IT WAS on a clear, windless day a year ago that Southern Cross University researcher and amateur photographer Richard Wylie (pictured above) went for a dive in the cool waters of Victoria's Mornington Peninsula and snapped a photograph of an incubating male weedy seadragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus). The beautiful photo has now won the 2012 National Geographic-La Mer Oceans Photo Contest, beating hundreds of other entries submitted by professional wildlife photographers. His prize is a $27,000 trip to Alaska on a National Geographic photography expedition next year where he will work closely with one of National Geographic's staff photographers.
"I'm hopeless at taking photos of people, but put a fish in front of me and suddenly it's not so bad," Richard laughed.
Richard has spent 30 years working as a marine biologist and has dived thousands of times, but it wasn't until a year-and-a-half ago that he bought his first digital SLR camera and began to photograph underwater wildlife.
"I had a hip replacement and wanted to do something less energetic," Richard said. "Now I wish I had a camera in my hand over the last 30 years. I spend so much time underwater, I know what the animals are going to do - they and I both relax and I can get a good photo."
Richard currently lectures at universities and works with young people, teaching them marine science. That was the catalyst that made him want to undertake a PhD investigating marine education in Australia.
"I was frustrated that there was not much information out about marine biology to teach in schools, so part of my PhD is researching curriculum for marine science in primary and secondary schools."
He is also looking at how photography can be used as a tool for education and conservation.
"It used to drive me nuts when I'd take the kids snorkelling and they would swim right over the fish without looking at them," Richard said.
"When I gave them a camera, it made them focus their attention on marine life identification and suddenly they found so much more and became interested.
"In my lecturing and teaching, I show photos and say how I took it and it sparks conversation. Photography has power in helping marine conservation by making people aware of what's going on," he said.
The CSIRO now wants Richard to produce more photographs of weedy seadragons for posters to be distributed nationally. Every year in spring, male and female seadragons perform a beautiful dance which culminates in the female passing fertilised eggs to the male who then incubates them until hatching two months later.
"The weedy seadragon is listed as near-threatened from habitat destruction and pollution, but we don't know much about it," Richard said.
"It's related to the seahorse and we know it's found in a limited geographical area in Southern Australia, but we don't know what the real population is."
Photography is an expensive hobby and with an underwater camera housing costing $2000, Richard is happy he has won the competition and is looking forward to taking the trip to Alaska and Canada where he will attempt to photograph beluga whales underwater as they enter fresher water to moult by rubbing their skins on the pebbles.
"Winning justifies the expense of photography," Richard laughed. "The trip will be a fantastic experience and if I'm lucky the photos may even win another award."