I have nemesis invertebrates. Until recently, I was only consciously aware of having nemesis jellies. But it’s bigger than that. I also have nemesis hooded nudibranchs.
By nemesis, I mean they kick my butt without even trying. No matter what I do, how hard I try, how much skip-breathing, bottom dragging, tank draining, muck stirring, upside-down vertical diving I do, I cannot seem to get the “perfect” photo of one.
Define perfect. Well, I can see it in my head. It looks a lot like photos I have seen before from other photographers. No, this is not about artistic originality. This is simply about being able to do something I think I should be able to do. For if it has been done before, it should be reproducible. It is not that I lack imagination – I will use that later on, once I can get the photo that should be the industry standard excellent hooded nudibranch photo.
Every time I see a fried-egg jelly or a lion’s mane, I go into attack mode: check my gauge, lower my mask on serious brow, aim the strobes like guns. Shot after shot after shot. To no avail. Either they have massive amounts of backscatter, are not crisp, or they are perfect but floating half-way out the frame. My assault on hooded nudibranchs is just a little bit different. It involves lots of praying and pleading and sometimes cursing at my camera for not firing at the perfect moment. It often involves aquatic gymnastics. If I have the luxury of being unhurried, it may involve 20 frames or more.
And I can recall, I think, every dive I have ever seen a hooded nudibranch on. My first was in British Columbia during one of my trips with the Vancouver Aquarists. Something went wrong with my film camera and I got no photos. So, yeah, rule #1: make sure camera is in working order.
Characteristics of a good nemesis
Now. What is it that makes a good nemesis? A good nemesis invertebrate has fine, intricate detail, much like laser etched glass.
A good nemesis invert is also a complex creature – not simple like a flatfish. I love flatfish as much as anyone, but flatfish are not my nemeses.
Other characteristics for a good nemesis invert? They are not sessile, not stationary where they live. Hooded nudibranchs are generally either found free-swimming or swooshing back and forth in the water while barely attached to kelp or eelgrass. They move, they sway, they expand and contract. It’s like they’re made of water or something. And if they are on kelp or eelgrass, the kelp and eelgrass also move and sway and can make a hooded nudibranch disappear faster than it takes to check your air pressure.
There’s more, and this one is critical. The other thing that makes a good nemesis invert is my own excitement level upon finding a specimen. I never tire at encountering my nemesis animals, mock me though they do. I feel great joy at encountering these animals every single time I see one, even if I happen to come upon a breeding many.
What factors have contributed to my difficulty in obtaining the guidebook-level photo?
- Crap in the water (backscatter)
- Poor visibility (now you see it, now you don’t)
- Surge (every photo is out of focus because of the constant motion)
- And the #1 challenge to capturing nemesis photos is my own self. It correlates in part to the #1 rule, making sure camera is prepared. But it goes beyond that. I can go to a dive site when I am virtually guaranteed to see hooded nudibranchs (because I was just there two days prior and there were hundreds but I ran out of batteries in my strobe and I had tinkered poorly with my camera settings, and so I went back two days later) and inexplicably then decide to test out weighting for a pony rig where I’m also then virtually guaranteed to either be under- or over-weighted and thereby exacerbate the other challenges.
Post Script: a [semi-]Chronology
Below are many of the hooded nudibranch photos I’ve taken over the past few years on my hero’s journey…
The Prize, unexpected
Sitting in the trash pile of bad photos, I made an unexpected discovery.