Photos by Richard Barnden.
Richard Barnden has been guiding underwater in Palau for nearly fifteen years. His passion is in unique underwater imagery, specializing in spawning aggregations and black water night diving. He has spent more than ten years researching spawning aggregations and their predictabilities, returning to Palau every six months to continue unravelling more of their formulas. In 2012 Richard and Paul Collins co-founded Unique Dive Expeditions, a product of Sam's Tours which was the first of its kind educational diving product targeting spawning events for recreational scuba divers. These spawning events are tailored around lunar phases to observe fish reproduction mainly during the early hours of the morning. By night Richard spends most of his time photographing plankton and their environments, a relatively new kind of night dive called blackwater diving.He does this by either drifting over deep water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or making an underwater bonfire with dive lights on a shallow reef. In 2015 Richard along with co-founder Paul Collins were the pioneer dive team to crack the spawning timing of the Camouflaged grouper (Epinephelus polyphekadion) in Palau, something that took them almost 7 years. Three years later, In 2018 Richard and Paul put together a team of JJ-CCR closed circuit rebreather divers to try and uncover some of the similarities and differences between the same species of grouper spawning in Fakarava, French Polynesia and Ulong Channel, Palau. Although primarily there to document the grouper spawning Richard and Paul were also in Fakarava to observe the shark hunting behaviour that Laurent Ballesta and his team had discovered a few years before. This expedition led Richard on to winning Underwater Photographer of The Year and British Underwater Photographer of The Year 2019 with his shot entitled ‘The Gauntlet’ of two grey reef sharks tearing apart a terrified parrotfish at night.
IN THE BEGINNING
Born in 1978 I grew up near the coast of South East England where I was always drawn to the ocean. In 2001 I set out for an adventure in Fiji that would change my life forever. Spending the next six months learning to dive and how to identify different species of fish, I worked for a non profit organization setting up marine protected area’s around one of the northern Fijian Islands. This would later be the building blocks for my future diving and underwater photography career.
After building up enough dives to do my PADI divemaster and later PADI instructors I set sail for Australia where I worked for one year teaching tourists how to scuba dive and guiding certified divers around The Great Barrier Reef. My passion however was in underwater photography and after traveling around South East Asia for a year I settled down in Palau in 2003 and started work on a live-aboard as a photo and Video Pro.
THE BIRTH OF UNIQUE DIVE EXPEDITIONS
After five years of filming and guiding Palau’s dive sites, I started to notice pattern’s emerging in my log books and stock photography catalog’s. Fish kept appearing in larger than normal school’s at certain dive sites around certain moon cycles and seasons. These I would later learn are spawning aggregations and I became fascinated with understanding their predictabilities. This soon turned into an obsession and I would spend hours looking for any scientific or documented material I could get my hands on in an attempt to learn more. One book which became the bible of spawning information to me was 'Words of The Lagoon' by Dr Johannes, a pioneering scientist in the late 70's. Dr Johannes came to Palau and worked with local fishermen to understand spawning aggregations, something that would take a lifetime to learn without local knowledge. With the local Palauans help this would lead on to the pioneering work establishing Palau's Bull's. A closing period of fishing during spawning times thus protecting these vulnerable events from the every increasing pressure of overfishing. Most of these are still in force today.
Years went by reading more information and piece by piece I eventually started building a library of my own formulas and spawning events.
In 2012 myself and Paul Collins co-founded a brand new product called Unique Dive Expeditions, operated by one of the most popular dive shops in Palau, Sam’s Tours. These expeditions are based around the moon’s lunar cycles throughout the year for recreational scuba divers to witness some of mother natures hidden secrets - Spawning diving during the day and blackwater diving at night.
Since 2017 we have been leading Unique Dive Expeditions guests around some of the worlds most famous dive destinations including Palau, Galapagos Islands and French Polynesia.
BLACKWATER NIGHT DIVING
In an effort to understand more about post larval and juvenile fish and the gauntlets they have to overcome to survive, myself and Paul started to experiment with blackwater diving in Palau, a dive style that had already originated around ten years ago in Hawaii. By driving ten miles offshore, hanging lights down at 15m and drifting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean at night we can witness the nightly biomass migration. The biggest migration of animals on the planet. I have been fortunate enough to catalog and photograph creatures divers rarely get to witness. In 2015 while on a blackwater dive 8km of the East Coast of Palau I was able to photograph something I have been longing to see, a pelagic octopus called a paper nautilus (Argonauta sp), a first in Palau waters and a rare find for blackwater photographers.
I have spent the last few years diving at sun rise and drifting in the middle of the pacific ocean at night to photograph and document some of these little known about events. While not spending time underwater I like to write about what I have learnt and been able to witness. I have published articles for Asian Diver magazine, Scuba Diver, Diver Training, Tauchen, Alert Diver, Submerge and Dive Photo Guide.
I have also worked with numerous production companies including ABC (Australia), Brazil TV, Silverback Productions, Plimsoll Productions and BBC (NHU) - Shark.
In 2016 I started entering Photography competitions being awarded honorable mentions in both Ocean Art and Underwater Photographer of the year.
In 2019 I was awarded Underwater Photographer of The Year and British Underwater Photographer of The Year with my shot entitled ‘The Gauntlet”