STUART PHILPOTT'S COLUMN: Photographing frogfish
There’s no denying the fact that divers, and in particular underwater photographers, have a soft spot for frogfish. Taba in northern Egypt is a top spot for daily sightings and I just happened to be a resident at Taba Heights Resort from 2004-2007. This gave me a great opportunity to get up close and personal with the local froggy population. I even managed to pull together a book on the subject.
This insatiable predator is the master of stealth. Lying camouflaged against a soft coral background its flexible jaws can devour unsuspecting fish in a single lightning gulp. But these ugly looking creatures pose no threat to divers. They don’t have any venomous spines or big sharp teeth. Their only ‘weapon’ is a modified dorsal spine called a lure which is used to attract prey. The lure is similar to a fishing rod casting out bait on the end of a line. The shape of the bait can resemble a worm, fish or crab; it can actually mimic whatever their prey would normally eat (the Taba froggies all seem to have lures shaped like small fish). They jiggle it about enticing glassfish or anthias to come closer. This is why frogfish are also called anglerfish. Any potential meal that ventures into the ‘kill zone’ is immediately sucked in and swallowed whole. Froggies have stretchy mouths which allow them to eat a fish up to twice their own size.
There's a beauty to a frogfish's ugliness
Taba’s coastal waters (Gulf of Aqaba) are home to a number of different species, but it’s difficult to tell them apart as there are so many variations in colours, shapes and sizes, even in the same family genus. Worldwide, there are around 46 different species. Sizes vary from a few centimetres up to a monster 40 centimetres (forearm size). Male froggies tend to be smaller than females but otherwise there is no differentiation in colours or patterns.
Frogfish are not that easy to find. I have spent many a frustrating dive looking for an elusive froggy. At dive site Shaab Ghamila I found a 25cm long black and white spotted froggy sitting under a fragile table coral and my dive buddy spotted another small dark green 5cm specimen by a coral head just a few metres away. Our dive guide Ahmed Aide, from Waterworld Dive Centre, said there were two more froggies sitting on an old fish trap lying in the sea grass at a depth of about 12m but we failed to spot them during our afternoon reconnoitre.
Frogfish are perfect subjects for underwater photographers although it’s not easy to get a ‘good’ picture. Nine times out of 10 they are in a head down position facing towards the reef. This makes it very difficult to manoeuvre camera and diver into the right position without touching/breaking the fragile corals. And because their camouflage is so effective they just look like a lump of coral. The patterned froggies are far worse. Even with the eye perfectly in focus it’s difficult to tell there’s a fish somewhere in the frame.
Normally I use a 60mm Macro lens with two strobes for lighting up the subject but I’m constantly adjusting the strobe positions and camera settings to get the best result. The pictures in the blog are mainly set on ISO 200, F11 at 1/125 shutter speed. A 10mm wide angle fish eye lens can also yield some good results especially with a blue water background and the sun overhead. Photography friend Tamsin Eyles Kavanagh got some extreme results using a Sigma 8mm fisheye lens. Frogfish don’t normally ‘scare’ easily and will quite happily stay in the same spot while photographers snap away to their hearts content.
Frogfish come in all sorts of colours
I managed to get some nice close-ups of monotone froggies and the speckled variety. My favourites are the mouth-open action shots. I think this is the frogfish telling me in no uncertain terms: “Stop ramming your camera in my face and please go away!”
For more information on frogfish, Taba Heights or my book please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep up with all the latest from the Sport Diver columnists by following Sport Diver on Facebook.