Two hundred feet below my sneakers, a blur of marbled green rushes past. I'm perched in the open door of a helicopter skimming the Caribbean Sea off Belize. I've spent the past two weeks traveling the country by boat and Land Rover, photographing the world's third-longest reef. But stormy weather has haunted this assignment. I'm still missing what editors call "the hero shot," the two-page spread that captures all the beauty and mystery of the story in a single frame. Tomorrow I head home.
The pilot keys the headset. "The Blue Hole is up ahead. I'll put the sun behind you." And then he banks the helicopter. The horizon disappears, and ocean fills the doorway. The sun is so strong and the water so clear that the underwater crater glows like a sapphire. I lean into my safety harness and bring the Nikon to my eye. This is the picture I've come for.
I didn't set out 20 years ago on a quest to photograph the color of the sea. I'd spent the previous decade photographing wars and genocides from El Salvador to Iraq, documenting what felt like a million shades of gray on black-and-white negatives. I was just back from documenting the war in Kosovo when a sympathetic editor offered me an assignment in the Dominican Republic, for a travel magazine. "Just bring me back some pretty pictures of the sea," he said.
I took the assignment. I brought color film. I went snorkeling, drank rum, and swam in the sea. And I came back with pretty pictures.
That same editor sent me out again, this time to the Galápagos. And then to Tahiti. I put off returning to Kosovo. Something wonderful was happening. After a decade of witnessing the world in black and white, I was rediscovering it in color. And water—the ocean—offered me an unlimited and inspiring palette.
In the Maldives I sailed on a yacht with a captain who pointed out an atoll long before it broke the horizon. "It's the sea-sky," he explained. "The lagoons are so shallow and bright that their color reflects back into the clouds. That's how we navigated before GPS. We'd read the color of the sea in the bellies of the clouds."
Each assignment revealed a new color and texture. Catch the Caribbean Sea early in the morning with the sun in your eyes and the water can be as hard and as orange as hammered copper. Photograph the Bismarck Sea during the blue hour, that soft light between dusk and dark, and the Papuan fishermen in their outrigger canoes seem to float on purple velvet.
With new latitudes came new discoveries. Sailing through the Haida Gwaii Islands of British Columbia, I found the sea so calm and the skies so muted that the deep greens of cedar forests were reflected perfectly upside down, rendering a world like a child's puzzle, both topsy-turvy and delightful.
After a decade of witnessing the world in black and white, I was rediscovering it in color. And water—the ocean—offered me an unlimited and inspiring palette
At the other end of the globe, I crossed the Southern Ocean by ice breaker from Tierra del Fuego to South Georgia Island. Somewhere in the latitudes known by sailors as the "screaming sixties," we hit a gale. The sea was green there, too, but a green full of power so awesome the sailors had a name for it. "Green water over the bow," the captain hollered when the first big wave hit. I held the railing with both hands as a 300-foot ship shuddered and turned, briefly, into a submarine.
Elsewhere, going below the waves (on purpose) illuminated a new world of color as surprising as it was challenging to capture. With every foot of depth, I discovered, water stole away more of the sunlight's vivid spectra—namely the reds, oranges, and yellows. Which meant that at 60 feet down the reefs appeared to be nothing more than a muddy green. That is, until I switched on my underwater lights. Like painting the reef with a magic brush, my beam of light revealed tube sponges that glowed neon yellow and soldierfish that burned as red as embers. The color had been there all along; it just needed me to bring light to it.
Of all the colors of the sea, however, there's one I never want to see again. We were diving a Fijian reef far beyond sight of land—a dive master, my soon-to-be-wife, and I. When we rolled overboard, the reef was flush with life. Pink corals bowed in the ripping current, and schooling anthias blew past like October leaves. But when we surfaced 40 minutes later, a storm had swept in. The innocent blue of the South Pacific was gone. And so was our boat.
All color had leached out of the sea. Each time I rose to a crest and swung in circles scanning for a boat, there was nothingness, only endless stacks of gray waves. We shivered in our wetsuits. We tried not to think about nightfall. An hour later the captain spotted us. By the time he'd hauled us out and apologized for losing our bubbles in the storm, the sea was once again a perky honeymoon blue.
Wheeling in the sky above The Great Blue Hole in Belize, I gaze through the viewfinder at the rush of peacock greens and blues. The rotorwash pounds my shoulders, and my stomach flutters with vertigo. My cheeks ache from smiling so hard. Maybe this is the lesson chasing blue has taught me all along. I'm not photographing the color of the sea at all. I'm feeling it.
Jad Davenport is a Denver-based writer and photographer, and is a frequent contributor to Coastal Living.