‘Cephalotography’ Of The Week: Jialing Cai

Dive into moonlit waters with OctoNation alongside Jialing Cai, an award winning underwater photographer from Chongqing, China, whose tales may just spark the beginning of your scuba adventure! Discover the challenges and joys of capturing the elusive octopus and other cephalopods. Ready? Let’s go!

How long have you been an underwater photographer? How did you get started?

It has been almost 5 years since I started underwater photography!

I had zero physical and spiritual connection with the ocean for the first 18 years of my life. I grew up in Chongqing, an inland city in China and my parents were not outdoorsy people at all. The decision to become an underwater photographer was so random and spontaneous.

Jialing Cai setting up to go on a blackwater dive

In the middle of a marine science lecture in college, the professor was talking about an ecological phenomenon called Diel Vertical Migration of Zooplankton. Basically, a group of tiny animals known as zooplankton migrate from deeper waters during the daytime to shallower waters at night and then return to deeper waters at dawn. They can travel for hundreds or thousands of meters of vertical distance to the surface ocean. They repeat the up and down migration on a daily basis EVERYWHERE IN THE OPEN OCEAN.

Somehow, this brief description felt like a lightning strike to me. 🧠⚡️

So I thought, hmmm, people can either become a deep biologist and use research facilities to study deep-sea animals, or they could become extremely rich and afford a million-dollar commercial trip in a submersible. But after learning about vertical migration, it turns out I don’t have to go to great lengths to meet a deep sea creature! I would have to just wait at the ocean surface at night and they would come to ME! That’s insane!

This realization has since become my primary drive for underwater photography. I want to document the zooplankton that come to the ocean’s surface at night. This is my way of deep sea exploration! Before I acquire the actual chance to visit the deep sea, I will float around at the surface, wait for the deep-sea visitors, and use them as windows for me to peak into the deep sea. (My ultimate dream is to visit the alkaline hydrothermal vents where life originated)

With this goal in mind, I followed the regular steps of becoming a scuba diver, trained my neutral buoyancy, and taught myself to use underwater camera equipment. Then I marked all the dive shops around the world that provide blackwater (night dive) services and started the journey!

Jialing Cai underwater at night in scuba gear

What draws you in or fascinates you the most about the octopus?

Their existence demonstrates another way of achieving intelligence through evolution. You don’t need solid scientific evidence to confirm that octopuses are smart. I believe anybody who has had a chance to observe an octopus would agree with me.

Juvenile Wunderpus photogenicus

As a blackwater photographer, I have frequent encounters with many pelagic (open ocean) octopuses. Unlike the reef-dwelling octopus, pelagic octopuses have very few hiding places. However, they still figure out smart ways to blend in with the environment.

For example, the tiny male paper nautilus could be found hitchhiking on diverse groups of plankton. My favorite hitchhike scene would be them riding in or on a salp chain. The male paper nautilus will transform himself into an orange ball which resembles the internal organ of an individual salp, so when you swim by a long salp chain, you barely notice them! See for yourself…

Male Argonaut Riding in salp for protection

Where do you dive and take underwater photos? How often do you go?

I mainly dive around Southeast Asia. I go there about three times a year and every time I stay for at least two weeks. Most of my blackwater photos were taken in Anilao, Philippines which, in my opinion, is the best blackwater dive site in the world.

Juvenile Blanket Octopus (Tremoctopus)

What are the unique challenges you face when photographing cephalopods compared to other marine life, given their incredible camouflage and quick movements?

I face different kinds of challenges when photographing cephalopods in reef and blackwater environments. On reefs, they blend in with the environment and are malleable enough to hide in crevices. It takes a lot of effort to find them. In the open ocean at night, it’s easier to find them as their big eyes will reflect the divers’ light in a unique way. But since the infinite space gives them freedom to move, us humans cannot easily catch up with them due to our physiological limitations. For example, if I spot a blanket octopus at 25 meters/82 feet depth, as I start taking photos, the octopus starts to swim downward. In this case, I have to let it go due to safety concerns (though very reluctantly!) Paper nautiluses, on the other hand, like to swim upward really fast once they feel threatened by my camera. If I follow their pace of ascending, my lungs could possibly explode. So again, I have to let them go and hope to find another one with a better temper next time.

Juvenile Blanket Octopus (Tremoctopus)

What equipment and techniques do you use to obtain epic, high-quality images of cephalopods in their underwater environment, given the challenging lighting conditions and their elusive nature?

I don’t have much experience photographing cephalopods on reefs but for blackwater dives, I like to have a focus light that has the option of switching to red mode. Cephalopods are very sensitive to light, and using red light could make them feel more relaxed and less disturbed.

Besides, I like to capture the dynamic display of their skin color with videos.

Juvenile Diamond Squid (Thysanoteuthis rhombus)

The eyes of cephalopods are highly reflective so I would be extra careful with my light sensitivity setting (ISO) and the intensity of my strobe light. Sometimes everything in the picture looks nice, the colors are vibrant, and the pose is perfect, but the eyes are over-exposed (super white)! In the case of over-exposure, you wouldn’t be able to fix it through editing. Before I take a shot, I make sure the light settings are right and adjust the position of my strobes so that the light will not shine directly on their eyes.

Juvenile Sharpear enope squid (Ancistrocheirus lesueurii)

Cephalopods are known for their intelligence and problem-solving abilities. Have you had any notable interactions with them that showcase these traits?

There are a LOT. I will mention a few observations in black water.

Paper nautilus live in the open ocean and are completely capable of swimming on their own, but I often find them kidnapping other zooplankton such as jellyfish, pteropods, and salps. Hitchhiking not only saves them a lot of energy for swimming, but they also get extra benefits depending on the unique attributes of the victim animals. For example, those riding on jellyfish take advantage of the venomous stinging tentacles to ward off predators; those riding inside the chamber of a salp use it as a safe shelter.

Male Argonaut hiding in salp

Blanket octopuses (male and juvenile female) carry the tentacles of Portuguese Man O’War, whose stings are capable of paralyzing and killing small fish. The stolen tentacles are attached to the rows of suckers on two of their arms. When you follow them with your camera, they always try to expose the two arms with the tentacles toward you. When you move your camera to another angle, they will quickly adjust their position and use the two arms with jellyfish tentacles as if they are holding a shield. 🛡️

How do you ensure that your presence does not disturb or negatively impact your subjects and their natural environment during your photography sessions?

I try to approach my subjects very slowly. If the camera gets too close to the animal, I use kick back to keep the distance. Back kicking is a good skill to have because making a turn involves too much movement and may scare the animal away.

Also, I like to give the animals a little extra time to get used to my presence. If they look stressed, l just wait until they feel more comfortable. When they realize that you are no threat to them, they have a higher chance of coming out of their crevices, relaxing their arms, and will begin to show incredible behaviors!

Who (or what) are your biggest influences?

My biggest influences of photographing cephalopods actually come from the biology and natural history of the animals themselves. It’s not just their mesmerizing skin displays and behaviors that compel me to document them. It’s a profound appreciation for the underlying physiological adaptations/abilities.

Baby Wunderpus photogenicus

For instance, consider the bobtail squid, which forms a symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent bacteria within its light organ. While symbiosis is common in nature, what’s particularly intriguing here is that if these squids are raised in an environment devoid of these bacteria, their light organs don’t even develop. This underscores the crucial role of bioluminescent bacteria in regulating gene expression during bobtail squid development – they’re essential for triggering the formation of the light organ. So, whenever I encounter a bobtail squid, my excitement to photograph them goes beyond their cute sand-burrowing tactics; it’s about capturing one of the most intimate connection between microbes and animals.

Bobtail Squid (Sepiolida)

I’m not certain how my knowledge of cephalopod biology will manifest in my photographic works, but it certainly enhances my joy every time I encounter one of these remarkable creatures.

What advice would you give to aspiring underwater photographers who want to explore the world of cephalopods and capture their remarkable beauty?

I truly believe that in most cases you don’t see the animals until you already know them. The ocean is teeming with countless surprising encounters, but without a solid foundation of background knowledge, many of these wonders may elude you. Therefore, my first advice to early-career underwater photographers is this: before every dive, conduct thorough research on the environment, local culture, and the typical animal groups you can expect to encounter. By doing so, even during brief dives, you’ll notice animals that others might overlook!

Another piece of advice is to never lose appreciation, even for common species. While the allure of rare species is undeniable, delving into the natural history, behavior, and ecology of these seemingly common creatures instills a deep appreciation for every species you encounter in the field. This mentality will not only enrich your photography skills but also shape your personal philosophy and enhance your ability to observe and comprehend the marine environment.

(larval) Baby octopus eating baby crab

What’s your most memorable underwater photoshoot?

It has to be the image of a female paper nautilus riding a piece of wood stick on a “snowy night”!

Following the Taal Volcano eruption in the Philippines at the beginning of 2020, the ocean sediments were stirred up into the water column, resulting in extremely low visibility for diving. It felt like swimming through a dense fog during my blackwater dive in Batangas Bay, Anilao. Amidst the hazy turmoil, I came across a female paper nautilus hitchhiking on a floating piece of wood debris. As I pressed the shutter, the surrounding particles reflected my flashlight in a manner that created the illusion of falling snow. Instead of portraying chaos in the aftermath of a natural disaster, these particles evoked an unusual sense of serenity, transforming the scene into a fairytale set on a snowy night.

Are there any particular species of cephalopods that are on your bucket list to photograph?

The hairy octopus, the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, the red cuttlefish (Sepia mestus)… the list is endless. And if you allow me to be over-ambitious, I wanna add dumbo octopus, vampire squid, and glass octopus to the list!

What’s the best place for people to discover your work (website, social media)?

I post my work often on my Instagram: @homoplankton. I also archive my films and images on personal my website: www.homoplankton.com

homoplakton.com , Jialing Cai’s website

Any other cool things we should know about? Recent Awards, etc…Anything else you want OctoNation to know?

Recently my image of a paper nautilus has won the overall winner in the contest Ocean Photographer of the Year!

Thank You For Joining Us For Cephalotography Spotlight!

First, we want to give a big thank you to Jialing Cai for allowing us to showcase her mesmerizing blackwater photography on OctoNation. We especially love how enchanting her words are– she truly inspires wonder of our oceans by how she educates. To continue supporting Jialing Cai, make sure to follow her Instagram @homoplankton, or visit her website at Homoplankton.com where she’s got stunning clips of cephalopods with wonderful voice overs! (see example below)

If you want to educate yourself some more about all sorts of different cephalopods, take a look at our encyclopedia. Or, what we call it, our Octopedia!

Connect with other octopus lovers via the OctoNation Facebook group, OctopusFanClub.com! Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with the conservation, education, and ongoing research of cephalopods.

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