If you’ve ever been swimming in rough seas, you’ll probably know the panic of rolling under the waves and losing all sense of direction as you desperately gasp for air. The experience can be thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Few people might think to open their eyes as they’re pushed underwater by powerful waves. Fewer still would dream of taking photos as their lungs are bursting to draw breath. But that’s exactly what photographer Mark Tipple does. And the results are these stunning and unusual photographs, from his Underwater Project series.
Tipple was in Sydney, Australia when the idea for his Underwater Project series came to him. “While shooting some standard surfing at the end of 2009, I was in the wrong place to shoot and started to dive under the wave when I noticed a young man swimming close to me,” Tipple recalls. “He needed to dive to escape, just as I did, so I turned the camera on him to see what he went through underwater. The pretzeling of his limbs and the strained expression on his face was something I had never seen before, and I thought of focusing on swimmers underwater, rather than surfing.”
Since then, Tipple has taken to photographing people under the waves in a big way. His camera captures the amazing interaction between man and nature in a way we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. The unique glimpses into this hidden world have inspired a wide audience and, according to Tipple, launched his career.
Like many of Tipple’s underwater photographs, this one makes the swimmers look as if they’re sealed in blue glass. The clarity of the water and the intricate detail of the wave’s underwater turbulence are at once remarkable and exquisite.
Regular ocean swimmers will identify with this dramatic scene; that moment when a wave breaks overhead and you’re forced down by the churning waters. This is what it must feel like to be a t-shirt in a washing machine!
“After being involved in the ocean for close to my whole life, it's so interesting to see how people interact with breaking waves,” says Tipple. And the reactions vary. Some swimmers might be confident about their abilities and remain calm, while others may get frightened and panic. “The series is basically an observation of what people do underwater,” explains the photographer. “I’m sure I’ve pulled my fair share of funky facial expressions or weird poses.”
In this stunning photograph, the swimmer near the front of the shot is trying to outswim the powerful crashing wave, while the other figures dive below it. It’s incredible to think that these waves may have traveled thousands of miles across the ocean to become part of these images.
Being underwater is the closest most of us will ever come to flying without wings, and these swimmers seem to be enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. Underwater is one place where anyone, regardless of size or athletic skill, can appear graceful.
The swimmers in this shot resemble mermen as they glide silkily beneath an unbroken wave. We can see the ocean floor reflected in the water, and the clouds are visible in the sky above. Another incredible photograph!
With its contrasting colors and shadows that seem to bleed into one another, this photo could almost be an abstract painting. The way the sand looks rippled and smooth at the same time also adds depth and interest to this mesmerizing shot.
Tipple likes to keep a low profile while he’s taking his underwater pictures – so that his subjects don’t suppress their expressions and gestures and act naturally. He says that sometimes he’s so fascinated by what’s happening beneath the waves that he doesn’t even want to come up for air in case he misses something. If only humans had evolved gills!
This gripping shot features a breaking wave and a swimmer caught in suspended animation. Compared to the crashing wave, the person looks calm, almost as if she’s frozen. Tipple says that when he began taking photographs, he wanted to create something different, which eventually led him to taking these shots of swimmers.
This is Mark Tipple’s favorite underwater shot. It was taken in Sydney and is the first photo in his Underwater Project series. “It's almost like everything I was trying to capture in the early 2000s came together for that mere two seconds,” he explains. “Expression, drama and story are the main things I look for in a photo for connection; the technical elements like composition and focus/exposure are secondary.” Tipple has been looking for the boy in the photo ever since. So if you know who he is, get in touch!
In this photograph, the rays of sunshine create the illusion of a tunnel, with the swimmer being slowly drawn towards the light. Still, heading towards the light might not be the best thing to focus on when you’re holding your breath and floating around underwater.
Moving under the churning waves, the swimmer in this shot could almost be flying through thick clouds. Like the photos in rest of this series, the image has an otherworldly quality. Tipple reveals that many people tell him the photographs bring back memories of times spent at the beach. “If the underwater series can assist people in remembering a happy time from their past, then I'd consider that an amazing end result from a few mistimed poundings and overestimated breath holds,” he says.
Mark Tipple hopes that the attention generated by his Underwater Project series will raise awareness about his humanitarian projects. One of his recent exhibitions aimed to raise money for education programs at a community center in Tanzania. And his underwater photographs have also been used in a calendar to raise money for the organization, Surfers Against Sewage. You can read about both projects on his website.
“The ocean has provided for me and affected me in ways I can’t describe,” says Tipple. “It’s something that I know I’ll be involved in and hopefully progressing with until the day I die.”