Hawaiian Monk Seal. Photo by John Johnson.
This month, I wanted to highlight work that inspired several drawings of Ocean Life in my 2017 Native Hawaii Calendar. John Johnson is a local Oʻahu-based photographer who specializes in the art of freedive photography. Check out more of his incredible work at his website One Breath Photo.
First off, can you share with us what is freedive photography?
Freediving is the practice of diving without tanks – diving on only a single breath of air. Although I’ve been long-certified in SCUBA, I am a firm believer in the simplicity, beauty, and skill of freediving. I was introduced to freediving by way of spearfishing. Through spearfishing I learned to identify, understand, and appreciate the animals of the ocean and their behaviors.
How and when did you start photographing ocean species?
I started shooting in 1999 on my birthday. I was spearfishing and happened to have an Olympus 2020 in a housing that I picked up while working in Japan. As time went on I used the camera more than the spear (I was much better at it than the other) and kept buying more and more equipment.
Humpback Whale. Photo by John Johnson.
What inspires you as a photographer?
The ocean. The boundless wonder and beauty and mystery.
What is so unique about Hawaiian species?
A quarter of our species are endemic, meaning they are found only here and didn’t migrate in ballast water or aquarium tanks like the rest of the critters found here.
What is your favorite animal to photograph and why?
Favorite animal is probably the manatee. I have photographed hundreds of species, but the manatee is hands-down my favorite. Whales are cool and whale sharks are neat, but a chunky manatee just can’t be beat.
Manatee. Photo by John Johnson.
Can you share a funny or harrowing story trying to capture a photo?
My last encounter with manatees in Florida was in the worst possible conditions. The weather was too warm. There were tons of boats blocking the entrance to the springs. By all accounts it was going to be a horrible day. I slipped off my kayak a hundred yards before the human zoo and was surprised to see manatees around me. One large female bumped into my side, demanding stomach rubs. I put down the video camera and rubbed while holding the camera in the other hand. I then felt a bump on the right. A big male was demanding attention. I put down the camera and gave a rub to the right. Then I heard squeaking as two baby manatees came right up to me, one gumming my flipper and the other tickling my knee. Not bad for horrible conditions!
John taking a photo of a Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle. Photo by Tommy Tsumoto.
Thank you for sharing your inspiring work, John! John Johnson sells his photographs at local art and craft fairs, but you can also purchase his prints and products in his online shop.