Scott Portelli: diving with giant cuttlefish

10 October 2016 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer

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With a passion for the ocean and an affinity with marine wildlife, Australian wildlife photographer Scott Portelli has travelled across the globe shooting in some of the most remote destinations. Taken in the shallow waters around the Spencer Gulf, his WPY52 image depicts the rivalry among the world's largest cuttlefish, gathering for their once in a lifetime spawning. As part of his new guest blog series, Scott explains what it's like observing and photographing these fascinating invertebrates.


The Australian Giant Cuttlefish aggregation is truly one of nature's great events. Thousands of cuttlefish congregate in the shallow waters around the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, to mate and perpetuate the species. The cuttlefish resemble alien-like beings, displaying an array of patterns, textures and colours to indicate their intentions. This is the only known place in the world where giant cuttlefish aggregate in such massive numbers for spawning.

Collective Courtship by Scott Portelli. Finalist 2016, Invertebrates.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 52


The Australian Giant Cuttlefish aggregation starts to happen in larger numbers from mid-May til about mid-July. I have spent most of my time in the area during the peak of June, to ensure a greater chance of varied behavior. Towards the end of the season you see a lot more eggs under the rocky outcrops and the remnants of decaying cuttlefish that have perished after their final mating sessions. The cuttlefish are also a source of food for dolphins and seals in the area and you can visit a dive site at times that has been decimated by predators, and all that remains of the cuttlefish are pieces of tentacles and cuttlebone.

Photographing in 12˚C water takes some discipline and often I have dived in a 5-7mm wetsuit to control my buoyancy, as opposed to drysuits which are more buoyant. Drysuits require more weight in the shallow conditions of the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. A drysuit is, however, a lot more comfortable than freezing in the cold water for hours on end.


Scott uses a combination of natural light and a bright focus light to take video footage.


The location is in shallow water so you very rarely go deeper than 3-4 metres. This means you can take advantage of the natural light that pierces the surface. Often I have photographed the cuttlefish with only a bright focus light to light up the features and colours of the cuttlefish and it is a perfect light source when taking video footage. In many of my photographs of the cuttlefish I have used the morning or afternoon sunlight to create more of a dramatic scene and show the environment that the cuttlefish thrive in.

Cuttlefish display a range of colours to signal their intentions.


The dive sites are accessible from land quite easily and a short 40 min drive from the town of Whyalla gets you to a rocky coastline where the desert meets the ocean, a truly rugged environment above the surface but thriving with new life below the waves.

Having a boat allows you to move up and down the coastline easily to explore the various areas where the action is taking place but this is more of a convenience than a necessity as the areas is very accessible. Dive equipment, cameras and lighting do take up a lot of space, so I find that a boat is a great platform if you are hauling a lot of equipment. I always am, so it's a good way to manage a shoot.

For the Cuttlefish I have mainly been shooting with a Canon 5D MK III underwater, with a combination of wide angle lenses including the Canon 16-35mm and the 15mm Fisheye. The 15mm fisheye is what I used when I shot the image for the WPY competition. It's a great lens that is sharp and lets me get very close to my subject matter. I use 2 x DS161 Ikelite strobes to give some fill flash on the subject as I was competing with very bright sunlight in the background. I spent hours in the water watching their behavior and noticed that they often would watch competing males or be poised to take over a position that would allow them to mate with the female.

When he is shooting in shallow waters, Scott takes advantage of natural light piercing the surface.


The key to capturing wildlife is understanding behavior and spending time watching the subject and how they react to certain things. Cuttlefish are fascinating creatures to say the least. They have 3 hearts, pump purple/blue blood through their veins and are highly intelligent problem solvers. The more you watch them, the more you become captivated by the intricate but short lives they lead.

For my WPY52 image I shot using the following configuration: Canon EOS 5D Mark III + 15mm f2.8 lens; 1/200 sec at f18; ISO 320; Seacam housing; two Ikelite DS161 strobes.




Scott Portelli is an international award winning wildlife, nature and underwater photographer. A member of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) and serving NSW Council member, he is regarded as a leading professional in his field. Scott has spent thousands of hours in remote locations across the globe filming and photographing wildlife, the underwater environment and wild places. He has spent the last decade working with Humpback whales, photographing and filming their behaviour above and below the waves. By documenting and sharing his images, Scott hopes to contribute to the awareness and conservation of the fragile creatures that inhabit this planet.


To find out more about Scott, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

Scott Portelli is proudly supported by Canon Australia.


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