You’re Cool Dad! Marine Biology


Today we present the shot “You’re cool dad!” depicting a male specimen of Apogon imberbis, during the seasonal hatching of the eggs. The picture was taken in July, in plain summer, when these colorful fishes culminate their breeding season with the male specimens that brood & protect the eggs directly inside their mouth.

Location: Byron Cave, Portovenere, Ligurian Sea
Shooting data: F20 1/200 iso 200, Canon 5dmk3 + Canon 100mm, Nauticam Housing + two Inon Z240


Nature always reserves many surprises and wonders: parental cares are certainly one of these.
In ethology, parental cares are represented by the whole series of behaviors that parents put in place to protect their offspring.
Parental cares are scarce among fishes and, when present, they are generally performed by males and usually directed only to protecting the eggs.
Among the many males that protect the eggs, those of the Apogonidae family (cardinal fish) have developed a very peculiar behavior: they brood the eggs in their mouth protecting them from predators until hatching, thus optimizing the success rate.

Today’s picture shows a male specimen of Apogon imberbis (Mediterranean species) holding in its mouth its future offspring at a good state of development. The very narrow shot with focus on the eggs allows you to see well the developing little ones inside the transparent eggs, the small eyes and the yolk-sacks that will feed the embryos until hatching. In general, we see few pictures of this quality about this species, because it is a very mobile species and quite shy.
Moreover, the reduced possibilities of the macro shooting prevent in most cases to having such details.

For Apogon imberbis, reproduction occurs during the summer, between the months of June and October.
The female lays the mass of eggs that the male fertilizes in the water column, after which it brood them inside the oral cavity where they will be kept until complete hatching, 7-8 days after fertilization. During the whole period of embryonic development, the male never abandons the eggs, about twenty thousand in total, so it does not feed through the whole time of incubation.
Hatching usually occurs at night, when most of the predators are resting, optimizing even more the possibilities for the newborns. From the time of hatching, the little ones will have to provide for themselves in all respects, and will therefore be completely independent.


This kind of shots do not present great difficulties from the technical point of view. The success or failure of a behavioral photography of this type is especially due by being able to be in the right place at the right time.
The thing may seem trivial, but certainly relying solely on luck cannot help that much: need programming, need to know the habits of these fish, need to know where they live and know their reproductive period. Therefore, first of all, studying the biological aspects of every subject that we want to portray is the first advice I can give you!
In this respect, a good biologist may definitely help you find all the relevant information.

As per the set-up, we surely will need a long lens, 100mm/105mm, in order to have a distance from the subject sufficient to keeping it relaxed and behaving naturally. Shorter lenses would force us to get closer to the comfort threshold of our subject, hindering us from shooting behavioral scenes.
Once you find the location and the subjects, you will need more than one ambush to make sure you arrive at the right time. Here, tenacity and perseverance play a fundamental role. And once in the water? When we finally find ourselves face to face with our Apogon focused on hatching his offspring, how do we approach it?
The key words are steady hand and KEEP CALM!

Typically, Apogons stay in dark cavities and for the 99% of the time, once you get close, they will turn immediately on the opposite side to yours, thus showing off their caudal fin.
The first thing to do is finding the right setting with your camera by doing some test shots, even if the subject is turned or not posing. The important thing is to find the right shooting distance, set a fast shutter time (1/250 or more, if your camera allows it), a diaphragm quite closed, around f14 or even up to f20 for full frame sensors.
Then find the right flash power and get ready for a long wait.

Other factors to consider are the balance and buoyancy of your photographic gear: in such situations where you have to remain several minutes in position waiting to shoot, having the set perfectly neutral and not weighing on your wrists is definitely something not to be underestimated.
Otherwise, in the end, after several minutes of still waiting, you will hardly be able to shooting promptly. I use FlexArm carbon arms and Stix arms, and found the right setup to make everything perfectly neutral with macro set. My second advice then is to waste some time and some diving doing tests and trying to make your camera perfectly neutral. Your wrists will thank you, but the most important thing is that you’ll definitely be more ready during shooting.

Here we are at last to the moment when you’ll have to press the button and shoot: fishes are very sensitive to vibrations, so you have to stay perfectly still and try not to hit the bottom, first not to frighten them further and second to avoid rising unnecessary suspension. Breath control is fundamental: try not to emit too many bubbles and make maybe some apnea at the culminating moment of the action.

You can make the difference once you become familiar with the fish: try to make them accepting you, to transmitting them that you are not a menace. It takes time. Needless to try shooting quickly. Initially, keep a distance and take some shots, then slowly try to get closer a little more, just a few centimeters at a time. Never jerky or sudden movements: try to build trust and let the fish understand that you are not an immediate threat.
Typically, after a few moments when the Apogon remains turned by giving you the back, as if by magic it will suddenly turn and be right in front of the lens to see what you are doing. Just a few seconds and it will return to its position. Thus, stay still, focused only on the subject’s movements, following it through the lens and thinking purely and only about framing and shooting.

Remember: patience and perseverance are the key to this kind of shots.


WORDS and PICTURES by Marcello Di Francesco and Fabio Russo

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