Survival Guide: Photo Finish

Picture of Corey Jaskolski

Corey Jaskolski
National Geographic Fellow
Expertise: Engineer
Location: Mexico

Photograph by Mark Thiessan


Image of man scuba diving in a large cave
Art by Istvan Banyai



In 2011 we were in Mexico shooting a 360-degree composite photo in the Hoyo Negro cenote, a deep sinkhole that has filled with groundwater. There were human remains inside—more than 9,000 years old, among the oldest in the Americas. It was a forbidding dive; the government had put up a sign outside the caves that said, If you go past this point, you will likely die.

We had tested our camera system in a scuba pool, but that was ten feet of water. Now we were diving up to 200 feet deep. It was dark down there, so we took a SunSphere, a beach ball–size glass sphere full of batteries and LEDs. The plan was to tether the SunSphere and let it float above to light the whole cave.

When we turned the thing on, it was like we’d cut the roof off and seen the sun. We hid behind stalactites and stalagmites to keep from being blinded. The sphere would get too hot to stay on for long periods of time, so we arranged for the camera to turn the sphere on, take a picture, turn it off, then start again. It was a dance they were supposed to do. But we were having trouble getting them to do it.

We did four dives, adjusting the camera on dry ground each time. The jungle is a horrible place to take a machine apart. It’s intensely humid, and one bug—they were everywhere—inside could have wrecked the camera.

We were running out of time and out of spare electronics. If we didn’t get the picture, it would be like we were never there. The synchronized system ended up working only one time. It took 12 and a half minutes to get the whole thing: what we believe is the highest resolution underwater image in the world.

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