Freediving

Photos that take your breath away

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No oxygen was used in creating these images. Meet the husband-and-wife freediving duo who capture stunning photos of underwater wildlife.

With wildlife photography, the lines between art and science are easily blurred. Never more so than with the work of Eusebio and Christina Saenz de Santamaria, a husband-and-wife freediving-cum-photography team who have captured some of the most enchanting ocean images you are likely to see.

Tiger sharks, whale sharks, spinner dolphins, manta rays, sea lions, pilot whales, and multiple turtles and tropical fish… they have photographed and filmed these species and more in their natural environments.

But unlike traditional underwater photography, most of their images involve one half of the duo behind the camera and the other modelling in front of it, alongside the sea life. Both husband and wife are equally talented at freediving and photographing, so that they interchange their roles.

The result – with either Eusebio or Christina looking sleek in wetsuit and huge swim fins, swimming alongside the sea life – is a captivating choreography between human and aquatic beast.   

Another unusual modus operandi is that neither of them ever use oxygen to breathe. They’re always freediving, without any diving equipment, while they work. This means they don't have to decompress like normal divers, so that they can quickly change depth, or swim back to the surface to discuss the shoot.

“Freediving gives the photographer complete freedom to move around underwater,” Christina told Chart. “Therefore we can better take advantage of spontaneous moments with the other freediver, or with underwater animals or rays of light.”

Christina is originally from Sydney, in Australia; Eusebio from Bilbao, in Spain. They first met, and have now set up home, on a tiny Thai island in the Gulf of Thailand called Ko Tao. “Gorgeous, with warm waters, mostly calm, flat conditions, few strong currents, and colourful, tropical underwater life,” is how Christina describes it.

They both used to compete as professional freedivers, each clocking up various records over the years. But nowadays they split their time between travelling the world to shoot underwater photos and films, and working as hoteliers.

One of their most memorable shoots was with dolphins in 2013, off the coast of Kona, in Hawaii. “The moment we dived into the water, the dolphins came to us with curious eyes and playfulness,” Christina said of her experience. “The pod was over 60 strong and would spend the morning following us, playing tag, mimicking our movements and doing what dolphins do: openly mating with one another. They were incredibly fun and highly intelligent.”

A split second of magic where wildlife, human and ocean coincide in one aesthetically composed image.

Christina Saenz


The year before that, Christina and Eusebio travelled to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Deep in the jungle are thousands of natural sinkholes and underwater caves, known as cenotes. Resulting from collpased limestone bedrock, they fill with rainwater and are often very clear, some extending to depths of over 100 metres. The ancient Mayans famously used them for sacrificial offerings.

“Their striking cathedral light and otherworldly nature were surreal and magical,” Christina remembers. “Freediving the cool waters is an otherworldly experience. Stalactites and stalagmites created a jagged underwater world for us to explore.”

Their most exciting shoot of all, however, was in 2014, when they travelled to the Bahamas and swam with a group of six tiger sharks.

“Freediving eye to eye with a 14-foot tiger shark is the most exhilarating underwater experience,” recalls Christina. “It was most definitely the highlight of my wildlife encounters underwater. Their intense energy, the ability to observe their behaviour, the sharks’ curiosity of us as freedivers, and simply being able to look directly into their cold, black, instinctive eyes was an overwhelming and informative experience.”

Although tiger sharks don't target human beings as prey, each encounter is fraught with risk. “After all, these are animals that act on pure instinct,” Christina adds. “This is a fact we never forget.”

She claims neither she nor Eusebio are nervous when swimming with these powerful, sharp-toothed killers. However, both always remain alert to any sudden changes in behaviour. “My senses are peaked and I feel thrilled by the energy,” says Christina, “but also ready to respond to any potential danger and retreat to the boat if necessary.”

As a rule, both divers allow sea life of all kinds to approach them. “No animal is coerced into a situation,” Christina explains. “However, they are generally intrigued by our presence which is why they choose to swim close to us. Dolphins, for example, are highly curious characters.”

Tiger sharks, on the other hand, mostly ignore them. “Often, they would be completely complacent. However, they are still wild animals that act on instinct alone, and we are in their world, – their territory – and we must respect their rules. Since we both are very respectful and aware of animal behaviour, we have never been in a dangerous situation while photographing.”

Shooting, often quite deep underwater, obviously requires a huge amount of planning. Christina and Eusebio always research their dive sites in advance, and familiarise themselves with the local sea conditions. For information on the species they are shooting, they consult local marine life experts.

They plan the logistics and the composition of their photos in advance. But, once in the water, they always need to be ready to adapt. “The ocean often surprises you with the unexpected,” Christina says. “There are particular dive sites where we envision specific images. However, since the ocean is in constant flux, we must be spontaneous to get the best photographic results.”

Of all their work so far, it was the tiger shark shoot that posed the greatest challenges. “It was the most ambitious shoot and the one which required the most patience. We spent many hours in the water each day, freediving in strong currents, always on the lookout for sharks and on alert for any aggressive behaviours. We had to be physically fit, mentally aware, as well as creative. In order to get the best shot, we needed to move very carefully and slowly in the water, and be patient to allow the sharks to swim close to us if they were a little timid.”

Although their hotel work takes up much of their time, there is one photo shoot Christina and Eusebio are still desperate to complete. They would love to swim with humpback whales off the coast of Tonga, in Polynesia.

These mighty beasts can grow up to 16 metres long, and weigh up to 30 tonnes. To get close requires swimming in often very strong currents, a task made trickier when wielding cumbersome camera equipment. And to achieve the correct perspective, the distance between model and subject would need to be further than Eusebio and Christina are used to, which means communication would be problematic.

But it’s a challenge they both relish. It could end up being their most impressive shoot of all. As Christina describes it: “A split second of magic where wildlife, human and ocean coincide in one aesthetically composed image.”

 

To see Christina and Eusebio’s photos and films, visit www.oneoceanonebreath.com

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