Shooter: Greg Lecoeur

Learning and understanding the behavior of marine species allows photographers to capture moments that might never be captured otherwise. It provides the opportunity to anticipate behaviors and gain proximity. An example is this photograph of a common dolphin in South Africa. I had to swim rapidly to get near a small bait ball the dolphins were chasing. Suddenly, the little fish moved close to me for protection. Then I had to be patient while the dolphin came very close to me to catch some of the fish that were now moving in synchronization with me. Photo by Greg Lecoeur

Embracing the wild, wide underwater world

Greg Lecoeur

In the past few years of our annual Ocean Views photo contest I have noticed very creative and significant images credited to Greg Lecoeur. His amazing shot of an oceanic whitetip shark and pilotfish graced the cover of our Summer 2018 issue. He is from France, and most of his published marine images appear in European and Asian publications, so I went to the internet to research his portfolio and learn more. I discovered the depth and quality of his published body of work, but it was only in conversations with him in preparation for this article that I better understood the turns in his life that led him to a career in underwater photography.

Lecoeur grew up in Nice on the French Riviera and as a child was deeply connected to nature and the sea. He had an early passion for marine biology and constantly asked his parents for books on the subject. Sailing and freediving were his most serious hobbies; he spent his spare time diving and hiking or simply walking in the woods with his father.

His father owned a successful business in large commercial electronic scales, so Lecoeur appeared to have a preordained career. As everyone assumed, he worked with his father for a while. For 10 years he was in the scale business, and he even started his own independent business in this niche in a neighboring region. But all the while a small voice in his head was telling him there was more to life. At 32 years old Lecoeur left a successful business behind him — he just quit and went on the road for a full year, traveling with a backpack and a dream.

Lecouer in action
The green sea turtle is one of my favorite marine creatures. In Tenerife, Canary Islands, many of these turtles have grown accustomed to divers and do not hesitate to have contact. One morning I took advantage of the daylight conditions to compose this image with a combination of natural and artificial light. The turtle in the foreground was carefully illuminated with my strobe, while the turtle in the background became an element of composition.
The leafy sea dragon (Phycodurus eques) is a complex and extraordinary animal that is distantly related to the seahorses and endemic to western and southern Australia. With their extraordinary mimicry, they are well-camouflaged amid the seagrass and kelp habitat they inhabit. I could spend hours simply watching them, but to get a nice photograph is all the better.
The humpback whale is an interesting subject to photograph, and the interactions are meaningful and humbling. It can take time to find the right individual that will accept you — these encounters are always on their terms. For this you need to understand what the animals are doing and adapt your attitude in the water to make them feel confident and not threatened. When it works, you can get closer and closer to these powerful animals, marveling at their extreme agility despite their 40-ton weight.

The adventure began in the Galápagos Islands, which for three months was an eye-opener and an incredible playground to perfect his photographic techniques. Then he explored Baja California, British Columbia, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, Mexico and Honduras. Originally his plan was to travel as a scuba instructor. He had begun taking photos, which was an interest from childhood but not yet a serious one. Self-taught with some basic underwater photo gear that was light enough for traveling, he let local dive shops know he was a photographer. They encouraged him to shoot images of the tourists on their boats in hopes of selling some of his underwater photos to them.

Lecouer shot photos of tourists underwater as part of his work, and on his days off he went diving for fun and took pictures on the reef. Relentlessly critiquing his own work, he gradually got better and more consistent results. That year of traveling and dabbling in different fields began to forge a direction, but he was still uncertain about where his path might lead.

Blackwater photography is challenging and one of the most exciting kinds of dives I do. My first blackwater dive was in Hawaii in 2012, and I quickly became addicted. Drifting along with the current over the deep abyss are so many unusual creatures that come up from the depths and are illuminated by our spotting lights. They are so strange and alien. Some are larval species that will later settle onto the reef, but others spend their lives in that curious elevator between the deep and the nighttime shallows.

In 2012 he was back in France showing his portfolio from the road to one of the large French dive magazines. They told him, “You have good photos — you have something special. Come back when you have a name; we can use you then.” Frustrated, Lecoeur wondered how he could he make a name for himself if no one gave him a chance and how he could get a chance if he needed a name to get published. He decided he would build a reputation through contests; one of the most prestigious is in Antibes, near his hometown.

Lecoeur reminisced about that time in his life: “To me it was about sharing. I’m a shy guy, but I can express myself through photography. I have an eye and a heart, and with my underwater photos I could say at a glance what I feel about being under the sea and the creatures I encounter.” In that first contest at the Festival Mondial de l’Image Sous-Marine, he was awarded a second place in the portfolio competition and earned the prestigious Ernie Brooks award for outstanding achievement in black and white print. (He later won the portfolio category in 2015.)

With that first bit of positive reinforcement, he went back on the road — by then he’d fallen in love with dive travel. Despite his university degree in marketing, he never really cared for business in the traditional sense. Travel and photography called to his first passion for marine biology and elicited a stronger pull than had any other career path thus far. His big break in terms of gaining the name the dive magazines wanted happened in 2016 when he was named the National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year. 

That was a huge accolade, not only in the eyes of potential clients but also for his own self-esteem. There would be no better time to take a risk and change his life. No longer a kid and no longer drifting like a leaf in a stream, he now had a direction and needed to put together the pieces of the puzzle to make it work.

Images have to tell a story, so it is important to learn and understand the marine world. Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) are a good example. They are paternal mouthbrooders, with eggs about 2.5 millimeters in diameter. When hatched, the young remain in the male’s mouth cavity for an undetermined period until they go out on the reef themselves.
Australia is an incredible place for endemic species, especially in the temperate waters. In Australia’s southern seas 85-90 percent of life there is unique to the region, whereas only 10 percent of the plants and animals along the Great Barrier Reef are unique. The endemic Australian sea lions are among the most charismatic, and interacting with these mammals is always an excellent encounter. Playful and curious, they are wonderful underwater models.

Like most marine photographers he found he needed to multitask. That meant holding exhibitions to sell photos, writing articles for dive magazines and selling stock photographs through his contacts. Soon came lucrative commercial shoots for luxury watches and other consumer brands related to the ocean or diving. Everything he did was essentially his own idea for an expedition, and then he would propose a sponsorship concept. Sometimes it was accepted, other times not, but always there was a strong editorial hook about marine biology and nature in these projects. Aqualung and Nauticam in particular have consistently supported his work over the years.

The Mediterranean Sea is where I first learned to do underwater photography. My earliest specialty was pelagic life, and in my opinion the pilot whale is the best encounter you can have there. This mammal is very social, living in big pods — sometimes with more than 80 individuals.

Lecouer’s camera equipment has evolved since his early days of itinerantly photographing tourists; he now shoots a Nikon D500 in a Nauticam housing, with his basic optical arsenal including the 60 mm and 105 mm Micro Nikkor lenses for fish and macro, and wide angle captured with the Tokina 10-17 mm fisheye zoom lens. His strobes are Ikelite DS161. This basic kit allows him to cover most subjects most places he goes.

Many of the projects he plans now are tied to marine ecology consistent with his mission to use his photos to speak to marine ecology and conservation issues. A recent shot of a sargassum frogfish floating amid a raft of plastic and detritus — shot unexpectedly at the end of a dive in Raja Ampat, where he was expecting to find only pristine beauty — won an award in the 2018 Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in the wildlife photojournalism category.

Lecoeur notes that photographers don’t always have the best reputation, particularly for poor buoyancy in a fragile world of vanishing resources. He tries to dispel that image by carefully approaching his subject, not being intrusive and letting the best shots come to him — which is good advice for all of us.

What will the future bring for Lecoeur? He has just published Requins, a French-language coffee-table book about sharks, and says his next project will involve a small sailboat and an expedition to Antarctica. From there he will live stream his adventures to communicate with a younger audience who may only know the marine wilderness via their digital devices. If they can see what he sees and know what he knows, he believes they might understand the perils facing this planet and the need for responsible stewardship.

The gray seals of the Farne Islands (off the coast of Northumberland, England) offer excellent close-up encounters because they are so friendly and bold. I love to take portraits of them in their temperate habitat. At first they seem a bit fierce, but they quickly become very curious, and that’s when the best photo opportunities happen. Sometimes photography is an excuse just to be among wildlife.
Evans Peak is a huge pinnacle with high biodiversity in the cold waters off Port Elizabeth in South Africa. The water does not often offer excellent visibility, but when the water is clear enough, dives are always surprising and colorful.

© Alert Diver — Q1 2019