Up Close, Fearless, and Wet

Stephanie Whiston is a painter as well as an underwater photographer
Stephanie Whiston has a show of her underwater photography at the Montauk Library this month. Janis Hewitt

   Stephanie Whiston of Montauk has dived in deep seas over 1,000 times in the last 20 years. And all because of her little fear of sharks!
    A friend suggested she combat that fear by diving with the often-maligned creatures. She now photographs them and other underwater species, and it has become her life’s work.
    On one of her first dives, in 1993 aboard a National Geographic Society vessel, a crew member lent her a camera, and she ended up winning first place in a photography contest sponsored by the society.
    Her archives are now full of pictures of underwater sea life, and choosing just 50 of them for an exhibit that is running now through the end of the month at the Montauk Library was difficult. She has no favorites.
    She does want it known that although she favors conservation, she is not a tree-hugger and does not oppose Montauk’s annual shark-fishing tournaments. She hopes, however, that her exhibit brings about an awareness of the sharks’ declining numbers.
    “I don’t want everyone in Montauk to be mad at me,” she said on Sunday while leading a visitor through her exhibit, which is on view on the library’s lower level. “I’m just a scuba diver with a camera.”
    Her enthusiasm is obvious when she discusses her diving adventures. She animatedly imitates fish faces and points out the ones she has named, such as Smiley, a shark she swears smiled at her while her camera was catching him.
    Born in Dublin, Ireland, Ms. Whiston moved to New York in 1972. She developed her fear of sharks after watching Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” a memorable film that came to her mind the first time a shark turned around and swam back toward her, on her 50th dive.
    “It’s all I thought about; that first scene when the girl gets attacked by the great white,” Ms. Whiston said. “It turned around and came right toward me. I started hyperventilating; I thought I was going to die. I figured it was up to God. If I was going to die, I just wanted it to happen fast.”
    To control herself, she placed her hand on a piece of coral on the sea floor to steady her body and stayed as still as possible while practicing controlled breathing. The shark breezed right past her.
    “They have no interest in us. We’re the predators. The worst thing I have to worry about is getting hit with a fin,” she said, noting that there are 800 species of sharks, only 8 of which might be aggressive.
    Her diving interest has taken her all over the world, including to the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, and Australia. Asked if she had a favorite spot, she couldn’t come up with one. “Maldives is amazing. Thailand is untouchable, and Fiji is unbelievable,” she said.
    “It’s so natural being under the water; we should be able to breathe under there,” she said.
    Her photographs at the library are sharp, vivid, and colorful. In addition to sharks, there are pictures of lionfish, groupers, frogfish, stingrays, sea lions, turtles, kissing fish, clownfish, and lots of colorful coral, one piece of which, she pointed out, resembles a vase with flowers tumbling from it in a way that recalls a still-life painting.
    One of her pictures is of a creature in the Indian Ocean that has never been documented, according to officials there who are still researching whether the shrimp-type species was ever previously found. If not, then Ms. Whiston will receive the honor of naming it. She’s planning on calling it a nipple fish, since — well, go see the picture and you’ll see why the name is fitting.
    Ms. Whiston is a painter as well as an underwater photographer, and works from a studio at her house in Montauk. It’s where she framed all of the pictures in the current show.
    She gave the first of two presentations at the library last night. On Sunday she will give another, from 2:30 to 5 p.m. She is available for private discussion by appointment.
    The exhibit includes video footage of her dives and extreme close-ups with the fish. Her plan next is to try to incorporate her photographs into a children’s book. She is also getting in touch with local restaurant owners to see if they would like to stream the video in their establishments.