Interview speakers 2024

Nature art, a different view of sea animals

in vitro Common harvestman crab © Mick Otten
in vitro Common harvestman crab © Mick Otten

He considers the sea animals that photographer and visual artist Mick Otten shows at exhibitions, art routes and the like to be nature art in themselves, but Mick adds a lot to it through the black background, specific compositions and sometimes montages. How does he work?

Where did little Mick come into contact with the sea? What is special about marine nature for you?

From the age of 6, I accompanied my father on excursions organized by the KNNV Beach Working Group Waterway-Noord to look for crabs, sea anemones and fish in Zeeland at low tide. Holidays abroad with my parents also often involved going to the sea (Brittany, Normandy, southern England). In 1973, love degenerated - following my father's example - into keeping a seawater aquarium so that I could enjoy sea life every day. What particularly appeals to me about marine fauna and flora is the diversity of types of marine animals (you can spend a lifetime only focusing on shells or crabs, for example): their shapes, colors, behavior and appearance. I am particularly interested in living sea creatures. I don't have much use for (dead) marine life that has washed ashore. So you don't often see me on the sandy beach, but you often see me in Zeeland turning stones and diving. To search for species and observe biotope and behavior. 

On Sunday February 4, 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM, stage 2, Mick will speak at Duikvaker. Subjects; Nature art: a different view of sea animals and Sea anemones of northwestern Europe. See you in wooden ones!

Where do you get the inspiration for your photos?

Inspiration comes naturally if you are interested in marine fauna and flora and regularly visit the sea and go diving. There is actually always something new to see. I also have a scientific interest and contribute as a citizen scientist by reporting finds after every dive or excursion to the Beach Working Community and the ANEMOON Foundation. I also write about marine biology in magazines and share my photos on Facebook, for example, on my weblog Mick's Marine Biology and my 'web encyclopedia' Mick's Marine Life. 

My motivation for taking photos: I collected sea animals for the first few years, but I stopped because I didn't like killing animals for that. But because I wanted to collect the animals and algae and I like to talk about marine biology, I started taking photos (slides). I used them for lectures, courses and for articles in magazines. And just 'just for fun'. Why I also like to talk about marine life is that the majority of people have absolutely no idea what special things live in the sea, especially in our North Sea and adjacent waters. By showing photos and talking about them, I try to explain why it is important to protect the sea and all life in it. 

In Vitro Graceful sludge anemone © Mick Otten
In Vitro Graceful sludge anemone © Mick Otten

You were trained at the Rotterdam Photography School, how does this training influence your work?

The influence lies mainly in the technique I learned, which has sharpened my sense of aesthetics. 

You regularly exhibit your images under the title 'Nature art: a different view of sea animals'. Do your subjects form the art, or are it the photographs that we see as art?

I create the other view by removing sea animals from their environment and showing them in detail. The emphasis is on the special shapes and colors. I often hear divers say that they know such and such a species well, but that they have never seen them in such detail. They are also amazed at the colors that are created by good lighting and photo editing. 

I consider the animals that I show at exhibitions, art routes and the like to be nature art in themselves, but I add a lot to it through the black background, specific compositions and sometimes montages. I also try to create and photograph specific movements, especially with sea slugs. Beautiful works of art are created by having them printed using the chromaluxe process. You can even hang the prints in all weather conditions and in the sun; they remain colourfast for years. 

In Vitro Blister Crab © Mick Otten
In Vitro Blister Crab © Mick Otten

How do visitors react to your photos? Your images sometimes resemble a sea monster from the depths. 

The reactions are always very positive. People have no idea that all this beauty can be found in the sea. And when I tell them that many of those sea slugs, also a favorite subject of mine, can be found in Zeeland, they are surprised. Sometimes I hear people say that they no longer dare to go into the sea, but that feeling disappears when I tell them how small many of those animals are. Last year, twelve of my large-format photos filled a wall in the Museum Factory in Enschede for the exhibition 'Sea Monsters'. The reactions were very nice; the children who viewed them were especially intrigued, the fathers and mothers often thinking they were deep-sea animals. 

You take some of your photos by 'removing' sea animals from their natural environment. 

What do I mean by this?

Photography has made me look at sea animals better and in more detail. In addition to being a photographer, I am a visual artist and I wanted to do something with those images: I want to capture those sea animals as an art object. If you want to focus all your attention on the animal, the natural environment is distracting. In photos of larger animals that I photograph underwater, I remove the background by erasing it in Photoshop and replacing it with a black layer. I collect smaller animals and photograph them at home on a black background. The background is not black or even enough for the chromaluxe prints that I have made, so I also replace it with a black layer. A lot of work, but I think the result is great. By the way, I have an exemption to collect marine animals, but much more importantly: I return them to the same (diving) location or in a comparable biotope. 

In Vitro Rocket Meduse © Mick Otten
In Vitro Rocket Meduse © Mick Otten

But, you also take photos while diving? Where do you mainly dive? What is your favorite diving location?

I don't go into the water without a camera. I always see something to capture, to 'own'. If there is nothing special to see, I try to take better photos of more common species. I am particularly fascinated by life in temperate seas with their seaweed reefs. It's like an underwater forest! I also have a love-hate relationship with it: I hate cloudy water, as we have a lot in the Oosterschelde, because of the limitations it places on photography. But I also like the misty; it makes diving magical. I also enjoy diving in the Mediterranean and have a spot there that I return to every year. 

I'm not a boat diver; I prefer to dive with my regular diving friend or alone from the shore. Then I decide where and for how long I dive. That has its limitations, but it offers plenty of interesting things. I have a few favorite diving locations: Porthkerris (in Cornwall, United Kingdom), Rockbay (Vancouver Island, Canada) and – when it's clear – the Zeeland Bridge. All three are very rich and varied diving locations. I can talk about that for hours!

Suddenly you found yourself with an Oosterschelde photo between a series of stamps about Dutch marine life. Tell!

That was very nice indeed! The designer of the stamps was alerted to my work by a fellow underwater photographer. He asked if I had a photo of a school of fish in the Oosterschelde. I did have some photos, but I also informed him that it would actually be better to show some biotope in such a stamp block. He did not use that, but he did use the sea bass from the biotope photo I had sent.

In Vitro Pea Crab © Mick Otten
In Vitro Pea Crab © Mick Otten

In addition to diving, you also organize monthly excursions, especially to Zeeland, to turn rocks at low tide. Do you find anything special? 

We certainly often find something special! This is also because we actively search with several people, sometimes professional scientists but also amateurs who are experts in a specific field. During these excursions new species of seaweed were often found, but also the first published Collared Flake Snail and, after 80 years, an 'extinct' Zuiderzee disc snail! As a diver you will never actually find the latter, because it is barely visible even with a magnifying glass. 

You have started a new website: Mick's Navy Life

In addition to my weblog in which I write extensively about a species or a location, I am creating my own 'web encyclopedia' with Mick's Marine Life. I make a page of photos of every species I have ever photographed with the locations of that species. It is useful for me, because, for example, when making a list of finds after a dive, I sometimes doubt whether I have seen species A or B. And in this way I can make my photos available to many people. In recent years I have noticed that there are few, let alone good, photos of certain groups for which there is little interest - but which deserve better, for example sea worms - on the web. Scientific articles often contain photos of dead specimens. They look colorless and often distorted. 

I now show good photos of this, so that interested parties can more easily identify the animals they have seen. Take a look at

In Kind Sunfish © Mick Otten
In Kind Sunfish © Mick Otten

At Duikvaker you will give two lectures on Sunday February 4. A first over 'Nature art: a different view of sea animals'. The two is titled 'Sea anemones of northwestern Europe'. Why is this interesting?

I have always had a great love for sea anemones since I started a marine aquarium in 1973. I think they are very beautiful animals and there is a lot to see in their behavior, for example reproduction. In general, they are animals that live a long time in an aquarium (my record is 30 years). This means that the impact of collecting from nature for an aquarium remains limited. In the lecture I will specifically tell you which species you can find here and how you can tell them apart.

extra sharpened for blog

Mick Otten

Mick has been a photographic designer, freelance photographer and visual artist since 2007. He focuses on nature and city photography and makes autonomous work.
Mick photographs marine animals on the coast, on his weekly diving trips and at home. He turns it into nature art by removing these sea animals from their natural environment: he captures them on a black background to emphasize their eccentric shapes and beautiful colors. Photographing small animals separately from their environment is not very easy underwater, so he collects them to photograph them at home. Then the animals regain their freedom. So they are all photos of living animals.

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