Anilao is Awesome

Sometimes when I am in the middle of something I get a bit tunnel-visioned. I am having a good time, yes, but my perspective is sometimes a tad narrowed. “Am I gonna be able to have a nap before the next dive?” “Where are my sunglasses, damnit?” “Should I ask for a second helping of ice cream?” These are the questions which sometimes occupy my mind. Yes, during the actual dives I am very enthusiastic about the marine life in front of my mask, but before and after I sometimes get distracted by everyday trivialities more than I would like to. Only after the end of the experience do I then realize just how extraordinary and special it was what I just saw and experienced.

My month of diving in Anilao with the Aiyanar Beach & Dive Resort was one such amazing experience which only now sinks in with its full weight. There was some spectacular natural history going on underwater!

HAWKFISH LUNCH

I saw a hawkfish hunt a shrimp in a black coral. That particular black coral was full of these half-thumb-sized, frail translucent shrimp. Very hard to see at the reduced light levels at 30 meters, and probably even more so when you only have the much smaller eyes of a 10 cm long fish to look for them. Still, the hawkfish got a shrimp, but then it immediately had to defend it against a hungry wrasse of about the same size. It then darted over to a cup-sponge next door and started chewing the shrimp which was much more than bite-sized for that fish.

A gazelle captured by a cheetah which then has to defend it against a pack of hyenas in the African savannah? The hawkfish, shrimp & wrasse episode was at least as exciting and all involved animals were way more pretty than those hyenas which somewhat look like Filipino street dogs anyway.

MIDWATER MATING

I saw rare and incredibly beautiful flasher masses wrasses mating in mid-water over an incredibly beautiful sun-drenched coral-covered reef wall. The males were each defending a territory and did impressive mating dances with widely spread fins when we encountered them. Very hard to photograph.

GOBY DEMISE

Then I saw a shrimp goby – a rather rare one, of the species Cryptocentrus caeruleopunctatus – in his hole with his symbiotic shrimp. The shrimp digs a hole, and the goby acts as a watchman. If danger approaches, the goby retreats into the burrow, and the shrimp notices that and also stays inside. That on its own is not such a rare natural history event, it can easily be observed by an attentive diver in the sand next to most coral reefs in the Indopacific, especially in low-current areas. This is a relatively rare shrimp goby, though, and I really enjoyed finding one.

Last ever picture of this goby before its demise.

But what I saw then was quite stunning: A medium-sized wrasse had followed me around. When I took a picture of the shrimp-goby, it must have realized that I was looking at something. I surely think that the wrasse does not understand what a camera is and what taking a picture entails. But it probably has some understanding of looking at things. Any vertebrate has eyes on the front of the head, and pointing that head somewhere usually means looking at something there. Looking is such a universal act that the wrasse most likely realized that I was looking at something – something edible?

When I took the picture of the shrimp goby, I spooked it and it retreated into its burrow. It usually takes a minute or two for the goby to come back out. The wrasse was willing to wait. Did it know that a circular hole in the coral rubble likely is a goby burrow? Wrasses and gobies have been living in the same reef ecosystems for millions of years, so that’s certainly possible. Hence, the wrasse patiently looked down onto the burrow, hovering and hovering … until the goby came out, then it quickly struck, and enjoyed its snack. A few seconds later, in mid-water, pieces of coral rubble were dripping from the successful hunters mouth.

Gony eater waiting for his lunch to appear. Note the goby burrow on the bottom right.

If you think that fishes are stupid, then you are stupid or you have never been underwater!

CONVICTS

On the dive site “Sombrero” I saw juvenile convict fish streaming in and out of the burrow which an adult convict fish had dug. The adult, much much bigger then the juveniles, and do not leave the burrow, ever. They look like sluggish eels, and emerge every minute or so, sometimes dumping sand or rubble out of the burrow.

It seems that there is a division of labor going on, with the adult fish digging the burrow and the juveniles foraging for food, which they then regurgitate into the adult’s mouth. This is a remarkable interaction between animals of different generations, possibly a rudimentary form of eusociality.

BIG SCHOOL

Off “Devil’s Rock” I saw one of the biggest school of fishes, ever. These were long-jaw mackerels, each about 30 cm long, and the whole school the size of a basketball court. This was a spectacle: one gigantic silvery beast racing through the ocean at high speed. These fishes swim with a wide open mouth to filter plankton, and they alternate between such filtering swims and bursts of even faster swimming with their mouths closed. It would have been hopeless trying to chase them, but even trying to cut in front of them for a good wide angle shot took a lot of hard swimming, much more than you’d normally like to do during a dive, when you’d want to conserve air. My efforts kinda worked, but not quite the way I hoped they would. I like to be very self-critical when it comes to my photographs.

All of that happened in 30 to 35 meters: Children, don’t try this at home! Or if your pool at home is not that deep, also don’t try it underwater in the Philippines. Such stunts use a lot of air and if you don’t have very good breathing discipline and constant awareness of the pressure in your tank you might all of a sudden find yourself with too little breathing gas, too deep!

To really consciously see these things, a lot of good things have to come together:

INTERESTING STUFF

Jim Richardson of National Geographic fame said “If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” A very good statement! There is a lot of really really interesting stuff underwater in Anilao. Some of the pieces of action I saw are rare events, and only spending a lot of time underwater, with open eyes, gave me the chance to witness them.

BUOYANCY

However, I don’t stand in front of interesting stuff as Jim suggests, but I hover. Any good underwater photographer needs really good buoyancy and fining skills. If you can’t stay in place, rather motionless, and swim without making a big sand cloud, you will end of scaring all the little animals which you could otherwise have the chance to observe doing their natural behaviors.

I think I have such skills. I think of myself as the inverse Michael Phelps: really good at swimming very slowly.

MARINE BIO SMARTS

Then, without the marine biology knowledge to realize what’s happening I would have understood little of what I witnessed underwater last month in Anilao. Without good knowledge of the shrimp – goby symbiosis, I would not have understood why that wrasse was looking at this strange hole in the sand.

And what were these convict fish doing? Am I seeing just a hole with some small fish entering? Or is this a unique event very meaningful for the understanding of fish reproduction? Only someone who has talked to the right people and read (and written, as I might add without false modesty!) the right scientific literature will understand that it’s the latter.

All these wonderful things do not come together often. I realize how fantastic my experiences were. Thanks to all who made them happen, from Aiyanar owner Tessa to the dive guides, the guys in the dive shop and the boat crews for getting me to these places!

SO?

One thing I have been thinking about is that for some of these events, video would have been a better medium to document them than still photography. I took some good shots, but some of the dynamics of the wildlife behavior I witnessed would have been inherently captured better on video. What would be a good video system, somewhat affordable, to start with on a high level?

First Dive Computer to Integrate Sexual Activity into Deco Models

May 18th, 2015 – Super Action Labs in Puerto Galera, Mindoro Oriental, Philippines have today announced the release of their ground-breaking new dive computer, the Super Action Lab “Awesome 1”.

The Awesome 1 is the first dive computer which integrates sexual activity into deco models. Besides the customary calculation of the no-fly time after dives (provided by virtually all current dive computer models) the Awesome 1 will also calculate the no-fuck time.

When talking to Pacificklaus media this Monday, Super Action Lab founder and chief developer Dr. Igor Brevzisky explained the workings of the new and improved algorithm in the Awesome 1. Sitting in a Puerto Galera cafe with a view of the hills of Batangas on the horizon, Igor said that it has long been known that vigorous exercise after diving can be harmful. The increased blood flow can transport bigger nitrogen bubbles (dissolved in the body during the dive) to places where they can do more damage, and lead to decompression accidents. A wait of several hours is necessary before any type of intensive physical exertion.

With his charming thick Russian accent, Igor said that while “everyone can wait before lift weight or ride bicycle” in contrast it’s “hard for guy to wait for pussy”. Vigorous sex can be as physically demanding as a kickboxing match and more so than standing next to the leg press in the gym, and deco accidents due to bedroom-athletics are not unheard of. “Especially in Philippines, with superlative diving and many many sexy ladies, big problem” said Igor. This is where the Awesome 1 comes in: it calculates how long a prudent diver should abstain from sex after a dive, the no-fuck time:

awesome1But this is not all. While two hours after a dive sex in a position which entails a moderate level of effort might be ok, other positions could still lead to a decompression accident. “Cowgirl position good, woman does work” in Igor’s words. The information which kind of sex is already advisable post-dive is shown on the display of the Awesome 1 in the form of color-coded pictograms:

awesome2The Awesome 1 also has a female mode, which can easily be set in the computer’s menu, accessible with two large contact buttons on the device’s right side. In this mode the no-fuck time remains the same, but the allowed positions are reversed, prohibiting positions which are more work for the penetratee for longer durations after the dives.

This will come in handy for many female divers in the Caribbean, where the local boys are known to be such great conversationalists with impeccable manners that many ladies jump into bed with them right after their dives. Generally, Dr. Brevzisky hopes, the Awesome 1 will further improve diving safety for the fun-loving modern traveler. “We are excited about computer like diver coming ashore seeing little brown girlfriend” the innovator told Pacificklaus media.

Besides the calculation of the no-fuck time the Awesome 1 can also accommodate nitrox up to 50%, and has a USB connection to directly post dives on Facebook via an app provided by Super Action Labs. The computer will be available through international distributors starting July at a retail price of 530$.

Special Dive Sites

I love to see fishes and corals and kelp and sponges underwater. But among the many dive sites I have dived there are also some which stand out through more than good marine life: they have very notable above-water features.

Scripps Canyon in La Jolla is a fantastic wall dive. It’s also a dive site not easy to reach. You need a key to the gate of the access road winding down the cliffs, and then you need a lot of motivation to walk, in temperate-water diving gear including a thick wet or dry suit, a good ten minutes along the beach. Black’s beach that is, a well known nude beach. Mostly nude dude-beach, that is, unfortunately. I have zero problems with nudity, but the contrast between the naked people and the divers, whole-body neoprene-clad with gloves and a hood, was funny. Probably funnier for the naked people watching us track along, since they weren’t sweating like hyperactive pigs in wetsuits!

Sunabe Seawall in Okinawa, Japan, is a dive site which will not leave you hungry after resurfacing – big bowls of “Okinawa Soba”, a pork broth with thick noodles and an interesting mix of spices are waiting post-dive.

When getting set up for a dive at Fly Point in Nelson Bay, Australia, you get to deluxe-birdwatch before you get wet. Several species of parrots, flocking and calling, crows, birds of prey high in the sky, and more of the unique Australian avifauna shows up to the naturalists’ delight.

A special dive site which I just recently discovered is the Anilao Pier. It offers top muck diving under water, and karaoke on land. Karaoke? Isn’t that an art form from another Asian archipelago? No, while it was indeed invented in Japan, it’s very popular in the Philippines. Interestingly, while the Japanese karaoke singers rent a “karaoke box” (a separate small room) all for themselves & friends, or in an act of musical autism for one person alone (!), Filipino karaoke is very social. So social that not merely one’s friends and neighbors get to hear the singing but also the divers on a nearby boat out in the bay. Hint: two songs sang at the same time in adjacent karaoke joints do not increase the listening pleasure by a factor of two.

At this point I have to confess: I like to sing karaoke. I am a man of many talents: I am good at reasoning about biology, diving, photography, computer programing powerlifting, and giving philosophical speeches after eight or more beers. If you read that list again, you will notice that singing is not among these talents. My voice has been compared to that of a carabao, a water buffalo:

I still sing. It’s fun.

Fortunately the karaokists active near the Anilao Pier have more blessed voices than I do. They sing all the classics: Sinatra, Queen, and the really cheesy stuff. When arriving at the Pier by boat from Aiyanar after a 20 minute glide over the dark, mirror-like ocean, song welcomes us divers.

Oh, yes, before I forget: underwater the Anilao Pier features stargazers, snake eels, octopi, Bobbitt worms, snails, flounders, plus many species of crabs and shrimp. And you get to listen to Filipino karaoke again when you come up to climb into the boat under the magnificent starry sky.

Praise to the Filipino Critter Spotter

If you have been admiring underwater photographs from the Philippines, you probably have a rough idea what it takes to get a good shot of some marine critter: half a boat-load full of diving and underwater camera gear; a skill set-which includes good buoyancy, fining and some photographic talent; and a critter to photograph! But how do we find these?

Here the Filipino Critter Spotter comes in: A seasoned reef professional. A man who knows his way around between the corals. An expert in finding the harlequin shrimp, leaf scorpionfish, Randall’s shrimp goby and Allen’s ceratosoma. A master in frogfish-detection. It’s the Filipino Critter Spotter who spots most of the critters which then end up on Facebook underwater photo groups, gallery walls or in photo books.

Visiting underwater photographers would go home with much less awe-inspiring images of underwater life if not for the Filipino Critter Spotter. There would still be shots of “Nemo” and of pretty sea fans, but certainly less photographs of the rare, tiny and semi-cryptic fishes, nudibranchs, crabs and shrimp. A hairy shrimp the size of a large sand grain? The Critter Spotter finds it. You are hoping to see a mimic octopus or a stargazer? Just ask your Spotter.

Even I, as a very critter-savy inhabitant of the Pacific shores since 2002, still value the knowledge of the Critter Spotters. When I come to a new place, like to Anilao just recently, I certainly tag along with an expert Spotter, and grill him about the dive sites: what’s special about this or that dive spot? Where are the nudibranchs? How deep are the flasher wrasses? Where do the frogfish hide? What’s there to see at night? Many of the Critter Spotters are great sources of information about their home location, after having dived there for many years. In the earlier days of my diving life, I was certainly much more dependent on my spotters than now, when I almost live underwater, but I still value their help.

Some Filipino Critter Spotters I’ve met came from middle-class backgrounds. Others were raised in poor families, and worked their way up, first doing menial jobs on the beach, maybe driving a boat, and saving money along the way to get certified as a diver, then as an advanced, then rescue diver and eventually as a dive master. For Westerners this certification is often a nice peak achievement in their hobby or an attempt to get over their mid-life-crisis; for the Filipino Critter Spotter it’s the basis of a livelihood.

All Filipino Critter Spotters I have come across take great pride in their ability to find the rare and unusual animals underwater. Just like the photographers they lead to the minute nudi, rare goby or unusual blenny, their faces glow with excitement when they climb back into the boat after the dive. The Critter Spotters will sometimes know the scientific names of a particular animal, but always know which sponge or coral it lives on, when it’s about to mate, what time of the day it shows up, and how to approach it. The Critter Spotter is an expert biologist, without the academic titles, but surely with the expertise.

I greatly respect the Filipino Critter Spotters and I present you with a gallery of critters spotted by the Filipino Critter Spotters Jojo (Malapascua), Ian (Dauin), Julian (Mactan) and Bhok (Anilao):

Anilao Fishes

In my last post I was raving about the incredibly diverse nudibranch fauna in Anilao. I like sea slugs, but my main interest is fish diversity! And in this realm Aniao is very very impressive as well. What did I see in my first 2 weeks at Aiyanar?

Let me take a big step back and explain how I can even start to talk about the fish fauna of such a rich and diverse place after only two weeks! It would take years to realllly get to know such a complex fish fauna well. But, I had a lot of very fish save locals (especially the Aiyanar dive guides Bhok and Kim) to talk to. Plus, I think I can say that without false modesty, I have a pretty good eye for fishes. So what swam in front of this eye and the lens of my camera?

PIPEFISH

Just like the crabs and nudibranchs, the fishes of Anilao are typically small, rare and unusual. Such as the pipefishes: seahorse relatives which often look more like worms than like fishes. I have seen several species of pipefishes here, among them this individual of Halicampus sp.

This fish is not even in the otherwise very complete 

LION & SCORPIONFISH

The muck diving sites in Anilao are full of different members of the scorpaenifromes, the lion, stone & scorpionfishes. Besides the common lionfish, Pterois volitans, I have observed several dwarf lionfishes. This is a head-on shot of a Parapterois heturura:

STARGAZER

I am always excited to see a stargazer. This is an ambush predator hiding in the sand. It has such a grumpy face! Of course the face of the fish is not meant to express any human emotions, but for us humans it’s very hard to avoid interpreting eyes and mouths as signals of mood.

GOBIES

Everybody who has ever talked to me for more than 20 minutes knows that I really like gobies. I mean, gobies are just very very special to me. And Anilao delivers in the goby-department. A few species I have seen here for the first time, others I saw which I had not spotted in a long time. Such as the pink-eye dwarfgoby (Bryaninops natans), which I will seek out to shoot in the next couple of days. I really enjoyed seeing this Pleurosycia boldinghi, a goby living on sea pens:

There are also really nice shrimp gobies, these gobies associated with a shrimp, sharing a burrow with the crustacean, in return for keeping a watch for predatory fishes:

AND THIS GUY

What a pretty, tiny filefish (Brachaluteres taylori, juvenile). It was hiding in a back coral (black when dried, white when alive), and matching its host so well. Anilao delivers quite a lot of marine animals like that: rare, tiny and very aesthetic.

FISH BEHAVIOR

In the last 2 weeks I have observed some really fascinating fish behavior: At the dive site “secret bay” I saw a hawkfish snatch a glass shrimp out of a black coral; it was a big shrimp, though, and the hawkfish was not able to eat it at once. Thus, a small wrasse tried to steal the meal out of the mouth of the hawkfish; the hawkfish fled to a sponge next door to finish eating.

At “twin rocks”, the backside of one of the rocks is a damselfish breeding ground right now. These sergant majors (Abudefduf vaigiensis) tend to a purple film of eggs on the rock surface and chase off any fish trying to make their babies into a meal. This is one of these things which are a lot of fun to watch if you know what’s going on, but otherwise you’ll only see a few hectic fish racing in circles. As always, the more you know, the more you see.

All this is no less spectacular than lions hunting zebras and cheetahs raising their young, it’s just happening on a smaller scale!

And the titan triggerfish are breeding these days; these are big (~ 50 cm) fish with powerful teeth, so it’s not even a good idea to approach them too closely. In other spots, the titan triggers are feeding by sorting through the coral rubble. I’m hoping to shoot much more of this aktsch in the next week!

Anilao Slugs

Here I am! Anilao, Bantangas, just about 4 hours south of the ultra-epic traffic jam known as Metro Manila, in one of the Philippines’ top critter diving destinations. For many years I have heard other divers rave about the superb critters seen in Anilao, and I am excited to finally have made it to the place. I’m at the wonderful

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perched on the hills just above the mirror-flat ocean.

What did I see so far?

Nudibranchs! And then some more nudibranchs, plus more nudibranchs. In fact, the fish fauna in Anilao is also very interesting but I’ll get to that in the next post. But the sea slugs of Anilao heavily caught my eye on my first underwater adventures here. In three dives with a camera I photographed 15 species of these mollusks, and saw some more which were either too small, or hiding in crevices so that I couldn’t take a shot of them. Several of these species I saw for the first time, among them the incredibly, utterly amazing Ceratosoma alleni:

Ceratosoma alleni

This is a sea slug which pretends to be a soft coral to avoid predation. A true apex of evolution – kind of a similar evolutionary idea to the leafy seadragon, which is a fish pretending to be seaweed:

Leafy seadragon, South Australia

It’s an intellectual and spiritual delight to observe and photograph such an animal. The dive guide pointed out the first to me, but the second alleni I found myself.

We might ask (or at least I ask!): Why are there so many nudibranchs in Anilao, and in the tropical Pacific, in general? One reason is that there are very many marine species in general in the “coral triangle”, the region between the Philippines, eastern Indonesia and PNG. The tropical location and the many little islands with their incredibly long intricate coastlines are one reason for the amazing biodiversity. There are lots of places for reef animals to thrive. Another reason might be that the coral triangle was a refuge for tropical species during the last ice age. This is all detailed in this brilliant, though out-of-print book:

But then on top of a generally high marine biodiversity in the coral triangle, why are there so many sea slugs? I think a number of factors favor speciation (the evolution of new species) amongst the nudis: They are slow-moving animals which lay their eggs on the substrate, which limits dispersal. If the offspring of a slug disperses less, that means less genetic mixing and a higher chance for two separate populations to become more dissimilar and develop into two new species. Also, I have the impression that many nudibranchs are extreme food specialists. One species of nudi typically seems to be feeding on one type of sponge, tunicate or soft coral. So, the great variety of these food animals gives rise to a great variety of nudibranchs.

Let me point out that what I am writing here is speculation, but certainly educated speculation, informed by a grasp of evolutionary biology and my observations on 2000+ dives!

Hypselodoris infucata

And finally, we have to ask, why are there so many nudibranchs specifically in Anilao? Good question. Often, the presence of small marine animals is determined by physical features of the ocean: which currents are present (or absent!), what the water temperature is (relatively cold in Anilao), and how much sunlight is available. I will have to ponder these questions during more dives in Anilao. Any suggestions? I’d like to hear them.

Chromodoris geometrica

Anilao Travel

Pacificklaus the scuba nomad is in a different top diving location now: In Anilao, a macro diving top spot just a few hours by car south of Manila. I’ll be with Aiyanar, perched on a hill above the ocean. Yesterday was my travel day, and what a travel day it was. Travel in the Philippines seems to be always more entertaining and just short of twice as long as expected.

What is actually expected was a delay of the Cebu Pacific flight I took. Yeah, very cheap fares, goddess-pretty flight attendant dolls, but you need an extra hour or two. Which I spent in lovely Dumaguete airport. And the lovely here is nit cynical. There are no useless shiny stores of consumer goods and status symbol-handbags, but a blind dude playing Beatles classics on his guitar. Other than the late John Lennon few people can sing Imagine with so much heart. I also got a back and neck massage and ate some sesame cookies. Airports are also of course a good place for people watching. Dumaguete always has a nice mix of locals and tourists. The tourists usually have the better tattoos.

Finally we made it on the plane and I had a good conversation with a Dumaguetino architect traveling to a convention.

Next stop: Manila. The airport there is named after Benigno Aquino, Jr., a great man and political activist who worked to oust the dictator Marcos. Wouldn’t his memory be served better by organizing the airport a bit better? It took 90 minutes of lining up in the tropical summer mid-day heat, between a few construction sites, to get a cab. Yeah, there were more nice ladies to look at, but the wait got a bit long in the end. Interestingly, the cab drought seemed to have caught the attention of a local TV station which was shooting a special on it. You might see me on Manila local TV, sweating and looking a bit annoyed.

After I finally sat down in a cherished taxi, I made it through the chaotic traffic over to the bus terminal and boarded an air conditioned liner to Bantangas City. Lots of snack salesboys came through and I stocked up on nice juicy oranges. A movie in Tagalog with lots of beatings and explosions entertained the bus riders. The movies in Tagalog always seem to be these hard assed action flicks. The main protagonist had one of these thin mustaches which only tough guys in movies and 70s porn actors wear. Too many boobie traps and not enough boobies in the flick, for my taste. I had a nice chat with the really interesting young lady on the seat next to me, and within about two more hours I was in Bantangas.

From there I got picked up by the resort van, and it was another hour to Aiyanar. I got to re-watch “Predators” in the van, which is a really cool movie. Bantangas lookedalready pretty rural even though metro Manila isn’t that far away at all. I arrived at the resort just to see the clouds lit by the setting sun reflect in the infinity pool. Good times. More dives coming up soon!

Photo Art

“Alles ist Kunst, jeder ist ein Künstler”
(“Everything is art, everyone is an artist”)
– Joseph Beuys

A few months ago, an image of a sun-flooded desert canyon in Arizona by Australian photographer Peter Lik became the highest selling photograph, ever. I like the shot. It has a certain “wow” effect. It made me want to go to that canyon. But, the high-brow critics were quick to condemn Lik’s shot as “a cliche: easy on the eye, easy on the brain, hackneyed and third-hand.”. The Guardian, ever willing to provide a forum for good intellectual jousting, also let another commenter speak, who at least in principle thought that photography can be art. But even the art critic in favor of photography as art made sure to tell the readership that while there is art photography, nature photography is certainly not a part of it. So, if it’s photographed in nature, then it can’t be art. No matter how it looks. Thanks high-brow art critic boys one & two for the lesson!

A few months after Lik made the big sale, just last week, I took my super macro camera setup underwater. This is my Canon 5DII digital SLR with the Canon 100 mm f2.8 macro lens and an extension ring, which adds some extra magnification. This lets me photograph quite minute things, down to a size of about 2 centimeters to fill the whole photograph’s frame. This is an impressive piece of technology.

The fact that I can bring this setup in a housing underwater to a depth of 80 meters (the deepest shot I have taken was that deep) makes the engineering involved even more impressive. Also, divers without highly specialized training & gear usually die at 80 meters. Not me. There is a certain Nietzschean quality to making photo art under such conditions. But aren’t I mistaken in thinking that I am making art, since I am photographing mere nature?

What I photographed last week was a ribboned sweetlip, Plectorhinchus polytaenia, a beautiful tropical marine fish. It’s a mid-sized fish, though. My ultra macro setup did not allow me to take a shot of the whole animal, so I focused on those beautifully colored patterns on its side. Back on dry land I slightly cropped and then rotated the image and liked the result. The sweetlip has some interesting looking lines on its side!

Here is the shot:

Sweetlip Lines.

Interestingly, British painter Ian Davenport has been making art with lines for quite a while. His wall-covering paintings are produced by “pouring gloss paint from heavy-duty syringes spaced along the top of the working surface, and then tilting it, or simply allowing the paint to overflow and ooze into concentric puddles.”. His paintings have been shown internationally and he was commissioned to create artwork for prestigious locations. He is a man working with the appeal of lines.

by Emiliano via Flickr

Things get even more interesting. On Flickr I found this piece of line art which was generated by a computer program. The programmer (who also uploaded the image on Flickr) wrote the initial program code and then let the program decide on the specifics of the patterns. He made the artist, but at least not directly the art. The artist’s programmer notes himself that the resulting image reminds him of Davenport’s work.

by Forrest O. via Flickr

So, since my lines stem from work in nature photography, they are not art, but Davenport’s lines since they were made with the blessing of the art world, are art? The computer generated work, since no human artist was directly involved, is completely out of the question, I assume?

Don’t get my wrong: I am not a “these are just fricking lines, how is that art?”-type ignoramus. I certainly see the aesthetic appeal. I like Davenport’s paintings very much. Especially on their large scale, these are appealing and creative works. I also like the algorithmic art. But I also like my sweetlip-side lines! The effects which looking at either Davenport’s painting, the computer-generated lines or my sweetlip photograph will have on the human visual system are probably fairly similar. Similar high-level brain neurons will light up when looking at the expensive Davenport painting or the Creative-Commons Pacificklaus photograph. Both images need to be thought about with similar concepts in mind, then! Similar abstract art, no matter how it was generated, will do similar things to our brains and minds. Aforementioned art critic boy one says that it is a “fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.“. Ah-ha. So while trippy looking lines are art when made by pouring paint, they are not when photographed off the side of a fish, or generated by a computer?

There is some seriously inconsequential arguing going on here. The mistake is to ignore that visual art criticism should be foremostly informed by an understanding of human vision. But that’s hard. Hence, it is much easier to give off semi-vacuous gallery-opening name-droppy small-talk about the meaning and the impressively thoughtful message of a photograph. Remember high-brow art critic boy two (who probably has never seen a beautiful sweetlip in nature himself) mentions in his lesson to us that “… art critic Jonathan Jones went to see the wildlife photographer of the year show […] Did he think they were art photography exhibitions?“. I guess to him it does not matter so much how a work of visual art looks, but more where some gallery curator hangs it. And that’s the art critic boy who is in favor of photography being art. (Yes, I know that these are super highly respected senior art critics, not boys. Who am I to call them that? I am an artist! Joseph Beuys told me that I am one!).

The approach to the criticism of photography which is not primarily based on understanding human vision is a dead end road for anyone other than those merely trying to impress good-looking art-school students of the gender of their choice. Reviewing a photograph primarily via its social commentary & place in art history and only secondarily in regards to its visual qualities hints at a deep misunderstanding.

The question should be “what does this image do to the image processing (visual) parts of our brains” and not, as so often “what message about identity, gender, capitalism, migration and/or poverty could the artist have wanted to convey with the photograph? What previous images does it relate to and which genre do we put it in?”. Again, I am not an ignorant and all for discussing identity, gender, capitalism, migration and/or poverty, but not when trying to understand the aesthetic qualities of a photograph! Hence, for anyone really trying to get to the core of how photography works, I recommend studying the psychology and neuroscience of visual perception. Only treating visual art as a human expression playing with the visual systems of other humans will let us intellectually approach photography.

My new book (which by the way is still looking for a good literary agent or publisher) provides such an introduction to visual perception for the photographer – and there is lots of material to cover. We have good insights into many levels of perception. As almost always in science, good answers led to more open questions, but the scientific progress in understanding visual perception during the last half century was impressive. We learned that the largest brain region responsible for parsing vision is the cortex, the walnut-ish, layered structure giving the human brain its unique appearance. Specifically, the what we see is processed in the visual cortex in the back of the head.

One finding (honored with a 1981 Nobel Prize) is that the visual cortex is organized very systematically. Brain cells stacked on top of each other respond to the same things in the visual world. In one spot brain cells will only become active when we see a vertical line. When we move across the surface of the cortex laterally, brain cells become responsive to slightly tilted lines, and eventually to horizontal lines. Each stack of brain cells responding to the same type of line is called an orientation column.

What Davenport’s or the sweetlip’s or the algorithm’s lines do to our brains is to activate only one type of orientation column, very strongly. Now, we are not consciously aware of the activity in the cortex-area containing the orientation columns. But this type of cortex sends its signals to other, higher cortical areas. In many cases, we know that these connections are spatially very orderly: neighboring brain cells often project to neighboring targets. And after a few steps of sending the signals further on, there are areas in the cortex where the brain activity triggered by seeing the lines and the contents of our consciousness correlate. These high order brain areas must be amused by registering that all brain cells responsive to only one orientation are vigorously active at once. Besides this knowledge about brain anatomy there is also a lot of insight from perceptual psychology about perceiving lines – lots of things for the photographer or photography critic to read up on!

And then we can start to answer: Does a photograph – or a painting, or the outcome of a computer algorithm – tickle these high-level brain areas right? THAT is the question we should be asking as true connoisseurs of visual art.

More cool abstract ocean art.

Hooligan Fish

One way to loose all credibility and intellectual respect from me is to call a damselfish symbiotically associated with an anemone a “Nemo”. It works like that:

Pacificklaus: How are you?

Diver whom Pacificklaus takes seriously: Good, I just came back from a dive!

Pacificklaus: What did you see during your dive?

Bimbo-Diver: Nemo!

Pacificklaus (rolls eyes)

“Nemo” is a character in a cheesy commercial cartoon movie for kids. It’s not the name of a fish, or group of fishes. What Bimbo-diver means is a damsel fish – or pomacentrid – living in symbiosis with an anemone. Damselfishes (Pomacentridae) are a rather big family of small bony fishes, some of which tend to algae gardens which they graze on, and others live in the aforementioned anemones for protection. Many damselfishes also tend to their eggs and some even to their fry. These are all behaviors which make them very territorial marine animals.

One of the hooligans!

Why do I write Damselfishes (Pomacentridae)? “Pomacentridae” is the scientific, universally accepted name for this fish family. “Damselfishes” is the common name in English. Every language from a place where people know about the Pomacentridae has a local word for them. This word often describes the nature of the animal: a woodpecker is a bird which pecks away at wood. An earthworm is a worm crawling trough the earth. Ect! That brings us to the “damsel” fish. A damsel is a “young unmarried woman”. A delicate creature. Maybe given to poetry and romantic walks, but not to violent aggression. The fishes belonging to the pomacentridae do not act like damsels. They are super aggressive, territorial and combative. I have been bitten by pomacentridae, head butted, and chased over the reef. They are especially aggressive when divers swim near their anemones or algae-gardens, which they consider their property, without any discussion possible. Naturally, they are even more amped up when they are breeding and have eggs to defend. Last week a damselfish saw me and swam over a good 5 meters from its anemone just to threateningly swim back and forth in front of me.

The only good thing is that they are small fishes. A 90 cm “damsel” fish would be something to hide behind a rock from! A 2 meter damselfish I would not want to be in the water with!

Now, who else starts unprovoked fights, headbutts and bites? The European soccer hooligan (Assholis europaeicus). Wikipedia writes of “norms that tolerate great levels of violence and territoriality”. The parallels are too strong to ignore, hence I propose to change the common name for the family of the Pomacentridae to “hooligan fish” (and certainly not nemo).

The Sheep’s Obituary to the Shepherd

Make no mistake, the Shepherd was a great man. He is no longer with us. But his spirit lives on within us. Our sheep herd grew to such lovely large proportions under the Shepherd’s watch that our wooly chests swell with pride. The meadow we graze on is the envy of grazers all over the world. We stand shoulder to shoulder and no calf is trampled by a thousand sheep feet like in some other meadow the Shepherd told us about.

Right now we have some small piece of mind since the son of the Shepherd tends to all our needs. And even so, if something is very bad, the Shepherd had assured us: “And even from my sick bed, and even when you lower me into the grave, if I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

The few herd members who disappear once in a blue moon or maybe in a silver moon, half or full, don’t matter that much when we gaze at the herd as one, unified to serve all but at least the shepherd. No, you cant’ say Meeeehhhh around here, but who would want to say Meeeehhhh anyway, we all say Meeeeh and if you say Meeeeh like you should then you will have no problems here. The good sheep have no problems here and the Shepherd knows who is good. And there is a small corner anyway where you can say Meeeehhhh.

Our brains, shrunk from thousands of generations of domestication don’t register these injustices, rather we need all our mental gifts to concentrate on the grass in front of us; and that grass is green. At least our evolutionary dilemma relieves us from all responsibility and guilt, because we can’t know any better. It’s not so bad like that. It would be much worse if we still could see the wrongness, but through weak values (money!) are incapable of protesting what must be protested by anyone with decency: the criminalization of protest.

Long live the spirit of George Orwell!!!