat, breathes out bubbles, and carries cumbersome pieces of equipment (sharks can hear the movement of lenses). Wong and his friends have successfully carried out such a feat. All it took was a careful entry into a spiral of sharks (they travel in a circular manner), holding his breath while simultaneously composing the shot, and then, finally, after a few seconds of indecision, he got the money shot.
Several years and a handful of money shots later, Wong hopes to achieve the same goal of replicating the underwater world through pictures: “I would like you to see it exactly how I saw it.”
He also still experiences the same depth of amazement he once did more than a decade ago. “You go diving three times in one spot, every time you go down, it’s different. The interactions with the animals, the visibility, the treatment of the sun. It’s amazing, especially when we get to interact with the big mammals. Imagine a 25-foot whale shark staring back at you.”
Hawaiians are to surfing as Filipinos are to diving
A perspective shaped by close encounters with beauty and tragedy has made Wong doubt the sufficiency of the word passion as an explanation for why he does what he does. You simply need to witness the underwater world, he insists. And you need not go far. Wong is adamant about many things concerning his field, not in the least of which is this little known fact about our country: that it has some of the best diving spots in the world. He spoke most frequently (and ardently) of Anilao, a huge cove comprised of approximately 60 diving sites.
“You want a nice reef dive, a dive with currents, a dive with sharks, a dive with nudibranchs? You can do all that in Anilao. It’s actually world-class. Filipinos want to fly anywhere and everywhere… but have they seen what we have here?”
To anyone interested, Wong swears by the simplicity of the procedure: First, drive by one of Anilao’s dive shops, pick up a tank (which can cost as low as P350), head to a nearby shore, and then just dive. That the odd thing about all this is not Wong’s presumed simplicity of the act of diving, but rather the fact that not more Filipinos are divers is an indication of just how geographically compatible our country is with the sport. “My foreign friends within Asia, they think that if you are a Filipino, dapat diver ka. The way they see it is like how we see Hawaiians as surfers—when we think of Hawaii, we think of surfing. When my friends think of the Philippines, they think of diving.”