age often inspires us to re-examine our values. Such is the case
with Chuck Davis. After an impressive career filming and
photographing our oceans, to bring this precious and precarious
world to light, he has decided to follow his inner drummer. He
is going back to his roots in photography: toward
black-and-white and available light, and away from color, a
medium which he worked in almost exclusively for decades.
Regardless of whether his work is published, he has discovered
what the wise person knows: that less is better.
Chuck Davis explores exciting Underwater World
you’ve watched the movie “Open Water” and asked yourself, “How
could anyone in their right mind swim with sharks?” Chuck Davis
has an answer.
have great respect for great whites,” says the 50-year-old Maine
native, whose marine and underwater photography appears in every
magazine from Life to National Geographic.
“They’re capable of blood, guts and gore, but they are so much
more. They are such beautiful animals. There’s something about
knowing the wild things are out there that makes me sleep
better. I’d maybe not want a T-Rex walking down my street. But
polar bears, lions and top-level predators are part of the
system. If not, it would throw things out of balance.”
cares deeply about that balance, and to stimulate marine
conservation he has spent 30 years diving, photographing and
making Academy Award-nominated IMAX movies and also films with
the late Jacques Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel Cousteau.
fact, Davis is working feverishly with Jean-Michel on a PBS
special about gray whales, one that has taken him from the
Arctic to Baja and back again. This is immediately following a
year shooting beneath Arctic ice, on both coasts of Canada,
across the U.S. Heartland, to Mexico, and finally Bolivia’s Lake
Titicaca to create a film for the Smithsonian’s National Museum
for the American Indian.
meet at his Pacific Grove home which he says is easy to find:
it’s the one with the Zodiac parked in the driveway.
robust silver-haired man shows me his dark room where some dozen
wet suits hang from pegs, and underwater cameras and lights are
mention a trumpet he plays daily. “I find it therapeutic to blow
plaster off walls,” he jokes.
settle in a pleasant living room lined with mind-boggling
black-and-white ocean photos - some his, others taken by
us are masks he has collected from Tibet to New Guinea.
unleashes a torrent of words about his adventures . . .
Q: So, you’ve never had a scary shark experience?
A: Not really. I’ve had sharks give me cause for concern. A
great white got very interested when I was in Australia. I was
out of my cage but I got back in as it went by. I think it was
What is the mystery of the sea?
A: There are moments in a kelp forest where I’ve had
transcendental experiences. I’m hovering on the bottom looking
up at a canopy of kelp and young blue rockfish. It’s clouds of
new life springing eternal and the sun, this source of energy,
is coming down from outer to inner space to my camera. The
wonder of nature never ceases . . .
Why do tide pools make children of us all?
A: I think whenever we look into a tide pool we see a little of
ourselves in there. It’s a Gestalt thing. You see worlds within
worlds, little hermit crabs, etc., and then you see your own
reflection in the water. Here on Point Pinos is one of the
greatest assemblages of bedrock and biology in the world.
When do you get a bigger picture of life by looking directly
beneath your nose rather than out to sea?
A: I think sometimes, especially in photography, we think that
incredible image is out there somewhere and we want to travel
all over in search of it.
found some of my most amazing things when I’ve slowed down and
worked in my own back yard. Things come to you when you’re
still. I felt that today off Hopkins Point, when I was hanging
out with a whale. You take the peaceful approach and just are
still, let their curiosity peak, and they’ll run the show.
What is our primal connection to the ocean?
A: Most people drive down 101 not realizing they are mere yards
from an ocean wilderness. It’s right under our noses but it’s
considered a foreign world. But it’s inextricably linked to our
lives. What we flush down the toilet, weed killer, detergents,
etc., run into the street and it seems innocuous. But that goes
right into the ocean and becomes part of its cycle. And it gets
ingested by animals and, sooner or later, we end up eating it.
What’s the most astonishing thing you’ve seen there?
A: I spent nine hours in the water with three orcas that were
feeding on sharks in New Guinea. It was the very last day of
filming after three months of working on the Calypso with
Jacques and his son.
You say Jacques was a poet, philosopher and consummate
filmmaker. What was your favorite adventure with him?
A: When we went down to Antarctica in 1991, it just blew my mind
. . . He brought six kids with him, one from each continent, and
he told his (film) story through the eyes of children. He was
ingenious. His eyes would light up. He was a kid at heart
pushing 80 who had a warm spot and loved kids and life.
Something you wish you’d never seen in the sea?
A: When I was diving in Antarctica to film a leaking oil tanker
that had sunk. Jacques wanted us to show the public that
Antarctica should stay a place for research before we
industrialize it and screw it all up. It was awful to see fuel
leaking out of it in that pristine environment.
Does your wife complain about all your traveling?
A: No. Norma used to come along before the kids. Actually, we
feel our marriage is good because we give it breaks. (Laughs).
What can we see in black and white that we can’t in color?
A: I’m addicted to black and white. For me, it’s less literal
than color. Because of that I feel I’m able to capture better
what something feels and what I feel about it. Speaking
personally, it allows me to be a little more creative.
When did you first know what you wanted to do with your life?
A: As a kid, my friends and I would take our spear guns down to
Nantucket Sound and dive in the freezing water. Eventually, I
put down the gun and picked up the camera. Actually, Jeek (a
nickname for Jacques) invented the first amphibious camera. Jeek
had the minimalist approach to photography. He had a big
influence on my life. Also, when you have parents who say you
can do it, it makes a big difference. Mom would say, “If you’re
gonna work with Jacques you’re gonna need French.” So, listen to
What was your big break?
A: Meeting my mentor Louis Prezelin. He had been a diver and
cameraman for Cousteau. He took me under wing and encouraged me
to talk to the Cousteaus. It took five years but they finally
got tired of me banging on the door.
What was your road not taken?
A: In 1996, I really had that inward introspective question
because I started realizing so much of my still work I was
shooting for other people . . . I said, "You’ve gotta follow
that internal drummer.” I wanted to film more about how the
ocean affects me and speaks to me, regardless of whether it gets
published. I went back to my roots, back to black-and-white
negatives and not using so much artificial light . . . I’ve
discovered that less is better.