Jordi Chias in Antarctica

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: risking it all under the ice

8 April 2016

Deep beneath the freezing Antarctic ice, underwater photographer Jordi Chias had just five minutes to get his perfect shot before risking severe illness.

He explains how it feels to be 40 metres below water in the coldest place on Earth, searching for that one flawless picture.  

Capturing a stunning photograph to submit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition is tricky at the best of times. Add in freezing temperatures, dark water and icebergs and the challenge becomes extreme.

Photographer Jordi Chias was in Antarctica to explore the reefs that bloom under slabs of sea ice in the sea. On one of his dives he found iridescent Atolla jellyfish lit by strobes in the dark, and so caught his entry shot: It came from the gloom.

Jordi on location, left, and his competition entry, right

Jordi in Antarctica, left, and his competition entry, right © Jordi Chias
 

Atolla flash blue or release a bioluminescent secretion to distract predators when threatened, earning them the nickname alarm jellyfish.

A race against time

Jordi had roughly five minutes to take pictures before risking decompression sickness - a potentially fatal condition that affects divers if they move from deep water to the surface too quickly.

Staying longer than five minutes would have meant rising back to the surface very slowly to protect against decompression, which in turn would increase his risk of hypothermia.

The 42-year-old says, 'Had I become ill with decompression problems, I would not have been able to get help because of the remote location.

'I was wary of going too deep. The water is actually warmer the further down you go, because it's away from the ice. But it's still between 0.5°C and -1°C, so you don't have long.'

Jordi's determination to brave the cold won him a place as a finalist in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. 

A huge sponge in Antarctica

Underneath the ice, huge sponges thrive © Jordi Chias
 

Atolla are usually found at much deeper depths than where the shot was taken, but Jordi suspected this one had risen to the surface overnight to find food.

Usually found up to 4,000 metres down, their rich red colour helps to camouflage them in the dark.

As Jordi spotted the jellyfish, several penguins also crossed his path. He managed to capture the last one in the picture before they all disappeared into the gloom.

An abundance of life

Despite the freezing temperatures, there is marine life in all colours, shapes and sizes under the sea ice.

Jordi says, 'If you go down deep there are true reefs, filled with sponges and corals quite similar to what you would find on reefs in much warmer climates.

'At deeper depths, that's when life starts to shine. At 100 metres, the water is full of corals and crabs.'

The best time to take pictures is the summer, when melting sea ice allows more light to penetrate the depths.

Warmer weather also makes the water green because of plankton production, so Jordi had to dive deeper to find clear water.

Art underwater

Jordi has been a marine photographer since 1998, and travels the world in search of inspiration.

He says, 'I would love to go back to Antarctica because it feels like one of the last places on Earth that a photographer can still come across new species, or situations that have never been photographed before.

'It's remote and difficult to reach, so it’s relatively unexplored.

'My career in photography developed from a passion for diving. I don't have a favourite subject, but big animals like whales, dolphins, mantas and sharks are always the most emotional encounters you have underwater.'

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Find out more about the competition.