Catalina Island has some great little critters to please your eye and fill the viewfinder of your camera. They are bright and colorful set against the muted blue, greens and ambers of the kelp forest.
There are places at Catalina where the rocks are freckled with tens of thousands of this brightly colored little fish. Although their range extends from the Sea of Cortez up through the Northern Channel Islands, they are the most concentrated at Catalina (a more extended common name is the Catalina blue-banded goby). They are 1/4 to 1 inch in length with orange-red bodies and bright neon blue vertical stripes. A mouth full of tiny sharp teeth contrasts big black eyes. For maximum color and detail in the eyes and mouth, overexpose the shot slightly.
Perched on the edge of a rock they wait for a meal to drift by. It is a challenge to get in tight for a proper photo that shows eyes, teeth and detailed fins. Forget about a camera with a framer—you won’t even get close. A telephoto macro is a must; then you must be patient. Find a goby that is either close to or in the protection of urchin spines. This is your best bet. Shoot your photo either through the urchin spines or with the urchin directly behind the goby. The nearby urchin will make the goby feel safe enough for you to approach and the dark color of the urchin makes for a good backdrop for the brightly colored goby. The urchin will also give the photo more depth.
SPANISH SHAWL NUDIBRANCH
The Spanish shawl nudibranch is the most common nudibranch in California. Fortunately, it is also one of the most colorful and abundant at Catalina. Most are over an inch long. Their bright bluish-purple body with its orange frill stands out against almost any background. Strive to get maximum detail out of its antennae (actually called rhinophores) and show the tiny black speck eyes.
It is easy to get a plain straight on shot of a Spanish shawl because, obviously, they move slowly. But it is almost as easy to get a considerably better photo with some simple techniques.
Probably the simplest and most effective background is just black. To get this you need a fair amount of water behind the nudibranch. This generally involves moving the animal. Don’t panic! Moving the nudibranch into an optimal position for photography can be done without ever touching or harming the animal. Simply present the nudibranch with its very own mini-stage of a small rock or shell. Prop the stage up on the reef and you can position it for a variety of backgrounds including a sunburst, diver’s face, or kelp. And let’s not forget to always replace the animal back where you found it.
You can also get the nudibranch to “pose” for you. Once you have the nudibranch perched up on its small stage, entice it with a small piece of algae. Done properly, it will raise up to reach the temptation, and you can shoot away, one hand on the algae, the other on the camera.
Like the blue-banded goby, the garibaldi has a broad range but is highly concentrated at Catalina. While the adult is great photographic subject material for both macro and wide-angle photography with its bright orange color, willingness to pose, and a face full of character and texture, it is the juveniles that are the most striking. The younger they are, the more beautiful. Moderate juveniles have iridescent blue spots on a deep reddish- orange body. In the very young, about an inch in length, nearly the entire head is covered in intense neon blue.
These small fish can be quite a challenge to photograph as they rarely sit still. They, too, are territorial but not aggressive and with a much smaller area to patrol. In general, they follow a fairly regular pattern pausing for a moment at certain locations. Once the fish has become comfortable with your presence, it will settle back into a routine. Set up your camera for the pause point and be ready to take pictures. White sand or black backgrounds work best.
Catalina Island is excellent for panoramas of kelp forests, but narrow your camera focus to the little guys on the reef and you will have even more fun at this, the most popular of the Channel Islands.