5 Underwater Species to Photograph in the UK
Diving in the UK captures my imagination. Our coastline is jam-packed with thousands of wonderful marine species, just waiting to be photographed. There are so many species that make excellent subjects: from sleepy sharks to tiny crustaceans, and everything in between.
No matter what coastline you plan to visit, you’re going to have an array of species to choose from. With overseas travel still largely on hold, now is the perfect time to get outside and explore your local area.
We may not have tropical coral reefs here in the UK, but we do have stunning kelp forests, seagrass meadows, and rocky reefs. The UK showcases cold water diving at its finest.
Underwater photography is generally divided up into macro and wide-angle. Water clarity, or the amount of sunlight, is usually the dictating factor when choosing which set-up to take on your dive.
It isn’t quite as simple as changing a lens if you want to switch between the two. Generally, you commit to one lens for the whole dive. However, don’t be put off by expensive equipment or complicated housings: there are plenty of waterproof action cameras and compacts that are perfect for beginners.
Read more: What Equipment Do You Need for Underwater Photography?
Underwater photography isn’t exclusively for scuba divers either: free-diving, snorkelling, and rock pooling are some of the best ways to explore our seas.
1. Sea slugs and nudibranchs
Top of my list of marine species to photograph in the UK has to be nudibranchs and sea slugs. How couldn’t they be? These colourful, crazy-looking molluscs are loved by eagle-eyed divers and underwater photographers alike.
‘Sea slug’ doesn’t sound like the most appealing creature, but they are far more flamboyant than their land-locked cousins.
Nudibranchs are best photographed with a macro or super-macro lens due to their small size. Finding a nudibranch is relatively simple, as they’re usually feeding, or looking for something to feed on. Do some research and find the species of algae or hydroid that they eat. Then, all you have to do is locate their food source, which is almost certainly larger than the nudibranch in question.
They make great subjects: not only do they look amazing, but they also move incredibly slowly. So, there is plenty of time for you to consider the composition and lighting of the subject.
Read more: A Guide to Underwater Macro Photography
2. Spider crabs
Coming in at a close second has to be the spider crab (Maja brachydactyla). These prehistoric-looking, spiny crustaceans are common in our seas all year round, especially on the south and west coasts.
During the warm summer months, large males venture into the shallows in search of a mate. What makes the spider crab such a popular subject is its abundance. There’s no need to panic and rush to capture the perfect image, especially if the subject isn’t in an accessible position. There is sure to be another one nearby.
The best way to photograph these large, orange crustaceans is to get close and aim upwards. Using a wide or fisheye lens helps to accentuate their unusual body shape. By shooting upwards, you can introduce the turquoise blue waters above, and create a contrast between the vivid orange crab and the blue background of the image.
The once elusive crawfish (Palinurus elephas) always brings a smile to my face whenever I spot one. This species was nearly driven to extinction in the UK by overfishing, but has made an astonishing comeback in recent years.
The crawfish is a spiky and ornate relative of the common lobster, with incredibly long antennae and a bright orange carapace.
Like most crustaceans, crawfish tend to hide away in crevices and caves during the day, and come out to feed at night. But, if you’re willing to be patient, their inquisitive nature will eventually draw them towards you. It’s not unusual for them to feel around your camera with their long antennae as they try to work out what you are.
What sort of list would this be without including a shark? We’re lucky here in the UK to have two species of catshark that are quite common.
The small-spotted catshark makes it onto this list in fourth place, as a species that can be difficult to photograph, but very rewarding when done well. Growing to a maximum length of 100cm and spending most of their time on the seabed, they are easily startled, so a slow approach is recommended.
Take your time and try to get close. Catsharks have a speckled grey-brown pattern, wonderfully detailed eyes, and rough skin made from small tooth like denticles. These sharks are much more active in the evening: they can often be found free-swimming in dark waters as they hunt for food.
Read more: How to Photograph Sharks
The warm summer seas mean the return of seasonal visitors. Blue jellyfish (Cyanea lamarckii) are one of the species found frequently on our shores from June to September.
A close relative of the lion’s mane jellyfish, although considerably smaller, their trail of long tentacles may look beautiful, but can give a nasty sting if you get too close.
When photographing jellyfish, try to have at least one light source behind the subject. This will help to illuminate the fine details within their translucent bodies. Their colour can vary: usually they are blue or purple, but some individuals appear white or even yellow.
Keeping a dark background will also help the colour of the jellyfish to pop. Lighting the jellyfish slightly with strobes will separate it from the background.
Read more: 9 Tips for Creative Underwater Photography
Here in the UK, we are privileged to be surrounded by such a wide diversity of marine life. The best place to look for marine life is somewhere local and accessible. Choose a site and visit it frequently. The more you visit, the more you will learn about the marine life in the area, particularly their territories and behaviours.
Underwater photography in the UK can be challenging, but very rewarding when you get the perfect image. Try not to get too fixated on a subject because of its rarity, especially if the placement isn’t working. Move on and find something in a better position to be photographed.
All of the photographs featured here were taken in less than 10 metres of water. There’s no need to go far to encounter wonderful marine life. Next time you dip under the waves, remember to bring a camera.