Engbretson Underwater Photography

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News From Behind the Scenes at Engbretson Underwater Photo and Stories about the Freshwater Environments We Visit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Special Underwater Friendships

Steve, the Smallmouth Bass. His image has appeared dozens of times over the years in many magazines. He's likely the single most famous fish in Wisconsin.
Occasionally I’m interviewed about my underwater photography and experiences I’ve had photographing fish in freshwater environments. In today’s post, I’d like to share a portion of a recent interview I did that I think you’ll enjoy.
Question: When did you first start interacting with fresh water fishes and why? What drew you to them?
Answer: I’ve told this story many times.  I’ve loved fish for as long as I can remember.  Growing up, my father had many aquariums in the house.  As a child, I remember staring into them for hours watching the tropical fish and imagining what it would be like to be in the tanks with them. Later, I became an avid fisherman-and what fisherman doesn't wonder what it all "looks like down there".  In 1990 I moved to a home on a small lake in northern Wisconsin.  Then, a few years later came the day that changed my life.  One sunny August afternoon, I was just sitting on the deck looking at the lake.  For some reason, I noticed how clear the water was. Whether it was an epiphany sparked by the natural surroundings or a simple act of fate, I impulsively drove to a local chain store and bought a cheap swim mask, snorkel and fins. The mask leaked and the fins were too small. It was a disaster.  But once in the water I couldn’t believe the clarity and the beauty. The underwater world was radiant.  The play of light on rocks, emerald plants, sunken trees, and glowing green algae. It was an astounding realm of pure silence and unsurpassed visual delight.  And then there were the fish.  So many of them!  I was finally inside that aquarium I had fantasized about as a child.  I saw more fish that first day than I had seen all year as a fisherman.  But for the first time I saw them differently.  I saw them in their realm, relaxed and peaceful.  At home.
The mask and snorkel became my passport into a whole new world I never imagined.  It wasn’t long before my fishing rods were banished to a dusty corner in the garage and instead of looking at the new lures at the sporting goods store, I was looking at the snorkels, the wetsuits and the fins.  These were the accoutrements I was interested in now.  These were the tools that would best serve me in exploring this new world.  These were the instruments that would enable me to commune with fish in a way that I previously could scarcely imagine.  I began visiting other lakes and for me, every day became another “moon landing”-Another trip to the top of Mount Everest. Every trip under the surface was filled with awe, wonder and discovery.  I wanted to share with others the amazing things I was seeing.  In the following weeks a whole new purpose revealed itself to me and I started taking pictures.  I began to devote myself to documenting fish in their natural environment.  I wanted to show others the inherent natural beauty of these fish and the uniqueness of the freshwater environments they live in. 
Question: Can you recall or describe any very special encounters you've had?
Answer: Impossible question for me to answer.  There’s been so many.  They’ve become almost routine.  But here’s one that happened last summer that comes to mind, because it was a new one for me. There’s a lake I go to often where there’s a bass that I know and have been working with for about five years.  I call him Steve.  Every time I go to this lake it doesn’t take him long to find me.  I think he must hear my bubbles from the scuba gear.  I don’t know how far away he can hear me or how far he swims to reach me.  Sometimes it only takes him 10 minutes…. Other times it’s an hour.  Once Steve finds me, he stays with me for however long I’m in the lake, follows me everywhere, poses for pictures, and we’ve had lots of adventures together. 
So anyway, one day last summer, I went to Steve’s lake.  I looked for him as I always do, but he wasn’t around.  I was carrying two cameras that day.  My main camera for taking still photographs, and a GoPro mounted on a rack with strobes.  While it’s no problem to swim around with two camera outfits, once you start shooting, you need both your hands so you need to set one of the cameras down.  I left my main camera on the bottom in a clear spot.  You always try to leave it where it’s completely obvious.  It’s easy to lose your bearings underwater and find the exact spot you were at before, so you want to make it easily visible so you can find it again when you return.  So I leave my main camera out in plain sight on the lake floor and move down the shoreline about 200 yards to another place where I’m filming video with my GoPro.  I’m starting to get a little bummed out now because it’s been more than an hour and I haven’t yet seen Steve.  I always worry that a fisherman will catch him one of these days and… well… You get the idea. (Sigh)
So after more than an hour, I decide I’m done filming with the GoPro and now I want to take stills with my other camera.  I swim back to the place I’ve left it.  When I arrive at the spot, I see my camera just as I left it and hovering quietly next to it is Steve. 
It was a magical moment because while I know Steve recognizes me, it showed me that he also knows my camera.  After years of posing in front of it, he came to know it, with its dome port and all its knobs and buttons.  He was probably swimming by and saw it on the lake floor and recognized it.  While he didn’t know where I was, I think he knew that I set it down and that if he waited with it I would return for it.  After all, he’s witnessed me do that very thing many times.   This was an astonishing event.  I hope anyone who hears this story is amazed.  If they’re not, I need to do a better job at explaining how utterly amazing a feat this was.  It was absolutely one of the most incredible, and revealing demonstrations of fish intelligence I’ve ever seen.