Behind The Lens: Jess Hadden

Madeline St Clair Baker

Meet Jess Hadden, Ningaloo-based ocean, aerial & wildlife photographer. This week we caught up with Jess to find out about his life behind the lens...

Hey Jess! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hi! My name is Jess Hadden, I am an underwater photographer based on the Ningaloo Reef in both Exmouth and Coral Bay, Western Australia. I work with Ningaloo Whaleshark-N-Dive onboard their whale shark interaction vessel, taking photos of those gentle giants and all the spectacular marine life we encounter on a daily basis.

Photo: Jess Hadden

Photo: Jess Hadden

You’ve built your life around the ocean. What drew you to it in the first place?

I grew up in the South West region of Margaret River, living in Dunsborough. I spent most of my childhood at the beach swimming, snorkelling and playing in the waves. Unfortunately I never learnt how to surf which is quite embarrassing considering that it is home to some of the best surf beaches in the world. 

I guess the pivotal point for my obsession with the ocean was 10 years ago - at the age of 12 - when my father pulled me out of school to rescue a mass stranding of pilot whales. To this day, my dad still does not know why he felt the urge to pull me out of school and do this, but we both believe it has shaped my path and career in becoming a scuba divemaster and underwater photographer!

Wow! That’s insane. So what inspired you to get into underwater photography specifically?

Once again, one day in highschool my dad rocked up and pulled me out of class. This time not to save whales but there was a free ‘Discover Scuba’ course, at one of the local dive centres which they were running to encourage people to book on and become open water divers. At the age of 15, this was the first time I had even been scuba diving and I was completely hooked!! It was was shortly after this that I purchased my first underwater camera set up, as I was mind-blown by the amazing underwater world. Photography started off as a hobby of mine as I wanted to show people the beauty in the ocean and inspire them to fall in love the same way I had.

Photo: Jess Hadden

Photo: Jess Hadden

Has anyone’s work influenced you?

I have always loved the work of Fred Buyle and Brian Skerry... but I find everyone's work inspiring and amazing in their own way; I love that everyone has different styles.

What’s your favourite dive spot, and why?

Anywhere and everywhere... you never know what you may encounter! There are still so many places I dream of diving but at the moment the Exmouth navy pier is still by far one of the best dives I have ever done. It is classed as one of the top 10 shore dives in the world. The amount of marine life under there is just spectacular.

Ningaloo is home to some pretty incredible wildlife. Can you describe your most memorable encounter with a marine species?

Photo: Jess Hadden

Photo: Jess Hadden

Oh I have been so lucky to have so many incredible interactions over the past 5 years living at Ningaloo Reef, it is so hard to pick just one! 

I spend my time swimming with so many species; sharks, manta rays, humpback whales, turtles, dugongs and everything in-between. 

The two encounters that top the rest would have to be back in 2016 whist free diving… Out the back of the reef I came across a large tiger shark feeding upon a puffer fish. That in itself is cool enough but on this particular day the tiger shark actually dropped the puffer and swam directly up to the surface and nose bumped my camera - and I was able to capture the whole thing on video to relive! Many people who do not understand sharks and their behaviour would be terrified, but it was such a magical non-aggressive encounter. I believe it was attracted to my cameras electronics, trying to figure out what it was. 

That sounds incredible. What was the second?

The second equally as memorable encounter was actually my second day working in Coral Bay back in 2014, on the manta ray interaction vessels. We usually only swam with a single manta ray, as they are solitary animals and don't swim in groups unless witnessed in a mating chain whereby the males will all chase a female around mimicking her every move. However on this particular day there was a humongous feeding aggregation of roughly 200 manta rays all in the same area! It was absolutely incredible. Myself and the crew didn’t know what to do as we don't see this everyday - we were trying to keep out of their way but there were so many that some would bump into you from time to time. One even damaged my camera housing, with its powerful wing snapping one of the setting adjustment knobs right off.

Among your works, which is your favourite and why?

Again, it is so hard to choose... there are so many! 

But I am obsessed with a photo I captured towards the end of 2016 of good friend Nicole freediving down into a large bait ball.

Photo: Jess Hadden

Photo: Jess Hadden

You photograph a lot of megafauna. What challenges (if any) do you face when capturing these creatures on camera?

The fact that it is wildlife - the animals don’t always play the game and come pose for the camera haha! 
 Of course weather conditions and visibility always plays a major role in capturing these animals too.

Are there any species or places that are on your bucket list to photograph?

Still so many! 

Sperm whales underwater, blue whales, orcas underwater, narwhals, mola mola, the great white shark, belugas, oceanic white tip sharks, penguins and the list will go on and on so I will stop there...

What kind of gear do you use?

Underwater, I shoot with the Nikon D810 and Sigma 15mm lens inside of a Nauticam housing. 

Nikon d610 and Sigma 150-600mm for most of my above water interactions. And lastly my Nikon D7100 and Nikon 18-105mm around the boat for anything close by and the beautiful view.

Photo: Jess Hadden

Photo: Jess Hadden

Is there any advice you could give to people who want to get into ocean photography?

It is a very expensive hobby - start off with smaller, simpler cameras before you spend thousands of dollars on equipment that you don't understand how to use. Be patient as you learn which camera settings work with different environment and water types. And most importantly don't forget to put the camera down every now and then and just enjoy what you are swimming with! Really experience the moment, not just through a lens.

The ocean has changed rapidly in the last couple of decades. Could you leave us with some final words of wisdom about ocean conservation?

Stop using plastic!! At the rate we are polluting our oceans with plastic, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish! 

Look after our beautiful blue planet.

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

If you’ve enjoyed this interview with Jess, follow him here @jesshaddenphoto or buy his prints here