Peering into the Depths


The 70,000-gallon kelp forest habitat at Birch Aquarium at Scripps was the setting for a wet ‘n’ wild photo shoot when acclaimed photographer Wayne Martin Belger took the plunge in July to capture unique images of life under the sea.

In front of packed crowds, Belger dove inside the kelp forest tank for an hour on both July 12 and 13 to photograph the ocean world as part of his forthcoming book Deep Worlds, a collection of his images demonstrating the artistry of North American aquariums. He used an underwater communication mask to speak with the audience and answer visitor questions.

Belger took about a dozen photographs over two days using his rare underwater pinhole camera. In addition to shots of marine life, he said he captured an “amazing” image of children from the audience lined up on the outside of the glass.

“I love that this world has been created by people; it’s an artform in itself,” Belger, an avid scuba diver and surfer, said about his love for diving inside aquariums. “Aquariums are where people have their first real relationship with what's in the ocean. It’s an amazing thing – it’s an amazing gift to give.”

Belger designs, fabricates, and specializes in pinhole cameras, many of which are built with organic materials.  Invented in the 1850s, these cameras have no lens, but consist of a lightproof box, a 4- by 5-inch piece of film, and an extremely small hole, typically the size of a pin.

Light enters through the hole, forming an image on the film. Because of the pinhole’s size, there is infinite depth of field, making faraway objects appear as sharp as those captured from any distance. Pinhole photographs generally have a soft focus with darker areas at the edges – a style difficult to emulate with modern cameras. A quarter-inch acrylic pane blocks out water from Belger’s camera.

Because of the ever-changing light inside the sunlit kelp forest tank, it took Belger anywhere between 11 seconds to two minutes to capture one image with the pinhole camera. Between shots, a Birch Aquarium diver shuttled Belger’s self-built camera – made from aluminum, brass, titanium, and other materials – back and forth from the top of the kelp tank where a photo assistant switched out pieces of film. Belger brought the camera into the aquarium following each dive so that visitors could see it up close.

“It was a really fun experience,” Belger said. “Inside, you feel like you are diving off the coast of Catalina, and then you turn around and there are 100 people staring at you. It was great.”

Belger photographed inside Monterey Bay Aquarium’s kelp forest tank in 2006. He is coordinating dives at more than a dozen other aquariums in the United States for his book, which he hopes to have completed by Fall 2009.

More information can be found on his Web site,

-- Jessica Z. Crawford

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