A Community of Underwater Photographers Seeks to Bring Underwater Life Into the Light

This article was originally published in the Monterey County Weekly.

If you’ve spent any time watching Shark Week, then you’re one of the countless number of people who’ve been educated, directly or indirectly, about the marine environment by Berkley White and his crew at Backscatter Underwater Video and Photo.

Backscatter, the world’s largest retailer of underwater photography and videography equipment, is “a big fish in a small pond,” as White puts it. The small team, comprising local divemasters and underwater photographers with a zeal for local kelp forests and wildlife, sells equipment to clients working for National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, the team behind Shark Week.

White himself is a renowned underwater photographer (he was an early pioneer of the split shot – half of the frame below the surface, and half above) who travels to exotic destinations to lead underwater photo safaris, where he teaches clients the craft of capturing underwater images. (An upcoming 12-day dive/photography trip to Indonesia runs $10,500 per person.)

Yet the Monterey company, founded by White in 1994, remains true to its local roots. Employees like Dylan Silver, a dedicated diver and photographer, still find time to dive before and after work despite any number of barriers: the low – to mid-50-degree water temperatures in Monterey Bay and limited after-work sunlight hours in winter – not to mention the hassle of wrangling the gear necessary for both scuba diving and photographing. Think fins, mask, regulator, scuba tank, 7-millimeter wetsuit – plus underwater camera housing and charged batteries.

“My goal is to get out once a week, minimum,” Silver says. Backscatter is just across the street from San Carlos Beach, adjacent to the Coast Guard Pier. “I’ll snorkel right around off the beach and poke around with my camera, finding time around working hours.”

For those brave enough to weather the elements, the payoff is a world-class and uncrowded dive site. Just a short swim from San Carlos Beach is one of the only dives accessible from shore enabling people to swim with sea lions and through a kelp forest year-round. The seafloor offers giant sea slugs feeding on tube anemones, sea stars in different colors and, for lucky divers, the chance to spot an octopus.

While White does take some clients out in Monterey Bay to teach diving and photography, for the most part, the water is too cold to run trips frequently. But it doesn’t take much prodding for him to rattle off the places he would take divers keen on photographing local underwater attractions. For landlubbers, Hopkins Marine Station, right off the coastal trail, is a popular spot to catch a glimpse of harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks. Divers frequent the same spot offshore in hopes of finding a baby harbor seal (or a “football,” as they’re known).

“Footballs are the most gregarious and friendly animals – they’ll crawl on you, they’ll nibble on your fins, they’ll play with you – all right here, just offshore,” White says.

“Point Lobos is truly one of the greatest dive sites in the world,” he continues. “All of the rocks you see from shore – well, imagine that same scene underwater. It’s got steep cliffs, pinnacles and arches you can dive through.”

In the age of giant internet retailers, Backscatter has managed to stay in business by offering hands-on expertise in a niche market. Topside photographers, as those who shoot pictures above the surface of the water are known, often come to Backscatter knowing little to nothing about what it takes to shoot underwater. That’s where Backscatter’s underwater experience comes into play.

“A typical day will find me talking with customers from all over the world – ranging from people going on family vacations in the Caribbean to Nat Geo and BBC cinematographers filming Blue Planet II,” Silver says. “When the phone rings, you never know who’s going to be on the other end.”

While Silver is an avid diver, he primarily considers himself a photographer and views his job as helping others to learn more about the ocean.

“Photography is a means of accessing places that others can’t get to,” Silver says. “It brings things to life that other people don’t see very often. Change can start with a picture.”

For all of the far-flung destinations White frequents to teach advanced underwater photography – this year will bring excursions to Chuuk in Micronesia and Raja Ampat in Indonesia – he maintains an affinity for the diving found right here in his backyard.

“Monterey is just fantastic,” White says. “We are so lucky to live in a place that’s so wild. It’s changed quite a bit in the 30 years I’ve been here, but there’s still nothing more magical than swimming through the kelp forest with light rays twinkling through.

“A lot of us consider that a religious experience.”