Of all the fish in the sea, the things Nantucket native and underwater photographer Ben Phillips finds most fascinating are no bigger than your thumbnail.
Most people do not choose to swim with sharks wearing little more than a wetsuit and a scuba mask, but then again, most people are not like Ben Phillips. “I’ve dove with most species of sharks, and great whites are the most skittish and the least interested in people,” he claims. Phillips has logged over three thousand dives in some of the earth’s most vibrant and remote ecosystems, and now he’s returning home to apply his technical expertise as an underwater photographer to the waters where he grew up swimming. What does Phillips photograph? Microorganisms — tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye.
In his mid-twenties, Phillips travelled to Thailand where he became a dive instructor and slowly built his expertise in underwater photography. Living and working in Southeast Asia afforded Phillips access to the “coral triangle,” a 3.7 million square mile patch of ocean, spanning from Indonesia to the Philippines to Papua New Guinea, that’s home to the highest concentration of marine life in the world. Yet in this vastness, Phillips spends entire dives using high-powered zoom lenses to capture microorganisms that would be impossible to see otherwise.
“My biggest pleasure is showing people this stuff,” he says. “It’s like showing people aliens. We know more about space than about the ocean.” There’s the pink pigmy sea horses camouflaged in the exact color and texture of coral. Or the male mouthbrooder fish cradling thousands of the female’s eggs in his mouth before they hatch. All the while the saucer-eyed thresher sharks circle Phillips.
“I’m a little embarrassed. I’ve dove in the most remote places in the world, places like the Raja Ampat Islands and the Lembeh Strait, but I’ve never gone where I grew up.” Luckily for Phillips, there is at least one other islander who doesn’t mind chumming the waters and taking a cage-free dip in order to snap a few photos. His name is Eric Sevetsky, known to many as the executive director of the Nantucket Land Bank, a fisherman, and underwater videographer. Sevetsky knows the best places to dive thanks to his boating skill and the help of a friend’s spotter plane. He is also better versed in videography than Phillips. Phillips is a more skilled photographer, particularly when it comes to capturing micro fauna, tiny organisms that can’t be seen with the naked eye.
With Sevetsky’s help, Phillips will have a chance to see some of the same species he’s come to know on the other side of the world right in his backyard — species like whale sharks, manta rays, and schools of hammerheads. They plan to snorkel in eddies and currents flowing off the Gulf Stream anywhere from 30–200 miles offshore. No scuba gear is required; the species they hope to see are near the surface in the clear water of the open ocean. These photos will make up approximately half of Phillips’s second underwater photography exhibition, which will be held on August 22nd at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
“See it while you can,” he says, not of his exhibit, but of marine life in general. Like many scientists, Phillips believes that the decline in biodiversity in the oceans could lead to there being no fish or viable seafood species by 2048. “I don’t mean to be negative, but this is the reality.”
Despite this grim forecast, Phillips’s passion for documenting marine life goes unclouded. He’s excited to share it with anyone who will brave the ocean with him. He now owns a dive travel company called Next Level Adventure, bringing groups on customized diving trips around the world. So while these photographs bring you close to unraveling the mysteries of the ocean, you can get closer by participating in a dive yourself.
WHO TO BOOK
Dive travel reservations can be made at Next Level Adventure’s website: www.nextleveladventure.com or by e-mailing Ben Phillips at Bthomasphillips@gmail.com. Trips are offered for families, educational programs, and small groups year round.
Bimini, Bahamas: Hammerhead sharks and tiger sharks (December to April.)
Malapascua, Philippines: Thresher sharks and world class macro (all year long) and hammerheads in January and February.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia: Best overall diving in the world, most coral and most species of fish in the world (year-round).
Sipadan and Mabul, Borneo, Malaysia: Sharks, turtles, big schools of fish and world-class macro. Best months are March, April and May.