To the untrained eye, the crystal waters surrounding the Maltese Islands in the Mediterranean look devoid of life. But zoom in a bit, and the barren sea transforms into a breathtaking patchwork of pulsing colour, movement and light. Welcome to the world of "super-macro".
Jeannot Kuenzel considers himself something of an alien hunter. A dive instructor and ocean enthusiast, he's been exploring the world beneath the waves for nearly two decades. He's photographed countless species, but his true passion lies in seeing the unseen: most of his subjects are less than ten millimetres long, about the same length as two grains of rice.
"I started diving back in 1998," he says. "Of course I got hooked on the aliens of the deep blue right away. Back then, however, I did not appreciate the small and tiny – too breathtaking were the sharks, turtles and large fish."
This all changed when Kuenzel moved to Malta, where larger ocean inhabitants are few and far between. "One catches a glimpse of the occasional barracuda or amberjack, perhaps the odd ray or dolphin," he says. "So I had to find something else – and that was macro and super-macro photography."
Over the years, Kuenzel has perfected his kit, cycling through various lenses – and even constructing his own – to get the clearest, most powerful magnification.
"It's become an addiction," he says. "On every single dive I find something I have never seen before. If you jump in the water with the intent to spend your time looking for really small things, you quickly get into this super relaxed state of mind. You start to really look at the plants and sea floor, and suddenly your focus shifts away from diving and into discovery mode. A true appreciation of beauty, not of the whole seascape, but the individual."
It's not an easy specialty. The depth of field (the area in focus) Kuenzel has to work with is about as thin as a piece of paper, so even the slightest shift in position is enough to cause blurring. "Taking a breath, surge, shaking and movement of the animals themselves, [causes] the camera to point mostly at nothing," he explains. "I had to develop quite a relaxed attitude – just trying to get the critters into frame, never mind in focus."
Kuenzel's patience during dives has resulted in some truly spectacular sightings, some of which few recreational divers or scientists can boast about.
While diving off the Maltese island of Comino, Kuenzel encountered a squid egg mass (likely genus Thysanoteuthis) that was drifting into an underwater tunnel cave. The cave shielded both photographer and eggs from the surrounding current, creating waters calm enough to allow Kuenzel to shoot the developing embryos.
For a bit of perspective, this is what such an egg mass would look like to the naked eye:
"I recognised what it was and got very, very excited," recalls Kuenzel. "I had to calm myself down and plan my shots, but when I got my first glimpse through the camera, I realised just how lucky I had gotten. Keep in mind that each egg is only about three millimetres in diameter – so without any magnification you actually just see these purple beads in a floppy mass."
Because of their gelatinous casing, squid egg masses like these are often confused with pyrosomes, free-floating colonial organisms that spend their lives drifting through the open ocean (I've even made that mistake myself). True egg mass sightings are extremely rare.
Stunning as this photo series may be, not everything that meets Kuenzel's lens is beautiful. "What is not visible in these pictures is the amount of plastic particles that had been caught by the egg mass," he says. "Tiny little crumbs and pieces of microplastics in all colours and shapes. When you see this stuff right next to a new generation of life forms, it is a stark reminder of how far we have to go before we can claim to be the top species on this planet."
Through his photographs, Kuenzel hopes to inspire viewers to consider the fate of not just the ocean's top predators and iconic species, but also its smallest inhabitants – organisms that form the basis of the food web, upon which rests our collective survival.
Top header image: Jeannot Kuenzel