When Connie Whelan discovered exquisite aquatic landscapes and creatures while snorkeling in Belize, she dove enthusiastically into her new passion.
Over the next several years, the Oregon Symphony viola player earned her scuba diving certification and began studying underwater photography.
She sold her first two photographs in 1996, which eventually led to creation of Coral Perspectives in 2005, selling her work at home shows and weekend craft markets in Portland and Astoria. “I wanted to sell person to person because I enjoy talking to people, especially children, about the ocean,” she said.
Her vivid images capture the fascinating flora and fauna of the ocean, from the many hued soft coral gardens of Fiji to the undulating black and white stripes of a Zebra Anemone hiding a translucent shrimp.
In Burma, Connie waited patiently and was rewarded by a shot of two “cuddling” cuttlefish, difficult to photograph because they instantly camouflage themselves. Over the course of 25 years, Connie made 1,251 dives to some of the most stunning underwater destinations on Earth.
In Fiji, Connie observed the symbiotic activities of a couple of Gobies and shrimp. The Gobies acted as lookouts for predators while the shrimp cleaned out the hole in the ocean floor that they all shared. The shrimp had one tentacle on a Gobie at all times so any danger would be detected immediately, and they could all quickly retreat. Connie’s images capture these aquatic relationships with an astute eye and reverence.
In 2014, Connie stopped diving. She was 70 years old, lugging two 50 lb. bags, her computer in her purse, plus cameras and gear in a carry-on bag. Her many trips, camera upgrades and framing supplies consumed all the profits she made from her photographs. And she had been diving either part or full-time for a quarter century. “I had seen the best dive areas in the tropical world,” she said.
But at 76, Connie still loves to travel; she has visited 45 countries since her first trip to Europe at 19. “I always encourage low budget travel – going to resorts is not going to the country,” she says. She often stays in the center of a town so she can walk or bus as much as possible. She has made multiple trips to Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, where she’s interested in documenting indigenous people in their daily lives and celebrations. Now, instead of underwater cameras and strobe lights, she carries a tablet and a smart phone.
Last year she visited Tarabuco, Bolivia for the Pujllay celebration in March. The annual event commemorates the battle of Jumbati, when villagers defended their town from Spanish forces.
On the day before Pujllay, the indigenous Yampara people build a wooden structure called the Pukara, 40 feet high and 4 feet wide. They cover it with fruit, vegetables, meat, beverages, bags of coca leaves and more to thank the Pachamama (Mother Earth). There is music, and a parade, and dancing around the Pukara.
These are the sights that excite Connie’s heart and her photographic art these days.