Meet a traveller: Göran Ehlmé, underwater photographer
Whether it’s Antarctica or the Azores, under ice or in open water, the briny deep is this explorer’s adventure playground. At an early age Göran became fascinated with the underwater world and since learning to dive at age 14, has travelled across the globe to shoot some incredible marine creatures, from leopard seals and orcas to walruses and narwhals.
We caught up with this adventurer to find out more about his most memorable moments at sea.
Where was your last trip?
Where is your next trip?
I will be heading back to the orcas and humpbacks in Norway to do some more filming in late October.
What is your first travel-related memory?
When I was a kid I always wanted to go to the tropics. I had a thing for palm trees and coconuts – I think it had something to do with growing up in rainy Sweden. I kept asking my parents if we could go on holiday somewhere tropical, but somehow we never managed to go. Once, they booked a dream trip, but then something happened which meant we couldn't go and we ended up in Norway on a ski trip – I was absolutely devastated.
Aisle or window seat?
I prefer an aisle seat because I can come and go as I want without disturbing other people and I can stretch my legs out.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
Between getting all my equipment together and getting everything sorted I can get very stressed before I travel, so I try and focus my mind on the moment when I’m actually in my seat on the plane with a gin and tonic, and everything is OK.
Favourite city or country or region?
I guess the favourite of all favourites is New Zealand. It’s such a fascinating country with interesting people and amazing nature, and it’s very close to Antarctica which is another place I love to explore.
What is your most unforgettable travel experience?
My most unforgettable travel experience is probably the first time I went to Antarctica. As an underwater cameraman you often work in a small team, so we sailed down to Antarctica in a small yacht.
Even big Icebreakers or cruise ships move around a lot on rough seas, so being in a small yacht sailing through heavy swells for seven days was pretty horrible. After that journey I said I’d never do it again. But then 11 or 12 months pass and you find yourself back in that little boat. I’ve probably done that journey 20 times now, and I would do it again!
How did you get into marine life photography?
When I was 10 or 12 I used to steal my father’s camera and take stills. I also just loved being in the water and spent most of my summers snorkelling in the sea. I was totally crazy about underwater life and when I was 14, learnt how to dive.
Once you start diving you spend a lot of time just swimming around and looking at the fish, but after a while you need to do something creative. I had my photography, so I bought an underwater camera and went to the Red Sea to take some pictures. I got home with about 20 rolls of film, but they were all over exposed. It wasn’t until I met a very talented Swedish underwater photographer (who is now a dear friend), who taught me how to set the right exposure and compose my image properly, that I started to get some good shots. I remember getting one good shot out of a hundred and that turned it around for me. From then, I started collecting photos and began diving and photographing more and more.
What are some of the challenges of shooting underwater?
Visibility is a huge issue. If you don’t have good visibility you can’t take a good picture. But we have to remember that a clear sea is a dead sea; murky water is healthy water because of all the algae and nutrients that are present. So we have to balance bad visibility with the level of life and activity in the water. Underwater photographers often work with extreme wide angles so they can get close to the object, but still cover as much width as possible. And usually we need to mix natural light with an underwater light because it is so dark in the water.
When photographing animals, you have to consider the whole world in which they exist to work out where the best options are for you to get the best picture. You have to be a very calm and patient person, and be willing to adapt to your surroundings.
Where is your favourite place to shoot?
My favourite place is definitely around the Azores islands, in the pelagic waters, because it is so rich with animal life: whales, sharks, tuna, jellyfish, turtles and dolphins in their thousands.
When I was last in the Azores we were lucky enough to spot a giant sunfish (mola mola) – it was only the second time in my life I’ve seen a big sunfish like that. It was gorgeous weather, the sea was dead calm and in the distance we spotted this dorsal fin above the surface. We didn’t know whether it was a basking shark or something else, so we jumped in the water and came face-to-face with a huge sunfish. We hung out with him for about two and a half hours; he was a really beautiful fish.
Do you have a favourite animal to shoot?
For me, the ultimate animal to shoot is the orca. There are few animals more beautiful and graceful than orcas.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
My best souvenir is a picture. At the time we were entering the digital era, so we were getting used to using digital underwater cameras. I was shooting a walrus and I thought I had taken this really nice shot. But out of the water, and even later when I downloaded the pictures onto my friend's computer, I couldn’t find the picture. The thing was, on the camera the play button and the delete button where very similar, so I thought I might have accidentally deleted the shot.
But a few days later, my friend and I realised that the computer had automatically created backup folders for the camera files (everything was very new to us then). After looking through the other folders we found it. The picture shows a walrus peering through the sediment he was stirring up on the seafloor, and eventually won the BBC's Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2006.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The best: do your homework. There can be a joy in just throwing yourself out there and travelling without plans, but for me, it has always been best to prepare well in advance.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I would go to Canada, to the northwest territories, and have another swim with the narwhals.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Go off the beaten track once in awhile. Take a sidestep and look to the left or the right, not always to the front where the path is.
Göran Ehlmé was recently featured on San Miguel's Rich List. See his story and some incredible footage of his shoot with the mola mola at sanmiguel.com/richlist.