A Whole New World
Underwater photographer Kevin Lee’s “hobby” has taken him to all seven continents, as he plunges the ocean depths to capture images of awe-inspiring sea life.
By CHELSEA HAWKINS
This story originally published in KoreAm Journal June 2013.
When I meet Kevin Lee at his office in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., he is limping slightly and chuckling over his bad luck. Despite 10 years of underwater experience and 1,500 dives, he recently injured his knee during a photo shoot—the KoreAm photo shoot, to be exact. An unruly wave knocked over the award-winning underwater photographer as he was posing for KoreAm, resulting in a serious sprain.
“After 1,500 dives, this was the worst accident, and I didn’t even go diving!” says Lee, laughing.
A passing glance at Lee’s list of adventures helps one better appreciate how ironic that truly is. The 53-year-old has dived all seven continents, including Antarctica, where water temperatures are below freezing, all the while carrying equipment weighing more than 100 pounds. During these dives, Lee would photograph a rainbow of tiny sea creatures with eye-catching, extraterrestrial-like bodies, patterns and hues, from lime green to deep purple. It’s a beloved hobby, but Lee also collects samples for scientists and shares his stunning images with conservation groups, museums and diving magazines. His work has earned him several accolades, including Photographer of the Year honors from both the Orange County Underwater Photographic Society and Los Angeles Underwater Photographic Society.
An outdoorsman at heart, his exploits don’t stop at the sea. He’s trekked the Himalayas, motorcycled around Thailand and hiked up to Mount Everest base camp not once, but twice. Lee traces this spirit of adventure to his own immigrant journey, as a 4-year-old who got on his first plane traveling from Korea to the U.S. nearly 50 years ago.
This striking nudibranch, Flabellina falklandica, thrives in sub-freezing waters of the Antarctic. Photo courtesy of Kevin Lee
“We took off from Korea, and I’m looking down, and I could see the small airplane below, and I didn’t know I was in the air,” recalls Lee. “I just saw the little cars and the little airplane, and I tried to grab at the window and reach down. I think that probably sparked [my] sense of adventure.”
During summer camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, he quickly “fell in love with nature,” with fond memories of horseback riding, backpacking and swimming in lakes. Though he remembers always being drawn to the water, Lee says it was only about 10 years ago that he met an avid diver who offered to teach him the ways of the waves. Not one to back away from a new experience, Lee soon found himself donning scuba gear. Quickly realizing he had a real knack for diving, Lee went on frequent beach dives, hoping to get more experience. However, as the novelty began to wear off, he admits scuba was becoming “a little boring.”
Then, one day about a year after he took up scuba, Lee says a friend of his brought a point-and-shoot camera to a dive and started taking pictures underwater.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s very interesting. Let me try that,’” says Lee. “And after that, it was no longer about diving; diving became the means to the end of photography.”
Specializing in photographing opisthobranchs, or sea slugs, Lee lugs around an 18-pound camera encased in water-resistant housing and adorned with strobe lights. The macro-lens allows Lee to snap images of the vibrantly colored, incredibly diverse nudibranchs, many of which are no longer than an inch and invisible to the naked eye.
Pointing to a photo of a bright citrus-colored slug covered in long porcupine-like appendages called cerata, Lee explains that this particular image was caught in the waters off of South Georgia Island in the Antarctic region. Plunging in 30-degree water, Lee and his companion entered a cave with a particularly strong surge.
“There’s a swell and surge coming in. Water going in and out, in and out, and it’s so strong that there was some kelp and some of these [nudibranchs] were on the kelp, and the surge would put them off, and they’d just be right in the middle of the water column,” Lee describes. “Well, what’s happening to them is happening to me. The swell is moving us both at pretty much the same speed and rate, so I was able to see this in the mid-water and move with it and photograph it. And that guy is no larger than an inch long.”
Tunicates, or sea-squirts, in Lembeh, Indonesia. Courtesy of Kevin Lee
Lee’s first diving adventure in Antarctica in 2009 reminded him just how dangerous this hobby can be. As fate would have it, he was barred from bringing his camera along on the first practice dive of the trip and was teamed up with a relative stranger from the United Kingdom. The woman was new to the nuances of diving in a dry suit, gear specifically designed to protect divers from hypothermia in the below-freezing waters.
“We back-roll in, we look at each other—‘OK?’ ‘OK, let’s go down’—and we release our air. Well, she plummets like a rock towards the bottom,” Lee recalls. “This was inside this caldera, this huge volcano [where] the middle had collapsed, and there’s just a ring of land around.”
Lee says he watched the woman begin to struggle with her gear, fumbling with a belt buckle and trying to remove her weights. It turned out the woman’s suit had malfunctioned, and in a moment of panic, she tried to rush to the surface. Lee, however, stopped her before she could “shoot up like a rocket.” If she resurfaced too quickly, she might suffer from decompression sickness, a.k.a. “the bends,” a condition that can lead to intense joint pain, temporary vision impairment and even death.
“We’re two-and-a-half days from any civilization—it’s the Antarctic, it’s the most remote place on earth, it’s the coldest place … and it’s the roughest waters in the world,” says Lee. “So I grabbed her weights, and I grabbed her so she wouldn’t fly up, and she’s in panic mode and she’s flailing her fins.”
Lee managed to pull the woman up to safety, but the experience certainly made him that much more aware of how meticulous one has to be in preparation for this type of underwater exploration.
Although he dives for pleasure, not business, Lee does take on volunteer assignments for outside organizations and scholars. While he does not receive financial compensation or assistance to pay for his expeditions, Lee’s hobby has brought him a barrage of interesting opportunities. His stunning photographs have been featured in numerous galleries, including the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Branford House at the University of Connecticut. Chapman University in Orange, Calif., hosts a permanent exhibit of his work.
Cyerce nigricans, found along the waters of Kenya. Courtesy of Kevin Lee
His images of sea life are also published in a number of academic journals. Additionally, Lee works as a contributing editor to California Diver magazine, as well as to South Korea’s premier periodical, Scuba Diver, where his essays are printed in English and Korean.
“My photography is geared not only to the aesthetics—you know, I try to capture the beauty of these animals—but also I look at the anatomical aspect,” he says. “A lot of scientists don’t have time or don’t have the resources to go off to Africa or go down to Antarctica and search for these animals.”
Lee says that there are currently studies being done on sea slugs that could contribute to cancer research.
“We collect the animal, and I try to photograph it in situ, you know, its natural environment, we collect it, we bring it up, and if it’s something rare, we’ll pickle it,” Lee explains. “We’ll put it in alcohol or formaldehyde or a mixture, and bring them in.”
Surprisingly, Lee doesn’t come from a science background; he studied business in college and co-founded a food production consulting company, which focuses on imports and exports between the U.S. and South Korea.
But, clearly, his underwater photography has nurtured his passion for science, as well as his deep reverence for the water.
“The ocean was the beginning of life, and it still sustains us because of the food that much of the world’s population survives on, but also because it’s a source of oxygen,” Lee says.
“The health of our ocean is so important, but the average person, they don’t have a direct relationship with the ocean,” he adds. “Going to the ocean and not going underwater is like going to a circus tent and standing at the front door and not going in; it’s just a spectacular world. To see and witness these strange and alien-like creatures that float by is just amazing.”
Three penguins loudly chattering, South Georgia Island. “This photograph may be visually appealing, but it does not convey the powerful odor—nay stench—wafting downwind from the huge colony,” says Lee.