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This has been quite a year filled with incredibly rewarding projects including corporate art sales, architecture shoots, advertising work, a refurbished website (take a look around if you haven't already), an upcoming online art store, and the biggest (physically speaking) piece I've ever created: A 26-foot long display for the University of Wisconsin.

And I haven't written a single blog about any of it.

I'll blame this on Facebook, an environment that I hesitantly joined last year. It gave me an easy way to showcase my work and it's been useful but I need to get back to this blog for a number of reasons. And what better way than a piece on one of my favorite places: The Florida Keys.

Those of you who live in the Keys understand its rich history: Hurricanes, Hemingway, and one of the most "daring" road building projects ever attempted.

Then and Now: The long Key Bridge connecting Long Key and Conch Key. The bridge originally shouldered the Overseas Railroad from 1907 to 1935 before being used for highway traffic. The current bridge is used for foot traffic and the new US 1 runs parallel to the east.

Then and Now: The long Key Bridge connecting Long Key and Conch Key. The bridge originally shouldered the Overseas Railroad from 1907 to 1935 before being used for highway traffic. The current bridge is used for foot traffic and the new US 1 runs parallel to the east.

Many segments of the historic Overseas Railroad bridges are still in place and have become a familiar part of the landscape.

Many segments of the historic Overseas Railroad bridges are still in place and have become a familiar part of the landscape.

I could have spent the entire week with my lens focused on the region's historic elements, but I was staying in the upper keys for another reason: The Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary.  Established in 1975, the sanctuary provides protection to the continent’s only coral reef. Later, in 1989, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Protection Act was passed, designating 2800 square nautical miles of coastal waters from the Dry Tortugas all the way to the Everglades as a marine Sanctuary. Strict regulations, put in place to preserve this fragile underwater environment, prohibit the collecting or damaging of any coral. I've been coming here since the early 1990s when I brought groups from our dive shop to explore the reefs aboard the Sea Dwellers boat. We've all gotten a lot older, as evidenced not only by the sheer quantity of reading glasses laying around the Sea Dwellers shop, but by my need to borrow a pair. Nonetheless, the waters surrounding the island chain have changed little and once on the boat, it felt as it always had.

Great Barracuda beneath a coral head on Molasses Reef. 

Great Barracuda beneath a coral head on Molasses Reef. 

For those of us in the Midwest who endure snow removal, ice covered roads, and the unwanted guest of late who goes by the rather daunting name of "Polar Vortex", booking a trip to southern Florida in the late summer (when the weather here is beautiful) seems a bit counter intuitive. If your purpose is to shoot underwater however, it really is a great time. The water is warm, seas are generally calmer, and visibility is good. And on this particular trip, the sea life was not only present, it was extremely cooperative.

With a new underwater camera housing, rebuilt strobes,  and a different camera than I typically shoot with (I could write an entire blog titled "camera's I've flooded and housings I've ruined"...) I headed beneath the waves at Molasses Reef. Diving without a group provided me with perhaps the single greatest photographic luxury: Time. I scoped things out a bit away from the others then I simply waited. It's a strategy that paid off.

When the Reef Sharks came in, they came in fast. Accompanied by their entourage of Jacks, they swam around for me for a bit, seemingly indifferent to my presence or the bright flash of my strobes. I photographed them for nearly twenty minutes before working my way back to the boat. With 15 minutes before needing to surface, I bumped into another pair of animals that typically are skittish around divers: Reef Squid. Again, I sat with them for a few minutes until they acclimated to sharing space with me before I started shooting. Capturing highly reflective, translucent animals isn't easy and I needed to make a lot of strobe adjustments (both position and power) to get it right. But I had time and that made all the difference. I wanted two particular images: The first was an underexposed, dark background where I relied on my strobe light to bring out the colors of the squid. The second was a photo that showed the animal's translucent qualities.

And of course there's always a turtle (well, almost always a turtle) and the next day I spent most of an entire dive with this one. I'm not sure how I got so lucky on this trip, but when I came across him, I got the same feeling I'd gotten with the sharks and the squid: He couldn't have cared less that I was swimming with him. Perfect...let's get a few pictures shall we? I followed him for 45 minutes as he looked for sponges to eat, firing off my camera the entire way.

Anyone who has been diving on a healthy reef knows that while these animals are all spectacular and sought after photographically, the entire environment is beautiful. I've become very particular about what I shoot but if you could see just beyond these images you'd be treated to a magical landscape of "riotous color" (to borrow a quote from famous author and avid scuba diver Michael Crichton) that is bustling with life. Even when you don't find the shots you're looking for, simply being on the reef can feel like a privilege.

Warm thanks to Rob Haff and the Sea Dwellers gang for always making me feel so at home when I visit. Key Largo is a very special place to me and I look forward to returning.

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