Shooter: Ned DeLoach

There is a situation common to almost every underwater photographer and marine-life enthusiast on virtually every liveaboard in the tropical seas. We get out of the water, rush to download our photographs and then sit in the main salon with our laptops, scrolling through images. We then thumb through the fish-identification reference books to discover more about the weird and wonderful creatures we just saw. More often than not, Ned DeLoach and Paul Humann will have authored the fish-ID guide of choice. Logical, encyclopedic and definitive, these books are the culmination of lives well spent, diving and documenting.

Stephen Frink// Many of us who have made careers of underwater photography come from places where geography made it unlikely. You’re from landlocked West Texas, far from the sea, but you’ve said the sea was never far from your mind.

Headshot of Ned DeLoach and he is posing with a yellow display of his books
Ned DeLoach

Ned DeLoach/ It came so naturally to me. My mother was a librarian and naturalist. I was raised on tales of the exploits of Shackleton, Audubon and Beebe. I was particularly fond of stories about the sea, especially adventures that took place below the surface. In those days, that meant hardhat diving.

My fascination turned into a lifelong passion during a family vacation to Georgia; I think I was eight at the time. My dad took a detour south and drove the coastal road along Florida’s panhandle. At the end of a causeway, I saw three boys, not much older than I was at the time, inching down an incline to the water with masks and fins in hand. I distinctly remember thinking, “If I lived by the ocean, I would know the name every creature living in it.” That Christmas the deal was sealed when I found a mask and fins under the tree. I turned into a water rat, joining the swim team, taking water-safety courses, becoming a lifeguard and teaching and later coaching swimming. Shortly after college I headed off to Florida to dive and have been here ever since.

SF// Florida has vast and diverse diving opportunities and was a marine wilderness in the late 1960s. Where did you do most of your diving?

ND/ I settled in Jacksonville, where I took a job at a local high school coaching swimming and teaching physical education. The state’s springs were within easy driving distance; many of the best sites were located along the Suwannee River less than 90 miles from my door. In those days springs meant water-filled caves, and caves meant exploration. How could I resist? I had the good fortune of meeting Sheck Exley early on and being included in his group of cave-diver friends. They were the top of the heap, going deeper and penetrating caves where no one had ever been before, pushing boundaries to the extreme. Those were heady times. Today, folks in the know consider Sheck the best diver of all time and one of the greatest explorers of the generation. I found out early on I was not of their caliber, but I had useful skills such as photography and writing, so they allowed me to tag along for years, documenting their feats for magazines.

White Xenia coral houses a white pipefish
Pulsating florets of Xenia coral are the exclusive home of the toothpick-sized barred xenia-pipefish (Siokunichthys bentuviai).

SF// It seems odd to me that a guy who is best known for marine-life interactions, fish photography and critter ID got started diving in caves— an environment so devoid of life.

ND/ Well, it wasn’t just the caves and springs I was exploring back then. I wanted to experience it all. Right out of college three of my swim-team mates and I bummed our way south from Isla Mujeres in the Yucatan through Central America toting spearguns and cameras until we ran out of money. I also took road trips to the Keys, Miami, West Palm Beach and the Gulf Coast to dive. I quickly found that there wasn’t much information about where to dive in Florida, so I wrote my first book, Diving Guide to Florida Springs, in 1971, which I followed with Diving Guide to the Florida Keys. I combined the two titles into Diving Guide to Underwater Florida a few years later when I began adding other areas of the state. The book is still around, currently in its 11th edition.

SF// Your collaborations with Paul Humann, an extraordinarily gifted underwater photographer in his own right, have to a great extent defined this later portion of your career. How did that come about?

An orange cleaner shrimp cleans the mouth of a plankton
A cleaner shrimp extends its claws inside the tiny mouth of a plankton-picking fusilier to extract parasites for dinner.

ND/ Paul is a consummate pioneer, having left behind a law practice in Wichita, Kansas, to own and operate the Caribbean’s first successful liveaboard, the Cayman Diver. Throughout the 1970s, while diving with guests, Paul took photos of marine life virtually every day for a decade. After his Cayman Diver days, a mutual friend introduced us, and we hit it off right away.

Shortly after our meeting I was asked to edit Ocean Realm magazine. It was a beautifully printed quarterly journal of the sea, much like the new Alert Diver, with top-flight writing and photography. But, as you know, a magazine is a lot of work, and so I asked Paul to be co-editor. This was back in 1987. I was responsible for the words, and Paul dealt with the photography. The magazine was a hit, breaking even by just the second issue. We were on a roll for the next year and a half until the magazine was sold unexpectedly to a publisher in Texas. But as things turned out, the setback was temporary. I continued writing the magazine’s Underwater Naturalist column for years. More important, Paul and I realized we enjoyed working together, so we decided to publish a series of marine-life guides for divers built around his collection of images. Out of necessity we did everything ourselves — researching, writing, photographing, financing, designing, publishing and ultimately distributing our own products.

Our first title, Reef Fish Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, rolled off the press in 1989 and sold out within a year. Over the next two years we followed with a Caribbean creature and then a coral book, which along with the fish made up the three-volume Reef Set. Paul stopped living off his credit cards, and I retired from teaching. Now, nearly 25 years later, we have produced nine guides sold around the world. It hasn’t made us rich, but it sure has made for a nice lifestyle.

SF// I remember those early books as being comb-bound, but I just bought my copy of your latest, the new edition of Reef Creature Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, and I see it is more elegantly produced and includes many more animals than those early references I still have in my library.

ND/ Before our guides hit the market, marine-life books were primarily written by scientists for scientists, with descriptions based on obscure anatomical features such as fin counts and the number of scale rows. In the Caribbean there are between 400 and 500 fish species that you might bump into on a dive. Scientific texts traditionally entered all the species in their supposed evolutionary order with cartilaginous fish, sharks and rays appearing first and cowfishes and filefishes appearing near the end, a system that makes little sense to anyone but ichthyologists. So we simplified the information. We began by organizing the fishes into broad visual categories, keeping lookalike species together whenever possible. We also added information pertinent to divers, including fishes’ typical reaction to divers, their habits and how common or rare they are.

What has significantly changed over the years is the number of species included in our books. Take for example our new third edition of the creature book you mentioned. With the help of numerous photographers and the addition of Les Wilk (of ReefNet fame) as an author, we increased the species count from 500 to nearly 900. Even with these increases, we feel we’ve only scratched the surface of what is still out there to find and photograph.

A tiger mantis is striped and looks like a weird shrimp
Tiger mantis (Lysiosquilla maculate) hunting at the surface in the glow of a kerosene lantern

SF// Your wife, Anna, plays a significant role in your projects; describe how you work together.

ND/ Right after we married in the early 1990s we lived in Bimini, Bahamas, for three years working on Reef Fish Behavior: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas. It was one of those special times when, to borrow a line from John Steinbeck, “the world spun in a well-greased groove.” Six days a week we dived, usually the same four reefs until we knew the animals by heart. We also enjoyed research, which typically meant diving into the stacks at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science library at the University of Miami when we were on the mainland. What an education!

To this day, behavior remains a primary focus. Anna’s inquisitiveness, quick wits, good animal-spotting eyes and skill with a video camera are essential to our work. She’s also a lot of fun to be with. She’s forever coming up with astute observations that I completely overlook. To get an idea of how clever and engaging she is, check out her blog,; like Anna, it’s a hoot.

SF// I get a sense of your excitement from reading your Encounters column in each issue of Alert Diver. Take me on a “typical” Ned and Anna DeLoach dive, where you are immersed in a critter-rich environment that is particularly productive.

Tiny cuttlefish in egg casing
A tiny cuttlefish seconds before popping out of its egg casing

ND/ Anna and I are enchanted by natural selection, and there is no better place to get an eyeful of biodiversity than underwater. To us it is all about the hunt and the joy of discovery. Even today, after more than 40 years of diving, I feel like I’m on the verge of a great discovery every time I go underwater.

On a typical dive we don’t move around much, especially if we’re working with a difficult subject. “Dive slow, be patient, and dare to think small” is the counsel we follow (and offer), whether we’re simply observing wildlife or shooting video or stills. We’ve found that many intriguing creatures are small, often no larger than a thumbnail, and most are the dickens to find. Every year we slow down more and try to open eyes wider to possibilities. And I have patience, a virtue I sorely lack above the surface, to a fault underwater. When I’m locked on a subject Anna knows to keep an eye out. She calls it goby fever. I call it bliss.

SF// Even though you consider yourself a naturalist more than a photographer, you couldn’t get images of the quality you share with us without keen attention to quality underwater camera gear. What do you shoot?

ND/ I learned to photograph animals from Paul and haven’t altered my techniques much over the years, except for the switch to digital a few years back, which has been a boon. Basically I keep my gear as simple and streamlined as possible. I use only manual focus and all manual f-stops, and I shoot exclusively with a single Ikelite DS160 strobe and an Ikelite housing. I find the system robust, dependable and quick. I’ve recently moved up to a Nikon D800 camera for the 36 megapixels that allow me to crop more. Ninety-five percent of my photos are taken with a 50mm or 60mm macro lens.

People seem surprised at the simplicity of my setup, but it allows for the versatility I need. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that you never know what you might run into underwater. My Encounters article in this issue tells the story of Anna’s and my two-week hunt for a hit list of fish in Utila. On the last day of our stay, my rig allowed me to capture two of our targeted species, a three-quarter-inch goby and a 4-foot stingray, on the same dive.

SF// Any additional tips for critter hunters and shooters?

Red goby spreads its mouth
A goby spreads its gill covers and expands its mouth in a last-gasp attempt to prevent being swallowed by a lizardfish.

ND/ If you can afford it, hire local knowledge whenever it’s available; it’s well worth the expense. Throughout Indonesia and much of the Coral Triangle dive guides are trained to find animals for guests. These young men, and in a few cases women, are masters at finding animals that specialize in not being found. Many of our eyes, including mine, have become what I called “citified.” These guides are much better at sorting through the nuances in nature. They enjoy the hunt as much as we do and love nothing more than a challenge. Half the species pictured in our Pacific books wouldn’t be there without their underwater wizardry.

A second tip: Be willing to give over your dive to a single animal for a single photograph. One good image is worth more than a thousand snapshots. Getting a good shot requires time and a good dose of fortitude to remain in place waiting for a single shot while so many other animals and potential images swirl around. Capturing that one good image requires knowledge of the subject and waiting for the exact moment to trip the shutter. And don’t forget the luck factor, a pivotal component of any success.

SF//Tell me a little about your involvement with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, better known to most of us as REEF.

ND/ Paul and I, along with our dear friend Jim Dalle Pazze, founded REEF shortly after our first book hit the market. The idea for the organization sprang from the lack of information Paul and I were able to find about fish populations while we did research for our book. You have to think back to the 1980s and realize that at that time many island nations were looking for low-impact reef studies to replace traditional methods that required dredging, poisoning and the always sketchy practice of obtaining data from commercial fisheries. We simply incorporated the methods birdwatchers had been using for years to conduct censuses of bird populations.

A yellow masked butterflyfish has a blue patch around its eye
Masked butterflyfish (Chaetodon semilarvatus)

REEF began training divers to measure fish biodiversity and gather relative-abundance data during organized field trips and diving vacations. Two decades and thousands of volunteer dives later REEF has compiled the largest visual sighting database of marine fishes in the world — a unique resource that’s used by governmental agencies, researchers, conservationists and fisheries managers to help establish and evaluate management practices. This summer we celebrated the 20th anniversary of our first fish count, which took place in Key Largo.

Since its beginnings the organization has branched out, taking the lead in studying the lionfish invasion of the Western Atlantic and working with the Cayman Islands Department of Environment to research one of the last-known mass-spawning aggregations of Nassau grouper. All of this has been accomplished by divers who share a common desire to do something right for the ocean. That does my heart good.

© Alert Diver — Q1 Winter 2014