INTERVIEW WITH BOB HALSTEAD

 

By David Strike

–       When did you become interested in the marine world?

 

My mother recently sent me a school project I had produced when ten years old, in London, on the subject of Fishes. She had hoarded this along with some embarrassing school diaries, as mothers do. I had forgotten it, but was amazed that the pictures I had cut and pasted were of creatures I subsequently dived with daily. I have to deduce that my fascination with fishes was genetic.

 

–       What was your first diving experience?

 

A friend took me in a swimming pool on his scuba gear soon after I arrived in the Bahamas in 1968. I loved everything about it and persuaded him to let me try it in the ocean. Then I was hooked. The first time I dived, the weightless sensation and sense of physical freedom (I’m big and clumsy on land) was more important than the sea creatures, but that soon changed.

–       Have you ever had any interesting (or scary) encounters with marine life?

 

Countless interesting encounters, but very few scary ones. I have rescued a good many divers doing stupid things and they have scared me. A couple of times I’ve been in the water and become uneasy, for what reason I still do not know, but I trusted my instinct and got out. Even diving with a salt-water crocodile was fine as long as I was with my dive buddy. We had the croc intimidated. But as soon as my buddy turned away the croc became aggressive, and it was time to get out of the water. I was out before I got scared.

–       What is it that fascinates you about marine life?

 

When I started diving it was still a heroes’ sport and sharks were the enemy. I soon realised that sharks were not a problem but very little was known about most marine creatures. I became obsessed with learning as much as I could by observation and photography. Discovery is always exciting. I found several new species of fish and have one named after me.

–       What sort of training have you undertaken in photography?

 

Nothing formal, but I learned a lot in the Bahamas with a friend. We experimented and developed our own photos and made prints, and gradually got the hang of it all. In Papua New Guinea I have been fortunate to dive with some of the world’s great underwater photographers who have been very generous with their advice – David Doubilet of National Geographic fame in particular – as he helped me get set up with my first professional underwater housed camera. I still use it today.

–       Why do you love photography?

 

I have a background in Physics and Maths so I am able to use that to produce art through photography. It is a wonderful combination. I love looking at classic paintings in art galleries, but am hopeless at drawing.

 

–       What’s the most difficult part of your job?

 

Working with nature is always a challenge. Tides and wind can ruin a dive site with a fabulous subject. And then the subject has to cooperate. It has taken me years of trying to get some of my pictures. Patience is a wonderful thing – I wish I had more of it!

–       What’s your favourite marine destination to photograph? What’s the story behind your reason?

 

Papua New Guinea never ceases to amaze me, but the wreck of the Yongala off Townsville is high on the list of favourites. It took me three major attempts over four years to finally get out on the wreck and then it was fabulous. There is so much marine life. I made seven dives in a day and a half and did not even shoot any of the small stuff. The last couple of times I have tried to get back on it, the water has been too rough.

–       What is your favourite photograph that you have taken, and why?

 

One of my favourites is the shot of Valerie Taylor above a whale shark. I was so close to the shark that it became an abstract pattern. The photo evolved during the dive and was not planned – but the moment I pressed the shutter I knew I had something different. I think I live for those times when I know I have captured a special visual moment.

 

–       Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What goals have you set for yourself?

I am still regularly making dive trips and in particular now I am guiding Super Yachts in Papua New Guinea and showing the owners what a magical place it is. I dive with the owner and guests and show them special dive sites and creatures, help with their photography and also set up land visits where they can meet the villagers, see local traditions and buy artefacts. It is always satisfying sharing your own passions with others who appreciate them. I would like to develop this side of my career- of course I also get to travel on some spectacular boats!

–       Has there ever been a time when you’ve missed a great opportunity with your photography? (e.g. you weren’t quick enough, something broke etc). If so, what was it?

 

Absolutely. My worse case was working with the BBC when filming sections for “Blue Planet”. I had to find a splendid little creature called a “Flamboyant Cuttlefish”. Half way through the charter I finally found one. Peter Scoones, the famed cameraman, got in the water and as he was filming the cuttlefish it found a mate and performed the most amazing erotic display, then mated. I was there with my camera, film, lights, right lens, but could not shoot as my flash-lights would have ruined the sequence. The same thing happened the next day. On the third day I was told I could shoot, but the male was too shagged out to perform. I still have not got that shot. You can see the sequence in Blue Planet in the episode on Coral Reefs.

–       Any regrets in life or photography?

Yes, I wish I was still young enough to have another forty years diving and taking pictures. I am 21 years old, but unfortunately for the third time.

–       What do you do when you’re not working? Hobbies, interests etc?

I love classical music and play the saxophone a bit. In July this year I teamed up with composer/pianist Ross Carey and violinist Leigh Paine and presented them with 218 images in a sequence. Ross composed modern music for the show and we performed it live for Paradise Concerts in Cairns. I had to read the music and key in the images, which were digitally projected on a large screen. I do not think this has actually been done before with still images. We have been asked to perform it again and I am going to look forward to that.

–       Do you have a particularly big exhibit coming up that you would like us to plug for you?

 

No, but readers who visit the Great Barrier Reef may be interested in my “Coral Sea Reef Guide” available from good bookshops in Cairns.

 

I wrote this book for divers and snorkellers to give them opportunities to identify the bewildering marine life in the Coral Sea area, including PNG and the Solomons. There are a lot of photos of fishes but also good coverage of invertebrates. Every boat cruising this area should have one!

 

@2009

 

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