How to be an underwater model

My name is Cara Morrison, and I am underwater’s next top model!!

OK, actually I work for Scubazoo in our Borneo office, managing the Scubazoo stock footage library. My  average day is spent in an air conditioned office, behind a desk, selecting, uploading, keywording and marketing the incredible footage our underwater cameramen have shot in Malaysia, South Africa, Tonga and other exotic locations all over the world. I love my job, but (as a keen diver myself) sometimes it’s like having my face pressed up against the shop window of a candy store, looking at the goods but not being able to get my hands on any!

Then, one morning, Scubazoo CEO Simon Christopher called me into his office and asked if I’d be interested in joining our photographers on a chartered yacht trip around the Maldives, accompanying them as an underwater model… er…. Hello!? Do clownfish live in anemones!? What an amazing opportunity, cruising around the Maldives on the Sultan of Blues for 2 weeks… diving with beautiful and rare fish, and having my picture taken! This was the dream job, life was going to be easy and fun for 14 days, or so I thought….

To describe my first modeling partner as a plus-size model would be a massive understatement! And no I hadn’t turned into a bitchy supermodel already, I was being asked to swim alongside the biggest fish in the world, the whale shark. This was tough. Whale sharks are deceptively fast. Their sheer size makes it seem like they are barely moving but trust me, they are going at a very decent pace!  Not only did I have to keep up with this leviathan, but I also had to look as if I was relaxed and calm at the same time! Even more frustrating was the fact we were sharing our whale shark with lots of other snorkelers and divers. This was one of the biggest obstacles we faced as we tried to shoot aspirational shots, the kind of images where the viewer imagines themselves in the place of the model. No-one wants to imagine being kicked and banged by a marauding horde of snorkelers, while trying to grab a momentary glimpse of a whale shark! That, unfortunately, is the reality of the situation at Maamigili in Ari Atoll, where interactions with whale sharks are virtually guaranteed, but not in any way intimate. However, perseverance paid off, and we eventually got some time alone with one individual. The photographer would freedive down and I would follow him and get into position over the whale shark; it was then up to the surface again for a quick breath, catch up and get back down for the next shot. This frantic, time-pressured photo session went on for a matter of minutes before the chasing snorkelers disturbed our quiet moment with the shark.  It was then time to get out of the water and let others have their crowded moment.

We’d settled into a routine onboard our yacht, the Sultan of Blues. We would leave our cosy cabins before 5:30am to hit the water as the sun rose in the hope of catching the big sharks leaving the channels. That dawn dive would be swiftly followed by breakfast and another dive when the sun had fully risen. Lunch was a sit-down feeding frenzy, where I had to compete with two hungry underwater photographers (Jason Isley and Adam Broadbent) and a ravenous underwater cameraman (Chris Tan) and then we’d sail on to another dive site and get back in the water. Most days there was a sunset or night dive to follow as well.  There wasn’t a spare moment in the day, not quite what I thought I’d signed up for! I began to feel waterlogged and wrinkly very quickly!

It was on one of those night dives that I had one of my most terrifying experiences in the water.

We rolled into the water at Alimatha just on sunset. The jetty had a wonderful green light dappling the sand at about 5 meters, and the whole scene was the essence of beauty and calm. Then, at bang on 7:30pm, several giant trevallies steamed in, followed by marble rays and whiptail rays. It was like clockwork… they knew what would happen next.  And sure enough, on the dot of feeding time, dead fish rained down from the jetty and the feeding frenzy ensued!  Jacks were fighting each other for pieces of food near the surface, the giant trevallies were bullying their way into the action and the rays were swooping by my face like floating magic carpets.

With all this going on, It was almost impossible to stay focused on the photo mission. My job, which sounded simple before the dive, was to kneel on the bottom and interact with the rays (light and animal variety).  Unfortunately I have a fear of the dark (which is totally rational, I think), and in normal circumstances, as previous dive buddies will know, I try and avoid night dives at all cost.  So to be put in the middle of a feeding frenzy of fish, rays and sharks and asked to “sit still, look curious and engaged”… all without a torch was a little arduous. Like the true modeling professional I had become, I was handling it well though. Then it happened… one rogue dead fish head came hurtling towards me and landed on my leg.  The onslaught of rays and blacktip reef sharks was more than enough to make my breathing race; then came a monstrous 7ft nurse shark.  I think Jason’s pictures will show that the terror had really got to me by then… I froze with fear as the creatures snuffled my leg and each other to get to the food. These creatures may sound tame to the well traveled diver, but it was all new to me… I’d never seen any of those creatures before and it was only when I witnessed the nurse shark trying to eat, and I saw how small its mouth actually was, that I relaxed somewhat. The whole episode played out over 90 mins and I’ve never been so relieved when Jason gave me the ascent signal.  Having said that, it was one of the most exhilarating dives of the trip… everyone likes a bit of outright fear every now and then!

The whole voyage was a truly once in a life time opportunity for me!!  Filled with early mornings, long days, full-on diving, and lots of sun!  We didn’t touch down on land the entire time and it was a total whirlwind tour of the Maldives. It was tough at times, more so than I had expected, but given the chance I’d definitely do it all over again. Every so often on the boat I’d have a quiet moment to myself, whilst looking out to the indigo blue sea, and reflect on the fact that I was actually in the Maldives for work… and no matter how hard or tiring it was… it was a dream job and I was privileged to be there.

Over the course of the trip, with feedback (mostly constructive!) from the photographers, I learnt a few useful tips which I’ve listed below for any aspiring underwater models out there:

Hair:  For underwater photos the hair style of choice is wet and wild! This looks great on camera but is totally impractical for diving. I was constantly confronted by a mane of flowing seaweed in front of my face! I found it best to put my mask strap over my head and underneath my hair to keep my locks moving and wild at all times!

Eyes – With the regulator covering your mouth, your eyes are the only way to express emotion. The expression ‘smile with your eyes’ certainly applies underwater. And make sure those smiling eyes are pointed at the subject, not the camera.

Awareness – Use those peripherals! Whether it was chasing my shadow at the surface to know I was blocking out the sun behind me, or keeping up with the subject and keeping my eyes on it, I had to be aware of several things at once. All the time I used my peripheral vision to look for signals from the photographer who would let me know when to stay out of the shot and when to jump into action.

Form – Your normal dive technique doesn’t always look good on camera. I shortened the amplitude of my leg kicks, to keep my legs together as I followed subjects, so my body shape looked more streamlined and graceful in the pictures.

Bubbles – Bubbles look great in pictures so try to breath at a steady pace as usual, but control them so they come out in a fine stream and don’t obscure your face

You can also see some of the video which Chris Tan shot (on our new Sony PMW-EX1 camera) below. Good luck with honing your skills, hopefully some of those tips I picked up along the way will help improve your modeling skills and get you some memorable pictures.

6 Responses to “How to be an underwater model”

  1. Richard Apple

    Excellent article, photos and video! Put me on the list for future videos produced by Chris Tan!

    Richard Apple
    Tequesta, FL

  2. Anna Wong

    Great video! Wish I can do that too!

  3. Wilson

    I was working in Maldives a few years back and yes, I MISS the DIVING. . . I was an employee of the Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa and had the privilege to learn diving at minimal cost and had the chance to meet and dive with people from scubazoo, adam and chris etc., they take amazing photos and videos. . . I really miss diving in maldives and I wish I could learn more on underwater photography :D

  4. Emma Patel

    Ahhh C… What an amazing experience! Unbelievably jealous! x

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