Photographer, daughter explore reefs

By Mary Kay Sweikar

WESTVILLE, Ill. – Westville native Rich Stefaniak became so engrossed in photographing the sea life on a recent scuba diving trip that he sometimes forgot to breathe.

“I felt so comfortable under water with my camera in hand, that it was easy to forget where I was,” Stefaniak said. “But proper breathing is pretty important, since it controls your up and down movements under water.”

Stefaniak and his 23-year-old daughter, Allison, spent a recent week diving in Bonaire, which is commonly called the fish capital of the Caribbean. Bonaire is a small, desert-like island in the Netherlands Antilles, 30 miles from Curacao and 50 miles north of Venezuela. The waters there are clear, calm, very warm and one can dive there year-round.

A photographer by trade, Stefaniak preferred taking video rather than still shots because it was easier to “capture” his subjects. “The fish in the underworld move pretty quickly,” he said.

“Scuba diving is kind of like swimming in an aquarium,” he said. “The coral and sea life are so beautiful, especially with the sunlight streaming through.”

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In drop-offs, slopes, patch reefs and shallows, Stefaniak spotted groupers, snappers, angelfish, trumpet fish and the ever-popular frogfish. At one time he got so close to a sea turtle that it swatted at his camera lens.

According to REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), there are more species of fish in the waters around Bonaire than in any other diving destination in the Caribbean. This island is also known for its large population of orange-pink flamingoes.

Because Bonaire is a protected island, divers are not allowed to even touch the underwater coral. “As tempting as it may be, nobody touches the coral, because a simple touch would kill it,” Stefaniak said. “We’re not even allowed to wear gloves on our dives for that reason.”

Allison, a 2003 graduate of Schlarman High School, received a degree in recreation and human services from Southern Illinois University and served an internship at Mermet Springs in Vienna, Ill. That’s when and where the father-daughter interest in scuba diving began.

Allison completed about 95 dives before their trip to the Caribbean and explored the Bonaire area to a depth of 100 feet. Rich kept his dives to less than 40 feet under water. Most of the dives he completed before the trip were between 35 and 45 minutes long. “My tank is usually low on air after that much time,” he said.

The Stefaniaks’ trip to Bonaire was offered through Mermet Springs. “It’s a lot warmer in the tropical coral reef than it is in southern Illinois,” Rich said, “and tropical fish are fantastic to see and photograph.”

Rich and Allison completed more than 22 dives from a selection of 60 sites along the island’s 27-mile coastline. “There were a couple of dives that I did not care for,” Rich admitted.

“At night all you can see under water is everybody’s flashlight,” Rich said, “which is not the best for photography.” He did enjoy shining his light and finding the sharp-nosed puffers, encrusting sponges and scorpion fish that nestled between the fire corals. He also admired the 7-foot tarpon named “Charlie” as the fish cruised by his face mask with a silvery flash.

Rich has owned Design Studio in Danville for the past 14 years. He has 40 years of experience in photography and 10 years in videography.