I am following PT Hirschfields adventures for a while already. I love her underwater photography and think she is a huge inspiration. To learn more about her scuba diving adventures and her fight against cancer visit her website Pink Tank Scuba.
Goni: What is the best thing about scuba diving?
PT: For me, being underwater is the great escape from everything else in life. Floating is meditative and underwater photography is constantly challenging because the variables are ever-changing. Combining the two states of mind is my version of bliss. Diving is the ultimate treasure hunt. Looking for marine life, then as a photographer, trying to find the best ways to share that marine life with others who can’t experience it first hand for themselves is my favourite way to spend time.
If you could only do one more dive, what would you like to see or where would you like to go?
The animal at the top of my critter Bucket List is a Blanket Octopus. Apparently blackwater diving in the Philippines (my all-time favourite dive location) is the place to see them.
You often share photos of leafy sea dragons? What is so special about them?
In my home state of Victoria, Australia, we have easy shore diving access at several sites to weedy sea dragons. These animals are not commonly found elsewhere and are both very tolerant of divers and super photogenic. Even prettier are the stunning leafy sea dragons of South Australia which I’ve had the privilege to photograph on multiple occasions. In my opinion the ‘leafies’ are one of the most elegant and photogenic species on the planet. Being highly cryptic and not especially abundant, they can be very difficult to find, so their rarity makes them one of the most highly prized photographic specimens.
Would you like to tell us a bit about what scuba diving means to you with regard to your fight against cancer?
I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010, shortly after completing my Open Water training. Major surgery and complications knocked me out of the water for 10 months and diving was my primary motivating factor for recovery. I was diagnosed again in 2013 ahead of another 7 months out of the water. My motto became ‘Live Every Day as though you might Dive!’ Then I was told I was ‘incurable’ in 2014 when I completed a 4 month program of palliative radiotherapy, crossing manta rays and great whites off my Bucket List in between intensive treatment sessions. Continuing to dive in both warm and temperate waters rather than just curling up in a corner and waiting to die had a powerfully positive impact on my health.
I dived year round, even when my local waters dropped to 8 degrees Celsius. There’s a lot of research and practice to suggest that immersion in very cold water can be powerfully therapeutic both physically and mentally. I feel the most alive on a cellular level when I emerge from the coldest water. My oncologists have acknowledged the impact of diving on my well-being and quality of life and have always told me ‘Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it’.
In terms of the ‘fight against cancer’ or whatever other challenges we face internally, I truly believe that the battle is won or lost in the mind. We’ll all die of something eventually and no-one can predict how many days or dives they might have left. But given that I’ve been privileged to spend so much time underwater, I feel that my mind and body have been programmed for living every day with awe and gratitude rather than allowing any rogue cells in my body to dictate how I choose to live the days that are mine. Time in the ocean has given me that perspective.
What is the next diving trip that you have planned?
I have a ‘big birthday’ coming up in February 2021, so I’m hoping the current world situation will be resolved enough to permit me to travel to warm water with amazing marine critters to photograph *Fins Crossed!*
Did you ever get bored during a dive?
Absolutely! There’s one pier that I’ve dived over 500 times. It’s gone through periods of seasonal change or environmental impacts that have meant that marine life has at times been either highly predictable or few and far between. I actually got so bored with the site at once point that I chose not to dive it for 6 months, compelling myself to explore elsewhere. Even night diving once in the Philippines (both of which I typically live for), I just didn’t find much to excite me. But here’s the thing. If every dive was ‘WOW’, then ‘WOW’ would become the norm and we would become very hard to impress. Part of the joy of diving is that you never know what you will see. The ‘boring’ dives make us even more grateful when something extraordinary happens. They can even compel us to start paying more attention to the extraordinary details and behaviours of things we might otherwise assume to be ordinary and swim straight past.
You write articles for a sportdiving magazine and loads of blog posts. Many readers might be interested in how to get published by a magazine. How did you manage to start writing for them?
I’ve been writing the monthly Pink Tank Scuba column for Dive Log Australasia since 2015. My previous career was as a high school English and Media Studies teacher, so it made sense to me to share my dive adventures through writing articles and images. Initially I sent in a few photos that were published in the Reader Photos section. Then I submitted an unsolicited article about myself by way of introduction which wasn’t published. The following month I sent a short article about my battle with seasickness called ‘Don’t Make Me Puke’ which was published, and that encouraged me to keep writing and submitting. Every article I submitted from that point on was published and within a few months I was acknowledged as a regular columnist. My column focussed on a mix of travel writing, hot topics, product, event and destination reviews, often infused with the role that diving played in surviving both my multiple cancer diagnoses and being the victim of long-term relational betrayal and abuse. While writing has been excellent therapy, current world events have hit the dive travel and publications industry very hard. It remains to be seen how the magazine I’ve been writing for and the dive industry as a whole might recover from the impact, but there is hope despite all the current unknowns.
You are also a very talented underwater photographer. What would be your best hack to take better underwater photos?
Underwater photography is a continuous learning curve and every dive teaches me something new. The most powerful lessons I’ve learned are:
- Buoyancy is king. When you swim like a fish and maintain a peaceful energy, becoming one with the aquatic environment, you are more likely to be accepted as non-threatening by the animals you are working to photograph and to get much better results.
- The slower you go the more you will see. The more patience you demonstrate while taking marine portraits, the better your images will be.
- Get to know your camera gear so intimately that it becomes an extension of your own body. My preferred camera rig is still an obsolete compact Canon G12 in a Recsea housing with a single strobe. I have a DSLR and own at least 6 strobes. But the setup that feels the most part of myself is the one I always get the best results from. I had some people tell me I would never be taken seriously as an underwater photography unless I moved away from my compact system (which incidentally is far easier to travel with!) Ironically, I’ve had far greater competition and publication success with my compact shots than with anything I ever took with my DSLR. In summary, being true to yourself is an important ingredient in developing your ‘style’ and delivering your vision.
- Expect to get many of your best shots in the water that you dive most frequently. You will know the animals and their behaviours better, you will have a better understanding of the conditions and how to work within them. Once you know your camera, the conditions and the animals intimately, all that combined can bring something ‘extra’ into your images.
Most of the readers are now out of the water, because of the Corona Virus. What about you? Will you still have a chance to dive during these troubled times?
At the moment I’ve been out of the water like most other people. The peninsula where I live has great dive sites but initially the beaches were closed for all purposes. Then they were reopened for exercise e.g. walking, swimming and surfing. I assume that diving is considered a form of swimming but at the time of this interview I’m laying low and yet to test that theory. Like everyone else, I need to see how things unfold in my state and to work within the constraints set by the decision makers so that life can return to ‘normal’ as soon as possible.
Is there anything else you would like to tell my readers or recommend to them?
Feel free to follow my continuing ‘Scuba Vs Tumour’ adventures on Pink Tank Scuba Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and www.pinktankscuba.com . I’m anticipating that these platforms are bound to get something of a makeover over the months ahead! Make sure that as soon as life allows that you get back to doing whatever you can to support your local and broader dive industry! Above all else, #OutliveTheVultures!
Love and bubbles, PT (Pink Tank) Hirschfield