spawning A different planet

Japanese photographer Tony Wu celebrates the ocean’s remarkable ‘alien’ creatures

The marine photographer is famous for capturing underwater giants, including epic whale congregations. But it’s the less documented, smaller signs of life, including eggs, that are now holding his focus

Going into the ocean, you’re one of the aliens. 

“A total biology geek,” is how Japanese photographer Tony Wu describes himself. Born in Yokohama, and now based in Kyushu, in southern Japan, Wu started his career as an investment banker before scuba diving and the remarkable life on display in the world’s oceans – from the massive to the miniscule – got him under their spell.

In epic photographic expeditions, he’s swum among vast congregations of sperm whales and witnessed sharks’ feeding frenzies, sometimes getting a little too close to the action and receiving unwanted attention.

The “permanently disoriented, often submerged” Tony Wu faces a friendly Australian sea lion

Best known for his remarkable photos of ocean giants, especially whales, Wu’s recently been working to push the boundaries and delve into rarely seen subjects, including marine creatures’ eggs and spawning processes.

Tony Wu talks to photographer Graeme Green about zombie sex slaves, his love of oceans, and making friends with whales

What was the first dive that got you hooked on exploring underwater worlds?

As a kid, I was always fascinated with the ocean. I didn’t have any money growing up. Being from a Chinese family, the last thing Chinese parents want is their child in the ocean with dangerous animals. It wasn’t until I left home and got enough money and time that I did a trial dive in the Philippines. We came up after 30 minutes and the instructor said “You’ve never been diving before? You were completely at home.” It was like I’d been doing it all my life. 

What is it about the ‘blue planet’ that fascinates you? 

You may as well be on Mars – it’s a different planet. Take whales, for example: they’re mammals, like us, but everything about the way they live is different. For us, sight’s the most important sense, but sight is almost useless underwater. Whales live by sound first. Think about what it’s like to live in an environment that is not two-dimensional. Going into the ocean, you can enter that world. You feel like you’re in an alien environment and you’re one of the aliens. 

“Getting to watch sperm whales poop has to be one the best things in life.”

What’s the largest congregation of whales you’ve ever seen? 

It was a huge gathering of sperm whales in the Indian Ocean. For three days, there were constant whales. There was no way to count. As far as I could see in every direction to the horizon there was whales, and if you got in the water and went down as deep as you could go, there were more whales – thousands and thousands of them. 

You’ve been in the water with sharks during a feeding frenzy. What was that like?  

It happened at a small island group called Malpelo in the middle of the South Atlantic. I didn’t have a lot of experience at the time and a humongous bait ball appeared. Three of us decided to go in. It was pretty stupid. As soon as we got in, the silky sharks came, hundreds charging in, curious to know what just hit the water. We freaked out, scared for our lives. The boat came and grabbed us. We were in the water for three or four minutes. We had cameras with us but we’d all been so scared that none of us got a single photo. 

I love sharks. That experience was just humans being stupid. It’s like people you hear about who go into lion cage at the zoo and get bitten, or backing up in Yellowstone to take a selfie with a bison.

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Are you as interested in smaller creatures as you are in whales and other charismatic sea creatures?

I’m a total biology geek. I get excited every day by tiny things I find. My project at the moment, which I call ‘the other 99 per cent’, is to try photograph things everyone else seems to ignore. A large proportion of people keep taking photos of the same thing over and over again. That’s not photographing to add to knowledge or conservation. That’s photographing to gratify yourself. 

I’m really lucky – I can do what I want. Will I just repeat what other people have done? Sometimes I do. But with a lot of stuff I do, I’m trying to show some new aspect or increase the breadth of knowledge, to push the boundaries. 

These sergeant major damselfish juveniles are well-developed, with clearly visible eyes

What small creatures have you seen recently that excited you?

I’ve been photographing the spawning of squids, horseshoe crabs, starfishes, sea urchins… things that people don’t focus on. If you walk into the ocean and sit in one space, in the area you can see around you there are probably hundreds of species that most people ignore. 

Are the breeding, spawning and egg-laying processes very interesting?

Reproduction is vital to all life on Earth, and different species have a wide range of methods and strategies for maximising their chances of success on a species and an individual level. Observing this behaviour, as well as trying to understand the mechanics and logic of such behaviour, is challenging and fascinating. 

Just to take the example of eggs: some animals spawn thousands, tens of thousands or more eggs, then send them out to sea to fend for themselves. The idea behind this is to devote maximum energy to production of as many eggs as possible, to overwhelm the losses from predation and bad circumstance, while minimising investment in parental care.

Other animals produce relatively few eggs, but protect and nurture them. Strategies like this bet on a higher survival ratio. There is a bewildering diversity of strategies, a fact that underscores the complexity and magic of life.

Freshly spawned eggs of a fish called

spotty-bellied greenling

known as kujime in Japanese.

Developing embryos are visible in some of these clusters of Korean sandlance eggs.

These small fish produce a sticky secretion in their kidneys

that they use to adhere eggs to sargassum.

Which species have the most intriguing reproduction processes?

Every species is fascinating. That is the beauty of it. Seeing the similarities, noting the differences and spotting the unique is what makes documenting reproduction so enthralling. If someone has the interest in delving into the bizarre, they could look at Sacculina barnacles, which take over the minds and bodies of crustaceans and turn them into ‘zombie sex slaves.’  

What haven’t you seen or photographed yet underwater that you’d like to?

A lot of things I wanted to see, I’ve seen. For a long time, I wanted to see a blue whale, and now I’ve seen a lot. I’ve made friends with some of them, swimming alongside them for hours.

Two days ago, I went to the ocean to test some gear and I saw some things I’d never seen before. They were pretty. My friend and I figured out that they were the egg masses of polychaete worms. I went back again next day to get photos of them spawning. I know no one will care about these photos and they wouldn’t have been on my To Do list. But they’re beautiful.

This is an egg mass of a polychaete worm – a large number of these appeared overnight one prior to full moon

Which sea creatures that you’ve photographed have the most beautiful eggs?

As the saying goes: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aesthetic beauty might be what one notices at first, but there is also elegance in strategy, parental care, evolutionary fitness and more. 

Spotnape cardinalfish are paternal mouthbrooders – this is the moment of transfer as the male takes the cluster of fertilised eggs into his mouth. He will care for the eggs until maturity.

But some favourites of mine from recent months include: the eggs of Bero elegans, which are a beautiful baby blue, a colour that’s relatively rare in nature; the fire red eggs of Lottia emydia, an unassuming limpet; and perhaps the otherworldly egg cluster of a Lumbrineridae polychaete worm .

The eggs of Bero elegans

are a beautiful baby blue.

Clearly visible are the eyes

and bodies of the developing embryos

of an Icelinus pietschi sculpin.

Are eggs difficult to photograph?  

Generally, yes. Animals produce eggs at specific times. One has to be present at that time, which can be quite difficult, especially for species that have not been studied extensively. It took me several years to hit the correct timing for lottia emydia.

A lottia emydia limpet in Hokkaido, Japan, lifts itself up from the rock to spawn a cloud of eggs

Photographing the eggs is an additional challenge. Many are small. The bero elegans eggs, for instance, are in the order of three millimetres in diameter. Some eggs are even smaller, which means a lot of squinting and working with minimal depth of field. Lighting such small subjects in a creative manner is also difficult.

The unusually shaped eggs of a seven-lined prickleback.

For all the subjects I choose, even tiny animals, taking the photograph is the last part of a process. For a lot of subjects I work with, there’s no information available, so it’s about spending time. As you learn, you get better with what it is you need to understand to capture a moment that stands out.

Thank you for speaking to TOPIA and being part of our world of good.

The best things in life are not things.

What’s so good about this?

More than a million species of wildlife and plantlife are currently at risk of extinction. Photographers, like Tony Wu, do a remarkable job of helping people see and understand the remarkable life that’s found beneath the oceans. But all creatures will benefit from that global attention, not just popular whales and sharks, but tiny, often ignored species, which is why it’s so interesting to see Wu delving deep into little-photographed subjects, such as fish eggs.  

For art prints and more on Tony’s work, sign up to his newsletter (it’s educational, gorgeous and funny) and follow the photographer on Instagram @tonywu98.

Meet the writer

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. His first book, The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife features essays by Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu (Wildlife Direct), Wes Sechrest (Re:wild) and more. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.

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