Extreme Nature; The Photography Of Bill Curtsinger

"There is something special about the ocean world, a certain allure, like a song that calls to me. I can't really explain this attraction; it's just there; inside--a part of who I am."
--Bill Curtsinger

For Bill Curtsinger, the darkest depths of the Antarctic are like a candy store. "Cold, remote, colorful, and beautiful" are the words he uses to describe the environment and its inhabitants that flourish under the 8 ft of ice where Curtsinger does much of his diving.

His career started in the 1960s when as a Navy diver he joined the scientific team and was assigned to the National Science Foundation. In '71, just 30 days after he left the service he was hired by National Geographic and did his first cover story for them. He has done 33 articles for the magazine since.

Walrus Underwater

A pair of walrus swims near the surface in the Chukchi Sea in the first underwater photograph taken of wild walrus.
All Photos © Bill Curtsinger, Courtesy - National Geographic Image Collection. All Rights Reserved

I have read his newest book, Extreme Nature, cover to cover. Published in nine languages by White Star in Italy, it is one of the most beautiful and exciting books I have seen. The cover shows two emperor penguins speeding below the ice, the escaping air from beneath their thick layer of feathers creating a stream of cascading bubbles. "Those animals move so fast I can barely follow them with my camera," Curtsinger says.

Tropical fish and coral reefs are not for Curtsinger, though he has traveled on assignment to the Western Pacific where he photographed sharks and other tropical animals. Using a tow camera that he designed or setting up a remote camera at the bottom, which he controls from a boat, provides him with the means to photograph sharks and remain in one piece. His mangled shoulder from a shark attack may have provided the impetus for this creative planning.

Antarctic Jellyfish

A Helmet jellyfish, "Periphylla periphylla," a pelagic species, drifts beneath 8 ft of Antarctic sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Curtsinger says, "Most underwater creatures are not dangerous. The shark attack was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, in Bimini or the Marshall Islands I dive with many sharks."

Any fears? "I'm just careful," he says, "and I read the tea leaves. If I'm in the water flailing around waiting for someone to hand me a camera and I notice sharks appear just beneath my flippers I might decide to try another location. Animals are unpredictable. Life underwater is decidedly different and I remain tuned in to anything that appears unusual. The more you know, the better off you are."

He continues to search for unique animals in places no one has been. His work is about feelings and the way the underwater life affects him. "There are things about the existence of these animals that amaze me--like the Weddell seal in the Antarctic that dives down 2000 ft for over an hour. Who wouldn't be drawn to something like that?

Lonely Penguin On Flow

A lone Adélie penguin rides a drifting iceberg along the Antarctic Peninsula.

"I had always wanted to photograph the emperor penguins underwater," he says. "For a couple of years I tried a place out in the middle of a sound. One day I was suddenly surrounded by a flock of penguins. What an incredible sight! I was able to take about four rolls of film, swimming fast to keep them in range."

Several photographs show the magic of drifting ice flows. The abstract shapes of white forms on the deep blue water are what Curtsinger calls "silent sailors." The ice that adjoins the land provides a haven for penguins that may be seen riding a drifting flow up to where their nest is--like we might hop a bus!