ROGER STEENE

Text by the Editor

The photographs in this article are the result of one person's love affair with coral reefs. For over 35 years Roger Steene has spent several months of every year diving and photographing on reefs around the world. His motivation has been neither that of an academic following a career nor that of a photographer pursuing a livelihood. To capture on film the wonder and beauty he finds on reefs has been his abiding desire. In so doing he has amassed an extraordinary collection of over 50,000 transparencies culled from perhaps 10 times that many he has taken. Roger operates by his own standards alone. The rejects he discards are often excellent photos by any standards. Invariably when he returns from a diving expedition and has his film processed he is mildly disappointed that somehow his results, no matter how good, do not fully convey the ultimate beauty of the subject. This dissatisfaction then becomes a determination to go back and do the whole thing over again to capture that ultimate elusive nuance.

Roger Steene is, like the reefs he loves, a remarkable phenomenon. For ten years I had the pleasure of his company aboard my research vessel El Torito for a couple of months each year on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Coral Sea. His enthusiasm is infectious and at times, such as at a new diving location on a perfect day, it becomes almost uncontrollable. This enthusiasm is not limited to reefs. He loves good food, good friends, good times and life itself. When Roger was aboard everyone seemed to catch his enthusiasm and enjoy themselves even more than usual.

In many respects he is a quintessential Australian. A larrikin, irreverent, fun loving and scornful of all pretension. The Aussie irreverence and lack of pretension applies to self as well as others. No weakness or failing is too sensitive, no stupidity too embarrassing to be joked about. Minor disasters due to ones own thoughtlessness get no sympathy from Roger. Instead, they are an object of hilarity. More often than not it is his own disaster such as when he attempted to free up an expensive telephoto lens with a pipe wrench and totally destroyed it.

Another classic example occurred one day on the reef. I was busy on the bottom filming close-ups of small commensal shrimps when I heard Roger's DPV approaching. He zoomed in and circled me as if to remind me of my pedestrian status on the bottom encumbered with motion picture equipment. I looked up and he waved preparatory to zooming off again. This action resulted in the coil cord linking his camera and flash being devoured by the propeller of his DPV. This simultaneously flooded his flash unit, started a leak in his camera housing and wrecked the propeller.

His moment of triumph had in an instant turned into a disaster. Roger streaked for the surface to save his camera, trailing the remaining wreckage by the entangled cord. I was left on the bottom trying to avoid drowning from laughter. When I surfaced a few minutes later he was simultaneously cursing and laughing while trying to sort out the mess.

In between diving trips to exotic locales and gargantuan meals Roger was for many years a serious businessman. He has few ties and treasures his freedom. Though he loves women and children and animals he remains a bachelor saddened by the fate of his mates whose obligations prevent them from joining him on another diving trip.

In 1972 I arrived in Cairns, Australia with El Torito from the U.S. via Micronesia and New Guinea. With me was Dr. Jerry Allen, his wife Connie and son Tony. While I flew out to Sydney to edit and sell a documentary film I had shot in New Guinea Jerry and his family remained with the boat. My stay in Sydney stretched into five months. During this time Jerry met Roger Steene and began a close friendship that has endured.

This was Roger's real introduction to the scientific study of reefs. At that time he had his own boat and was already an avid underwater photographer with years of experience. His meeting with Jerry was a turning point. What you photograph is what you see and that depends greatly on understanding. The profusion of life on reefs is also confusing and knowledge of their biology is limited and not readily accessible. Only recently have a guidebooks and texts started to become available. Scientific knowledge is largely couched in arcane jargon and hidden in obscure journals. Much of what is known is still unpublished. Roger's introduction to the scientific community afforded access to this knowledge.

Since that time most of Roger's diving has been in conjunction with biologists. This particular commensal relationship has proved to be very beneficial to both sides. His indefatigable enthusiasm and good humor are always an invaluable asset to morale and he has made his photographs freely available for use in numerous books and scientific publications. In return he has acquired a breadth of knowledge of reefs far beyond that of most other underwater photographers. Many of his photos reflect this knowledge. In addition to the intrinsic beauty of the subject matter they depict many fascinating relationships and little known phenomena of life on coral reefs.

Roger isn't on the web.  He can be reached by mail at:

Roger Steene
Box 188
Cairns QLD 4870