Behind The Shot: “Steller Sea Lion” by Richard Salas – Hurst Island, British Columbia, Canada

Underwater close up shot of pinniped sea lion's face photography Subal housing

"Steller Sea Lion" by Richard Salas

Steller Sea Lion: 700 pounds of six-foot rambunctious puppy dog! I was teaching a photo workshop up at God’s Pocket Resort, a land-based diving operation in B.C., Canada. Only accessible by boat, God’s Pocket Resort is the only resident of Hurst Island. They generate their own electricity and water and ferry in food from town.

We had already been treated to some of the best cold-water diving in Canada; wolf eels looking like Muppets of old men, a giant Pacific octopus changing color and texture so fast our eyes could barely keep up, and grunt sculpins hopping around like little wind-up toys.

The next dive was the one never to be forgotten: Steller sea lions. We were briefed on the best procedure to avoid overexciting the pinnipeds. We were to go to the bottom and stay close together in a line so we would look big, like one gang facing another. The Stellers stayed their distance for a few passes, but as they figured out we were not there to hurt them, they became more bold. At first, they just came close, but as their confidence grew, they started to mouth at our arms, legs and heads. (They don’t have hands to check us out with so they use their very large mouths.) We could feel their canine teeth through our hoods. Sometimes pushing and sometimes swimming between our legs and pulling at our strobe lights…

Underwater diver taking a close up photo of a stellar sea lion off the coast of British Columbia

Richard Salas Capturing "Steller Sea Lion" by Alex Tanz

This kind of photo opportunity needs some thought because as soon as you get down there you realize chaos is ensuing, and it’s very hard to get a shot when 700-pound animals are playing with you like a chew toy. I wanted to get their beautiful, curious faces to fill my frame. So I thought about a portrait-lighting setup with a key light and a fill to make the perfect ratio. It worked for a while until the sea lions decided they had better ways to set the strobes, moving first the left and then the right strobe, so I was lighting myself and not them. I had to keep checking and rechecking my lights to make sure they were pointing where I wanted them.

I wound up shooting 1/200th at f/7.1. I wanted the sharpest image I could get while still keeping the face in focus. I also wanted the background to be darker than normal, so the sea lion would pop off from the background. And then I had to wait for that one sea lion to come up super close to the dome port and give me that inquisitive look. There were many of these shots that went by since I was not set for them, but I wanted my shot and I waited.

With all the pushing and pulling and sometimes having five or six sea lions on me at once, it is of the most amazing and memorable dives I have ever been blessed to experience. Alex Tanz captured the photo of me and madam sea lion. Thank you, Alex. - Richard Salas

Luminous Sea - Underwater Photography from Washington to Alaska by Richard Salas

"Luminous Sea - Underwater Photography from Washington to Alaska" by Richard Salas

Salas has just begun an Indiegogo campaign to fund his latest book, "Luminous Sea", the final chapter in his "Sea of Light" trilogy centering on underwater photography from the Equator to Alaska. 50% of profits will be donated to the Ocean Foundation to support, strengthen and promote organizations that are dedicated to conserving ocean environments around the world. You can find out more and contribute to the campaign here. See more of Salas' work on his website at or on Smugmug. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and YouTube.

Equipment and settings: Nikon D300S camera, AT-X Tokina AF 10-17mm f/.5-4.5 AT-X 107 DX fisheye wide angle zoom lens, Subal ND300s underwater housing, two Inon Z-240 strobe lights - 1/200th @ f/7.1 - ISO 200

Richard Salas' Indiegogo Campaign video from Richard Salas on Vimeo.

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