Dive School with Lill Haugen

Lill Haugen is a diving instructor and underwater photographer from north-western Norway. She is also a shark-lover and tireless environmental campaigner, whose work is regularly published in dive magazines across the globe. Today, Wolf sits down with Lill to gain some insight into her wonderful, underwater world.

I am originally from Ørsta, which is on the rugged Norwegian North-west coast, but I can typically be found in the capital city of Norway, Oslo. I have been scuba diving for 13 years. I took it up while pursuing my masters degree in Brisbane, Australia. I knew right from the start that I needed a camera; this amazing world had to be shared! Blown away by the fascinating underwater world of Moreton Bay – close encounters with sharks, whales, rays and turtles – I simply could not stop, even after moving back to the icy waters of Norway. Armed with a dry suit and a new camera I continued exploring the underwater world in the Norwegian fjords, which luckily offers some of the world's best cold water diving.

I am a PADI Open water scuba instructor and certified IANTD Advanced nitrox/recreational trimix diver. This means that I can teach people to dive, and that I am trained dive to depths of 50 meters, by mixing helium into my breathing air and using decompression tables. But most of the time I dive shallow, to photograph under the surface.  I do approximately a hundred dives a year, which means I must have done at least 1300 dives in total to date.  I usually dive a little less in the ski season – skiing is one of my other passions.

My “real job” is in public relations, working with health and lifestyle issues in Norway. Apart from exploring the world as an underwater photographer and freelance journalist, I am regularly published in Dykking, a Norwegian diving magazine, and some other international magazines.

I mainly use my photos to tell stories. But I also do some competing, primarily because it is a way of learning, pushing myself to develop as a photographer. I have won the Norwegian Championship in Underwater Photography 3 times (2010, 2011 & 2013). I represented Norway in the World Underwater Photography Championship in Turkey in May 2011 and won a silver medal, and I have been awarded in many international competitions including the Ocean Art Photo Competition (2011 & 2013).

“I use my photos to tell stories. Conservation is my main objective. I want my pictures to show the beauty of our planet, of our oceans. I hope it will make us realise that we MUST protect the world that we live in. It is time to act."

Conservation is my main objective. I find it important to use my underwater images to illustrate the beauty of the sea, and at the same time highlight the huge environmental challenges that our world’s oceans are facing. I am especially concerned about saving the sharks, and I am working to spread knowledge to change the unbalanced negative perception of sharks. I feel like we are about to lose the ocean’s most perfect predator to overfishing, loss of habitat, pollution and the devastating hunger for shark fin soup. Sharks are amazing, but if the world does not act quickly, they will soon be gone forever.

On diving the Nordic waters
The main thing to note is obviously the temperature – the sea is COLD!  Even in the Oslo fjord, we often get covered in sea ice in January/February, and water temperatures drop as low as -2! That hurts, but as long as I am busy photographing, it is fine. Dry suits and dry gloves are definitely required. There is also a risk of “freezing” our breathing regulators. This is one reason why many cold water divers use double tanks and two separate breathing systems. If one malfunctions, you still have another.

The other thing is the marine life. Cold-water habitats are not like the colourful coral reefs of the tropics. But we also have clear blue water, lush kelp forest, and an amazing variety of strange critters. In Norway, we have a range of German shipwrecks, sunk during World War II. Visiting these wrecks is like going back in time.

For me, the true magic is in the ocean. The wild seas are so close, so familiar, but somehow still like a stranger. For divers, there is another submerged world to be explored. Below the surface, a blue liquid planet awaits, where I can soar weightlessly through lush kelp forests and swim with silvery schools of fish, eye to eye with creatures that look like they are from another galaxy – all to the quiet sound of my own breathing. But it is also a fragile and threatened world. Today, more than ever, our oceans must be treated with respect and wisdom.

On the challenges of underwater photography
Well, physically, both you and the camera must be under water. This means you have very limited time to shoot – as long as your air last, or your bottom time if you dive deep. The waters in Scandinavia are very cold, and I often struggle to operate my camera because my fingers are “frozen”. It is generally hard to move with all the heavy equipment, and there may also be strong currents and poor visibility. 

One of the biggest differences between shooting in air and in water is that water has a higher density than air - making the details disappear in a shorter distance, and the photographer must get extra close to the subject.

The lack of light is probably the biggest challenge in underwater photography. Because water quickly filters out the natural light, the colours disappear after only a few metres. The colour red disappears first, below 5 meters, then orange, then yellow, green and finally you are left with blue only. The lack of light under water makes it necessary to use artificial light to give the subject colour. However, the strobe light does not reach farther than a few feet. Adding lighting is important – either with strobes, video light or daylight/sunlight. A combination is often best.

You don’t actually need to scuba dive to shoot pictures underwater. Often the most beautiful images are found in shallow water, in the pebbles or just below the surface of the sea. The light is good, and a wetsuit and diving mask with snorkel is all you need for an exciting photo shoot.

Lill’s recommendations
The North-western parts of Norway offer great diving.  In the lush kelp forests, you get the chance to encounter curious cod, see hypnotizing swirls of herring, bizarre-looking monkfish, and get face to face with fearless wolf fish. You can even explore sunken wrecks from past times

The Atlantic Road between Molde and Kristiansund in Møre og Romsdal is one of Norway's most visited natural tourist attractions. It is a wild and beautiful stretch of road rated as one of the world's finest road trips. The Atlantic Road runs zigzag over eight low bridges totalling 891 metres, over a number of islets and reefs completely out at sea. The dive centre Strømsholmen Seasport centre is located right at the start of this road, and will take you diving or fishing in one of the most beautiful parts of Norway

Lygnstøylsvatnet in Ørsta was created after a huge avalanche in 1908 when the river swallowed a forest and nine barn houses. In the shallow water, you can swim above the remains of the flooded houses and the trees. It is a very unique dive, and attracts divers from all over the world.

Saltstraumen in northern Norway, thirty kilometres from Bodø has been named by National Geographic to be one of the ten best diving sites in the world! Saltstraumen has a completely unique underwater life – the number of fish and different species that you see there you would normally only see at greater depth.

For more of Lill's work visit: www.lillhaugen.com
Lill is also involved in the Art of Sunnmøre project, which aims to capture the amazing natural beauty of Sunnmøre, in North-west Norway. More info, here.
Words: Sharman Tanny