HomeUnderwater PhotographyUnderwater Photographer of the Week: Santiago Zurbia

Underwater Photographer of the Week: Santiago Zurbia

Conservation photojournalist Santiago Zurbia talks silt outs, Mexico’s finest dive spots and diving with Oceanic Whitetip sharks


How did you get started in underwater photography?

Santiago Zurbia 1

I was 14 years old at the time, I had been diving for less than a year but I had quickly accumulated over 100 dives. During one particular night dive, this underwater videographer who was also the owner of the dive shop I was at came along with his massive camera, and I was dumbstruck by it. We talked for a while, and at some point in that conversation he convinced me to try photography. A few weeks later I got a small point and shoot with a housing, and a few months down the road my first DSLR.

What came first – diving or photography?

Santiago Zurbia 2

Strictly speaking, photography. I got my first camera as a gift when I was eight years old. I used it now and then and at a few trips. At a serious level though, diving came first. I hadn’t used a camera in a couple years by the time I started diving, and it was diving that made me return to photography. 

What’s in your underwater photography kitbag?

Santiago Zurbia 3

A Canon 5D Mk III on a Subal housing, two Ikelite DS-160 strobes, Big Blue VL6000 and VL 7200 lights. For lenses, I use a Canon 100mm macro and their 17-40mm lens; I’ve always wanted a Canon 16-35mm though – donations are accepted.

Favourite location for diving and underwater photography?

Santiago Zurbia 4

Tough question. I’ll say the Riviera Maya area. For two reasons: one, it’s home. I grew up in Cancun and that’s where I started diving. The second reason is variety: there are reefs, there are whale sharks and mantas in the summer, bullsharks and sailfish during winter, and there’s some amazing cave diving in the area. The cenotes are beautiful. It seems funny to me to think that caves offer some of the most spectacular lighting displays I’ve ever seen.

Most challenging dive?

Santiago Zurbia 5

Definitely a cave dive. I’ve been in two silt outs – one in a tight cave where it was unavoidable, one when someone accidentally hit the bottom and visibility went zero. It’s the only two times underwater that I can remember that I felt that things were beyond my control, so I closed my eyes, felt the line with my hand, and swam out of the silt out. I love technical diving and the mental challenge it brings. I’ve been fortunate to have good instructors throughout my life, so when things like this arise, I’ve felt confident to face them. But when I think about them in retrospect, it seems crazier than it actually is.

Who are your diving inspirations?

Santiago Zurbia 6

From the photography side, the whole lot of National Geographic shooters. Wes Skiles, Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen, Thomas Peschak, Laurent Ballesta and David Doubilet, to name a few. Reading National Geographic Magazine and seeing their work as a kid was such a big influence for me, for my interest in nature, and later on photography. 

On the diving side, the people around me. My instructors, my friends, and the people I’ve met on dive trips. Their stories and experiences have always been a big inspiration for my career as a diver.

Which underwater locations or species are still on your photography wish list?

Santiago Zurbia 7
Cave diver Manuel Allende swims through sun rays at the Sugar Bowl, a small cenote part of Tajma Ha cave system, in Tulum, Mexico on July 6, 2016. The Sugar Bowl is well known amongst members of the diving community for the light rays that shine into the cave on clear, summer afternoons.

The list is long and gets longer every day. I’m still young and there are so many places I haven’t visited. I think my top location right now is Revillagigedo, for the chance of diving with whales, but also the mantas, the sharks, and all the big life that’s out there. And my top animal, it’s either the giant pacific octopus, which is one of my favourite animals ever because of its otherworldliness, or the Humboldt squid.

What advice do you wish you’d had as a novice underwater photographer?

Santiago Zurbia 8
Fishermen hoist a silky shark caught the previous night with the use of homemade fishing traps. The traps consist of two circular hooks attached to a longline fixed to a free-floating device that is left drifting in the open ocean; fishermen rely on GPS markings and their sight to find these traps every day to collect their catch and replace the bait.

Don’t be so picky. You won’t always have the ocean at your doorstep, so go into the water every day you can. I did over a 1,000 dives before college, but if I hadn’t been so picky about only going on nice days and the lot, I probably would have done double that.

Hairiest moment when shooting underwater?

Santiago Zurbia 9

In Cat Island, Bahamas diving with the Oceanic White Tips. They’re such elegant, gentle sharks, but they’re sharks nevertheless and they demand respect. On a dive things got a bit hairy so we made the call of getting out of the water, but a diver broke protocol and swam away from the group. One of the sharks went after her and I was sure she was going to get bitten. The guide reacted quickly and the diver turned right in time to scare the shark away. She had no idea a 7-8ft shark had snuck up on her.

What is your most memorable dive and why?

Santiago Zurbia 10

Any good dive. I have too many to choose one: cave diving, deep diving in Dahab’s Blue Hole, any dive with big wildlife, or every time I see a vibrant reef. All dives are different and they’re great in their own way. That’s the magic of diving for me, no two dives are the same. This is why I want to dive for the rest of my life, because if I’m in the water, I’m happy.

Santiago Zurbia    

Santiago is a conservation photojournalist from Cancun, Mexico, currently pursuing a degree in photojournalism at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Having grown up in the Caribbean, he developed a passion for being in the water and was exposed to environmental issues at a young age. He took up diving at the age of 14 and decided to combine his passions for diving, photography and conservation to pursue a career in photojournalism focusing on marine conservation issues. After graduating he wants  his work to have a meaningful impact in the conservation of our oceans.



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