“What I like best about underwater photography is giving a visual voice to the invisible. What I like least is the prospect of drowning.” -David Doubilet
A camera and a bag
David Doubilet’s more than 6-decade career making photographs underwater started simply enough. He already loved snorkeling. So when he was given a Kodak Brownie at age 12, he put it into an anesthesiologist’s bag from his doctor father and dove in.
His father promoted David’s interest in the oceans, taking him fishing to Andros Island in the Bahamas. It was there that David learned to Scuba dive. During his teenage years, he worked summers at Small Hope Lodge on the island. He spent his high school summers there teaching diving and taking pictures underwater.
When he was on the mainland, he worked at the library splitting his time as a part-time diver and photographer for the Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory.
Early on, David Doubilet thought about studying marine biology. He began his higher education at Boston University and soon moved toward filmmaking and photography. His first summer in college found him in Santa Barbara, CA where he attended the fledgling underwater photography course at Brooks Institute of Photography. He found filmmaking boring so by the time he graduated in 1970, he began his career as a still photographer.
The Red Sea
After he graduated, he went to Israel and photographed the garden eels in the Red Sea. National Geographic published the work in 1972, beginning his over 40-year relationship with the magazine. His photos appeared in the magazine several times each year and later he was writing articles, too. Many of his articles were co-written and photographed with his partner and wife Jennifer Hayes.
Over the years, Doubilet returned to the Red Sea to make more and more photographs. In 1994, along with Andrea Ghisotti, Doubilet published his work in “The Red Sea.” His work in the Red Sea also produced close to a dozen Nat Geo articles on the place.
David Doubilet has shot over 70 stories for National Geographic, stories that have taken him to the world’s waters at all points of the compass. In the US he has explored the entire east coast — from Maine to the Florida Keys. On the west coast, he has dived from California to Pacific Northwest and into Canada.
Waters warm and cold
Doubilet’s photography spans the temperate waters of the Caribbean, the Galápagos Islands, Indonesia, Micronesia and in the Pacific, Australia and New Guinea.
His cold water exploits have led him to Antarctica to photograph penguins among icebergs and to the depth of Loch Ness in Scotland in search of the legendary monster of that lake.
Throughout his long career, David Doubilet has returned to places to photograph them as they change over time. In 2001, he went to the Great Barrier Reef for a Nat Geo story. In an interview with Cathy Newman for NPR’s The Picture Show feature on Oct. 21, 2021, he said, “They are the most vivid and visually diverse environment in the world. I always think of coral as weightless architecture if an architect didn’t have to worry about gravity. One of the best examples was Opal Reef off Port Douglas [Australia] one of the places the snorkeling boats went to. It was dreamlike.
“When we went back in 2018 that section of reef was devastated. We made those 2009 pictures with the same crew, so we knew we were in exactly the same place — a 5,000-year-old reef dead in eight or nine years!”
The first photo in the top and bottom row is of Tumon Bay, Guam in 2005 and then from the same location in 2017 showing how fast a coral reef can die.
David Doubilet is a history buff. Through his love of it, he has found wrecks of ships and planes at the bottom of the ocean. He’s photographed the USS Arizona in its resting place at the bottom of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
In 1975, he took 33 frames that made up a composite of the German submarine U-352 as it laid on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean near Morehead City, NC. It was sunk by depth charges launched from the Coast Guard Cutter Icarus on May 9, 1942 (opening photo, bottom row).
Kodak, Seagrams, Microsoft and Rolex (he has been a Rolex Testimonee since 1994) are some of the commercial clients Doubilet has worked for. This video show more of his work and he talks about the watch his life depends on.
Stories of inspirational photographers appear each week in On Photography.