From the Introduction toSplendors of the Seas
   by Norbert Wu

WHY I BECAME A NATURALIST

At the age of six I wanted to become a marine biologist. As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, I spent summers snorkeling in Florida waters and became fascinated with wildlife. When the time came to choose a college, I went to California. Like all naive teenagers in Georgia, I thought that California meant beaches, sun, and warm water. I was in for quite a shock during my first encounter with the bone-chilling waters of Monterey Bay.

Once in college, deluged with the advice of dorm mates, professors, and parents, I decided on a degree in electrical engineering rather than a major in my lifelong interest of marine biology. I kept up my diving, however, and explored the waters of Monterey Bay after investing in a wetsuit and basic diving gear. The electrical engineering degree was a pragmatic choice; the job situation seemed much better, and I always figured I could go back into marine biology. The situation seemed the same after four years, and so I obtained a master's degree in engineering and got my first steady job as a computer engineer in Silicon Valley. The job paid well, my boss was easygoing, and the work was routine and unstressful. Of course, I was bored. My thoughts kept wandering to tropical breezes and coral reefs. After nine months as a corporate player, I took an extremely low-paying job as a research diver with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on one of the San BIas Islands of Panama.

This time I had been much more careful in my choice of dive sites. The island is about 100 square feet of sand, and the researchers lived in bamboo and plywood huts right above the water. Most importantly, the water is warm there, and I had all the time in the world to dive. Prior to this trip, I never had the slightest interest in photography. But before heading south, I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, as well as an underwater flash and Nikonos camera system with extension tubes and close-up attachments.

For the four months that I was out in the San Blas, I only shot about ten rolls of film. However, the photographs from those rolls have been published over and over again. Because I was diving the reefs every day, I knew their inhabitants intimately. I was able to return to photograph an octopus, a flamingo tongue (a snail with a spectacular shell), and a spotjaw blenny again and again over the course of my four-month stay. This in-depth look at marine life's habits and behaviors has become my specialty. Being able to spend weeks working on a project rather than a few hurried weekends has made a big difference in the quality and content of my photographs. Underwater photography is different from photographing on land. Because of the limited visibility underwater, I am usually very close to my subjects, often no more than three feet away and sometimes even closer. As a diver, it is impossible to truly blend into the surroundings. The loud noise of your bubbles will always alert sea creatures to your presence. An underwater photographer must move slowly and in a non-threatening manner to get as close as possible to the subject without frightening it off. An understanding of a subject's behaviors and its reactions to your presence is essential.

After my San Blas experience, I took courses in marine biology and eventually spent two years as a doctoral student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Photography took up more and more of my time. I convinced my friend Spencer Yeh to spend two months with me, diving every day in the cold but astoundingly rich waters of Monterey Bay. I took my first course in ichthyology and was fortunate enough to be exposed to the encyclopedic knowledge of Dr. Richard Rosenblatt, the curator of the Marine Vertebrate Collection at Scripps. His course was filled with the details and observations of natural history that I had been looking for my whole life.

The field of marine biology is a tough one. It's not as much fun as it used to be, and there is little money available. One fellow student at Scripps finally received his doctorate after eight years of hard work. His job prospects are dim; every job he has applied for has had a minimum of 70 applicants and as many as 200.

Nowadays, many marine biologists seem less concerned with natural history than their predecessors were. Scientists in the old days had many mysteries to solve. Where did eels go to spawn? Where did sea turtles spend the first two years of their life? What exactly were these strange life forms trawled up from the deep? Good science is no longer so simple. Most marine labs have turned to biochemistry and other laboratory-oriented research -- research areas that can yield quick results and are good candidates for research funding. Field biologists are few and far between, and their financial situations are often dire.

In some ways, natural history photographers have taken over the role filled by old-time naturalists/scientists looking to represent and explain the big picture. While a modern research scientist may be forced to spend months and years studying a very small issue, I have the luxury of presenting my work without the burden of proof he or she must bear. The fact that I catch something on film makes it valid, and sometimes valuable. The proof is in the picture. Whether it always occurs in the same place at the same time in the same manner is not really an issue.

Photography has become a way of life for me, a good excuse for seeing the world. At my best, I am both scientist and artist. The photographic possibilities underwater are truly endless, and discovering new life forms and learning about the interconnections between various species make my work a fascinating blend of science and art. A wonderful thing has come out of this blend of disciplines -- this book. I hope my words and pictures will serve as a guide to this wild and remote place. Many of these creatures will be new and unfamiliar. The animals and their habits are fascinating, and the colors and patterns of life continue to enthrall me, even after seventeen years of diving and ten years of underwater photography.

As your guide, I hope to bring the sea alive for you through my photographs, and show you what I have learned and discovered, so unscientifically, about marine life. Let me introduce you to this very special place, our last true wilderness.


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