favorite subjects to photograph

favorite subjects to photograph

by Janice Nigro

Plenty of tongue-twisting words for underwater creatures exist. Somehow mine for most of my life was simply anemone. Even as I write this, spell correct just corrected the word anemone. For me, it remains a conscious effort to say or write this word correctly. Eventually I realized my mistake but it was only after moving to Norway and while I was learning Norwegian. I am not exactly sure why I would have ever used the word before I started to scuba dive. Anemones were not necessarily in my conscience prior to diving, and it was in a pre-Finding Nemo era. Even then instead of calling him an anemonefish, most people just call him a clownfish, which he is also.

Anemone, however, is not the kind of word that comes up in casual conversation, nor are you going to learn it in language class, not ever. When you are trying to learn a new language, you will read anything to become proficient (even advertisements are suddenly interesting) but luckily, a Norwegian diving magazine exists. One of the ways that I would work on trying to learn Norwegian was to read the magazine. Honestly, I learned some useful words from “Dykking” and among them was anemone. It was then that I finally learned how to really say the word in English (which is easier to pronounce in Norwegian because of the syllable accent), and if you look at the name Nemo it is in fact a part of the right way to say the word. In my dictionary it would have been Neno, which of course makes no sense at all. So Nemo is a good way to remember how to say anemone.

I really do not know how my obsession with anemones developed. I suppose they are easy targets for photography because you can readily identify them on your own as a new diver. And because of the anemonefish, although it is nearly impossible to take the fish photos as they constantly move. I like the fish, but I am more enamored of the anemone. Any kind of anemone. I will spot anemonefish hanging midwater and feel compelled to see the anemone over which they play. It must be entirely annoying to the dive guides who are working feverishly to find rare, micro-macroscopic creatures to show me. At the same time, I am easy to please. I am probably the only person who has ever shouted anemonefish (rather than whaleshark or manta) at the end of a dive on approach to the liveaboard boat.

Anyone who knows me, knows of my obsession. “Always looking at anemones,” a guide once said to me. But even he admitted that they are beautiful. I am constantly taking photos of them, and yet dive guides will still humor me by pointing out even more. Sometimes there are some simple scientific principles that I do like to test on them-for example, that color diminishes with depth-because anemones exhibit such natural variation in it. The strobe will change this depth effect, but by the time I reach the surface, I have often forgotten what their color was at depth! You can also test your skills at taking dramatic, abstract shots by photographing the mouth because of shadows and variation in color. Many of these photos end up not so innocent looking though, like a giant Georgia O’Keefe painting of a flower.

The underside, scientifically referred to as the column (skirt in common use) of the anemone can be the biggest photographic surprise of all. Textures are fascinating, and colors defy your imagination. Sometimes they are even polka-dotted. Other times the column is wildly uncoordinated with the color of the tentacles. Purple column, red tentacles, yes, I saw this combination in Panglao Beach, the Philippines. How does this color combination evolve and who is this anemone trying to attract or distract?

skunk anemonefish in a bleached anemone pretty much a blow out nightmare to take a photo of!

skunk anemonefish in a bleached anemone

But what do I really know about anemones? Not a whole lot apparently. I only recently discovered that they are related to coral and that like coral, they also have a symbiotic relationship with algae, one that gives them their color. I was shocked on a second cruise to Komodo within a two-month timeframe, to find a large proportion of “white anemones”. A cruise director informed me that they were not new anemones (because anemones are known to live a long time-as long as 100 years) but instead bleached anemones. Bleaching is the loss of symbiotic algae, which in addition to giving anemones color, produce nutrients for them. I am mystified by the array of tentacle colors (even pink, orange, and red), but the color of the column is animal pigment so it is all in the DNA of the anemone. Not only are anemones a mini-habitat to many different crabs, shrimp, and anemonefish, but a photosynthetic factory contributes to the support of all of it.

For all of that natural beauty though, an anemone is not exactly a hospitable habitat. Anemones are animals that sting. They harbor special miniature harpoon-like structures called nematocysts which inject poison/toxin into the flesh of prey, predators, and even other anemones where there are territorial disputes. The anemonefish, however, manages to live amongst the tentacles unharmed as do a variety of crustaceans. This ability is currently attributed to the mucus covering the skin of animals, and it is thought to prevent the triggering of the nematocysts. What magic ingredient within the mucous prevents discharge of the nematocyst remains a secret. Where the mucus comes from is even of controversy, probably because different species of anemonefish and anemones behave differently, but the protective mucus appears to originate from either the fish or the anemone. However, it might be a bit like superman and Planet Krypton because the mucus shield is not an all for one. In the right anemone, fish are protected, and in the wrong one, they can be just as vulnerable as another fish.

How anemonefish find an anemone to live in is another question with diverse answers. In fact, some anemonefish are less discriminating in terms of which type of anemone they can live in, whereas others have a distinct species that they inhabit. It seems that to some degree the fish are attracted by specific chemical signals originating from the anemone and less so by visual cues. This ability seems to be partly due to genetics, which is greatly enhanced if fertilized eggs are located within close proximity of their typical anemone home. It is believed then that the anemone makes factors that subtly influence the eggs predisposing them to responding to the cues and thus, finding a similar home when they grow up.

When you look at an anemone, you do not have to think too much about why the fish might want to live there. It is a beautiful house, you can easily hide in it, and if there is a real threat, the anemone can close itself around you. But anemones also look like they could just feel nice… as long as you are able to avoid the problem of engaging the nematocysts. Research actually shows that fish may engage in certain hedonistic behaviors. Anemonefish in a tank, when isolated from the anemone, for example, will bathe in the bubbles originating from the aerator. Real scientific measurements have been made, however. Cortisol, which is an indicator of stress, is actually found to be decreased in fish that are in contact with certain tactile sensations.

What exactly does an anemonefish do for the anemone? Apparently other people have had the same question (and fortunately got grant money to study it). I had zero ideas for the answer to this question so I did what we all do, I literally typed that question into Google.com. The first link that popped up was “Dancing Nemo: Clownfish wiggles do an anemone good”. No joke and who could resist reading an article with a title like that? This short paragraph led me to the real research article, which has the title “Anemonefish oxygenate their anemone hosts at night.” The bottom line is that the movement of the fish, which are especially active at night, keeps nutrient and gas (oxygen) flow constant over the anemone. Hmm, so maybe as an underwater photographer I may actually be helping the anemone because the fish move constantly when I try to take a photo.


Additional reasons have been proposed for why the fish is beneficial to the anemone as well. The anemone can snack on scraps from the fish, and it is even thought that nutrients from the fish waste are also good for the anemone. Furthermore, the fish apparently protect the anemone from predators, that I would never have guessed, are the lovely butterfly fish. Apparently these fish are also impervious to the stinging by anemones, and without the anemonefish, anemones are quite vulnerable in the natural coral reef habitat. I have myself undergone direct attack by anemonefish (very scary), but I always thought they were protecting their eggs.

There are a thousand lessons to learn about relationships in nature just by looking at an anemone. And I am sure there are many others that we can not see. But this is why there has been so much research performed on them. The fact that some very violent stuff is taking place within anemones does not change my opinion about them. Perhaps, their beauty is also viewed by other fish, and it is one of their ways to attract prey. It seems like that would be enough to attract me to an anemone, but maybe I was just an anenomefish in another life…

What burning question do you have about symbiotic relationships of sealife???

©2014 Janice Marie Nigro/janikiink.com

underwater travel tip: take a look at an anemone, closely, the next time you have a chance.


1. Taxonomic, Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Bleaching in Anemones Inhabited by Anemonefishes http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070966

2. Dancing Nemo: Clownfish wiggles do an anemone good http://www.livescience.com/27530-clownfish-fan-sea-anemones.html

3. Anemonefish oxygenate their hosts at night http://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/6/970.long

4.Tactile stimulation lowers stress in fish http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v2/n11/full/ncomms1547.html

5. The anemone fish symbiosis: what is known and what is not http://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/bitstream/1808/6134/1/Fautin.1991.pdf

6. Host recognition and possible imprinting in the anemonefish Amphiprion melanopus (Pisces: Pomacentridae) http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/188/m188p207.pdf

http://www.scubaverse.com/2014/05/22/anenome-anemone-2/

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4 thoughts on “favorite subjects to photograph

  1. thanks for taking a look at this essay. if it looks familiar, it is one that I wrote a while ago. it keeps getting hit by search engines because the previous title was so unique. I had to remove the original and give it a boring title…I will see if this works

    • So far the title works. it was getting hit about 5 to 10 times a day. Not so much to be picked up as anything out of the ordinary, but every day it was the same post. I don’t quite understand what benefit comes from that. Those anemonefish crack me up when they are aggressive. I have had them bump into my mask or lens-it almost seems that they could hurt themselves.

      • That’s actually pretty good hits! Maybe they will browse around the rest of your blog posts after reading the post…could that be?
        I share similar feeling to them whenever they bumped into my mask with their mouth open…oohh..cute but worrying..

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