Cape Cod native explores the world’s oceans to photograph rarely seen marine life
Ethan Daniels is not your ordinary photographer. He’s not even your ordinary wildlife photographer. A native of Orleans, Daniels travels the world to snorkel in exotic locations and capture images of rarely seen species of marine life.
“I prefer to shoot areas that other photographers don’t, or won’t, or can’t,” Daniels says. In past years, trendy wildlife assignments have included photographing great white sharks, he says, but more recently the most fearless photographers have been shooting blue whales, or crocodiles in Indonesia. “The only way to make a living in photography these days is to do what others are not doing. I spend a lot of time in areas like mangroves that not many other photographers go.”
A resident of El Cerrito, California, who grew up in Orleans, Daniels, 43, travels the world for his profession, spending most of his time in Indonesia. Working in these waters, he regularly photographs manta rays, octopus, squid, and cuttlefish and often comes across what he describes as “bizarre-looking” and venomous species, such as scorpion fish and spiny devilfish. Occasionally, he will encounter black-and-white-banded snakes, which he says are venomous—but docile. “It’s the most diverse part of the planet in terms of marine organizations,” he says of Indonesia.
In a recent interview at Pilgrim Lake in Orleans, Daniels talked about his work, his appreciation of nature, and some of the interesting wildlife he has come across in the world’s waters. Then, he donned his wet suit, unpacked his underwater camera, and demonstrated a day on the job with a swim and shoot in the lake, the same spot where he first learned to swim as a boy.
Daniels says he has always been interested in biology. “It’s such a mystery to me how this all works. No matter how much we know, it’s just a tiny fraction of what there is to know . . . and I like that.” He says photography helps him learn—and also provides a way to make a living. “Almost every time I’m in the water, I see, if not a new species, then a new behavior.”
As a teenager, Daniels moved to Rochester, New York, where he attended high school. He studied biology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and during summer breaks he interned with the dive team at New England Aquarium. After graduation, he traveled overseas for about 10 years, working in Palau, and earning a graduate degree in the behavioral ecology of reef fish at the University of Guam. In 2004, Daniels moved to California, where he spends about half his time each year.
During the remaining six or seven months he travels, shooting photographs for several publications and stock photography agencies. In addition to Indonesia, Daniels regularly visits the Philippines, Palau, Yap, and the Solomon Islands.
He also travels to the Dominican Republic every year to photograph humpback whales—the same whales one might see in the waters off Cape Cod at a different time of year. “It’s pretty awesome being in the water with whales—as you might imagine,” Daniels says. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
In the United States, it is illegal for people to be in the water with certain whale species, such as humpbacks and minke, and so photographers travel to other countries in hopes of photographing them. In his experience, Daniels says, whales are safe to be around. Some are curious, some are indifferent, and some have wanted nothing to do with him. What about killer whales? Daniels says one day he would “possibly” love to be in the water with orca, but the animals “are very scary and smart.”
Daniels has also photographed different shark species, including blues. “They are very inquisitive,” he says, but not so dangerous. In Indonesia, he comes across small reef sharks most often, adding that many of the larger sharks have been fished out.
He has photographed great whites as well, including once while in an underwater cage. Daniels says most predators in the water, such as great whites, attack their prey from behind or below, and that’s why it is not good to go diving or snorkeling when visibility is poor. “Nothing is certain in the water,” he says. “If you see it, you’re in good shape.”
Daniels also works in freshwater lakes, and marine or saltwater lakes. The latter are often remote and may require a rigorous climb to reach, but encountering rarely seen endemic life is the photographer’s reward.
Daniels favors wide-angle lenses, which allow him to focus on a subject—a turtle, for example—while still capturing a good amount of the animal’s surroundings and background in the pictures. He uses a “close focus, wide angle” technique, and sometimes he gets very close to his subjects; there are times he will be just an inch away from a snapping turtle or other animal. What makes for an ideal underwater image? “You’re trying to find a fish or turtle that works with you,” he says.
In 2010 Daniels published his first book of photography, Under Cape Cod Waters. It features many photos shot in Pleasant Bay, and also covers the ecology and natural history of the Cape. One discovery Daniels made while researching the book was that there are snapping turtles aplenty in Cape Cod lakes. He also sees bass, pickerel, sunfish, herring, painted turtles, musk turtles, frogs, and snakes, including the black racer. “They like to hunt the frogs and things right around the edge,” he says.
“Each lake on Cape Cod is like a unique little ecosystem,” he says, adding that he particularly likes Pilgrim Lake because it’s large enough to provide a habitat for a variety of wildlife, including fish and amphibians. The lake is about 25 feet deep in the middle, and the visibility varies depending on the season and the weather. “When I was young,” he says, “[the visibility] seemed to be better.”
Snorkeling and diving in the waters of Cape Cod presents its own set of challenges. When working in ponds, for instance, Daniels says he must always check for leeches following a shoot. Once, when he was young, he emerged from a local pond after swimming to find 50 leeches on him. “You can’t feel them,” he says.
Off the coast, there are strong currents, he says, and the water is so cold one must wear either a wet suit or a dry suit. Daniels has snorkeled around several shipwrecks off Cape Cod, including that of the Port Hunter off Falmouth, and a barge off Chatham that was sunk by a German submarine during World War I. “The wrecks here are hard core,” he says.
In addition to his photography work, Daniels also co-owns a tour company called Coral Triangle Adventures with his business partner, Lee Goldman. The business offers guided 12-day snorkeling tours in the waters of Indonesia, Micronesia, Fiji, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. By day, Daniels and Goldman guide tour participants on snorkeling expeditions to view the region’s spectacular coral reefs, and at night, they give presentations on the region’s natural history. Most tour attendees are Americans, Daniels says, but the trips “are for anyone who is interested in travel to remote areas.” The groups meet in the country—say Bali, Indonesia—before heading out for the journey. Most of the trips are based on “live-aboard ships,” rather than hotels, which allow the travelers to get in and out of the region’s best coral reef sites with ease.
Every year, Daniels returns to the Cape at least once. He sees his parents in Orleans, and generally embarks on one or two snorkeling sessions per day. There are so many different lakes on the Cape, he says, and—though they are beautiful and bursting with wildlife—he never sees anyone else with a camera. “I’ve never seen any [photographer] in any of the freshwater habitats,” he says. “It’s not super exciting—it’s not like diving with great white sharks—but it’s a hell of a lot easier, and, I find, just as beautiful.”
For more information on Ethan Daniels’ work, visit coraltriangleadventures.com.
Matthew J. Gill is the editor of Cape Cod Life Publications.