Norbet Wu

“Every few years you do something really stupid that makes you stop and think, “This is a dumb way to die,'” says underwater photographer Norbert Wu, 38, reflecting on the occupational hazards of his line of work. Though he hates boats, Wu has photographed great white sharks off South Australia, siphonophores in the Greenland Sea and argonauts off New Zealand’s Poor Knights Islands. And, he can spin more than a few curdling tales from the deep, highlights of which include a run-in with an iceberg, a shark bite and a deadly encounter with a swarm of sea wasps. The freakiest of all, however, was a mishap in an underwater cave system near the Borneo island of Sipadan.
“We broke the three cardinal rules of cave diving,” explains Wu in a deep, mellow voice reminiscent of a Southern California surfer. He and a guide had just entered Turtle Tomb, a simple underwater cave system aptly named for a creepy abundance of turtle skeletons. “We didn’t bring lines in, we were in the cave beyond the two-thirds rule and we didn’t know it very well,” he recalls. “I finally realized that the guide didn’t know where he was going when we kept bumping into each other. Then he asked me for a flashlight and I knew we were in trouble. Luckily, I had passed a chamber where I had seen a shaft of light, so we took our tanks off and pushed them in front of us up the tunnel.” Obviously Wu survived, but “the feelings of panic were very palpable,” he remembers. “It was only (by) knowing what panic was like that I could push it down and remain calm.”

This calmness or, more appropriately, understated demeanor is classic Wu. In his first major photography book, Splendors of the Sea: The Photographs of Norbert Wu (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1994), the photographer’s introduction begins: “Most people are a bit disappointed when they meet me. Instead of an athletic, macho, rum-soaked descendent of Blackbeard, they find instead a short, rotund, Asian man-hardly the sort of person most people envision doing battle with sharks and whales… They figure that if a puny guy like me can make a living as an underwater photographer, anyone can do it. And they are absolutely right.”

That’s all well and good, but the part Wu handily fails to mention is that he has long-surpassed being able to just “make a living” at underwater photography.

These days, the transplanted Californian, who works out of his studio next door to the famed Pebble Beach golf course in Pacific Grove, is more cult hero than modest photographer. “I recently went to a convention of still photographers,” says underwater cinematographer Bob Cranston, “and every booth had photographs by Norbert Wu. His name is as predominant as Bob Talbot’s.”

Indeed, thumb through National Geographic, Outside, Audubon, Omni, International Wildlife or the dozens of scuba and photography magazines and Wu’s byline will appear in any given month; watch a National Geographic television series and his name will roll through the credits; browse a bookstore and he’ll pop up as the originator and photographer of more than five children’s books, one of which, Beneath the Waves (Chronicle Books, 1992), was nominated for two book awards.

A self-admitted overachiever who fesses up to having “about 16 sticks in the fire at once,” Wu is thankfully modest about his list of accomplishments. In fact, his closest friends never cease to be amazed at how, well, normal he is. “His introduction in Splendors of the Sea is classic Norbert,” says diving pal Peter Brueggeman, library director for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “He’s definitely self-deprecating and, to go along with that, he’ll deprecate you,” laughs Brueggeman, referring to times he has worked for Wu as an underwater model and wasn’t able to follow the photographer’s hand-signal directions, eliciting short-lived fits from artistically tempered Wu.

“Norb’s a strange mix,” agrees Ken McAlpine, a freelance writer who often collaborates with Wu. “He’s just so average when you’re around him, then offhand, you’ll find out that he’s been awarded some grant they give once a century,” McAlpine jokes. “Norb can be blunt, which some people take as a lack of people skills, but I say it’s a lack of BS. If you get along with him, he’s a sheer pleasure to work with.”

Last winter, when McAlpine and Wu collaborated on a story for an airline magazine that took them to Yellowstone National Park, the two drove for hours in frigid ten degree temperatures looking at wolves. Suddenly Wu stopped and fished out a cooler from the back which McAlpine thought held film or camera gear. Assuming that he was going to reload or change lenses, Wu instead pulled out enough fried chicken to feed an army. “He’a basically your mom,” says McAlpine. “He arranged the whole trip down to the fried chicken, Pringles and Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies (Norb’s favorite). It comes down to the fact that he’s just ruthlessly efficient.”

That he is, which, say some, is the essential personality trait that has led to Wu’s success. According to his office manager, Camilla Mateo, the photographer averages 14 to 16 hour days when he’s not in the field. “Norb’s constantly contacting publishers, looking for new venues and markets that he hasn’t tapped into,” says Mateo. “He probably doesn’t need to work so hard, but he’s very interested in keeping his contracts active.”

“We always used to say that Norb knew how to sell photographs before he knew how to take them,” laughs Bob Cranston, recalling Wu’s entrepeneurial tendencies. “We used to tease Norb about his dead fish photos. He’d take those deep water fish that had been caught in the nets from his Scripps buddies and photograph them in his garage,” says Cranston. “Now he’s gone on to sell those dead fish photosfor more money than our entire library is worth.” Granted, Cranston’s forte is cinematography, but even if he were to concentrate on his skills, it’s doubtful he could top the going rate for an 8 1/2×10 Wu print, which sells for $425.

To understand how a single photograph of fish can be worth so much, one needs to look no further than Splendors of the Sea. The book bears witness to the fact that the photographer has the unique ability to combine the eye of an artist with the knowledge of a marine biologist. For example, Wu’s photograph of a juvenile crab feeding on a bell of a purple oceanic jelly in the Pacific Ocean slightly resembles the curvy sexuality of a Georgia O’Keefe orchid painting. But he turns the exquisite photograph into a teaching moment, explaining in the text the symbiotic relationship between the juvenile crab and the jellyfish, not letting his readers turn the page without gaining some understanding of the science behind the photograph’s appeal. Then there are Wu’s famed “dead fish” images. To see these creatures in their own habitat, one would have to travel 1,500 feet below the water’s surface – an impossible feat. Thanks to Wu, viewers can instead gawk at these horrifyingly ugly, yet fascinating fish from the comfort of their own living rooms.

Out in the field, Wu is often the first one in the water and the last to get out. “He’s a pretty tough guy,” observes Brueggeman, who accompanied him on a recent trip to Antarctica. “In Antarctica, there’s a limit to how long you can stay underwater. I could last 60 minutes – max,” says the diver, “but Norb would go one and a half hours. He’d have a blush tint when he got out.”

Adding to the Wu lore, Cranston recalls – “The first time I met Norbert, he came out diving with Howard Hall and me. He did not have a lot of equipment, so we made fun of him – like guys do,” he adds. “We were filming squid in the dead of night, mid-winter, and Norb had on just a thin wet suit with a rip in the hood. He kept on diving and we kept commenting on how crazy he was.”

Though Wu’s tireless perfectionism is the mark of his success, sometimes the self – induced stress gets the best of him. Brueggeman, who has been in more than a few tense situations with Wu, remembers a time when the two were diving in Monterey Bay and Wu got tangled up in some kelp with his underwater video light. “Norb was in a rage,” his friend remembers. “He just went off at the surface, and I sorta chuckled and said, ‘Hey, it’s just the kelp.’ If someone who had never worked with Norb before had been in the boat with me, he would think to himself, ‘Jesus, who is this guy?”

Wu’s work ethic may be due to the fact that he has reached the pinnacle of a long-held, albeit somewhat reformulated dream. “I’ve wanted to be a marine biologist since the second grade,” he says, admitting that was an odd career choice for a boy who grew up the son of a Chinese Georgia Tech aeronautics professor in Atlanta. “My soccer coach used to call me ‘nature boy’ because I was always catching turtles or something.” Wu’s fascination with watery creatures manifested itself on family trips to Florida. “I remember a trip down to Panama City Beach,” he says. “The tide came in with a school of some type of Grunt or something and you couldn’t move without touching a fish. The water was so rich in Florida back then.”

When the time came to pick a college, Wu’s choice was Stanford. Considering it had a marine biology station, the decision wasn’t a perfect one for Wu. Ultimately, however, Wu persuaded his parents’ practicality, and his own desire to make a lliving, he left Palo Alto in 1985 holding a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering-computers and a master’s in engineering science. Granted, Wu wasn’t as passionate about engineering as he was about capturing the secrets of the sea on film, but the degrees finally paid off – he designed and installed his own highly sophisticated custom database which tracks his photographs.

But even during his academic career, Wu’s practical side had not completely won out. After he graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1983, rather than becoming a technology grunt for an engineering firm, Wu took a low-paying job as a research diver with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where he was based in Panama’s San Blas Islands. Living out of a bamboo and plywood hut right above the water, he had maple time to dive and study underwater photography. Though Wu shot only ten rolls of film during the four month stint, the young photographer had become familiar with the habits of the fish. In turn, the fish had become so accustomed to him that he was able to take in-depth, up-close shots which marked the beginning of Wu’s signature photographic style.

After returning from Panama in 1984, Wu returned to hispractical ways and gave engineering one last chance – completing his master’s degree, he took a job in Silicon Valley. During his nine-month stint behind a desk, he saved $!5,000 – just enough to invest in his first high-quality underwater camera – then took a scholarship which led to the position of chief still photographer for an expedition to New Zealand on Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel Calypso. Though Cousteau has recently received negative posthumous press for reportedly staging underwater wildlife scenes and creating an unmendable rift in his family’s diving empire, the red-capped French diver has an ardent defender in Wu. “There is no one in history who has done so much for ocean exploration,” he insists, “Cousteau was an amazing man,” adding that his own motives are ignorable compared to the Frenchman’s. “I got into this because I love being out on the ocean. It’s puerly a selfish thing.”After Wu returned from New Zealand, he started taking classes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studying ichthyology and marine biology. While a student there, he went on his first expedition to the Artic where he learned a costly lesson in the perils of diving with expensive gear: “It was my first expedition in a dry suit,” remembers Wu. “I had on these huge, thick gloves and diving with two cameras. All of us were connected by ropes. While I was switching cameras, I fumbled and dropped one. I frantically tried to kick down, but I was at the end of my rope, so all I could do was watch the camera sink. It was the worst feeling in the world.” The lost camera didn’t hinder his plans much. In fact, the bleak marine biology job market combined with the increasing pull Wu felt toward photography, causing him to trade in the Scripps textbook education for the hands-on classroom of Monterey Bay.
“Sharks basically marked the demise of my Ph.D..” says Wu. “I had fallen in with Howard Hall and Bob Cranston who were doing a film on kelp forests and they asked if I wanted to go out shark diving,” he explains. “The next day, I just wasn’t savvy enough to tell my professor a lie about where I had been. They didn’t flunk me out or anything, I just quit going.”

If anything, Wu’s choice to leave Scripps accelerated his underwater photography career. He continued diving with Hall and Cranston, acting as an assistant camera-man and guide for Hall’s PBS films, which ultimately branched off into myriad projects and connections in both cinematography and photographic publishing. And though his success may look like a series of giant leaps, Wu is the first one to stress that the road hasn’t been easy. “I had a huge drive to do what I do today. The idea that photographers get big breaks is a total myth, and it’s really damaging,” he bristles. “I succeeded by lots of failures and perseverance.”

Recently, Wu has spent most of his time on an ultra-ambitious six-year documentation of Antarctica’s underwater sea life. From October through December of 1997, he was based out of McMurdo Station driving and photographing on the nickel of the National Science Foundation which awarded him a grant from its Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Though the pleasure derived from diving in 28-degree water is lost on most, Wu plans to return to Antarctica this October for five more months in the frigid water, pending acceptance of his reapplication for the N.S.F. grant. His long-term objective is to produce a book about the southernmost continents marine life.

When diving in Antarctica, the Wu drill is to get up before 7 a.m., prepare his camera gear, then drive 20 miles from McMurdo Station across the frozen sea ice to a heated diving hut, reminiscent of a northern Minnesota ice fishing shack. Here Wu and his divers setup a Coleman stove, then plunge into the below-freezing water. The team usually does about three dives a day, then calls it a night before hypothermia sets in.

When Wu is not diving in Antarctica or Australia, the Caribbean or Monterey Bay, he leads a surprisingly quiet life – spending marathin days in front of his computer at his studio which overlooks a backyard forested with drooping 150-year old oak trees, often laden with migrating monarch butterflies. During his rare days off, he and his dentist-wife Deanna might play a round of hack golf at nearby Pebble Beach, or take a walk down to the waves which crash into the shoreline just blocks from the couple’s house. In a rare moment of reflection, he might recall his favorite quote from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, a phrase that he often uses to describe his life’s calling;” Children on the beach he taught how to look for and find beautiful animals and worlds they had notsuspected were there at all.” And Indeed, one look at a Norbert Wu image is evidene that his life’s work is complete.

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