Behind The Lens: Brooke Pyke

Madeline St Clair Baker

This week we chatted with Brooke Pyke, a photographer and dive instructor living in Nusa Lembongan. Keep reading to find out why Brooke thinks compact cameras are the way forward and what it was like to experience the trash that featured in that viral manta ray video.

Hey Brooke! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and from a very young age have always been a creative person and a lover of the outdoors just like your typical Aussie gal. I currently work as a dive instructor, but at University I studied Graphic Design, so it was quite a career path change! And of course, being a creative soul, it really wasn’t long before I borrowed a camera to try some UW photography… and this is where the obsession really started! It’s very funny how you start off studying something and then one thing leads to the next and you are living a complete other life than you imagined you would. With this kind of job and the lifestyle of a dive instructor, it really teaches you to live in the moment. You also learn to live a simple life without so much “stuff”. As long as I’m near the beach and can dive most days I’m in my happy place - camera in hand of course! Recently I have begun to get more involved in marine conservation efforts; I also spend some time volunteering as a research assistant for Marine Megafauna Foundation which has been very educational. It’s also rewarding to give something back to the ocean I love so much.

Sheep leaf nudibranch. Photo: Brooke Pyke

Sheep leaf nudibranch. Photo: Brooke Pyke

You’re a scuba instructor. What was your journey into scuba diving like?

I’d say my journey started after I did my Divemaster and then just went full steam ahead and never stopped. Since I completed my DM training back in 2012 I really only had a few months here and there of not diving. There were of course ups and downs along the way. Living in a foreign country does have some down sides and it can be a steep learning curve; it’s not always the easy island life that everyone imagines! But I really cannot imagine moving back to Melbourne any time soon. Melbourne does have some very good diving but it’s just way too cold there for me. I cannot ever imagine doing the dry-suit thing! Right after I completed my instructor training in Lembongan last year, I got a job offer about 1 month later. Since then I’ve been teaching almost non-stop and squeezing in the odd photography trip with my photographer buddy Nicole whenever I can. My family always think I’m crazy as even when I go on holiday, it’s a diving holiday. They always ask why the heck I’d want to do “work” when I’m on holiday? But diving and teaching really isn’t work to me. When you’re on a dive surrounded by 10 Manta Rays you do stop and think… There are people out there working in a “real” office all day. It’s a bit of a joke really. But anyone can do it and its never too late to make a change in your life to do what you love.

Have you always been an ocean person?

Frogfish. Photo: Brooke Pyke

Frogfish. Photo: Brooke Pyke

My childhood often involved beach side activities and I even learned to sail at one point. But for a while as a kid I did actually have an incredible fear for the ocean, as before I saw what was below the waves, it kind of terrified me. My dad once convinced me to go snorkeling with him; at first I hated it, but after about 10 minutes, I was totally into it! From then, my relationship with the ocean changed a lot. I used to dream that one day I would grow a mermaid’s tail… I’d even swim with my legs held together just hoping it might happen! But it wasn’t until many years later (2011) that I actually tried scuba diving. My sister and I were on a holiday in Thailand where we both decided to do our Open Water course. I loved it so much that a few months later I was back in Thailand continuing up the levels to Divemaster. After working around Asia Pacific as a Divemaster for a few years, I finally took the step to become an instructor in 2017. Probably one of the best decisions I ever made.

The ocean is home to some beautiful critters! Could you tell us about your favourite encounter with a marine species?

I’ve had many magical moments I’ll never forget but one in particular will always stand out. I was on dive 2 of the Open Water course with my student, we were diving at Manta Point, Nusa Penida. After finishing some skills 3 very large reef mantas approached us. They then circled me and my student for about 5 mins looking us right in the eye! I’ll never forget the grin of joy my student had after the dive. It truely was a unique moment for us. Diving with manta rays is one thing I will never get bored of as they are so interactive. Mantas have the largest brain to body ratio of any fish. This gives them an incredible intelligence and complex social behaviours. You can see this for yourself when you have encounters such as I did. They really are just as curious about us as we are of them.

Lots of your photographs feature the waters of Nusa Lembongan. Could you tell our readers what sort of marine life you might find here?

We have such great mix of marine life here which means even when you dive the same sites all the time you can still see and experience something new. Bali holds up one corner stone of ‘The Coral Triangle’ which is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Basically the underwater version of the Amazon, so there is a lot to see here. Here we have manta rays all year around at Manta Bay and Manta Point. Also gorgeous sloping reefs with fields of corals, sea fans, giant sponges and many colourful reef fish. Plus we have Mola, turtles and the occasional reef shark or whale shark passing by. Instructors from the island have even spotted thresher sharks and hammerheads so I think these islands have more to offer than people realise. From June-October we have Mola Alexandrini coming up from the deep to visit various cleaning stations around the islands. So diving with them is always cool as they are kinda the most alien fish you can see on a shallow reef. Macro life here is also in abundance from anything like ghost pipe fish, frog fish and nudibranchs, enough to satisfy any photographer. In Lembongan you can find something for anyone!

What kind of set up do you use?

My camera set up hasn’t really changed much from when I first started out; a dive instructor’s wage is a bit limiting in that regard. However, I’m very happy with my current set up and slowly I add bits and pieces to it. I have two cameras, a Canon G12 (my original first camera) and an Olympus TG5. Both are compact set ups and very easy to use, with good results. The TG5 is basically the god of super macro since you can achieve very close up shots without the use of a macro lens as all. Photographing a 5mm nudibranch is no problem! The G12 I use for wide angle and also macro which is not “super macro”. I have 2 video lights that I use with both set ups. If I’m shooting macro, often just 1 video light is enough, and I even hold it by hand sometimes for more flexibility. For the G12 I have both a wide-angle fish-eye lens and a +7 macro lens. The TG5 I generally don’t bother adding lenses as on its own it's so good! I’d still consider my set up very amateur but for now it suits me very well. Having compact cameras means that it’s very easy to dive with as well as shoot with. I can squeeze my camera in close to subjects where a big set up would definitely limit you more. In Lembongan we also have strong current so I’m often glad not to have 15kg of camera to tow! I get asked a lot about what camera I’m using and people are always surprised I’m using such a basic compact. It just goes to show you can achieve great results from something simple once you master it. One time I took this Scottish videographer diving called David Ainsley who sometimes does work with the BBC. He had a 20kg camera and even he was shocked by the quality my small compact could get compared to his massive rig. Just shows size doesn’t really matter after all, does it?

Photo: Brooke Pyke

Photo: Brooke Pyke

Could you impart any word of advice for the budding underwater photographers out there?

Definitely, I’d suggest just starting simple with a nice easy compact which can also offer you full manual control as you advance beyond point and shoot. This is why I love my G12 so much as it’s a great camera you can advance your abilities with. Also very important to make sure you have quite a bit of diving under your belt before you start taking a camera. I’ve seen it countless times that people start using one too early and it actually can become quite dangerous. Not only for the diver but all the fragile corals too. Good buoyancy control is very important! Having a few lessons with a photography instructor is always a great place to start so you can learn proper techniques for photographing underwater. Learning to set your white balance properly and choosing the correct angle to shoot from will take you a long way. Start off without using strobes until you can master the other stuff first. Once you start using a strobe its almost like learning all over again so start easy and work your way up. I had no one to teach me this, so for me it was literally trial and a lot of error.

We love how much macro stuff features on your Instagram! What if your favourite thing to photograph?

Definitely I’d have to say Nudibranchs... they probably take up about 80% of my IG feed. I just love them, so much that my boyfriend even bought me a Seaslug Encyclopaedia for my birthday. They just come in every colour and pattern you can imagine so looking for them is really like an easter egg hunt. What’s even better is they make easy subjects since they move very slowly.

And do you think that macro animals often get upstaged by bigger megafauna like sharks?

Macro animals definitely get over looked more than they should as they are equally as complex and interesting. But its always the same story that when you first learn to dive all you want to see is the big stuff. After you get more experienced and your buoyancy control becomes better you can start to get closer to the reef and look at what's below you. I’m sure many times I’ve missed something big on account for spending 10 mins photographing a sea slug. But to be honest I get just as excited when I find a new sea slug I haven’t seen before as when I see a Mola or Manta. I couldn’t really pick a favourite thing to see as everything is equally as awesome and exciting. Although you do of course get the adrenaline rush when you see something big. Not quite something you can experience with a slug! So it’s easy to understand how they get most of the attention.

Speaking of megafauna, what’s it like diving with mantas almost daily? How does photographing them compare to tiny little nudis?

Diving with them almost daily makes me very spoilt I can tell you that. But it’s actually not easy photographing them as wide-angle photography is still very new to me. For me macro is much easier than photographing megafauna as there are so many variables at play with wide-angle. It takes a lot more luck and effort to get into the correct position to get a good shot with a Manta. I don’t like to chase them (as no one should) so basically you wait for them to cross your path. Which surprisingly they do if you stay calm. Like I said they are very curious about us and will come close. Another thing that can be hard is the Mantas do like to hang out in areas here with a lot of plankton. So avoiding back scatter can be sometimes tricky. I very much went down the path of macro from the beginning but I’m excited to get more into wide-angle (especially with my new fish-eye lens).

Photo: Brooke Pyke

Photo: Brooke Pyke

Many of us around the world saw the viral video of the mantas swimming through trash in Lembongan during monsoon season. What was it like to experience this in person? How did it make you feel?

This video was actually taken by a friend of mine, Rich. And this day definitely was beyond normal for monsoon season. Every year it gets worse and it breaks my heart every time I get to the dive site where the Mantas are feeding and there is just plastic as far as you can see. When you can see them literally swallowing chunks of broken plastic bags and tiny pieces of styrofoam it really makes you feel helpless. I fill my BCD pockets with as much as I can but there is just so much of it. This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day though. The strong currents here quickly move it on, sadly to somewhere else. Feb-March is the only time when we see this type of thing as wet season is ending. The biggest issue really for Mantas and other fish is the ‘micro plastics’. As I mentioned before, in my free time I volunteer with Marine Megafauna Foundation as a research assistant. Our project leader Elitza Germanov is currently studying the effects of micro plastic on ocean giants such as our Manta population in Lembongan & Penida. The test results are staggering. She brings with her a super fine net which is dragged though the water to mimic what a Manta is doing to feed. She said each time she has done this she has always found at least 1 piece of plastic mixed in with the plankton. What the exact effects are on the mantas from these plastics she is still yet to confirm. But I can bet they won’t be good.

Working with the ocean on a daily basis, you must see how much is changing in a short time. Can you leave us with any words of wisdom about ocean conservation?

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With so many things going wrong in the world sometimes it can be difficult to feel like you can do anything. But what you and everyone can do is to look at your own life style and think of ways you can change. Cutting down on your plastic consumption as much as possible is a great start. It's been a year since I have purchased a plastic bottle of water. So I promise you that even when you live in a country where the tap water in un-drinkable there are always alternatives. Make choices on products you buy based on their level of environmental cost. All these small changes we can make in our own lives can in a whole make a difference. Imagine if the 7 billion people on this planet suddenly decide that they would never buy anything with plastic packaging again? How quickly would companies seek an alternative! It’s so easy to blame governments and manufacturers for these problems. But we actually hold the power. Use it! Be the voice for those who have none.

Behind the Lens explores the lives of those who capture the underwater world on camera

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Brooke, follow her here @wakeupand.dive and check out her website