Interviewer: I recently had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of joining world-renown underwater photographer and photo-naturalist Tony Wu on a humpback whale expedition in Vava'u, Tonga. For 10 days we dove with these magnificent creatures out in the open ocean, getting to know their behaviours, playing with their young, and taking stunning photographs of them, more up close than I would have thought possible.
Tony Wu is one of the few people who not only organises such expeditions to Tonga and other places around the world year-after-year, staying for the entire whale season and offering select people a chance to dive with them, and doing so in such a way that is not disruptive to the whales, but he is the only one who gathers detailed statistics on the whales, and analyses their migration patterns.
All except the first photo shown is copyright of Tony Wu.
Profile: Tony Wu, Underwater Photographer
Interviewer: what first got you interested in the ocean?
I was born. I can’t even remember a time not being interested in the ocean so there was no moment in particular—it was just always… The memories from when I was a kid are few and far between. But being in the ocean, swimming, diving in, playing with crabs, getting pinched by them, picking up sea shells, sea stars, looking at the fish—that was just the way things were. Nobody asked me to do it or taught me to do it, it just happened, so I just don’t know.
Interviewer: what about what first got you into underwater photography?
I’ve always had a visual arts penchant. I drew a lot, painted a lot. I did a lot of things like that when I was younger, and at one point in my life I actually thought I might want to be an artist. When I started spending more time in the ocean as an adult it seemed to me that photography was just that way that I wanted to paint what I saw, so to speak, and it was just and still is just a tool—it’s a means to an end.
I don’t particularly care that I’m using a camera or whatever. What I really want to do is to study whatever the subject is that I’ve chosen. Like here right now it’s the humpback whales: learn as much as I can about them, understand them and then try to translate that visually and also augment it with explanations and words so that other people and see it and understand it. That’s all that’s really valid.
Interviewer: what’s the difference between an underwater photographer and a photo-naturalist?
Haha! About, what, 4, 5, or 6 years ago I was re-doing my website. Because I do that from time-to-time and I sort of sat down and asked myself, “what actually are you doing?” I never really liked the term “underwater photographer” because actually photographers are different.
Interviewer: how are they different?
If you are making a living or a large part of your living out of photography, and you have a skill you’ve mastered, then you’re a photographer. That’s it. It doesn’t really matter what you shoot.
And you know, the term “underwater photographer” is very limiting to me. And words are important in the sense that they help you, yourself, frame what you’re thinking and doing. So I thought (while re-doing my website), “maybe I should just start with a clean slate and think about what I’m actually doing.”
It’s not the photography that is my goal—it never was, it was the understanding of, the study of, and trying to explain, the things that were taking place in front of me in nature.
Interviewer: so how did you get to the photo-naturalist part?
I very early on started writing articles, and wrote a lot of stuff, and wrote on my own site for myself and for other people. I realised that actually, all that photos are is a means for me to achieve that goal which is more akin to being a naturalist. But instead of, say, in the 1800s and drawing things, I was just replacing the pencil drawings with images. So I realised, “wait a minute, I’m a naturalist who uses photos as my own way of recording, and then later on, as a way of explaining.” And I just said, “oh, I’m a naturalist.” And I thought about it—it took a while—and it came to me: actually, that’s what I do.
Interviewer: do you think that term is unique to you?
No. I think there’s other people who do it but maybe not use the term. But I wanted to draw a line for myself so keep focus on what I’m actually doing, and then also make it clear to anyone who might be interested—you know, what makes me different from somebody else. You know there are people who photograph because they just want to photograph and that’s fine. But I’m just trying to clarify as clearly and as succinctly as possible what I do.
Interviewer: where do you exhibit your work?
These days mostly online, on my own site and social media, which I have mixed feelings about to be polite. But I get requests from museums, from publications. I don’t actively go to seek them out. But people do come to me. A lot of the stuff that I try to target is either because either it’s not specifically well-known or even if it’s known it’s not well-documented in terms of images, and you know when I do succeed, I end up more quite often with images that no one else has. So if there is a need for it then people come to me.
Interviewer: can you give an example?
I have lots of photos of whales pooping because I find myself at the rear end of whales a lot and… they poop! And well, it’s kind of interesting actually, because different whales poop in different ways and it’s indicative of—it’s actually a way to understand how they live, what they eat, their contribution to the entire ecosystem and at some point it was for a long time just something I did, just out my own interest, and then at some point the scientific community decided this was very important. It was a surprise to me when I started getting all these requests for these photos from scientist, journals, and things like that. And it turned out just something I’d decided I was interested in became something that actually sold a lot of photos.
Interviewer: do you usually take photos of what you like and then exhibit it, hoping people will like it, or do you take photos of what you think there is a demand for?
I don’t really think about—I’m really bad in this respect—about writing a business with photos. I just decide that I’m really interested in something and then I go and do it. And I unfortunately don’t really think about the financial stuff until later but usually I figure it out along th way. It was like that with whales. When I started I spent two years here totally failing—I didn’t get a single thing out of it for two seasons and I sunk a lot of money into it. But eventually it all came around.
Interviewer: what kind of photography equipment do you use?
So right now  I use three primary manufacturers Nikon, Canon, and Sony. I use them for different purposes because they each have different strengths and weaknesses.
I’ve also used Olympus systems in the past so I know what can be done with them. Generally for underwater stuff, on Canon I like the auto-focus system, the user interface system is the best (it’s not great but it’s the best among the Japanese manufacturers), so right now I’ll use it primarily for whale stuff. The cameras are relatively compact in terms of SLRs so I don’t use the biggest models I use the medium-sized ones. And most of the times I’m using wide angle lenses which I find handy.
Then I also use Canon with the telephoto lenses, so breaching shots and stuff like that, and then slightly longer lenses like birds, and sea birds, and things of that nature. Then Nikon I for macro shots, the 60mm and 105mm macro lenses are just fantastic and wonderful and the strobes and flash system for Nikon is just much better than Canon’s. So you know, there’s good reason to use.
Sony I use for a mixture of things, it’s the smaller size of the mirrorless cameras that is an attraction, the user interface just sucks, but the sensors are the best and the size of the camera so sometimes those things matter and I use them for land stuff, taking photos of people and friends, and also for landscape stuff because the sensor—the dynamic range—is really good.
Interviewer: What about editing software?
Lightroom and Photoshop. I’m not good at either one. I do the bare minimum to get by. I hate editing I hate sitting in front of a computer, I do so little I have got like tens of thousands of photos I never get to. But I don’t care. I love the animals I don’t really care about the editing.
Interviewer: what specific area does your work concentrate on?
So in the beginning I did a lot of reef stuff, macro stuff, because not many people were doing that and personality-wise I like being on my own. I don’t like having a crowd. I don’t like having everybody doing the same thing I do. So in the beginning when there weren’t many people doing macro stuff (oh there were people diving, but they were all chasing after sharks and mantas) I was perfectly content to be on the reef sitting in one spot for an hour and a half staring at a couple of animals and getting to know them very well, learning their behaviour like day-in, day-out every single day. And it didn’t matter to me if I got on a boat and took an hour and a half boat ride – I didn’t want to do that, just drop into the reef in front of the resort and sit there.
Interviewer: So why did you stop focusing on macro photography?
In 2000 I published a book and macro photography became popular and more and more people started to do it and then I found myself in the same reefs I’d been on where I might have 2 or 3 other people with me suddenly became 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 and I said, “I can’t do this anymore, this is crazy”, and everybody is taking the same photos and basically copying the photos, and it’s just no fun.
*Interviewer: What did you move onto doing?
So then I went to whales, and for the past 15 years or so I concentrated on whales. Now I find tons of people trying to copy and it’s just getting really tedious listening to some of the made-up stuff and the ignorance and it’s tiring.
So about 7 years ago I started another project for the fish spawning stuff, I got an award last year for that so I don’t know how much farther I can take that. There are still a couple of things I want to do with that but I don’t know cost-wise/time-wise if it’s going to be feasible or not. And then I’m thinking about picking up things from Japan because it hasn’t been well-done.
Interviewer: what kind of things from Japan would you be working on?
With all the different environments here, there’s a lot of different marine life ranging from small to big stuff, some of it conservation, a lot of it is just documenting. There is a particular element in Japan I’m interested in: the nation is a maritime nation—has always been—and although you think of Japan as one country, if you go back in time, there are many feudal fiefdoms, and they still retain those entities and each one of those has unique food and cultural elements including how they deal with the sea. A lot of their lives and their culture is influenced by what’s there in terms of life, what can be harvested for food, and how they deal with the it, like the environment. So that is not well-documented even within Japan, and certainly not outside of Japan.
Interviewer: What kind of work would that entail?
So being able to speak with people and make friends with people, and kind of blend in, it’s something I can do. It would take a lot of work, I’ve already started, it’s fun, it’s just really costly—and again, it goes back to your first question, people don’t place value on it. The Japanese are watching their history die and they don’t even know and they don’t care.
Interviewer: Can you give me an example?
I met a female AMA diver who is the last in her area and it’s a place where lots of recreational divers go and nobody even knows her. I made friends with her, went out with her and her husband, go watch her work, talk with her about her 40-something years she’s been doing this and how there were so many before and now she’s the only one left. She’s about 70 now. She doesn’t have a lot of time left and when she’s gone they’re all gone.
I met an 81 year-old guy in the north-west of Japan and he’s as healthy and fit as a 50-year old. He goes into the ice-cold water, 9 degrees in winter, and by hand hunts giant octopus. Now, I’m not a fan of hunting giant octopus but he’s being doing it for a long time, it’s part of Japanese culture and history that’s going to disappear with him, and I’m thinking, somebody should make an effort to document this. So there’s a human element to it as well. So I may pursue that, that’s something I’m thinking of.
Interviewer: have you ever hurt an animal you were photographing?
Not that I know of, but one of the things I did start thinking about when I was photographing smaller animals was you know you’ve got these huge strobes and it didn’t occur to me for a while but especially for these animals that might rely on their eyesight for a while, well if you have these strobes flashing, does it damage their eyesight temporarily? Does it blind them temporarily? Or is it possibly permanent? I don’t think anybody really knows. So it’s possible. I don’t think so but I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows, but it started to become a concern. I mean, it’s less of a concern now because I’m not doing it so much anymore but more people are, I just don’t know.
Interviewer: so you answered what got you into photographing whales. My next question is are they or are they not endangered?
In the case of humpbacks, no, they are not endangered.
Interviewer: so why do people say that they are endangered?
To make money.
Interviewer: were they ever endangered?
Yeah, they were. But not anymore. There’s no one exact point, but for a while now. I’d say arbitrarily, about a decade or so ago. It really depends on how you define endangered. If we’re just talking about humpback whales, most of the humpback whales around the world are back to or near pre-hunting levels, and it’s gotten to the point where humpback whales are overflowing in some places and moving onto other places and appearing in places where they haven’t been seen for a while and they’re using places that used to be just transit areas as stopping areas for birthing and mating… which kind of means that you go to a party and the room is filling up so you go to the next room. (Which is good!)
We should be happy, we should be celebrating, and some people are, but some people are still being given incorrect information for purposes other than helping the whales. That’s being trying to be diplomatic.
Interviewer: so, is there still something we can do to help?
Being endangered is a classification that’s different from “are they perfectly safe and fine”. That’s a different question. First of all, humpback whales are fine. There are some other species and populations that are not and most of the time we actually don’t know the whales.
But in general for humpbacks and other whales, we are still the biggest threat to them, not because we are out there with harpoons, but because of things like entanglements you know our lines, long lines, our nets, things that entangle them, particularly the humpbacks. One: because they tend to be in shallower waters where we are; and two: because they have the long pectoral fins that tend to get tied up (if you don’t have long protrusions it’s less likely to happen to you).
And ship strikes: we hit them with our ships, everything from jet skies to huge container vessels and obviously the huge container vessels tend to do more harm, this affects all species. Sound pollution tends to affect the tooth whales more as we use sound for communication more— orcas being a good example—when we do sonic boom testing for, like, petrol chemicals. It just basically sends shock waves through the ocean and they can’t hear you when you burst their ear drums, when the military base around the world do their test runs in dropping bombs for mock war games their not dropping into nothing, they’re dropping into the homes of whales. OK—they do fly-bys to say “no whales here!” but that’s using sight, and they’re causing huge explosions in the ocean and water carries percussive sound very well, so there is ample documentation that you actually burst the ear drums in the brains of these animals that depend on sound so you torture them to death that way, and we’re doing that with our militaries and with seismic testing. So these are much bigger tests.
Interviewer: what about pollution?
And then we have pollution and obviously habitat degradation and then we do things like people in cities need to have these stupid krill oil supplements so instead of killing these animals we take all their food. We’re still killing them, it’s just that people can feel smug about themselves and say that, you know, they’re taking krill oil supplements so people can feel prettier or healthier or whatever, and then they can go and scream about how evil the Japanese people are with their harpoons. So there is a lot that we can do and re-think about what we do but we won’t because people don’t want to most people don’t want to face reality.
Interviewer: what is the state of the coral reefs in the south-pacific, more specifically in the Tongan area? Are there any areas of immediate concern?
There’s one caveat before I say anything: personally, I don’t have any long-term observation of the reefs. I haven’t been specifically looking methodically at the reefs so I always criticise people when they don’t have long-term views and I apply that to myself so I will tell you what I think but it must be caveated with “I don’t have that so I can’t be authoritative on that.”
Having spent time in Tonga for the past 15 years and seeing the reefs, I would say, there has been degradation, it hasn’t been too bad, because they didn’t start off as very rich reefs when I saw them in the beginning, so I don’t know, maybe before they were rich, I don’t know, but I have a feeling that they were primarily hard coral structure, not a lot of soft and not a huge variety of marine life, as exists in south-east Asia.
Interviewer: so how have things changed?
In the past few years there have been a couple of really big changes, one in China coming through and actually paying the people here to specifically target sharks for their fins and sea cucumbers. Sharks are at the top of the food chain so very important and sea cucumbers are at the bottom so very important and taking them both out is highly disruptive. I mean, who knows how bad it is?
Interviewer: that’s true. So what’s the second big change?
Pollution. Many of the communities here and probably in surrounding countries until quite recently used natural fibres and substances for many things you know, baskets and carrying things, and plates and so forth, so you could just toss those or burn them without substantial damage to the environment.
In the past 15-20 years, much of that has been replaced by plastics, and people throw them away without thinking about it, and people burn them which is perhaps worse, because no one has actually explained to them on a mass scale to a sufficient degree to get them to understand that life is not the same anymore. And the first world is really happy because you are selling more plastics, and in the short-sighted way of looking at it, the cost of that is for those people to bear. But actually, everyone bears that cost in the long-term. So it is an extremely expensive proposition to pollute the world this way, not to mention the plastic floating off and being consumed by turtles, birds, whales, and kills them. So those are the two big things.
Interviewer: this isn’t unique to Tonga, is it?
That’s not unique to the south Pacific—I’ve seen it everywhere I go, and mostly in the Pacific is where I travel, so I’ve seen everywhere in the Pacific both of these issues. The outright targeting of certain animals and species for food that isn’t necessary and the influence of man-made substances which don’t degrade over a reasonable time-frame being introduced on a mass scale to the environment is clotting everything up.
Interviewer: how advanced do you think is the state of Tonga’s marine conservation practice?
There’s making efforts. There are some people here who are making efforts. I don’t know how effective they are because enforcement is always an issue, but there are certainly more efforts now than there were five years ago, than there were ten years ago, so that’s at least, to look on the bright side, progress in the right direction. I don’t think it’s enough, but I would probably say it’s never enough. I don’t think it’s fast enough, and then again I’d probably say it’s never fast enough and it’s certainly not unique to Tonga. Everywhere is like that.
Interviewer: what is the first thing you would like to see changed if you could only change one thing to ensure healthier marine life and oceans?
Elimination of plastics. Without question. That is the one thing that is going to destroy this planet.
Back to Tony Wu at Work
Interviewer: what is the most difficult part of your job?
From a practical point of view, making ends meet is really hard. But from a kind of emotional/motivational/philosophical point of view, I guess it’s related, I constantly have to face the reality that people just don’t care. No matter what politically correct rehearsed words come out, words don’t mean anything, it’s the action, and the action never matches the words, and there are of course exceptions, but I face this all the time.
Interviewer: can you give an example?
Say I go back to Tokyo or any city, and I just sit in the city for two hours and you just watch everything that people are doing. I mean, the cars, the pollution, the noise, the garbage, the priorities… it’s all wrong. And then if you spend time talking with people, they’re so disconnected from this planet. I often say to people—to make the point, to exaggerate the point—“most people who are in urban environments have never visited the planet earth.”
Meaning, of course, not literally, but that they are so disconnected from the planet and have no idea what goes on. So that’s how you get, for example, people coming here to Tonga, and having never actually been in the ocean or snorkelled, thinking that they’re actually going to have a good time. It’s not that they’re doing anything bad or have bad motivations, it’s that they’re so disconnected that they don’t understand how utterly preposterous that is. And possibly dangerous. If you had a concept—if you’d spent any part of your childhood running around outside—you’d know, “wait a minute, this could entail some danger here.” But when you’ve spend your childhood not doing any of that, when you’ve never been to real nature—like you’ve been to a park in a city or you’ve been to an enclosed zoo and that’s all you know of nature—you can’t understand.
Interviewer: so what does this mean for the problems we face today?
So if you can’t understand nature, than how can you possibly understand what it means for the world to face these crises, and how can you possibly know how to help or not to hurt in the very least? This can be very depressing because you feel like nothing is going to make a difference.
Interviewer: then what’s the most satisfying part of your job?
Well, there’s two parts to it: one is spending all the time with the animals and figuring things out. But there’s one thing I never did expect I would find satisfying because I’ve never been and I’m not really a people-person like some people are obviously people-persons. I’ve always been perfectly happy to sit by myself, and the fact that you’re here, that these other people are here and that you guys did that Thai night and that everybody had a good meal and we had good laughs it makes me happy. That’s the last thing I would have ever pegged for myself because I usually just don’t care. And you know the groups that I’ve had over the years, here and elsewhere, the people have become friends separately, they exchange emails and hang out after the trip—it’s a good feeling to know that with all the craziness in the world and all the negative things, even a little bit of positivity comes out of it. That’s better than nothing. That’s kind of a big surprise to me and will always be a surprise to me.
Interviewer: if you hadn’t become an underwater photographer, what would you have done?
Become a Cromodgin hermit. Which isn’t too different. I was working as an investment banker before, and I ran a couple of companies. I would never have stuck with that job, I just found that I was good at it. I have two sides: one prizes being extremely efficient and rational, and cold-hearted driving towards efficiency. And you know, people whine and stuff, I just don’t care. If this is what we need to do and stuff I just don’t care. So I ended up being very good at running a company.
Interviewer: what about the other side?
The other side of me prizes creativity and originality. You know, the arts and music, visual art—and I love people who are just whacky and creative, and those two worlds didn’t always fit. So what made this really good for me was I could put the two together because in analysing whale behaviour and migration patterns there are a lot of creative leaps in putting things together that kind of step outside of analytic, but I try to draw the line to distinguish for myself when I am being rational and when I am being what-if type-thought. In terms of another career, I could never think of anything else that would hit that. I think no matter what I would have ended up like this. I knew all along I would end up alone, outcast, doing my own thing.
Interviewer: last question: what words of advice would you have for people who would like to become underwater photographers?
Don’t unless you can put up with low-pay, miserable conditions, dealing with total jerks all the time, dishonest people, being screwed at the last second, the hassles of travel, being held up by TSA, customs, immigration, stupid idiotic people who want to tax you to bring your cameras in and out, you know all this stuff that you have to put up with all for the sake of taking photos that everybody wants for free. That’s what it is.
So unless you’re willing to put up with that for something you want to achieve, but if you think you’re going to have a glamorous life and glory and fame, forget it—it’s not going to happen. Pursue it as a hobby, pursue it for fun, enjoy it, tell everybody you can about all the wonderful things in the world, but don’t pursue it unless you’re willing to sacrifice everything.
Thank you again, Tony, for your great answers!