Just Below The Surface

  • June 25, 2015
  • Photography by Paul Dabill

In a single breath, Paul Dabill can dive beneath the waves, sneak up on ocean animals, and snap captivating images of underwater life.

A self-taught nature photographer and trained free diver, Dabill captures the interplay between predators and prey that is critical to healthy oceans. Through his work, the South Florida resident is adding to efforts by Pew, scientists, fishermen, and conservationists to protect prey species such as mullets and sardines. These small creatures, known as forage fish, are a vital food source for animals ranging from whales to king mackerel, but they are increasingly being caught for use as feed for fish farms and livestock and as ingredients in consumer products such as cosmetics, pet food, and fertilizers.

“If my photographs spark interest and educate, then I think people will come to value the oceans even more,” says Dabill, 40, who lives near Palm Beach. “I think the underwater world is beautiful and stunning. To capture a moment, relive it, and share it with others is a process that I find very satisfying and will hopefully make a difference.”

As a free diver, Dabill typically holds his breath for 90 seconds at a time while positioning himself to get the best photo angles. Although he can hold his breath for five minutes underwater while staying still, the shorter duration means he can continue to dive for hours without getting tired. Dabill says free diving lets him get closer to wildlife than some other underwater photographers are able to do, because he can move faster without scuba equipment and the animals aren’t driven away by air tank bubbles.

He shoots most of his photos off the southeastern Florida coast in shallow water to make use of natural light. Years of fishing experience have given him a good feel for where to find marine life. His over-and-under photos—in which half of the picture is taken underwater and half is above the water—help him to communicate how humans are linked with a marine environment that is close to land but often out of sight.

“I want people to realize that we still have this wealth of nature,” he says, “and our job now is to protect it for future generations.”

—Debbie Salamone