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Shooter: Douglas Seifert

CREDITS | The Endless Summer of Douglas Seifert | Introduction by Stephen Frink | Photos by Douglas Seifert | Alert Diver Magazine

Maybe there was something in the water. Douglas David Seifert learned to swim at what is now one of the most revered macrophotography destinations in the United States: the Blue Heron Bridge in Riviera Beach, Fla. In the early 1960's Palm Beach County was an absolute paradise; there were very few dive shops and hardly any tourists who were interested in viewing the near-shore underwater world through a face mask. But Seifert’s childhood obsession was doing just that while growing up on Singer Island, Fla. He went deep-sea fishing with his father every weekend and had aquariums at home for which he collected invertebrates and tropical fish. He became a keen observer of fish behaviour at an early age.

Although Seifert failed the classroom portion of his first scuba class at age 12 — the math involved in the dive tables was too much for him at the time — later in life he overcompensated and became a scuba instructor, actually teaching the math that had once confounded him. His immersion in the dive industry brought him in contact with one of the early icons of marine conservation in South Florida, Norine Rouse.

“Take only pictures, kill only time, leave only bubbles” was her mantra, and Seifert was her protege. He had great admiration for her, whom he called “this funky, crazy, fearless 60-something-year-old woman running a dive shop.”  He recalled that she was not a fan of shark baiting, but at that time there might be 20-30 bull or lemon sharks on a dive even without using bait. This was also a time when any given day diving Palm Beach County would reveal 12–24 turtles, mostly loggerheads. Rouse would dive with a buffing pad, and the turtles would recognise her at a distance and swim right up to her to have their shells cleaned. She had a true rapport with marine life. Her passion for the welfare of marine life was infectious, and helped shape Seifert's lifelong commitment to conservation issues.

Wanderlust and an ambition to sell TV and movie scripts in Hollywood drove Seifert west. Soon disenchanted with the entertainment industry, he sold everything he owned to buy an around-the-Pacific ticket, back when such things existed. That meant he could go somewhere such as Australia, spend a few weeks (or months) and then hop on another jet to Fiji or wherever. His parents gave him a Nikonos camera system as a going-away gift, though he knew very little about how to use it. While in Sydney, he wandered into the Dive 2000 store and met underwater photographer Kevin Deacon, who fortuitously offered lessons to the uninitiated.
“In the film days, learning underwater photography without instruction was a very slow and unforgiving process,” Seifert recalled. “Kevin accelerated my learning curve, as did a book I read almost daily for four months: Howard Hall’s Guide to Successful Underwater Photography.
Howard and I have since become good friends, but I doubt he’ll ever know how meaningful that book was to me at that time in my life.”

Deacon’s instruction proved invaluable when Seifert dived with great white sharks at Dangerous Reef, South Australia, guided by the incomparable Rodney Fox. At the time, fewer than 100 people in the world had ever dived with great white sharks. Some time later, back in Florida, Seifert met Doug Perrine (see Shooter, Fall 2013) and went with him on a trip to the Azores. Armed with a Nikonos RS and a 20-35mm lens,

Seifert managed to get some underwater photos of sperm whales at a time when very few such images existed. He showed them to the publishers of Ocean Realm, who happily agreed to publish them along with an article about his adventures in the Azores. At the time Ocean Realm was the most prestigious dive journal, and having his images prominently displayed was momentous. He followed that article with one about manatees and dugongs, which was the cover story for the journal’s issue that debuted at the 1996 Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) Show.

The underwater photo industry noticed those images in particular, and that marked Seifert’s
induction into the fraternity of underwater photojournalism. Also in 1996 Seifert began writing articles for Dive International, a British dive publication (now called DIVE). Today he is DIVE’s World Editor and the writer of a monthly feature called “Water Column.” He has written and photographed roughly 100 features articles.

A hallmark of Seifert’s photography and writing is the exacting research that goes into his projects well in advance of travel. “If I didn’t read and research, I wouldn’t know what I should photograph or recognise the significance of behaviours I might capture,” he said. “I go into the sea thinking I know something about what might happen, but nature consistently delights and delivers much beyond my imagination. I could no more dive without my camera than I could write a worthwhile article without the extensive research I do each time.”

When asked about his favourite camera for underwater use, Seifert replied, “I think of my camera gear like a toolbox. Sometimes I need a Phillip’s head, other times a claw hammer. There is a right tool for each job, and unfortunately there is no photographic Swiss Army knife. It would be more convenient if one manufacturer did everything, but I love the 50-megapixel files of my Canon DSLR, with the beautiful density and ability to crop. They also have my favourite telephotos for topside use. Nikon has a brilliant 60 mm macro lens, which is fast and very sharp. Plus, I can use my trusty, 20-year-old Nikonos RS 13 mm lens on my Nikon digital camera body by means of a clever adaptation on my Seacam housing. This is my single favourite tool for underwater photography, particularly since I have an overwhelming preference for photographing large marine life such as sharks, whales and manta rays.”

Seifert spends as many as 40 weeks per year on the road these days in pursuit of underwater images. He is usually accompanied by his wife, Emily, who was not a diver when they met but now has logged more than 1,600 dives. Much of this time is spent in support of conservation groups such as Shark Savers, Manta Trust and Global Shark Diving.

“I enjoy what I do, and with every dive I gain greater appreciation for my mentors, who taught me so much about the sea in general, and underwater photography specifically,” he explained. “Chris Newbert, Doug Perrine, Jim Watt, Avi Klapfer and Howard Hall have all been so gracious to me. Ron and Valerie Taylor, Stan  Waterman and Eugenie Clark took me in and brought me to another level of adventure and technique in our decades of diving around the world. I hope I can give some back to the next generation.”

Despite having had a long and successful career, Seifert has no plans to slow down any time soon. When asked if he ever plans to dial back the travel a little, he readily replied, “I consider Stan Waterman my touchstone, so that means I should have at least another 40 good years in me.”

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