Rolex’s Perpetual Planet campaign draws businesses, scientists, governments and communities together to bring about positive change. Underwater photographer and Rolex Testimonee David Doubilet is doing that one picture at a time.

(Sept 23): If David Doubilet had enjoyed his summer hiking and trekking in the Adirondack Mountains in northeastern New York, we would be writing a very different story today. Doubilet, a pioneer underwater photographer and a Rolex Testimonee since 1994, admits to disliking the great outdoors.

In an exclusive interview, he tells Options about his experience at summer camp when he was nine: “I didn’t want to climb mountains. I didn’t like the horses. I wasn’t keen on baseball and I had asthma. So, I was sent down to the waterfront.” As such, the counsellors at summer camp gave him the not-so-glamorous job at the waterfront, where he cleared the fallen branches and giant water spiders that lurked under the docks.

“To go underwater, I had to put on a little blue mask. I held it to my face, and [sniff, sniff] breathed. I had never worn a mask before. But when I put my head underwater, I could see a few fish and some seaweed and the light streaming in... I was mesmerised. It changed my life.”

It was then, when he was nine, that he started diving off the coast of New Jersey, the US. In his spare time, he would read National Geographic and devour the information in it. While most people in their early teens growing up in the US would cite movie stars or baseball players as their heroes, young Doubilet looked up to the likes of Bates Littlehales and Luis Marden, both professional underwater photographers for National Geographic. Littlehales was credited for designing the OceanEye Plexiglass dome that housed the Nikon F camera, which had interchangeable wide-angle lenses. “And all of a sudden we could shoot shipwrecks and sharks, and shrimps even. It was a revelation,” declares Doubilet.

He knew then, in the 1960s, that he wanted to be an underwater photographer. But there were two things that he needed immediately: a good camera and a timepiece. For the former, the very resourceful Doubilet devised a primitive yet functional piece of equipment. “I made a first camera with my father, who’s a professor of surgery at New York University. We used the Brownie Hawkeye Kodak camera that I put in a rubber anaesthesiologist bag, and a flat piece of glass in the front of an old mask that you could unscrew and put the glass in. Next, I put the bag around the camera, took it underwater and manipulated the controls at the side of the bag to take pictures under water.” Doubilet says the quality of the images were so bad that he never
kept any of them.

After 26 hours spent underwater and 75 features in National Geographic, the 73-year-old now has some amazing cameras such as Leica and Canon to help him document both the beauty and devastation in our oceans.

Doubilet believes photography has the power to educate, honour, humiliate, illuminate and influence change. He has photographed in the depths of such places as the southwest Pacific, New Zealand and Scotland, as well as freshwater ecosystems such as Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Canada’s St Lawrence River. His photographs feature stingrays, sponges and sleeping sharks in the Caribbean, as well as shipwrecks at Pearl Harbour.

Doubilet was in Singapore last month at the invitation of Rolex to speak at the Perpetual Planet Symposium. With the launch of the Perpetual Planet Extreme Expeditions, Rolex takes its long-held partnership with the National Geo­graphic Society to new heights — and depths — to ensure exploration and conservation go hand in hand.

The Perpetual Planet programme sees Rolex continuing the legacy of its founder, Hans Wilsdorf, by supporting the explorers of today on a mission to chart changes in the Earth’s ecosystems. In 2019, under the banner of Perpetual Planet, Rolex is joining forces with key individuals and organisations to help find solutions to environmental challenges.

Among its initiatives are the Rolex Awards for Enterprise and partnerships with the National Geographic Society and Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue initiative.

Doubilet says, “The [partnership] is very close to my heart. It really brings two great companies together. I began to work for National Geographic and my first story was published in 1969. So, it has been 50 years.”

A long relationship

When Doubilet was about 16, he worked at the former Sandy Hook Marine Laboratory in New Jersey, and started to do a lot of diving for research on the effects of ocean garbage and pollution. For that kind of work, he needed a watch. The one he had one was not very good, as water kept seeping in.

Doubilet pooled together enough money to buy his first Rolex Submariner. Unfortunately, he could only afford the watch and not the strap. He bought the watch and used a rubber band to secure it around his wrist. It was only a couple of years later that he managed to save enough money to buy the strap. “Since the age of 16, I’ve had a Rolex on my wrist. In those days, we didn’t have computers, so we needed a watch. It’s a way of telling real time underwater,” he says.

That was in the 1970s and, as fate would have it, in 1994, Doubilet became a Rolex Testimonee. He recalls, “It is something that makes me very proud and Rolex has always been committed to the oceans, committed to photography and exploration.”

These days, according to the Rolex website, Doubilet wears the Deepsea. He says, “It’s a watch that has all sorts of history within it. I would never dive without my Rolex. Time underwater is very precious, sometimes more precious than light, sometimes as precious as air. It’s an entire day condensed into minutes and seconds. It has to be totally accurate. Your life depends on this watch.”

This watch, to him, is full of indelible memories. He has seen destruction and change, and hope. “The idea of taking a Rolex, an extraordinary piece of mechanical technology, into the real world, the toughest world — the deepest of seas, the coldest of seas, the highest of mountains — is a tradition and a commitment that Rolex has always had. For me, swimming with Rolex in the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean or the warm tropical seas of Papua New Guinea, these are the places that time needs to go to — and Rolex is there.”

Saving the world one image at a time

Every picture tells a story, as the saying goes. In Doubilet’s case, it shows how time has ravaged our oceans whether through pollution, coral bleaching or the melting of the ice caps. All that is needed to see the rapid deterioration of the earth is to compare images taken a few years earlier and after.

The world is worth saving, Doubilet says. “When we first saw what our planet looked like from the pictures [taken from] Apollo 8 seven months before we, men, walked on the moon, we realised how small we are, how finite this world is. This planet is all we have… It’s a blue world. It’s an ocean world. It’s not an earth planet; it’s an ocean planet.

Coral reefs are the crown jewels of our planet, says Doubilet

“I had no idea then that the pictures that I’d been making, instead of being just pictures of discovery, were pictures of documenting a time and place that may disappear, and that’s the key.”

The story he wants to tell is of global climate change, he says, and a good story transcends the details. “A great picture becomes something that’s more than art. It can be more universal in any story and, when that happens, people look at the story and the key thing is to reach people.”

Doubilet stresses that a photographer’s job is to take a picture that has quality of light, time, motion and colour. If you are shooting in colour, or black and white — which is a much more difficult image to make — everything has to say something about a place and a time, it is more than just art. And that is the love and grace of photography, he says.

One cannot help but think that Doubilet’s pictures will be the only pictorial evidence left of this beautiful ocean. Take heart, as Doubilet is optimistic; in fact, he and his scientist and photographer wife, Jennifer Hayes, are on a National Geographic grant to look at coral worldwide and to see how it has changed. They are geotagging everything so that people can refer to it — very much like an underwater library.

Doubilet adds that the professional partnership with his wife works because “she’s the scientist, I’m the dreamer. She has an ability to see far ahead of what’s happening in a situation or what this planet’s looking like. Her curiosity, like mine, is boundless”.

The questions he wants his project to answer are: What does a coral reef look like now and in 2029? Has it grown? Has it died? Has it changed? Climatologists think coral may be one of the greater indicators — the thermometer, if you will — of the health of this planet.

In Guam, for instance, more than a third of the reef died between 2013 and 2017 as a result of the warming and acidification of the ocean. Doubilet says: “Coral reefs are the crown jewels of our planet but, on the other hand, they are also the generator of massive amounts of plankton. They’re the cities in the sea for massive amounts of fish, though not as great, for instance, as in the Northern Sea.” He estimates that half a billion people from Singapore to the Philippines to China are dependent on coral reefs to provide food.

There is hope

It is not all doom and gloom, however, as Doubilet quotes fellow Rolex Testimonee Sylvia Earle, saying that there are spots of hope. One such spot is the waters around Guam. Doubilet has been keeping a close watch on the coral diversity there. “Guam is an open ocean island, the open ocean island, and I mean the water next to it is some of the deepest in the world, deadly clear too. Clear, clear water. So, there’s not a lot of coral biodiversity there, but there are great fields of it.”

A recent project that has had a profound effect on him is the one in Antarctica to document the habits of the chinstrap penguins. He describes the sight of the colonies of these creatures as unbelievably compelling, beautiful and heart-stopping. It is in such moments that he puts his camera down and tries to make sense of the sight of 200,000 penguins before him.

Doubilet’s latest project is to document the habits of the chinstrap penguins in the Antarctica

Doubilet wants people to visit the Antarctica. He encourages them to do it in their 30s or 40s, and not when they are in their 60s or 70s. “If you can, get there now and, when you come back, what you bring back is this entire perspective of how incredible this planet is. For people who don’t believe in climate change, global warming and anything else, this is a mind changer. This is the ultimate way of convincing people. Come with us, come and see this. It’s a plea and, if it’s possible, it’s worth it.”

The subject of retirement comes up in our conversation and Doubilet says, “I’m not sure what retirement is. I mean, will I ever want to stop doing this? I don’t think so. It’s such an incredible joy to make these images. Truthfully, it’s addictive.”

We hope this addiction will last and we are glad that the young boy from New York hated his summer camps spent in the mountains.