Photos Down Under: A Light Beams From Puget Sound

Nov 7, 2013

Puget Sound, a spidery inlet of the Pacific Ocean, has often been derided as murky, toxic and so, so cold.

But Ann Dornfeld, KUOW’s education reporter, has come to love the Sound, where she photographs marine life. Her favorite marine invertebrate is a nudibranch. (Her favorite nudibranch is a Cockerell's dorid.)

We checked in with Ann about her extracurricular hobby.

Q. How did you get your start diving?

I got certified in Puget Sound six years ago before a trip to Mozambique. I couldn't believe how much light penetrated the Sound, and how many critters you could see. I was hooked. 

Q. Any dicey experiences down there while attempting to get a photo?

At the end of a dive off of Vancouver Island we were suddenly swarmed by sea lions. One bit me on the arm more gently than you would believe possible - then tugged on my fin. I think he wanted me to come play! The only thing truly dicey about that was that I laughed so hard that my mask filled with water.

Q. Tell me about the Giant Pacific Octopus you photographed. Is it often that you encounter octopuses?

Giant Pacific Octopuses are pretty common, especially off Alki Beach. The first thing that fellow divers tell you as they trudge from the water and you head toward it is whether and where they saw any GPO - usually tucked inside a den. I'm actually fonder of the smaller East Pacific red octopus, which is much more vivacious and social (and thus fun to photograph).

Q. Where does all that beautiful light come from in your images?

Some of the light is natural - others is created by pretty powerful strobes (flashes). Below 20 feet or so, everything looks green until you shine a light on it. The Sound looks so dark and murky from the surface, but it's a rainbow of life.

Q. What camera do you use? How do you protect your gear?

I started with a standard compact point & shoot, and now shoot a Canon 7D DSLR that fits inside a heavy-duty aluminum housing. Two strobes attach to arms on either side of the housing, and a focus light attaches to the top. It's a huge and heavy rig on terra firma, but (thankfully) neutrally buoyant underwater.

Q. A recent report came out noting that the Puget Sound remains in crisis because of high toxics levels. Have you noticed changes in your time diving in the Sound?

I haven't observed anything I'd necessarily link to toxics, although I do dream of traveling back in time 200 years to dive in the Sound in its pristine state.

Q. What else should I be asking you?

Folks always ask how cold it is. Pretty darn cold. Mid-40s to 50s. I wear a drysuit, and inside that, basically a cross between a sleeping bag and a flight suit. And I still get cold. But it's totally worth it.