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Interview with underwater photographer, Helen Walne

Helen Walne is a brilliant marine life photographer based in the False Bay area. Her photography explores the bustling, bright world of our ocean life with a love for the subject that shines through irrepressibly. What began as a means of documenting and exploring this otherworldly space has ended up connecting with thousands via Instagram, giving us a uniquely empathetic and engaging look into this world.

Helen and I had a chat about her work, life, and the meeting of the two oceans that she keeps going back to, for hours every day, for the sheer beauty and peace of it.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Are you originally from Cape Town?

I wasn’t born here. I was born in England, but came here as a child, and then I grew up on a chicken farm in KZN. Very glamorous. I went to school in Pietermaritzburg and then I moved to Durban and lived there for a while. And then I was in Scotland for a while. And then moved here. It’s been a while actually, it’s been like 17 years.

So I came back to study, I did a master’s in creative writing at UCT – I quit my job in Durban and moved myself and my husband here.

How much time do you spend underwater?

I go almost every day and I’ll do like two hours at a time. So a fair amount of time! 14 hours a week. Probably. Maybe. No, I don’t go every single day. Probably like 12 hours a week.

Okay. Amazing! 

Yeah. I think if you go often, the chances of seeing something magnificently weird are so much greater.

I’m sure that you’ve got a spot that you return to regularly.

Ja. So it all depends on conditions. Some places are quite rough, so, you know, it depends on the wind, and the swell. I dive on my own generally, which is not recommended – I don’t scuba though. I free-dive. But I like to go on my own because for me, it’s like a creative process and I really don’t want – it’s like, you wouldn’t write a book with someone looking over your shoulder. It’s kind of frowned upon to go on your own, but I’m quite sensible about it.

Is it just a bit risky?

Well, you know, in case something happens. But it’s not like I’m going to like 30 meters down and going through caves and stuff. You know, the deepest I’ll go is like 12 meters, 10 meters.

And I’ll only go if it’s not rough. I’m scared. I’m scared of waves and swells. I’ve had some really bad experiences.

Ja, you can really, really get thrown about.

Mm, banged up. Yeah, exactly. I had a horrible incident, a few years ago when I basically went on my own – and I don’t wear a wetsuit, so I was quite cold. I’d done an open water swim at Camps Bay already. And that day I think the water was like nine degrees. It was cold. And then I jumped in again at Oudekraal. It was like the third time that I’d gone in and I didn’t really know what I was doing. So my weight belt was too heavy, and the swell was picking up and basically, I just couldn’t keep my head above water. So I got smashed up on a rock and I panicked and I had to scream for help and I had to be rescued

Ah, good thing someone was in the area, so you weren’t totally alone! 

Ja! So I have a lot of respect.

Ja, that would do it. So the recommendation here is to make sure your weight belt is the right weight.

You’ve gotta have it right. You gotta have the right weight. Ja. Mine was double what it should be. So I was basically just going under all the time.

It’s supposed to just kind of keep you from floating up?

Precisely. It’s supposed to just perfect negative buoyancy. This was like drowning material.

Good thing you’re still here!

What is the experience like for you, what is it that draws you back?

Oh my gosh. So a big thing for me is the light underwater. It’s lights and colour and creatures and the absolute quiet as well. You know, in this world that we’re living in now, it feels like the sea is one of the very few places you can go to (besides the forest) where there’s still quiet. And I think the act of just holding your breath and being under is just so relaxing. I know a lot of people wouldn’t think so. But for me, it’s just, I get like so greedy for the light. Particularly in the kelp forests. I recently went to the red sea and it was beautiful and the coral reefs were magnificent, and it was mind-blowing. But I missed the kelp. Because when you’re under the canopy of the kelp you get that contrast and the way it kind of moves and sways and you get this incredible light.

Do you have a personal favourite creature to photograph (or spot!)?

Jellyfish. It’s the jellyfish. But I am a little bit obsessed with the plant life as well. Obviously the kelp, but also all the different seaweeds, and the colours are ridiculous… and like a plant living underwater, in salt water. It’s mind-blowing; but it’s not really. It’s just that we’re so used to land. And it’s so unique. SO unique! Because we’ve got the influence of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic, and we’ve got this pristine ecosystem.

And we’re so lucky in Cape Town, for now, that we’ve got Marine protected areas and we’ve got clean water, relatively, and healthy ecosystems. And it breaks my heart to think that that might not be the case for long. But at the same time, when I go to the sea, I just think this is so beautiful. There’s still time.

Does it feel odd, to come up into the human world of cars and buildings after your excursions?

So, the one thing is that, because I don’t use a wetsuit, I’m usually freezing cold.

So you never wear a wetsuit? Oh my goodness. 

No. Even on this cold side, no, I don’t. I just don’t like them and I do have an ability to stay in for quite a long time. So I can do like two hours even on this side at nine degrees. I don’t know why. It’s not like I’ve done a wim hof course or anything to train myself, I’m just able to do it. So that makes me really happy, because I don’t like wearing the stuff.

So I’m usually quite cold. And what happens is, I get into such a zone looking at stuff, it’s like I disappear from the world and I go into this other realm. I suppose it’s what people refer to as that creative flow. When you get into that flow, you know what I’m talking about? It’s such a nice feeling because it’s like you don’t exist. All your ego’s gone, your self is almost gone and you just dissolve, and you are in this creative flow. So I’m still in that when I get out and then I’m cold as well. So my brain is actually a bit discombobulated. I feel like I’ve come back from an acid trip or something.

Like a post-meditative zen state?

Absolutely! But almost beyond. Almost like I’ve taken drugs and gone somewhere else. And it’s quite amusing, because sometimes I’ll bump into people that I know when I get out, and I often have no idea who they are just because my brain like is still…

It’s not in you mode

Exactly! And I can’t really articulate things very well and it’s not because I’m hypothermic. It’s just like, I’m not, I just need some time. So they’ll be like ‘So how was it?’ And I’m just like [vague happy noises and a gesture of kissing the fingers to indicate, very good!]

Ja but funnily enough when I get out, I’m actually quite happy to be back. It is quite interesting.  It’s almost like it’s like an antidepressant basically. So when I get out I feel calm. I feel so fantastic that I can handle being back in the world. Which is not the case quite often.

So you’ve just kind of found it to be the perfect form of meditation?

Exactly. It really, really is that for me. It really is. I don’t move very fast. And it’s basically just about – for example, there’s this one spot at Water’s Edge that I’ve become quite obsessed with, and it’s the same spot and I’ve been going there for the last three weeks to that same place. And it’s like visiting a shrine. And it looks different every time I go, depending on the light, depending on the sun, depending on what time of day it is. I’ve been documenting it over the past few weeks and I just can’t get enough of it. And so it’s basically pure absorption.

So it is, it’s like meditation. It really is. I used to do a lot of yoga and that feeling, when you open your eyes after that relaxing session at the end, and you just feel amazing. And then I think the cold also adds.

But it’s also interesting because, I don’t know if you know the story about my brother? He drowned himself at Oudekraal. Which is quite ironic because when I went in that day, that was exactly where he had died and I didn’t know. And then I nearly drowned

And then after that, I went and did my free diving course, after having that scary experience. So I used to be very scared of the ocean. And when my brother drowned himself, I couldn’t even look at the sea for like two years. Every time we drove past that Oudekraal area, I used to cover my eyes.

That would be quite haunting, to know that you were in the exact same spot, that’s…

But it makes sense to me in some way. And now it’s like, I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like it’s been a conscious thing. It’s just been a strange little trajectory.

Did he have a thing with the water as well? And that’s why he chose that route?

He loved, he loved the water. Yeah. So he tried to drown himself first in Silvermine and that didn’t work. And then he tried again somewhere below Chapmans Peak but he said he got too scared and cold. So Oudekraal.

I don’t know if this is too prying a question, but did he have goggles on so that he could see around him? 

I wish he did, I don’t think so. I really wish he did. It’s a really good question. I mean, that would make me so happy to know that that was what he saw. But yeah, he didn’t really dive or anything and I wish he was around now so I could show him. But then, if he was still around, I probably wouldn’t be diving. Bittersweet things.

I’ve suffered from depression over the years. Anxiety as well. And so diving is the most perfect antidote. I think I’m so lucky. Some people get it from mountains, or running or whatever, but there is always something for somebody, I think.

A while back, Helen wrote a book about her brother, his death, and the feelings of grief, loss and isolation surrounding that experience – you can find it here

What is one of your favourite experiences so far, while photographing underwater?

Oh my God. This is so easy. So, I go and snorkel sometimes at the yacht club at Simon’s Town. And it’s one of my favourite places. I don’t think I’m supposed to go there… I think you have to be a member, and I have been kicked out once or twice. But I still go. And yeah, I usually go there when everywhere else is a bit messed up, because the visibility is always pretty good.

And I love looking at stuff that grows on human structures. Oh, it really appeals to me. I love it. And how you’ve got this surface – which is not ever really a surface because it’s moving – but you’ve got the top and then you’ve got the jetty and it’s just basically the ocean colonising human space. And I love that there’s this special, creepy little world where things are just growing.

So I went there one day. And it was really clear, and I got in – I was with a friend of mine and we got in and we saw like two jellyfish and I was like, whoa, that’s amazing. Taking photographs, not knowing… We swam a bit further, saw a few more. I was like, whoa, this is really cool. Then he got out because he got cold and I carried on. And I basically carried on into this smack of jellyfish. I’ve never seen so many in my life. These beautiful big pink-purply ones. And they were all kind of stacked up under the jetty. They’d obviously been swept in from a storm or a wind or something. And it was just this giant bloom of jellies. And by that stage, I was starting to get a bit cold. I wish I’d seen that earlier, when I had more time still.

But that was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

That’s phenomenal. That’s so ethereal really, too!

If I can add another moment – there are gully sharks at Water’s Edge. I don’t know if you’ve seen them? They’re amazing, they’re incredible, and they’re harmless. I haven’t seen them for a while, but at one point there was quite a large congregation there. And one day I was on my own and it was overcast, nobody around… I saw a gully shark. And what you do is, you just wait until it first passes, because they often do these loops. So I went down to the ocean floor, holding onto the kelp, and I lay on the bottom and just watched. And then suddenly there was like twelve of them, coming so close to me, over my head.

Oh, that’s so beautiful. As you said, the more you go in the more likely you are to see some amazing things. That is so cool.

I know, it’s insane. The things that I’ve seen blow my mind.

Yeah. It’s a very fortunate life. And you’ve built it for yourself. So that’s wonderful.

So how long have you been a photographer?

See, that I find amusing – I don’t consider myself to be a photographer.

Oh, not!?

No, I don’t.  it took me a while to call myself a writer, so I think it takes me a while to take on some kind of description. Because I haven’t been doing it very long and I’m not trained at all. And most of the time it’s just intuition. That’s why I don’t – which is ridiculous I suppose, because you can get people who are very technically trained, but when I look at their pictures, you know, they don’t move me in any way. So yeah, I don’t know. Ask me in a few years!

You must have a very strong intuition, because they’re so beautiful and striking. I find your photos unique out of all of the ocean photography I’ve seen. A lot of them even look to me like you’re a street photographer, but underwater, and it’s the fish going about their busy day. 

Yeah. I dunno how it’s happened. I would say it’s intuition, but also it’s complete love. It comes from that place of complete love. And I also think having a feminine perspective, or a more creative perspective, but I think it’s a feminine energy.

I think a lot of photographers, particularly underwater photographers in the past have been men. And I think that, you know, it’s those megafauna pictures, those stark photographs of like a shark, or like also a woman in a G-string swimming with a whale shark.  Usually a very sanitized picture. It feels very much like a male gaze of the ocean. And when I think of the ocean, I feel like it’s got such a feminine energy, for me. And it’s made me so happy – I’m not the only person doing this. I know lots of women who are changing the way that we view the ocean.

And I’m super passionate about that because, you know, I think that in the clamour of media and images, and we get so much chucked at us that the sanitized male gaze of the ocean has become so ubiquitous. And I think that if we want to start caring more about the ocean, and responding to it, an emotional kind of capturing of it really makes a difference.

Yeah. I suppose you can only kind imagine something the way that you’ve seen it. So if you just see these stark images –

Ja,  which it never… I mean, okay. You do get visibility like that sometimes. And that’s amazing. But generally not really.

They seem very clear in your shots! Is it editing?

Yeah, so I do edit and I’m not embarrassed to say that. We all, everyone does it. But I remember recently a woman asked me at the beach, she said, ‘yeah, but your pictures are really touched up’. And I thought, no, I do edit them, but I don’t like to over-edit. I use Lightroom and there are features in lightroom that I didn’t even know existed. Which is great because it means I do a basic edit. A bit of contrast. I review any big bits of gubbins, or gunk, in the water. I’ll spot remove little bits and pieces of stuff, but I don’t want to like make it into this soulless place, because it’s not. So I don’t do any colour-grading, all of that stuff. I don’t know how to do it. Someone showed me recently and I was like, eh, I’m gonna leave that alone.

They come up so beautifully and you can really so see all of the colours – and I know we’re not the Maldives with their bright bright colours, but…

No, I promise you, our oceans are so colourfu! Ja. It’s insane! When you look at it from the top you think, you know, the colour looks quite brown and it looks a bit cold and a bit uninviting. It can’t be colourful. And we don’t have those kugel colours, but we’ve got beautiful, beautiful colours!

Ja even our tide pools, even where you can walk on rocks and explore that way, there’s so much life. 

So much! There’s so, so much.

Amazing. And I think the kelp is actually quite helpful in keeping hundreds of people from swimming around the same spot at the same time.

Well, freediving has become super popular in the last two or three years. Which is fine. You know, I went through a stage of feeling really territorial about it, but I didn’t like myself for that. But luckily I work really weird hours, I work from one to nine for a newspaper. So I have every morning, and I pretty much have the whole sea to myself.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

Yeah. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a book. Which I know is very old school, but I love paper, and I love books. And so the idea is to combine some writing and some photography. I haven’t really thought about it properly yet. It’s just been bubbling up for a bit. And I’m not sure how I’ll approach it, whether it’ll be a humorous kind of thing with little characters. Or whether it would be more, I dunno, I used to write a lot of columns, so I’m used to kind of writing essay type of things. So it might be something like that. Essays about life and the world and the ocean.

Interested in learning more about Helen Walne’s work, buying a print or commissioning a piece? Check out her website, or follow her on social media!

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