“Sharks’ skylight”

Palos Verdes High biology teacher shoots sharks to save them

by Kevin Cody

Every evening for two weeks, Renee Capozzola waited underwater in a shallow lagoon in Moorea, waiting for the sun to set, the wind to die, and Blacktip Sharks to swim by.

The Palos Verdes High biology teacher wore a snorkel and mask and held a Canon Mark III camera, protected by a Nauticam water housing. Sharks are plentiful in the lagoon because they are protected in French Polynesia.

Capozzola had photographed the Blacktips in the same lagoon many times, on previous visits. Her signature over/under photos, taken with a half submerged, wide angle lens, and showing the sharks underwater and the island above water have earned her international recognition. 

But during her most recent visit to Moorea, last August, she had a new composition in mind.

She still wanted sharks contrasted with an above water scene. But in this picture the camera would be fully submerged, causing the above water view to wobble like a Gauguin. The effect is known to divers as “Snell’s window,” and refers to the 96 degree cone of rippling light that a diver sees looking up in shallow water.

“I thought if I could get sharks beneath a sunset, with pretty clouds, that would be fantastic,” she said.

Capozzola generally “shoots from the hip,” so she can keep an eye on her surroundings, rather than composing her shots through the viewfinder. As a result, she has only a general idea of the camera’s composition.

At the end of her second week of shooting, while editing that evening’s images, she discovered she had captured what a judge in this year’s  UPY (Underwater Photographer of the Year) Awards would describe as “a sunset ballet of reef sharks and sea birds.” A second judge described the photograph as, “Mind blowing underwater imagery.”

Capozzola’s “Sharks’ skylight” shows two eight-foot, white-bellied, Blacktip sharks circling in seagreen water beneath two white sea birds soaring beneath a red sunset.

The photo earned her the Underwater Photographer of the Year award, from among the nearly 5,000 photographers who competed in this year’s UPY Awards competition. “There was no doubt with the judges,” one judge commented, “that this image was, by some distance, the deserved winner. Absolutely everything in this image is right, composition, light, colour and contrast.”

But the most heartening compliment Capozzola received was from the judge who said, “This is an image of hope, a glimpse of how the ocean can be when we give it a chance, thriving with spectacular life both below and above the surface.”

One of Capozzola’s goals is to show sharks as beautiful, not as creatures to be hunted into extinction.

During her interview on CNN, with People magazine and other international media, Cappozzola made a point of saying, “Sharks are 450 million years old. Older than the dinosaurs. We’re killing them at an unsustainable rate of 100 million a year. I could only have gotten this picture because sharks are protected in Polynesia.”

Capozzola is the first woman to win the top UPY Award, which was established in 2014 and has become the most prestigious ocean photography contest in the world.

To view more of Renee Capozzola’s photographs visit BeneathTheSurfaceImaging.com.

To view other winners in the 2021 UPY Awards, visit UnderwaterPhotographerOfTheYear.com. ER

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Written by: Kevin Cody

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