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  • Writer's pictureRubber Monkey

Interview With Marine Ecologist Irene Middleton

Hi! I'm Irene Middleton, a Marine Ecologist and Scientific Diver working for NIWA. I'm also a passionate underwater photographer and ocean explorer in my free time.

Irene Middleton

How did you get into / what inspired you to get into Marine Ecology?

This will be showing my age a bit, but at age 5 I was watching Wheel of Fortune with my parents and one of the contestants was a marine biologist. I asked my mum what they did and she must have made it sound really exciting because I decided then and there that was what I wanted to be when I grew up. As a child I would spend hours on end at the rock pools and intertidal area in New Plymouth collecting, identifying and remembering the scientific names for all the critters I found. I think that is where it all started for me!

I went on to study Marine Biology and Ecology at Victoria University in Wellington and learned to scuba dive while living in Wellington. I then went on to do a Masters degree in conjunction with Cawthron Institute in Nelson and returned to do a PhD at Massey university after working as a scientist for over 10 years. I finished my PhD in late 2021 while working at NIWA.

How would you describe some of the work you do?

Most of the work I do at NIWA involves trying to keep Marine pests out of NZ and to understand the impacts they may have on ecosystems, native species and the communities that rely on the ocean. I also support Fisheries Scientists and work with Tangata whenua to support their management of their local marine ecosystems and Taonga species. During my PhD I focussed on understanding how the New Zealand fish communities might be changing due to the influence of climate change, I tapped into the huge amount of knowledge and observational power that fishers, divers and boaties have about the marine environment and used their photos to identify tropical fishes that were new arrivals to NZ and those tropical species that are starting to survive long term in NZ waters.

Photo by Irene Middleton

How long have you been a photographer for / what got you into it?

I started taking photos when I met my husband about 13 years ago.. He had been a photographer and diver for a long time and started to get sick of me hovering around him on dives while he spent time taking photos. He bought me a small second hand point and shoot for our first Christmas together to keep me out of his hair! I bought my first DSLR in 2012 and have not looked back.

I went to the local Whangarei Camera Club for a few years after I got my DSLR and this was such a valuable tool for learning, inspiration and support that I would totally recommend to people picking up a camera now, The club and my husband pushed me to be more creative, think outside of the box and set me up with the basic principals of photography that I still tap into today!

Photo by Irene Middleton

What’s your favourite part about photographing marine life?

I love being able to share the magic I see underwater with my friends and family. I think imagery has a unique power to forge a connection and interest with creatures, ecosystems and environmental issues that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks. The ocean is also my happy place, I am a massive fish nerd and love just observing fish behaviour or trying to capture the 'character' of animals people usually only engage with if they are fishing or on their dinner plate.

I love the challenge of capturing images underwater and am continuously blown away by the talent of Underwater photographers I encounter. There is also always the chance of encountering a fish, nudibranch or other animal no one has recorded before or is really rare for the area, which keeps me coming back for more!

Photo by Irene Middleton

How do you capture images without disturbing the sealife?

I think the biggest part of capturing images without disturbing marine life is to be conscious of the animals behaviour, ensure you have really good dive skills and be kind to the animal. We use powerful flashes underwater and many species will shy away from the camera, I try not to corner the animal or chase it to minimze the stress. By having good dive practices you are also less likely to bump into animals, sponges and encrusting life growing on the reef around you, maintaining your buoyancy is particularly important in tropical areas where it is very easy for divers to damage fragile corals.

Another tip, particularly for mobile animals is to sit and watch them for a bit first. Many fish have small ranges and will circle over the same area over and over, and nudibranchs will likely slow down when they encounter food, often species hiding in holes might duck back when you approach initially but give them some time and space and they become curious. Another benefit of spending some time watching is that you can think about your shot, the composition and your settings which means you may only need a few frames to capture the image, which in turn minimizes the stress on the animal.

Photo by Irene Middleton

Do you have a go-to piece of kit you use more often than any other? If so, why?

Lighting is super important underwater. You loose a lot of colours underwater and without artificial strobe or torch light it is very difficult to accurately portray a scene particularly in deeper water or turbid water. Ambient light photography yields some amazing results if you are photographing large animals or shallow water scenes but most NZ dives require some form of artificial lighting to bring out details and colours. So for me my flash guns (aka Strobes) are an essential piece of kit I rarely leave home without! Of course you also need a high quality underwater housing to keep your camera safe and dry during the dive so that would be the other essential piece of kit. Generally I only use 2 or 3 of my lenses underwater; I shoot macro with a 60mm or 105mm lens and wide angle scenes with a 15mm fish eye lens.

Photo by Irene Middleton


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