Don Silcock: Extraordinary Encounters Underwater

don silcock el blanco

Australian underwater photographer and photojournalist Don Silcock joins us to talk about underwater photography, big animal encounters, and more!

Based on the island of Bali in Indonesia, Don has been diving the Indo-Pacific region for over 20 years, and now ventures further afield to photograph the larger inhabitants that call the ocean their home.

Where did your love of the underwater world and photography stem from?

It sounds like a cliché but I think it was watching Jacques Cousteau on the TV all those years ago.

humpback whale and calf don silcock underwater photography

I grew up in a very working-class area of northern England and those images on the TV seemed so exciting and exotic! 

Can you show us one of your favourite images and tell us why you chose it?

The El Blanco image is very much my favourite right now and not just because it won the category in UWPOTY but because of how incredible the encounter was.

don silcock el blanco

The previous day Kat Zhou (who won the grand prize in UWPOTY) and I were in the water and had a really scary encounter with a large southern right whale calf that was actually charging us and then turning at the last moment.

It went on for some time before our boat managed to get between us and the calf and we could get out of the water.

We went back in the water the next day, somewhat warily… and subsequently had the most incredible encounter with the white calf, which was coming really close but without any aggression.

The mother was in the background watching but she had clearly given the calf approval to check us out. We had about 30 minutes with it and it really was the best big animal encounter I have ever had!

Having dived around the world, do you have a favourite location to photograph in?

It all really depends on the type of diving you are doing – tropical water, temperate water, or big animal diving.

great white shark underwater photography don silcock

For tropical water, diving Raja Ampat in Indonesia would be my absolute favorite, with the Witu Islands in Papua New Guinea coming in second.

For temperate water it would have to be Tasmania in Australia. I did my first trip there in October last year and was amazed by the biodiversity. The jetties of South Australia would be my second choice.

cuttlefish don silcock

For big animals, the southern right whales in Argentina would be first for the reasons explained above, followed by the great white sharks in Australia.

You recently started going on ‘big animal’ trips. Can you tell us about your most memorable big animal photography encounter you’ve had?

I first got into big animal trips about 10 years ago when I did the Crystal River manatees for the first time.

Of all the trips I have done probably the most memorable was my first trip to Tiger Beach in the Bahamas and the initial encounter with a tiger shark where I really thought I was going to die until it turned at the very last minute!

don silcock tiger shark

Second would be the American crocodiles at Chinchorro in Mexico as they are so difficult to read.

With sharks, after a few trips with different species, you start to get an insight into the state of play from their body language. You can never, ever get complacent with sharks, but they do display body language, so there are warning signs.

American crocodiles, on the other hand, have no body language at all and are completely immobile until they move – and quickly.

don silcock American crocodile

They just sit there radiating intense, tightly coiled-up kinetic energy and they are really scary the first time you encounter them in the water!

As a winner of photography competitions, how important do you think these are for up-and-coming underwater photographers?

It really took me a long time to pluck up the courage to enter competitions and it was only because several friends really pushed me to do it!

Having made that leap, I have to say that it really has changed how and why I photograph subject matter underwater.

cuttlefish don silcock

Basically, I used to take images to illustrate the articles I wrote on the trips I went on, whereas now still do that but I am also looking for images I can use for competitions.

So, overall I would strongly encourage all up and comers to give competitions a go, but do it proactively and study the winning images to understand why they did win.

Your image ‘El Blanco – The White One’ recently won the Black and White Category of Underwater Photographer of the Year. How did it feel to be accepted into this moment by such an iconic (and large) animal?

Pretty damn good!

Seriously, as I mentioned earlier, it took me ages to actually enter a competition, and when I had the encounter with El Blanco last year I thought ‘OK… this is it. No more excuses, you just have to enter’, and so I saved the images for UWPOTY’.

I and was really over the moon when I won the category.

‘El Blanco’ was taken under permit in an area that is highly protected. What responsibilities do you feel nature photographers have to the areas in which they work?

We have to behave as responsibly as possible and not damage the environment we are in or hurt the creatures we photograph.

humpback whale underwater photography

Every photographer wants that killer image, but it is really important to get it in a responsible manner.

From photographing giant salamanders to sharks and humpback whales, what top tip could you give to those wanting to try their hand at photographing marine giants?

Prepare and rehearse in advance as much as you possibly can and make sure you really understand the auto-focus system on your camera. 

hammerhead shark underwater photography don silcock

Big animal encounters (apart from crocodiles…) are always very dynamic, and the difference between a good image and a great one can be milliseconds.

If you have not understood and set up your auto-focus properly, you greatly reduce your chances of getting a great shot.

humpback whale don silcock underwater photography

The latest generation of auto-focus systems are mind-bogglingly good, but you need to understand them before the trip – not learn on the trip.

What is one piece of kit you couldn’t go without on a trip?

Probably my OneUW 160 strobes. I have been using them for over four years now and I just love how they work, particularly since I got high-speed sync (HSS) working a year ago.

underwater photography

They have a wonderfully warm color temperature, great coverage, and lots of power which is a must for HSS.

Having been immersed in the underwater world for over 20 years, what inspires and excites you to keep photographing the moments you encounter?

Underwater photography for me is all about being in the right place at the right time, having the right gear, and knowing how to use it. When that comes together it really is a special moment which never gets old.

When I am on a big trip I concentrate on getting images downloaded, filed properly by the day and dive site and then double back-up.

don silcock underwater photography

I rarely do much reviewing or editing till I get home and can use a colour-calibrated monitor, so by the time I do review I have usually forgotten about the majority of what I photographed.

It’s always a really nice surprise when I see what I have taken on a big monitor and can pixel-peep at the details!

During your dive and underwater photography career, the oceans have undergone a lot of changes. How do you feel photography plays a role in illustrating this global event and helping to evoke change?

I sincerely believe underwater photographers have a responsibility to showcase both the good and the bad in the oceans. We are among the relatively tiny number of people who get to see what is underwater, and we are there with a camera!

underwater photography don silcock

I personally do that by writing articles and getting them published in magazines and on pages on my website.

We are excited to see more of your work. Can you share with us any upcoming projects that you will be embarking on?

For the rest of this year, it will be a trip to Italy, the north coast of New Britain, plus Rabaul in PNG in July and then in October Raja Ampat, Ambon, the Banda Islands and the remote Kei Islands in Indonesia.

don silcock underwater photography

In August and September, I will be doing landscape photography in Lofoten, the Dolomites, and the Chianti.

Just planning next year but it looks like the Sea of Cortez in Mexico and sperm whales in Dominica.

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