Shooter: Andy Sallmon and Allison Vitsky Sallmon

A New Wave of Underwater Photo Excellence

High-Speed Pass: California sea lions are among the fastest and most maneuverable creatures in the ocean. Their frenetic pace seems to be half fun and half about actually getting somewhere. Capturing images of sea lions takes high shutter speeds and frame rates — and, most of all, a lot of luck. The reward is not in the number of properly frozen and focused shots but rather in the time spent experiencing them and their zest for life.

Shooter articles in Alert Diver are about legacy: a place earned through decades of commitment to the art of underwater photography. They are also about the ability to consistently communicate a technically refined and unique vision of the underwater world. Andy Sallmon and Allison Vitsky Sallmon have compressed the time usually necessary to gain their rightful spots at the top through hard work, passion, collaboration and a little friendly competition.
Andy Sallmon
Andy was the first of the pair to realize that he would spend his life underwater. The die was cast at age 4 as he held onto his father's back for a swim to the end of a pier in Santa Cruz, Calif., impervious to the cold and exhilarated by the waves. He lived in inland Northern California, however, so ocean interludes were rare, and most of his aquatic adventures took place in lakes and rivers. His first dive experiences were not in the ocean but in Lake Tahoe on the border between California and Nevada.

Andy was 21 at the time and a bartender on a Lake Tahoe cruise boat. When he and a buddy heard about a new local dive shop, they became its first students, doing their training dives in the lake and going to Monterey, Calif., for their open-water dives. Andy said it was "love at first breath" off Point Lobos. He did 100 dives that first year, most from California liveaboards to hunt for lobster and abalone. He was conflicted for a while, spending time as a ski bum before his passion for scuba won out. He identified a path to the scuba lifestyle by becoming a dive instructor with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), so in 1980 he enrolled in PADI International College in San Diego.

Fisheye: The circular format is my favorite for certain scenes. Not all settings — in fact, not many — work. Sometimes the edges of the image form a natural circle in your viewfinder. That is when you know that a scene is probably right for a circular image. An extremely wide viewpoint is another key piece of the circular puzzle. Some subjects are just too grand to remain in a rectangular box and need to be let out. To make this image work and not just be a circular background, I needed multiple subjects. The kelp formed an aesthetic curve at the top, the red gorgonian made a colorful impact, and the bright orange garibaldi made the perfect cameo appearance at just the right time.

The 10-week course introduced him to underwater photography with the Nikonos system, and he took more advanced photography courses as his electives. In December 1980 he became a PADI instructor, but after he was out of school he had no access to its cameras and no money to buy one of his own. Then he saw an ad for a Nikonos II for $60 in the local thrift newspaper. He could barely afford that, and he figured it was probably stolen. It turned out the seller was a Navy camera repairman in Coronado, Calif., who would scavenge parts from various flooded cameras to cobble together ones that functioned, more or less. Next Andy scrounged a Sonic Research SR2000 strobe, but lacking money for arms or a camera tray, he dived for the next several years with his camera in one hand and his strobe in the other.

Soon Andy made his way to the relatively warmer and much clearer water of the Hawaiian island of Maui as a dive instructor for Central Pacific Divers. He was not making a lot of money, but he got to dive for free at Molokini Crater and Lanai at a time when it was not uncommon to see hundreds of whitetip reef sharks cloaking the seafloor and mantas swirling above. He eventually expanded his gear collection to include an Ikelite Substrobe 150 and a Nikonos IV camera. Being a dive instructor in paradise was not a forever job though, and he preferred life on the mainland. He moved back to the San Diego area about five years later.

Back in California, Andy began making a name for himself by winning photo contests, notably the Nikonos Shootout and the Monterey Shootout. He taught underwater photo classes and became a representative for strobe and housing manufacturer Sea and Sea. He started contributing marine-life images to photo CDs that were being sold at the time, contributed to a series of Lonely Planet travel books and worked with Monterey Bay Aquarium to create huge backlit transparencies for their displays. In 2009 he met Allison Vitsky.

Pygmy Pairing: Though my passion is big animal photography, I do love the small stuff, too. The tiny Hippocampus bargibanti (pygmy seahorse) adorns certain species of soft coral fans like animated Christmas tree ornaments. Some guides manipulate them with pointers for photographers, leaving the telltale sign of closed polyps. Diving in Lembeh Strait, I came across this pair with polyps undisturbed. Hoping they would not sense my presence and move apart, I backed away from the sea fan to reposition my strobes. When I returned, I was rewarded for my care and slow movements with this wonderful pose.

Hammerhead Patrol: Cocos Island is one of the best places in the world to experience scalloped hammerhead sharks. Their odd-shaped heads make them look formidable, but in reality they are as skittish as they can be. To view them "camera close" ideally requires a closed-circuit rebreather and remaining motionless on the bottom just outside one of their cleaning stations. This small group of scouts on patrol surprised us as they sped in on a current between Manuelita Islet and the main island. This image was made possible by having my camera settings, strobe power and position all set for a grab shot.

Gatorade: Over-under shots are a unique specialty. They usually involve swimming in crystal blue warm waters of an idyllic destination. There is another version though — one in which the model has big sharp teeth, and the water is Gatorade green. We found a place in South Florida where alligators were plentiful and not too shy. They cautiously watched us while we set up. Working as a team — one person on polecam, the other on safety watch — we remained still and quiet until the gators' curiosity got the better of them, and they swam to the camera and enabled this shot.

Into the Light: The amazing cavern systems that deeply carve their way into the Solomon Islands create fabulous opportunities and endless headaches for the underwater photographer. If you can get the glaring bright sunlight right, then the dark areas go ink black; if you get even the slightest detail in the black, then the sunlight portions look like a nuclear blast. One must hit the dive site — and the shutter release — at just the right time to be successful. I had to align the sunlight, sunrays, cavern walls and Allison just perfectly, or it would not have worked. Thanks to her immense patience and a 32-gigabyte memory card, luck was on my side. It also helped that I am as persistent as a pit bull once an idea for an image gets into my head.

Allison Vitsky Sallmon
Allison grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., spending her time swimming and hanging out at the beach. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in communications, she headed to the University of Florida to study veterinary medicine. Diving did not appear on her radar until her mom got the idea to do a family dive trip to Cozumel in 1992. Allison reluctantly agreed to be her mother's dive buddy and signed up for a scuba course. In the caves and springs of nearby Gainesville, Fla., her passion for all things scuba took root; by the time she went to Mexico later that year, she had logged more than 100 dives.

Diving took a back seat to school for a while. In 2003 Allison had completed vet school and her residency and was back in Boston for a postdoctoral fellowship. Eager to have diving as a part of her everyday life, she became part of the dive community in Gloucester, Mass., and immediately fell in love with temperate water. Her drysuit kept her warm, and her overwhelming curiosity about the cold, rich marine environment kept her engaged. Life was good for the young veterinarian until all of a sudden it was not.

At age 33 Allison was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wrote about the experience in the Fall 2017 issue of Alert Diver: "I'm a 14-year survivor of grade 3 triple negative breast cancer.… At 33, every breast cancer survivor I knew was 20 years or more my senior." The surgeries and rehabilitation she underwent on her road to survival have not defined her life, but they led her to create Dive into the Pink, a 501©(3) nonprofit organization that raises money for breast cancer research and patient support via engagement with the dive community.

Guitarfish: This image is a perfect example of how closed-circuit rebreathers can come in handy in the kelp forest. Shovelnose guitarfish are not uncommon in Southern California, but they are often seen on the ocean floor buried underneath a pile of sand. It was near the end of my dive day, and I was starting to think about heading back to the boat when I saw something I had seen only a few times before: a large, beautiful guitarfish swimming in mid-water. I hid behind a kelp-covered rock, hoping it would continue its course toward me. As it rounded this strand of kelp, I released the shutter, capturing a few images before it rapidly swam away.

About the time Allison was well enough to get back to diving, she got from an ex-boyfriend a Sea and Sea DX-1G, an early amphibious compact digital camera with a strobe that she took with her on her very first warm-water exotic dive holiday — to the Solomon Islands. Allison thus earns the honor of being the first shooter profiled in Alert Diver who never shot film underwater — whose entire career has been in digital photography. It is certain she will not be the last.

The photography Allison did during her Solomons trip left her yearning to quickly get better. Two moderators who were on the trip gave her sage advice while on the boat. Upon returning home, she read all the underwater photo books that she could find — by authors such as Martin Edge, Michael Aw, Stephen Frink and others. As much as she loved temperate water, she was not a fan of the snow and cold topside, so she moved to San Diego, bought a digital single-lens reflex (dSLR) camera and joined the dawn patrol of active divers to sneak in a beach dive before work in the morning. She would often show up to histopathology rounds with wet hair and dents from her face mask still marking her cheeks. Within a year, she began entering photo contests, almost immediately winning placements in a big international competition. One of the judges was Andy Sallmon.

Andy and Allison were active divers in Southern California, but their paths never crossed until they met at a film festival. They were in other relationships at the time, but they became friends over the following year.

Cathedral Reefscape: Fiji's reefs are truly beautiful, and Cathedral Reef is one of our favorite sites because of the array of soft corals and bright fans in and around a large, cavernlike structure. We tested our teamwork skills here by taking turns modeling for each other. This kind of cooperation is not as easy as it sounds — it can be tough to communicate and easy to lose patience. Plus, it is inevitable for one of us to get the short end of the stick at some point during a modeling dive: Fish swim off, ambient light changes, and boats full of divers show up. Whichever one of us is hovering above the reef awaiting his or her turn to shoot has to come to terms with being out of luck.

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When asked how they realized they had found true love, they both said it came down to diving. They contended that people either love California diving, or they temporarily enjoy it but eventually stop doing it. All Andy and Allison really wanted to do on any given weekend was to jump on a dive boat, take pictures and not have to apologize for it.

When things began to get serious between them, Andy had a soul-searching moment with Allison. "You aren't going to quit diving on me, are you?" he asked. By way of an answer Allison led him out to the garage and opened the door on a dive locker containing three drysuits, several wetsuits, dozens of single- and double-tank rigs, multiple regulators and computers and all the other paraphernalia of a woman clearly hooked on scuba. It was a match made in heaven.

Blue Whale Descent: Blue whales are endangered and notoriously shy, and even the luckiest photographers often have to be satisfied with images of whale butt. On this day we were supposed to dive nearshore reefs, but a plankton bloom had dropped the visibility to nothing. We decided to head offshore where there was blue water, intending to freedive under kelp paddies to photograph schooling fish and molas. We dived on paddies all day, finding nothing but often seeing blue whale blows in the distance. We were just about to get out of the water and head home when a huge blow appeared right in front of me. After a shocked second, I dived down and took as many images as I could. Photo aside, this stands out as the most incredible thing I have ever experienced in the water or otherwise: sharing eye contact with the largest creature to have ever lived on this planet.

Today, in addition to their regular contributions to the pages of Alert Diver and elsewhere, Andy is a sales representative for Sea and Sea, Seacam, Light and Motion, and Beneath the Surface, and Allison is a veterinary pathologist. She made the following comment about their partnership:

Working as a team is incredibly rewarding but really hard at times. We treat each other equally, never condescending toward the other, and we always share modeling duties. We try to keep it very fair, but of course if Andy is the model and I finish getting my shots right about the time 30 divers descend upon us, or the current brings a brown mass of turbidity upon us, or the very skittish harbor seal I was photographing decides to swim away, it's absolutely not my fault. I don't feel bad about it, and neither would he!

Jellyfish with Golden Trevally: On a recent trip to Palau we spent a lot of time diving World War II wrecks in and around the harbor. One morning as we were motoring back to our liveaboard for breakfast after an early dive, our guide shouted, "Medusa!" We looked down and saw a lovely jellyfish sheltering a juvenile golden trevally. Naturally, we decided to delay breakfast and instead take turns shooting the pair. Exposing them properly was a challenge: Jellyfish are translucent and often require quite a bit of external light, but the presence of the reflective trevally meant that camera aperture, strobe output strength, and strobe placement needed to be carefully considered and balanced. Add in the clouds of particulate in the water of the harbor, capturing the scene well easily occupied the entire surface interval. The crew was kind enough to save us some toast and bacon.

Kapal Indah Wreck: Lembeh Strait is known for its bizarre and fascinating macro creatures, but interesting and lovely wide-angle opportunities are there as well, including gorgeous reefs and a few fantastic shipwrecks. This wreck is appropriately called Kapal Indah (meaning "beautiful ship"). Much of it is covered in colorful soft coral, which is usually my photographic focus when I dive it. On this dive, however, the schools of catfish that swam alongside the structure distracted me. Sheltered against the brilliant orange rust of the hull, this school was so compact and striking that I photographed the scene from every vantage point I could manage.

Explore More
See more enthralling images from Andy Sallmon and Allison Vitsky Sallmon in their bonus online photo gallery.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2018