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Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures
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Meet the Expedition Team

Carrie Vonderhaar, Photographer

Carrie Vonderhaar
Photo credit: Lori Kallestad

Carrie Vonderhaar took her first breath underwater in the Red Sea, Egypt in the year 2000, the start of the new millennium and her newfound path in life. From that moment on, she knew she wanted to combine her love of photography with her passion for diving. Today, Carrie advances Jean-Michel Cousteau's family legacy and Ocean Futures Society's mission through her role as the photographer for America's Underwater Treasures. Carrie is the only person on the "X Team" to dive and photo-document all 13 National Marine Sanctuaries.

Carrie's world travel and studies at Wittenberg University, Université de Rennes II, Haute Bretagne, France, Moscow State University, and the renowned Brooks Institute of Photography prepared her well for the challenges of the expedition. On any given day, she'll shoot digital still images, serve as assistant HDTV camera operator, and dive as an on-camera subject.

During the making of America's Underwater Treasures, Carrie experienced 38 degree Fahrenheit water, became the only woman to dive California's Cordell Bank on a closed-circuit rebreather, and captured underwater images of a majestic humpback whale and calf swimming off Maui. Not bad for a gal born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, far from the sea!


Interview with Carrie Vonderhaar

How do you capture great photos?

I love photographing underwater because weightlessness allows freedom to compose images that gravity on land doesn't allow. As I quickly set up a shot, with an awareness that I have to stay out of the Director of Photography's hi-def camera frame, I have to also consider the visibility - if it's bad I have to find a way to get close to the subject. Sometimes the camera doesn't see as well as my eyes. Plus, underwater objects appear closer than they are, so I focus the camera using the virtual image, remembering that my strobe lights need to be set on the real, not virtual, subject.

One new film technique I used for America's Underwater Treasures is using a special filter for my lens and strobe lights, which allows me to shoot fluorescing corals, sponges and anemones at night. It's pretty cool, the images reminds me of a 70's black light poster art piece.

With my Nikon D2X camera, I can shoot 100 images without changing film. Before, I had to change film after every 36 image roll of exposures, which is tough to do when you are supposed to be documenting the team over a couple hours of non-stop diving on a closed-circuit rebreather at 80 feet or so depth. And, with the Nikon 105 mm macro lens, I can get close to my subject, like small invertebrates, to get fine details.


How do you deal with the dangers of diving while taking photographs?

I get so focused that I don't have fear. I don't realize how big my subjects are in reality (like humpback whales) or how close they are. I am totally absorbed and in the moment, very present in my craft.

I get really absorbed in capturing the shot, but in the back of my mind I check in with myself about my airtime, especially on rebreathers, how I feel physically. You have to be aware of your safety because if not, you put yourself at risk as well as your teammates. For me, first and foremost you have to be a competent diver, before you can photograph well underwater.


What is the most challenging aspect of your job as an underwater still photographer?

The most challenging part is when equipment fails. With marine life, you can't re-enact it - once a moment is gone, it's gone forever. But, I love every second of life on expedition.