You might say Christian Vizl's passion for underwater photography was handed to him—literally. Ten years ago, while exploring a beautiful coral reef in Belize, a fellow diver suddenly passed him his video camera and swam away. At first, Vizl figured he just needed him to hold it for a second, but seconds gave way to minutes, and minutes are precious when you're sucking canned air. So Vizl turned on the camera, hit record, and pointed it at some sharks resting on a patch of white sand.
"That was the first time I felt the power of it," he says. "I just got hooked."
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Vizl has scarcely entered the water without a camera since; it’s how he shares his awe for the diverse creatures he meets below the surface—intelligent manta rays that can recognize themselves in mirrors, enormous goliath groupers as heavy as pianos, and mako sharks that speed as fast as 40 miles an hour. They're the stars of his new book Silent Kingdom.
"For me, being underwater is about love—love for the ocean and its animals," he says. "Photography is about love, too. It's about connecting with nature and the beauty I see around."
Vizl credits that love to the many beach vacations his family took in Guerrero state, a few hours south of his childhood home in Mexico City. At age 22, in 1994, he learned to dive, then became an instructor so he could do it all the time—eventually plunging in waters as far as the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea. Those countless hours spent underwater, just for the love of it, now inform his approach as a photographer.
"I don't go down for a picture—that's not my goal," he says. "My goal is to enjoy the presence of these animals."
That's not to say he isn't ready for one. After steering 50 miles offshore, Vizl slips into the water carrying his Nikon DSLR encased in Aquatica housing. Sometimes he adds a couple flashes, connected to the camera by big mechanical arms that give him the appearance of a robotic spider. He can take up to 1,000 images during a one-hour dive.
But first, he forgets about his gear to connect with the animals. He carefully watches them for signs of stress, like retreating or heavy breathing, drawing close as they adapt to his presence. Eventually, an octopus might wrap itself around his leg, a bull shark touch his arm, or a sea lion float beside him, just inches from his face. That intimacy comes through in Vizl's exquisite photographs, which he shoots in color and later converts to black and white. The dynamic contrast heightens the emotional impact of the images, bringing the animals into dramatic focus.
By highlighting the diverse beauty of the ocean, Vizl hopes to show what's at stake if humans fail to tackle the problems of global warming, pollution, and overfishing—the effects of which he's seen countless times. Most shockingly, three years ago, he visited one of his favorite reefs in Ixtapa, where he used to snorkel as a teenager, only to find it bleached white, devoid of all life. "It made me cry," he says. "It's one thing to see it on the news, but another to experience it in a place you love so much."
Silent Kingdom will be published May 14 by Mandala Publishing.
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