"How long can you hold your breath?" I asked.
Jacques Idechong shrugged his shoulders before slipping over the edge of the boat to make his 15th free dive of the morning.
It was just another day in the office for Idechong, a marine researcher with the Palau International Coral Reef Center (PICRC). On this recent coral reef monitoring excursion off the coast of Palau, Idechong dove 30 feet below the surface nearly 40 times to help PICRC and the Conservancy ascertain the effectiveness of the reef resilience strategies being employed to protect corals.
With a single breath, Idechong descended through the warm, sparkling waters of the Pacific to a precise location marked by GPS signal. There, he collected PVC pipes — lashed to a metal rod hammered into the ocean floor — that were measuring sediment levels for the surrounding reef.
Rising carefully to the surface to protect his cargo, he handed the pipes off to a colleague on a waiting boat. With another breath, Idechong descended again, this time with a hammer, steel rods and new PVC pipes, securing them to the ocean floor.
The entire process took Idechong less than five minutes — but the pipes took 30 days to do their job. Left uncapped, the pipes collect d that allow marine scientists from PICRC and The Nature Conservancy's Palau program to gauge the danger posed by one of the leading threats to coral reefs: sedimentation.
The most common cause of sedimentation is development. When forested lands are cleared, soil works its way into ocean currents, covering coral, destroying their habitat and blocking out the sunlight that keeps them alive.
Sedimentation is having a huge impact on Palau's coral reefs, which rank among the world's most biodiverse. Added to this is challenge is a massive coral bleaching event that's currently happening in Palau and around the globe.
As a photographer, I faced plenty of my own challenges capturing Idechong’s dives, but I was particularly hampered by my lung capacity. I couldn’t hold my breath nearly as long as him — I’d have to rise to the surface at least twice for every descent he made.
I tried to anticipate his next dive in order to beat him into the water and capture his entrance, but that proved nearly impossible: he would plunge into the water with no warning as soon as we reached a new location. Often the boat wouldn’t even slow down when reaching a new dive site in order to negotiate tricky ocean currents, but the free divers would nonetheless drop overboard almost immediately, with me flailing in pursuit.
Once at the bottom, it seemed like Idechong would linger endlessly, oblivious to his need for oxygen.
For me, it was a clear sign that Palau's culture raises children to be as comfortable in water as they are on land. Free-diving was second nature to Idechong, and it was a great feeling to know that people like him are on the front lines of conservation in one of the world’s most important and beautiful ecosystems.
I took this shot of Idechong with a Canon 5D Mark 2 in approximately 20 feet of water using an Ikelite Dive Housing and 20mm 2.8 prime lens, f9.0 @ 1/200 ISO 200.
Ian Shive is a Los Angeles-based conservation photographer and author of the best-selling photography book, "The National Parks: Our American Landscape." He is most proud of his ongoing role in promoting environmental awareness through photography.