Photographing Cocos (Keeling) Islands - beneath the waves

Guest blogger, Karen Willshaw shares her secrets for photographing the underwater paradise better known as Cocos (Keeling) Islands


The beauty of the Cocos Keeling Islands isn’t just reserved to the stunning beaches - life below the waves is equally magical. Snorkellers love floating from one pool to another around tiny Pulu Maraya at the southern end of West Island. As they float they discover a colourful natural aquarium of marine fish and life.

Pro Tip: It’s best to visit Pulu Maraya on a medium to high tide as the pools are quite shallow at low tide. Avoid touching creatures and coral - after all, you are in their home.

Life from both sides | Floating around Pulu Maraya


Kat, the lone male dugong, would have to be one of the most photogenic creatures on the islands. He arrived unexpectedly in June 2002, and is believed to have travelled more than 1,000km to get here! He calls vocally to divers, chases mantas and swims alongside fish. Here he is having a dental floss and belly rub on the anchor line. Like all wild creatures, he interacts when he wants to.

Pro Tip: You’ll need a camera that has a minimum of 15 m waterproof capability.

Kat, the male dugong


Capturing any marine creature is exciting. Unlike topside photography it can be the luck of the draw as to what you see on any given day. Respecting creatures and their environment is foremost when it comes to photographing underwater.

Pro Tip: Remember you are in their environment. Respect their space and give them room to move.

Hawksbill turtle


The corals surrounding the Cocos Keeling Islands are in pristine condition with a diverse array of soft and hard corals. Garden of Eden is a forest of delicate, orange gorgonian fans growing like a forest from the reef floor.

Pro Tip: This dive is weather and skill dependent. A wide-angle lens will give you the best shots.



If ever there were friendly fish, then batfish would have to rank number one! This gorgeous school from Cologne Gardens generally race up the wall towards the divers, then follow as they cruise along the reef.

Pro Tip: A wide-angle lens is best to capture the schooling batfish and coral reef.

Batfish in Cologne Gardens


Cabbage Patch is a massive green and gold garden of Turbinaria reniformis coral that cascades down the steep slope to a depth of around 18 metres. Over the top of the coral, brightly coloured anthias hover, only to dive into the folds of the Cabbage Patch when divers approach.

Pro Tip: This dive is suitable for both wide and macro lenses as there are plenty of little creatures to capture as well as the wide expanse of coral.

_Turbinaria reniformis_ coral in Cabbage Patch


Reef mantas call Cocos home. They may look a lot like aquatic stealth bombers but they are gentle plankton-feeding creatures that soar and swoop along the sand and walls of the islands. Their larger cousins Manta birostris, commonly known as the giant manta ray, roam freely throughout the oceans.

Pro Tip: Encountering a manta is always exciting but the big key to photographing one is patience. Use a wide-angle or fisheye lens if possible.

Reef manta | Manta alfredi


These much-maligned ocean creatures are one of the most necessary, being top of the food chain and keeping the ecosystem balanced. Cocos have three main sharks that are regularly seen diving; grey reef sharks, blacktip reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks - all pose minimal threat to humans. On infrequent occasions, tiger sharks may be seen.

Pro Tip: Patience is the key to any form of nature photography including underwater. Generally our sharks don’t come in close enough for a super wide angle, so a zoom lens has its advantages.

Grey reef sharks