Juha Nurminen: The allure of diving

In August 2020, Juha Nurminen, the founder and chairman of the board of the John Nurminen Foundation, was granted the Diver of the Year 2019 award. Grounds for the decision were as follows: “For decades, Juha Nurminen has worked and created results for Baltic Sea protection. He has always highlighted diving in a positive light as an empowering hobby that is important to him. His love for the sport is also expressed in the 2019 book Meren lumo (enchantment of the sea), based on Juha's diving photography. The book confirms how beautiful, diverse, and worth protecting our underwater nature is. As the front man of the John Nurminen Foundation, Juha Nurminen is an excellent ambassador for diving.” In connection with the award, we publish a text excerpt on diving and underwater photography from the book Meren lumo, written by Juha.

Every underwater photographer dreams of encounters with larger sea mammals and fishes, such as plankton-eating manta rays or whale sharks that are almost eight metres long. These gentle giants of the sea show themselves to humans only rarely. It is even more rare for humans to encounter whales underwater, but the intensive calls of humpback whales can be heard even across great distances. You cannot see the animal, but its beautiful song can at times be heard as it roams its underwater highway in the tropical oceans to the other side of the globe.

Diving is an all-encompassing experience that feeds all of the senses and takes you from your mundane life to literally another element. When compared to life on the ground, the most impressive feature of a diving experience is the feeling of weightlessness. When you dive, it is as if you are floating in underwater space, breathing compressed air. The deeper you dive, the more air you consume, as the pressure causes the air volume to shrink. One dive lasts approximately one hour, or as long as there is air in the diving bottle. Deep dives increase the risk of decompression sickness, and in depths greater than 60 m the compressed air will turn poisonous.

Slender giant morays rarely exit their caves when it is light. After waiting patiently, we have a successful encounter. Juha Nurminen holds a camera from the film era.

Underwater photography is nature photography under the surface, and the most important feature of a nature photographer is patience. When you find the animal you want to photograph, you must have the patience to wait for it to get accustomed to the presence of the diver. Most fish are easily startled and will escape if a camera comes too close. You have to be quick to react to catch a photo of a fast-moving open sea fish. During a diving safari in the Southern Red Sea I had the opportunity to photograph fast-moving open sea sharks that we managed to lure in great numbers within shooting distance. We shot the fish for many days, and I took hundreds of photographs. Only one photo was a complete success. In most pictures, you could only see a part of a shark fin or tail.

Some rare fishes, such as the orbicular batfish – a tropical perch-like fish – are so courageous by nature that they themselves seek the company of the divers. Often, they circle close to the surface around the slowly rising divers, and follow the divers’ every moment much like half-tame and curious squirrels. My diving partner Kari Lahtinen photographed a large humphead wrasse who was also eager to come and greet us under the boat, right in the beginning of our dive.

We often browse pictures already during the trip. In the galley of the diving support vessel, Maluku Islands, Indonesia. Kari Lehtinen and Juha Nurminen by the computer.

Such delightful encounters of humans and fish strengthen the diver’s emotional connection to the world underwater. The relationship an underwater photographer has with nature is further deepened as they gain knowledge and experience. During my close to 40 years of underwater photography, I have learned an incredible amount about the seas’ ecosystems, coral reefs, and their many inhabitants, large and small. As the years have passed, I have also unfortunately seen firsthand how extremely threatened the tropical coral reefs are. Coral reefs are being destroyed as the seas warm up due to climate change.

Underwater photography is perhaps the most demanding form of nature photography because the photographer has to control not only the equipment but also their body. You need to be a good enough diver to be able to effortlessly control your upthrust. When on land, a photographer can use a tripod to support the camera, or seek the stable support of a tree or the ground. When underwater, you need to find other means. Divers needs to avoid touching anything with their hands, their body, or their diving fins so that they won’t damage the fragile corals.

There are also some extremely poisonous fish in tropical coral gardens, such as the reef stonefish, who camouflage as coral, and whose dorsal fins can sting extremely painfully and even fatally. When shooting in underwater caverns, you have to be careful not to hit your head on the roof or ceiling of the cavern, as you might hit a poisonous red lionfish napping there. Luckily, these fish are not aggressive.

When divers need support, they can only reach for the sandy bottom, and even then they mustn’t flip their fins, as the sand floating in the water could ruin a picture. For the same reason, you need to be careful when using fins in shipwrecks and caves. The diving mask is also a challenge for photographers. My mask corrects myopia and even has a small reading window that allows me to see the small camera settings at night, for example. When you focus a macro photograph at night through a mask, your eyes are in for a challenge.

Image: Juha Nurminen

I began taking underwater photographs in the early 1980s with the legendary Nikonos V camera, developed by Jacques Cousteau, and used film cameras, such as the robust Nikon RS, to shoot all the way up to the 2010s. I built DIY, pressure-resistant floats for my camera. The optics in these cameras were always top notch. Dives back in the day needed to be planned down to every detail while you were still on the surface. You needed to figure out what you were going to shoot, as each roll of film had only 36 exposures per dive. Changing your film at sea, even in a rocking two-hull canoe, was often laborious and if the equipment got wet, it could be damaged in many ways. You needed to be patient enough to leave a few spare exposures unused in case you were lucky and ran into a rare squid, for example, at the end of the dive. On one occasion when diving in the southern waters of Egypt, a large hammerhead shark swam up to me at the end of the dive, but I had run out of film. And was left without a photo.

After a diving safari, the film rolls were sent to a special laboratory for development, and it took several anxious weeks to wait for the end results: had the lighting and framing of the photos been successful, and were the focus settings correct. With today’s digital technology, you can see the photo already during the dive, and adjust the camera and flash settings so that they correspond to the shooting environment. These days, I use a DSLR camera with anti-pressure housing, which gives me a lot of freedom and opportunities. I never run out of film, and you can later fine-tune and crop your pictures with a computer. I am, nevertheless, an ‘old-school underwater photographer’ in the sense that I always try to reach as good a result as possible, composition and framing included, already at the scene of the shoot.

Juha Nurminen

Juha Nurminen, founder of the John Nurminen Foundation and Chairman of the Board, has always enjoyed outdoor exercise. Love for the sea has taken Nurminen to rafting, sailing, and from there on to diving. One of his dear hobbies, i.e. photography, naturally went underwater with him. When diving, he can see not only the diversity of the sea, but also bear witness to the destruction. In addition to showing us how amazing underwater nature is, Juha Nurminen also wants to remind us that its existence and its uniqueness cannot be taken for granted.

Text excerpt from “Meren lumo – Elämää pinnan alla” (enchantment of the sea – life underwater), pages 164-169, 2019, John Nurminen Foundation.

Juha and the children Antti and Mikko Nurminen on the boat after a successful dive in 2019.