Interview with Dr. Charles E. Rawlings.
Author of "Living Shells"

Charles Rawlings is a noted undersea photographer and a winner in the San Francisco and New York Book Festivals. We caught up with him during his hectic schedule to ask a few questions about the world underneath the waves....

What was your introduction to the magic of sea shells? Was it on the beach as a child, through a museum, or some other way?

RAWLINGS: My first encounter with a seashell was at the age of six, on the beach, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Following that my family always traveled to Florida, Tampa/Clearwater actually during the summer. We stayed on the Bay in a hotel with a breakwater. Every day I would walk the Bay side of the Breakwater exploring and collecting dozens of different types of shells. � I then progressed to shell stones and then museums. I have always been a collector�even in kindergarten I put together a leaf collection, butterfly collection, etc. Once hooked on shells I began collecting them � usually dead ones � difficulty cleaning them with the smell precluded takes ones with animals.

The magic of shells to me has only progressed � I still get a thrill just visiting even a small shell museum much less and instillation like the Smithsonian.

What is it that fascinates you about shells?

RAWLINGS: Wow�the list is almost endless.

  • Size 1mm � 6 feet

  • Location � worldwide � collected in ice field on shores of Hudson Bay to tropics in New Guinea.

  • Depth�1 inch to abyssal plains

  • Mathematical symmetry � Nautilus, spiral

  • Color

  • Shape

  • Animal
    o Ability to construct such a shell
    o Cone shells with poison
    o Poison properties�entire scientific field
    o 1/1000 millisecond for harpoon
    o Nautilus � depths with no decompression
    o Camouflage
    o Self-preservation�dropping Tale

  • Amazing Beauty

Tell us how your career as a photographer began.

RAWLINGS: Underwater Photographer � 1st DAN and dive lessons.

  • Loved the underwater realm

  • Was diving for 2-3 years and noticed degradation/changes of the reef

  • Artistic shapes, colors, and textures.

  • Started with underwater photography as means to capture that loss and the art of the reef

  • Began Macro� especially abstracts

  • Large animals especially whales

  • Living seashells

  • Able to photograph many species of shells never before photographed alive


What is your preferred equipment for your book�s photographs? What�s the one piece of equipment you wish you had but don�t (even if it doesn�t exist)?


  • Nikon D-80 in Ikelite Housing

  • DS 125 strobe as main strobe

  • D5 51 slave strobe with light sensor/meter for fill in

  • 60mm � 105 mm macro lenses

  • 2 hypothetical pieces � perfect exposure strobe and lens that allows close-up of animal plus environment.

What�s the most fun experience you�ve had while photographing for the book?


RAWLINGS: Interacting with native villagers especially children who collect then �help� by providing the shells � kids are always so anxious that you appreciate what they find.

  •  New Guinea: women

  •  Philippines
    o Tangle net fisherman.
    o List and then they will try and find them

  • Nautilus trapping: from the prepping to those anxious movements as the trap is pulled from 1500� water.

  • Submersible looking for slit shells

  • Working with my editor/publisher arranging the photos.


 I know it�s like asking a father to name his favorite child, but do you have a favorite photograph in your collection? Tell us how it came about.

RAWLINGS: I can honestly say that I enjoyed each and every experience associated with each photograph and remember each one. But the one that truly stands out is when I was able to take the first photograph of a living guttata cowrie� the great white spotted cor.

I was in the Philippines around Balicasag Island and had asked around amongst the fisherman for a living one never expecting they could find one. Next morning a solemn procession came to my boat with a live guttata. I immediately suited up and photographed it on the wall. I was so excited I was shaking as the animal emerged from the shell and gradually extended covering the shell and revealing the animal in all its glory � all the while allowing me to photograph it as it emerged.

  • Not the best technically: slit hell

  • Not the most difficult: Nautilus

  • But the most exciting!


Have you seen changes in the undersea �climate� during your time? Wondering about the ecology of that world and if it is changing as rapidly as our above-water climate seems to be transforming.

RAWLINGS: Honestly, yes but not in the way you may think.

  • Closed mindedness.

  • Anchorage destruction.

  • Dynamic fishing.

  • Mussless fish density.

  • Increased sophistication of shellers.


What advice do you have for someone who aspires to take up underwater photography? Any special training, equipment or knowledge needed?


  • Be an amazing diver

  • Keep your day job

  • Be prepared for hassles in traveling

  • Equipment � be obsessive � what can go wrong, will go wrong!

  • Totally open-minded. Go with the flow.

  • Have fun

  • Think out of the box. Let your artistic mind free-flow so to speak.


You mentioned you�re working on your next book. Tell us what you can about it.

RAWLINGS: Actually 3 books.

  • Volume II of Living Shells. Just returned from the Northern Coast of Honduras. Philippines in August.

  • A compendium of Haikus with accompanying underwater photos.

  •  It�s [Not] Complicated