The world under water

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Alison Clare Smith with her camera specialised for underwater photography. Picture: SUPPLIED

Hues of Fiji’s azure waters splashed across pictures and covers of travel magazines have drawn in thalassophiles from across the globe.

Magnificent as the surface of Fiji’s oceans, the underwater world it hides from the naked eye is as vibrant and diverse as the land above.

Intricate reef ecosystems, caves and a plethora of organisms ranging from the largest predator to the smallest bacterium, each has a part to play in this complex web of life.

And for over 20 years, conservationist and scuba diver Alison Clare Smith found herself immersed in the tranquil throes of the world under water.

Yet, it wasn’t until she first sailed to Fiji in 2014 that she realised just how deep A her love for the ocean ran. Today, she is a familiar face among yachties who dock in Fiji and share her love for the sea, and by extension, Fiji as a whole.

“I am originally from Great Britain, in fact, I come from a very small island north of Scotland, called Shetland, which is actually in the Arctic Circle,” she says.

“I first sailed to Fiji in 2014 and fell in love with the country and have been based here ever since. I have been scuba diving for 20 years and whilst I used a small compact camera during this time, it is only five years ago that I took the plunge and became a serious photographer.

“In order to create enough light underwater for colourful images, quite a bit of kit is needed, as light particles are washed out by the density of the ocean.”

In 2020, when COVID struck, Ms Smith found solace in the sea, and that’s when inspiration struck her to detail her underwater odyssey in a book.

Thus, Blue Bubbles – Underwater Fiji was born. Her days were spent capturing stunning images of coral reefs, wildlife and varying species that call the ocean home.

Ms Smith says her book is dedicated to showcasing the spectacular reefs of the archipelago and celebrating the intricate lives of their inhabitants.

“The pandemic was a little like musical chair, wherever you were when the music stopped, there you stayed,” she says.

“When Fiji opened to yachts, I was punching the air with happiness as I knew my partner and I could enter the country by quarantining at sea and find ourselves on the country’s beautiful coral reefs.

“With friends and family, all around the world, effectively trapped in their bubbles, I was so grateful that Fiji allowed us entry and the freedom to live normally and sail on our yacht. As the island is disconnected from the world by the enormity of the Pacific Ocean, Fiji was able to postpone the influx of COVID-19 for a long time, putting it in a better position on the vaccination drive.

“After a few months of enjoying the beautiful turquoise waters of Fiji, I realised I had the opportunity to do something constructive with my photography.”

The process of finding the right subjects and pictures to showcase though, was no easy feat.

“Some of the challenges in making the book involved finding the subjects to fit the themes of the chapters. It is a hybrid of information on how the ecosystems of coral reefs work along with select images of the incredible biodiversity living in these ‘cities’.

“This was harder to intertwine with the images I had already taken than if it had just been a photography book with imagery that didn’t need linking.

“Fiji is blessed with some of the most beautiful reef in the world. The volcanic geology has created the strong currents which flush nutrients through to feed beautiful soft coral gardens and the slow pace of development has protected shorelines in many areas.

“There are already some designated marine parks in Fiji but it would be great to see a lot more.

“Fijians can also help conserve their natural underwater habitat by fishing responsibly and learning just which species to leave behind, the sexes of the fish/crabs/lobsters in order to maximise the breeding potential of these creatures.”

Ms Smith explains that there are over 6000 species of fish that live on the reef ecosystems in Fiji. She says each species survive with different biological strategies ranging from body shape, to colouration and patterning to venom, to feeding and reproduction strategies. She also highlights that with over 330 islands, Fiji has over 1000 reefs and consequently boasts a colossal amount of biodiversity.

“Lots of the country’s reefs have not even been explored and where the sites are very well known, it tends to be for the soft corals as divers whizz along these technicolour drop offs in the current.

“It is the small, often ignored critters on the sea bed that I am most passionate about showcasing. If we can’t see these highly diverse and ecologically adapted creatures then we can’t value and protect them. They are all critical, however tiny, to the health of the reefs in Fiji.”

With the launch of her book, Ms Smith says she is now keen to offer photography to conservation organisations within Fiji and the South Pacific. Blue Bubbles – Underwater Fiji is available at Jacks at $99.