These Magical Underwater Scenes Are The Escapism You Need

"I want people to appreciate the complexity and beauty of our oceans and also understand the fragility of them as well."

An underwater reef scene with fish and sunlight

Heading into winter after a bleak and terrible year, we are starting to crave bright spots, flashes of color, moments of hope. Photographer Chris Leidy's new book, The Coral Triangle, which explores the waters off the coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines, is the perfect balance of escapism and inspiration.

The book has a foreword by Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famed underwater explorer, who himself has spent a good amount of time underwater. Leidy himself is also well known in certain social circles — his grandmother was Lilly Pulitzer, which explains some of his fascination with color and pattern. His images bring life to a seemingly magical world of creatures bathed in light, but capturing them involves a mind-boggling array of factors: light, and composition, of course, but also currents, water depth, oxygen capacity, and uncooperative reef residents.

The work is worth the effort, though, as capturing underwater scenes, especially beautiful ones, becomes increasingly important to offer insight to what we stand to lose with the threat of warming waters and marine pollution. The Coral Triangle region, considered to be the Amazon of the seas, is a priority for global conservationists as it holds some of the world’s youngest coral reefs and is renowned for its biodiversity.

BuzzFeed News spoke with Leidy about his process, and where he is off to next, via email. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How long did it take to make this book, and why did you focus on the Coral Triangle?

All told, this book took 12 years to complete, because I spent years in the region, with thousands of images shot before I ever imagined being able to create this compilation of some of my favorite pieces.

I focused on the Coral Triangle because of its raw beauty and the relatively undisturbed life that inhabits the area. The extremely fragile marine ecosystem and biodiverse reef life are an incredible setting, in part because the most photogenic reefs inside the Coral Triangle are very difficult to reach. To get there you have to be prepared for a real, raw, unplugged travel experience, far removed from the comforts of modern life.

I travel by boat a lot of the time because this allows me to reach dive sites that are unreachable by those people who are living and diving from land-based operations. A lot of the time I fly single-engine prop planes to then reach and touchdown on a grass airstrip on what looks like a sandbar in the middle of the ocean.

I find peace in being alone with my family, my God, and Mother Nature. It is what fuels my soul. I thrive in this nomadic lifestyle, with sometimes nothing but my camera gear, dive mask, fins, snorkel, and my surfboards. There have been times when I end up in a random location with no place to sleep, and I’ve just zipped myself up in my board bag and slept on the beach. Being open to extremely different experiences and places within this region has afforded me the opportunity to capture some really incredible sights.

A whale and a tiny orange fish in a bed of anemone

What inspired you to be an underwater photographer?

I love the abstract and constantly changing world that exists underwater — there is an alternate state of mind that comes from leaving dry land behind. It brings me great joy to compose each frame as a glimpse of a fleeting artistic moment, one that may never be able to be experienced again.

There are so many natural factors beyond my control during a dive that dictate the overall look of my photographs: the cloud coverage, the angle of the sun, and visibility of the water, all of which help create the emotion and mood of my final product. My urge to share these unique, dissolving moments in time fuels my passion to keep swimming and finding more of these moments.

You talk a bit about your love of patterns and colors in other interviews. Can you talk about how you approach making images underwater?

I approach each and every dive with a completely open mind to all creative possibilities. Swimming with no expectations allows me to pick up on small, sometimes seemingly insignificant details as I travel through vast coral mazes, and I am able to visualize the mood and feelings I want to portray in what I capture as I go. I have a toolkit of tricks, as well as my knowledge and experience of knowing what colors and composition can intrigue the viewer and elicit an emotional response to what is seen. My work is the marriage of spontaneity and creativity, which allows for an ever-changing final product.

What I am able to create is fueled by the desire to share the experiences of my mood and feelings surrounding a specific situation. My goal with my work is to draw out an emotion of my viewer, one that whisks them away from their present moment and transports them into another.

I tend to shoot with an abstract eye, and I like that my pieces capture moments that are not so obvious, but rather leave the viewer questioning exactly what they are seeing. I am constantly intrigued by underwater seascapes, and love that you have no real control under the waves, so much so that, before I even descend into the depths, I never know what I am going to get.

An orange fish next to a large, sprawling piece of coral

Can you describe a particularly challenging image to make?

To be honest, there is really never an easy image to make while shooting underwater. You are not only battling the elements, but your own creative mind as well. While I’m under the water, the clock is always ticking, and the subject matter is always swimming, moving constantly in and out of the lens frame. Also, the camera equipment is heavy and cumbersome, your attached lifeline (the compressed air tank on your back) is depleting, and the visibility and ocean currents are ever-changing. The longer I stay under, I have to compete with the setting sun and my “bottom time” decreasing when decompression sickness looms. I am at the whim of my studio and subjects, rather than the other way around — I cannot stop time and reset a shot to capture the perfect frame. I am at the mercy of the environment I am in, which generally makes for a difficult shooting experience, but that also makes it all the more rewarding when you’re able to capture something spectacular.

Why is this book important now?

From all of my work, whether through the images contained in this book or through my large-scale art prints, I want people to appreciate the complexity and beauty of our oceans and also understand the fragility of them as well. By being able to see the underwater beauty in this way, I want viewers of my art to feel compelled to do their part in protecting our oceans and her inhabitants. Without a healthy ocean, our health as human beings begins to suffer as well — we have already begun seeing the effects of this ecological erosion. These things are not singular; it’s a domino effect. By sharing the extraordinary world that lies beneath the surface, I hope I can inspire more change to take place. While it all starts on a visual level with my art, it can only end with our collective effort to save our oceans.

What's next for you?

First and foremost, I’ve just become a first-time father, so that adds some new responsibilities to my resume. Workwise, I want to exhibit more of my work in galleries around the country. And I want to keep traveling the world, with my family in tow, creating more art — to South Africa for the sardine run and over to Mexico to dive Cabo Pulmo, where big, beautiful pelagic creatures roam the waters off the coast, and where you have everything from pods of whales to massive schools of swirling jacks, sharks, and more. I look forward to being able to share more glimpses of this world through my art, places that not everyone has the opportunity to see firsthand.

A school of blue fish
A small yellow fish
Pink coral on a blue background
Left: a shark; right: a school of tiny fish
Three manta rays are silhouetted by the sunlight
A school of fish
A coral reef sits just below the water's surface, illuminated by sunlight

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