Scuba Diver Mag Delves into what makes Don Silcock tick in this informative Q&A
Don Silcock has just joined the Scuba Diver Team as our Senior Travel Editor. Don has been a significant contributor to all three of our magazine titles (ANZ, UK & USA) over this past year, and he has a regular Big Animals Blog on the ANZ website. Don’s passions for the Ocean is evident, and he shares our commitment to provide high-quality images and articles to our readers.
What first attracted you to the Oceans?
I grew up in the north-west of the UK in a very working class, industrial environment which seemed permanently grey and dreary – with your life laid out in front of you working at the petrochemical plants…
I hated it all and wanted to get out to somewhere that was clean, green and surrounded by the ocean. Curiosity and watching Jacques Cousteau’s films led me to try and understand what was under the water!
What attracted you to underwater photography, what are your favourite subjects and why?
I have always been interested in photography and it was a natural progression to want to document the things I saw underwater. To this day I am entranced by wide-angle seascape images that showcase the dynamic nature of reefs and their incredible biodiversity against a wonderfully rich, blue-water, background.
My favourite subjects are “big picture” seascapes and “big animal” encounters… Seascapes are truly inspirational as they can communicate the wonders of the ocean to non-divers, while big animal encounters are fleeting moments in time when the large creatures of the ocean grace you with their presence!
Macro photography is something I quite like, but it is very much second fiddle to big pictures and big animals…
What advice would you give to aspiring new photographers?
At the philosophical level… ask yourself are you really serious about this or is it just a passing interest? If you are serious, then really commit to it and force yourself up the learning curve. Study other photographers styles and work out a personal style – then learn from your mistakes and “make it happen”… The bottom line is that it’s a tough game, but if you get good at it stuff will happen!
At the practical level… Make sure you are a good, competent and confident diver with excellent buoyancy. You will struggle badly with underwater photography until you are truly capable in the water. I would strongly recommend the GUE Fundamentals course.
At the gear level… Make sure you have understood and reached the limits of your equipment. Modern cameras are incredibly capable, compared to just 10 years ago – so apply yourself to the gear you have, understand all its functionality (read the manual…) and push it hard. Only when you really have reached those limits should you consider upgrading… GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is an addictive and expensive trap to fall in – trust me I know!
You have a special affinity with Papua New Guinea – what makes the place so special for you?
I lived in the Middle East from 1977 to 1991 (I am old…) which allowed me to start to travel to some of the wonderful locations I had heard about, such as Thailand, the Maldives and the Seychelles. The diving was good, but then I heard about places like Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia I realised that if I really wanted to dive the best locations that is where I needed to go.
PNG was particularly intriguing because of its unique mix of amazing topography, incredible biodiversity and wonderfully exotic tribal cultures – so different from anywhere else I had been. My first trip there was in 1998, four years after we arrived in Australia – I would have gone sooner, but my young family created other priorities… I went to Milne Bay on that trip as that was the place I had heard most about, and I was well and truly hooked!
I was in PNG last March when Covid really exploded and had to get back to Australia before all the borders closed – that was my 24th trip… As I have made those trips, I have got to know a lot of people, both locals and (mainly) Aussie expats who have made PNG their home. The expats are always interesting, and many are absolute characters who are a real delight to talk to!
Prior to the pandemic, you were living in Bali – what’s the story there?
Bali is many things to many people… My wife and I have always loved the place, although it does really sadden us to see the rampant over-development in certain parts of the island. The Balinese are generally very nice people, the island is incredibly scenic and the Hindu based culture is both unique and fascinating. Plus… there is some excellent diving to be had and the island is one of the main hubs in Indonesia, so you can get to places like Raja Ampat and North Sulawesi quite easily – for Indonesia.
In 2012 we decided to buy some land in Canggu and build a house, so we could split our time between there and Sydney – but ended up staying on the island the majority of the time. That has allowed me to do a lot more diving throughout the Indonesian archipelago, which is huge and has some incredible locations. Soon as it’s possible to do so, we will go back to Bali and I will get back into Indonesian diving!
Can you tell us a bit about your “big animal” trips and how you got into it all?
My first one was great white sharks in South Australia back in 2003 and I can still vividly remember how scared I was that first time in the cage! At first, it’s all about the adrenalin but over time, as you get more experience with different creatures, you start to develop a degree of understanding and personal insight into their behaviour.
I have done quite a lot of shark trips – 4 in the Bahamas (the shark capital of the world in my opinion), plus 3 in South Africa and next month will be me 8th great white trip. I always meet interesting people on my trips and, usually over an adult beverage or two, you hear about other interesting big animal encounter locations – which is how I ended up doing my 4 trips to Mexico, 2 to Japan, 2 to Tonga and 2 to Mozambique!
Big animal diving really is addictive and being in the open-water with these creatures can truly be life changing!
If you could choose any dive buddy from any time or place, who would it be and why?
Probably the celebrated National Geographic photographer David Doubliett whose work has always inspired me.
How have you been keeping busy during the Pandemic and how do you think it will affect the travel/dive industry going forward.
The initial lockdown period of the Pandemic was quite a shock to me as I had gotten used to almost constant travel, but it gave me the opportunity to fully update and revise my website www.indopacificimages.com – something I never seemed able to concentrate on! I really enjoy writing about my trips and sharing my images and experiences, but I have to say that it’s very time consuming to do…
Once travel became possible again I have been trying to get to locations that have been on my Aussie bucket list for years and have really enjoyed getting back in to Australian diving again. Plus, I signed up for some GUE courses after realising that it would be a really good thing to get my underwater skills sharpened up a bit!
I think dive travel, like most travel, will rebound quickly once it is possible again – basically there is huge pent-up demand. My main concerns are the operators and whether they can survive till that rebound happens.
Through your long diving career there have been lots of changes in the dive industry and to our oceans, what do you think the most significate changes are, both positive and negative.
On the negative side the incredible destruction caused by industrial scale fishing and by-catch, combined with the horrendous amounts of plastic in the oceans is really worrying. The scale of the damage and the fact that so much is hidden from sight is downright scary!
On the positive side I have come to appreciate just how quickly nature can restore itself if we allow it to – something I have seen for myself with the sharks in the Bahamas!
A question we always ask in our Q&As is, what is your most memorable moment in diving?
Probably the eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with Giant Oceanic Manta Rays (Mobula birostris) at Socorro in Mexico. One of my favourite creatures, mantas are such beautiful and intelligent animals. At Socorro, they are used to divers at locations like El Boiler and appear out of the blue repeatedly checking you out.
Large and confident, they seem to enjoy the interaction and there is a real sparkle in their eye as they move in close!
On the flipside of that what is your hairiest diving memory?
That most certainly would be the American crocodiles at Chinchorro in Mexico! The defining characteristic of all the other big animal encounters I have experienced is their dynamic nature, with the animal typically always moving and often very rapidly which, initially at least, is both somewhat intimidating and photographically quite frustrating.
Over time though you learn to read body language and behaviour – so while you can never allow yourself to become complacent or over-confident, you do relax and start to really enjoy it all.
At Chinchorro I don’t think I relaxed until we were on our way back to Xcalak… The thing is that the crocodiles just sit there looking at you like a coiled spring, radiating latent kinetic energy and sending danger, danger, danger signals to your brain!
What does the future hold for Don Silcock?
Lots more diving, travel and adventures – I hope… I quit work on the first of May 2019 after having decided that I wanted to really travel a LOT and had a wonderful 11 months going from one trip to another. Then Covid completely grounded me!
Right now I am concentrating on my fitness and waiting somewhat impatiently for vaccination and borders to open…
Photo Credit: Don Silcock
Click here for Don latest Big animal encounter Manatees of the Crystal River – Big Animal Encounters with Don Silcock