Shooter: Marty Snyderman

A great hammerhead shark allows a close encounter over the sand flats of Bimini.

Anyone who doubts Jacques Cousteau's influence on underwater filmmakers and photographers should ask the ones whose careers have spanned decades and who remain at the top of the heap, "What launched you down this path?" Most will say, as Marty Snyderman did, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The series ran from 1968 to 1976, so it was well timed to connect with the baby boomer generation. For Snyderman, a kid growing up in landlocked Little Rock, Ark., it was the accelerant poured on a nascent spark of interest in the sea that ignited a lifelong passion.

His uncle Herb was the one who first instilled a fascination for the sea and nature in general. He took Snyderman on hunting and fishing trips around Arkansas, and his parents introduced him to the ocean on family vacations to Panama City, Fla. By age 10 he was so enraptured with trips to the coast that for his birthday he asked for an overnight fishing trip aboard a sportfishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

His gift request granted, late one night Snyderman boarded a boat with a group of fishermen who were having a great time playing poker, smoking cigars, drinking beer and expanding his vocabulary. These men instantly became his heroes, the guys he wanted to become. But things changed the next day when they caught a bull shark. Even today Snyderman grows passionate recalling the memory of the magnificent predator struggling for its life on the end of the line. He remembers his horror at the event, vividly recalling the smell of sweat and stale beer on the fishermen, and he remembers how their demeanor changed from being the good ol' boys from the night before to a "the only good shark is a dead shark" mob that day. He remembers the fishermen yelling at each other to "shoot the bastard" — a creature Snyderman saw as a majestic animal fighting for its life. By the time someone pulled out a pistol and shot the shark, Snyderman knew he was never going to be one of those guys. He ran into the ship's head, locked the door and cried his eyes out over the senseless killing.

He remembers being convinced that the fishermen, the adults, had it all wrong when it came to the shark. But he felt like he couldn't do or say anything because he was just a kid. And that experience has stuck with him throughout his career.

A pair of spinner dolphins cruises through crystal-clear Hawaiian waters off the Kona Coast.

It was still a long and indirect migration from Little Rock to the sea for Snyderman, but another filmmaker rekindled the flame during a visit to Vanderbilt University, where Snyderman was enrolled and trudging down a rather inauspicious path in academia. Stan Waterman came to campus to share some of his films and stories of his life. Snyderman knew Waterman's name somehow and scored a seat in the front row to watch Waterman wax eloquently about his adventures in the world of underwater cinematography.

At the end of the presentation Waterman was leaving the show with some Vanderbilt administrators, getting into a cab to go to dinner, when Snyderman, impulsively and totally uninvited, jumped into the cab with them. Remarkably they didn't throw him out, and they all went to dinner, where Snyderman sat mesmerized by Waterman's stories, told with wit and eloquence. "There was no way I could have paid for my meal, and I have no idea who did, but I sure was grateful," Snyderman said. "That night is when I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Before, I assumed you had to have the French Navy behind you or own a private ship with a crew and have a television contract to do the kinds of things Cousteau did. But here was a private guy — I won't say a regular guy, because to me he was anything but regular — going out on his own to have adventures and make films. Finally, here was the guy I wanted to be like."

STEPHEN FRINK// Following this story chronologically, you're a student at Vanderbilt, set to graduate in 1971 with a degree in history, and nothing much suggests a path to underwater photography other than a nebulous dream. How did this become your reality?

A male yellowstriped cardinalfish diligently mouthbroods the fertilized
eggs of his mate near a shallow Fijian coral head.
MARTY SNYDERMAN// You're right, this was a time of ambiguity for me, as it was for a lot of us who grew up in the 1960s. At one point I thought I might go to medical school, but by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to go to sea. I did make it down to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., for long enough to get certified as a scuba diver in 1972, but I still didn't see a path to becoming an underwater photographer and filmmaker.

Rather than do anything of substance career-wise I went on a road trip with two college buddies. This wasn't just any road trip but an epic trek all the way from Tennessee to Guatemala. We built a little canoe — I think it was the world's worst-ever watercraft — put it on our pickup truck and drove all the way to Puerto Morelos, Mexico. At that time Puerto Morelos was just a bump in the road south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. We pulled off the highway to see if there was a gas station. There wasn't, so we stayed for six weeks. The highlight was the trips to the reef each day. That was a time of pure magic for me; my love for all things ocean had become undeniable. Regrettably, the magic didn't take hold permanently at that point, and my next job was working on a dredge in the Mississippi River. I was on the water, but not the water I had in mind.

Eventually I got into the dive business, sort of. I got a job on a Windjammer sailboat, working for $3.33 per day in the British Virgin Islands. I took boatloads of guests snorkeling (at least the ones who were sober) with the occasional scuba dive thrown in. I loved my job, although I was woefully unprepared for it. I was only a basic diver then, not an instructor or even a divemaster. I didn't know much, but I knew enough to see we were getting in some scary situations from time to time. My conscience didn't allow me to continue there, so I borrowed $5,000 from my dad and went to San Diego to enroll in the 10-week-long National Association of Scuba Diving Schools (NASDS) Diving Instructors College.

SF// How did that go for you? I understand you are not a scuba instructor today.

MS// I pretty quickly got in over my head there. In my 10th week of school we went to Ensenada, Mexico, to do some training, but the permits were screwed up, and we all spent a week in a Mexican jail. But somehow I graduated first in my class. The next week my first job was working for NASDS on a weeklong clinic evaluating instructor candidates. I had only done 27 scuba dives in my life. I was sleeping in my car at night and trying to be a dive professional during the day. I needed a job, and a guy named Lou Fead (author of Easy Diver, one of the seminal texts in scuba training philosophy) hired me to work at the Diving Locker, which was owned by Chuck Nicklin, in San Diego. I knew about Chuck and had heard that a pretty serious group of underwater photographers worked at the Diving Locker, and I knew that was where I wanted to work.

A young California sea lion eyeballs the camera lens at a rookery in the Midriff Islands in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

SF// That's a nice coincidence; Chuck Nicklin is the subject of our DAN Member Profile in this issue. A lot of talent in underwater imaging came out of that dive shop in that era.

MS// That's true. In fact, to work as an instructor at the shop I had to first audit the class of someone already teaching there. How lucky can a guy get? The teacher for the class I sat in on was Howard Hall. We soon became the best of friends, diving together and just hanging out a lot. One night during the class I was auditing, Howard asked if I wanted to go on a night dive after the evening pool session. That dive consisted of swimming out through the surf, a half-mile-long surface swim to a buoy and a descent to 160 feet sometime after midnight.

After the dive Howard asked how I liked it, and I replied it was my best night dive because it was my first, and it was about twice as deep as I'd ever dived before. He had no idea how inexperienced I was. After all, I was a card-carrying dive instructor. Howard just shook his head in disbelief, and we laughed. I didn't know better. But I knew that hanging out with Howard was going to be a heck of a lot of fun.

Pelagic Magic: A larval lobster hitches a ride on a sea jelly in the open
sea off Hawaii’s Big Island in the dark of night.
SF// Howard was profiled in our Shooter column in the Spring 2010 issue of Alert Diver, and his career in underwater cinematography and IMAX filmmaking is well known. I have a recollection that you also began your career as more of a cinematographer than a still photographer.

MS// That's not quite right. I started by shooting stills and trying to write, but I quickly gravitated toward film because of some opportunities that came my way. I actually spent more than two decades as a filmmaker, going out with a small crew and making ocean documentary films. One of the biggest breaks I got during that period of my career was with Howard after we built some shark cages for ourselves back in the late 1970s. There were a lot more blue sharks and makos off San Diego back then, and we'd go out to chum them up just for fun and to shoot some movies of them with a Super 8mm film camera.

We made a little movie of what we were doing, and coincidentally Howard had worked on the Hollywood movie The Deep as a shark wrangler. That meant he got to know Stan Waterman pretty well, and around that time Survival Anglia Ltd. had hired Stan to produce a primetime television show about sharks. Stan was running low on funds and having trouble filling his storyboards with new concepts, and then he saw our shark film. That was the day I went from selling snorkels to working on a primetime television gig for Survival Anglia. I spent two and a half years at the Diving Locker trying to get immersed in some part of the business that I loved, and this was the break that set me on my life's path.

A scarlet cleaner shrimp provides service to a tomato grouper on a reef off the Malaysian island of Kapalai.

SF// I remember reading some of your equipment review articles in the early 1980s. How did you get started writing and photographing for dive magazines?

MS// Howard had written some articles for Skin Diver, and I got to know Bonnie Cardone, the magazine's editor. When I inquired about getting a similar gig there, she arranged an interview for me with Paul Tzimoulis. In those days there was no Internet, so if you wanted to know anything about anything in diving you read Skin Diver — and Tzimoulis was the architect of the magazine's success. To score an interview with him was a big deal, so I drove to Los Angeles and had a four-hour chat with him. We talked about life, but surprisingly we never discussed my diving experience, and he said nothing about me doing any work for Skin Diver. It may have been the strangest interview of my life; I thought I must have really blown it. But a few days later Bonnie called me and asked if I'd like to do some work for Skin Diver, "and oh, by the way, we need a 3,000-word article on dive gloves … now." Three thousand words about dive gloves? Try that sometime, knowing that if you pass the test, 3,000 words about weight belts might be next. So yes, I paid my dues.

I was a pathetic writer, but Bonnie made my words intelligible time and time again. I must have picked up some skills though, because pretty soon I was contributing text and photos to nine different dive magazines, including Discover Diving, Underwater USA and Scuba Times. Now that I think about it, all of the magazines I worked for in the early 1980s have folded. But that work earned me enough money to travel the diving world and build a housing for a 16mm movie camera. (Actually Howard and I had identical housings and cameras.)

I got to work on 23 episodes of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. That was my graduate school in underwater filmmaking. After that I got to produce and shoot a PBS Nature film on sharks.

An Atlantic spotted dolphin grabs a nighttime meal while hunting in the Gulf Stream.

SF// Now I see your work frequently and prominently published in Dive Training. When did you begin your collaboration there?

MS// I think I've been working for Dive Training for more than 20 years, first as a freelancer and then as marine life editor. I think of Dive Training as my family and my home in the diving industry. I also represent the magazine in Hawaii. I have fallen head over heels in love with Hawaii, and I try to visit frequently because the photo opportunities are so significant. I have made some wonderful friends there.

SF// With so many years in dive journalism, I found it curious that you didn't submit any portfolio images that included people. Clearly, your emphasis is, and has always been, on marine life.

MS// Shooting divers is the weakest part of my skill set. I can do it, but I'm not overly motivated to. I'm an animal geek; I think Mother Nature is the greatest show on earth. I've done so much diving with other shooters who didn't want to see me in their frame that it just seemed natural to concentrate on critters. Dive Training publishes a lot of photography that includes divers, as you would expect based on its subject matter, but that work tends to fall to other contributing photographers. I concentrate on what I do best, and we have a great working relationship.

SF// From the 30,000-foot view of someone who has forged a three-decade career in marine imaging, do you see many opportunities for aspiring underwater photographers?

MS// I do see a path for those who possess an entrepreneurial spirit and have something to say. It is important to not do what everyone is doing (or has done), and that is the challenge with the vast exposure underwater photography now has via social media. When I was getting started one of my biggest-earning stock photographs was a lousy picture of a great white shark. But hardly anyone had pictures of great white sharks then. It was, and is, all about supply and demand. Now, access to places and animals is simpler. Being able to book a liveaboard trip to shoot white sharks in Guadalupe Island's clear water makes white shark photography a little easier than it used to be. And there's similar access to many animals today, so in some ways the novelty is gone. Of course, it is still a high-voltage adventure to be in the water with great white sharks and humpback whales, but the probability of capturing a shot no one has ever seen before is lower these days.

That's a curious conundrum; it's easier to get better pictures with digital technologies and improved access, but the probability of getting something totally unique is more difficult. But having said that, there is still a path for those who are talented and motivated, assuming they possess a strong enough work ethic. To succeed, shooters need to tell us something about the ocean we didn't know before. Or they need to say something new about the way it affects them, the world or the future of people and our planet. Once the message is defined, go out and knock on doors.

A juvenile golden trevally takes it chances by accompanying a blacktip reef shark along a drop-off at the Micronesian island of Yap.

I love hanging out with younger up-and-comers at dive shows and other gatherings; I love their energy and enthusiasm. A lot of them remind me of Howard and me way back when. If I succeeded to any degree, I don't see any reason that others can't. But that is not to say it will be easy.

Everyone gets rejected in this business. Timing is part of the deal. So you have to get up off the deck and see rejections as learning opportunities (which is easier said than done). But I promise you, no one gets their way every time. You have to have a little grit to succeed in this game.

I think what we do is a team sport, even though not everybody sees it that way. For me, someone in Japan makes my camera (Canon), someone in Austria makes my housing (Subal), someone in the USA makes my strobes (Ikelite), and often someone in Indonesia points at the little things I might like to shoot. But if the shot comes out nice, I get the printed credit. It's a great life if you are the photographer. But no one does this thing alone. No one.

Back in the day it was the big animal stuff that Howard and I shot off San Diego that paid the rent and helped make my reputation. We were seeing animals that others weren't, and we were coming home with the shots. It might be harder today to find novelty of subject, put perhaps you can bring novel execution and new insight to the photograph. The world is ever changing, and changes to our oceans and marine wildlife are rapid and significant.

I have to say in closing that for me all of this is just a big excuse to spend time in the ocean. This is not to suggest that I don't take my job seriously, I do. It's just that I still really dig all of this — the lifestyle, the adventure, the places I get to experience, the people and the things I get to see. When I go on location I take four strobes, three camera bodies, two housings and one pair of underwear. I don't really care if the underwear is yours or mine. From that you can deduce where my priorities lie.
Explore More
If you can't get enough of Marty Snyderman's excellent photography, then check out this bonus photo gallery.

Snyderman received DEMA's Reaching Out Award in 2008. Watch this video about his accomplishments and contributions to diving.

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2015