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Eye in the sea

10/6/2010
Marc Montocchio

"Will my wife please not watch this video."

That's how Marc Montocchio tagged his most recent YouTube post.
Getting up close and personal with marlin off St. Thomas led to a shark encounter that had him scrambling for the boat.

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The video shows Montocchio fending off a pack of hungry silky sharks, which arrived at the scene after discerning a marlin in distress.

"I was told if you get in the water, there are going to be sharks," he said. "But I never saw the sharks coming. One bumped me from behind and one swam through legs. I could have grabbed its dorsal fin and taken a ride."

"I'd bump off one and there'd be five. More and more came. They weren't inquisitive. They wanted to bite something."

At the end of the video, Montocchio crumples on the boat's deck with a huge sigh of relief that he made it back unscathed. He said others were frantic to get him back aboard, but it wasn't his worst run-in.

Once shooting reef critters, a tiger shark slipped over the reef unnoticed, bit his air tank and slammed him into the reef. "It took several bites at the tank before realizing it wasn't something he wanted to swallow," he said.

Danger isn't common but occurs when your work is to capture natural behaviors of pelagic species. As an underwater photographer, the South African has taken an amazing array of images that he's turned into a lucrative business.

The 40-year-old now lives on the water in Morehead City, N.C., with his wife, Laura, who despite being supportive of his work "just says she doesn't want to see" such videos of him. She might prefer he stay in the Occhio studio working on selling his works, but traveling and adventure, and sometimes danger, are the means to that end.

"I have to trust the people I work with, the captains and mates," he said. "I only work with people I trust."

Kid of the coast

Raised in Durban, a surf town on the eastern coast of South Africa, Montocchio spent his youth on and in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

"I think that's the most important thing about my growing up process," he said. "All the diving, fishing, the combination of all those things is what worked out so well for me."

Some of his fishing chops were inherited. His grandfather, born on Mauritius, was an avid big-game fisherman, and Montocchio became fascinated with his tackle at an early age.

"He was very animated telling me about deep-sea fishing," Montocchio said. "I have a picture of him with a 700-pound black marlin. They wore cotton suites and a fedora, really dressed up for the occasion.

"He was very influential in getting me involved and loving fishing."

A stint in the South African Navy honed his diving skills. Montocchio was in an elite crew of clearance divers that each morning scouted for mines on the bottoms of ships.

"A lot of us start and very few of us finish," he said. "It just gives you a lot of confidence in the water."

He also began underwater photography in the Navy, and took those skills with him to the Caribbean. He spent the next 13 years between his home waters and the Cayman Islands, teaching scuba and photography while also taking up fly fishing and subsequently guiding.

In 1996, he became a professional photographer and opened a photo center and gallery. He shot editorial work while teaching courses, but soon met his wife and pulled up stakes to America. He worked commercially there, shooting diamonds, interiors, etc., but wanted to get back in the water more than his occasional trip.

The sea still calls

Montocchio was invited by Hawaiian photographer Doug Perrine to shoot striped marlin in Mexico. He said he couldn't go -- "Blew it off." But it got to him.

An email he opened at 7 a.m. -- Perrine's pictures of striped marlin -- sent him into a tizzy.

"I went ballistic," he said. "My wife came into the office and said "You've got to go.' "

Packed and at the airport by 9 a.m., Montocchio arrived that night and hit the water the next day.

"It was five days of mind-blowing bait balls, striped marlin, Brydes whales, the most incredible stuff you could imagine," he said.

Some of his whale shots ran in National Geographic magazine, and he's contributed to other publications. He began exhibiting his marlin photos at fishing tournaments in North Carolina.

"I found a niche," he said. "Guys were really receptive to my pelagic fishing photography, which I love to do ... the really blue water stuff.

"I was back into the water, and it just got bigger and bigger from there."

One big break was finding a platform worthy of the images. He had worked with inkjet on canvas then found a printer who could put his art on polished aluminum through dye sublimation, creating a high definition effect.

"Dye is super vibrant, really helped with blues," he said. "It knocks your socks off."

He had a sample print made and took it to a marlin tournament and wowed anglers. The print not only sold quickly but he received 10 more orders.

His work will be on display in the International Game Fish Association's revolving gallery in Dania, Fla., right in time for the Oct. 26 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

Through his eyes

What helps make Montocchio's images impress is that he is an observer of fish behavior. His studio and web site name, Occhio, was chosen not only because it is part of his name, but it means "eye" in Italian.

"I've spent a lot of time in the water since I was 11 or 12 years old. I've spent a lot of time with some incredible people who know a tremendous amount," he said. "I don't have a degree in it, but with such a varied scope of diving I've done, you pick up little things and you realize this whole thing is connected."

He said it's as important to understand things like the baitfish to help understand the marlin and other fish feeding on them.

"We just got back from this blue marlin trip, and we were literally blown away by what we thought happens underwater with this fish," he said.

Through his images, he has discerned color changes in the fish as they swarmed and attacked bait balls. He said it was possibly to signal to others their intentions of going into the school to eat or to intimidate the bait ball to keep it tight.

"All this information that I've gathered over time has allowed me to sit back and go, wow, look what that fish is doing in that feeding pattern, and look how it's behaving in this situation, because it's feeding socially as opposed to as an individual," Montocchio said. "That's part of what I just love to do, just understand this process.

"Quite frankly with fishing, as soon as the fish hits that hook, it's done for me. The process of understanding why the fish wants to do that and what the fish is doing predating that feeding situation is the exciting part for me."

Oh, and he might get a touch excited if some sharks come along, especially a great white. He said one day he would love to photograph them

"I've worked extensively with a lot of sharks, including big tigers and bulls, and also others species of sharks, but I have yet to see my white," he said. "I would love to get images of great white, but I'd like to do it outside the cage. I want it to be an interaction. I would love to have an organic interaction."

Just don't show his wife the video.