By Stephen J. Kotz
From the surface, the teeming ecosystem of an East End bay reveals itself in glimpses: a bluefish breaking the surface; a school of silversides darting through the shallows; or a spider crab moving slowly along the edge of the eelgrass.
But for Chris Paparo, who has been taking underwater photographs for more than 25 years and is better known as the Fish Guy, the view is decidedly more detailed.
This Saturday, Mr. Paparo will present a free slide show and lecture, featuring his underwater photography, “An Underwater Journey of Long Island Through the Eyes of a Fishing Biologist,” at the office of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
CCOM executive director Jeremy Samuelson said he first learned about Mr. Paparo from his Facebook page, Fish Guy Photos, and was eventually intrigued enough to invite him to speak as part of CCOM’s environmental education outreach efforts.
“We all suffer a bit from this National Geographic thing in that we think the only beautiful things worth saving are halfway round the world,” said Mr. Samuelson, “but his photographs show you find them right here in our backyard.”
By day, Mr. Paparo, who received a degree in marine biology from Southampton College, manages the marine sciences center at the Stony Brook Southampton campus. “It’s exciting to have gone to school here as an undergrad and be back here for the next phase of the college’s life,” he said. Besides overseeing the facility’s operations, Mr. Paparo leads tours and field trips for visitors to the marine science center from local schools, museums and other community groups.
Before joining the university’s staff, he worked for four years at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation and another 13 years at the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in Riverhead as its educational coordinator and one of its rescue techs.
“The reason I went into marine science is my dad took me fishing when I was six, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” he said.
Besides giving lectures on his underwater photography, Mr. Paparo finds time to write a naturalist column for On the Water magazine and contribute to Fisherman magazine.
Mr. Paparo, who said he was certified as a scuba diver in 1993, first took up underwater photography as hobby. In recent years, “it’s snowballed a bit” with the advent of first the internet and later Facebook. Today, he said, every chance he gets he grabs his scuba gear and his Canon underwater camera rig, to explore beneath the surface of local bays.
Those who attend his lecture will see photographs of fluke, striped bass, porgies, puffers, winter flounder, sea bass and many other fish species. “Now you are going to see it from their point of view,” he said.
“I start with all the important game catch and then show the by catch, the crabs, snails, clams and end with the exotics, the tropical fish that come up in the summer time,” he continued.
Over the years, Mr. Paparo has photographed everything from tiny seahorses, which frequent the bays—“you have to know where to look for them,” he said—to sharks out in the ocean, although the latter he photographs from the safety of a boat.
“I haven’t seen any sharks diving, but I haven’t ventured out in the ocean to do any ocean diving,” he said. But he goes out with a friend and they tag and release sharks. “One of the makos we tagged off Shinnecock in 2012 was found 2,200 miles across the Atlantic,” he said. “It’s neat when you get a recapture like that.”
But Mr. Paparo said he has seen his share of sharks close to shore. “They are very abundant around here,” he said. “I’ve seen makos in the inlet. It’s just a matter of being out there and if you are out there the amount of time I am your chances of seeing them go up.”
Last year, Mr. Paparo said he was thrilled to see a string ray he estimated at 3-feet in diameter swimming around Ponquogue Bridge in Hamptons Bays. Although he was unable to photograph the fish, he caught it on video.
“I still get excited when I find an octopus,” said Mr. Paparo, who added that he has never seen one while diving, because they are very elusive creatures. “We collected two last fall, little guys,” he said. One was in a net, another came up with the anchor. “The first one was about the size of a gum ball, and the other one was even smaller, about the size of my pinky nail. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you would have missed them.”
Mr. Paparo said many amateur photographers fail to recognize how much work goes into capturing images of wildlife. “If you only go once, you won’t necessarily get the chance,” he said. “You never know what you are going to come across. And just because you saw it doesn’t mean you are going to get the picture.”
Mr. Paparo’s talk takes place at CCOM’s office at 6 S. Elmwood Avenue in Montauk. Admission is free and reservations are not required. For more information, call CCOM at (631) 238-5720.