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Spokane-based marine photographer has deep perspective

While pursuing the perfect shot, photographer Brandon Cole has dealt with more than just hostile waters

Brandon Cole’s images of dolphins, killer whales, sharks and other marine life rank among the best marine photography in the world, yet he lives in Spokane, nearly 300 miles from a saltwater marsh.

In recording “Ocean’s majesty,” as he calls it, Cole has traveled the globe, logging millions of air miles to endure 16,000 hours underwater in some 9,000 dives. And yes, he’s survived some goose-bump situations that had nothing to do with cold-water immersion.

But first: Why base out of Spokane, so far from the subjects in his pictures?

“I’m a numbers guy,” said Cole, 43, noting that Spokane’s cost of living pales to the expense of most coastal locales. “It’s more important to live modestly and close to an airport. I might do whales and dolphins in Puget Sound one trip and then head for manta rays in Baja or reef fish in Indonesia.”

In 1992, Cole was headed for Australia to pursue a PhD in marine biology when his father, Brian Cole, 48, was shot and killed by a robber at the family’s furniture store on East Sprague Avenue.

The tragedy “was a turning point for my education, career and my whole life,” Brandon said.

His mother needed him in Spokane. Stuck in this inland port, he had the option to sink or swim.

“It was my incentive to switch gears from marine biology to marine photography, which could be accomplished in trips from a Spokane base rather than permanent relocation,” he said.

Even as he earned international awards in the first few years as a pro, he was still learning the basics of underwater photography, starting with a Canon F1 film camera in a waterproof housing.

“I invested a lot of time and study before I could confidently dive and bring back high-quality pictures,” he said.

Despite accumulating thousands of photos, any one of which would be the image of a lifetime for most people, he still relishes the ecstasy of capturing the perfect shot.

“If I ever lose that,” he said, “I’ll exit the business.”

But the photography simply pays the bills.

“I’m not an artist,” he said. “I’d probably leave the cameras home if there was another way. I’m truly drawn to interacting with these animals in a totally different environment. That experience provides me with the energy and spiritual regeneration.”

By 2005, Cole was transformed by the digital revolution. He appreciates the technology, especially instant feedback on whether he’s captured the image, and being able to shoot more than 36 frames before surfacing.

“But if I could take everyone back to the film era I would,” he said. “Digital is more convenient in the water, but now I’m on the computer for absolutely everything else. It gets to be too much.

“Also, new smart cameras provide a short learning curve and no film cost. The very difficult field of underwater photography has become accessible to people of all strikes. It’s opened the floodgates of underwater images available to publications from hobbyists who’ll give them away for free.”

The glut of images in what used to be a fairly small pool of working photographers threatens the profession.

Cole has compiled an impressive image library showcasing fishes and invertebrates from tropical coral reefs and cold-water kelp forests, as well as extensive coverage of sharks and marine mammals such as pinnipeds, whales and dolphins. But he can no longer bank on the library as a retirement account.

“Digital led to Internet sharing of photos and loss, in my opinion, of respect for copyright,” he said. “But there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.”

A few things remain in his favor.

Underwater photography continues to be more difficult than going to Yellowstone and stumbling into a bear shot or paying a game farm for a sitting with a Siberian tiger.

He’s married to Melissa Cole, a former diving guide and zoologist turned artist who specializes in fish. She doubles as a dependable diving partner in some shoots.

He has a keen sense for the business of managing expenses, marketing, reading contracts and negotiating.

And he’s earned respect in the field, for his talent and his marine science education.

Ranger Rick magazine, a wildlife publication for young readers produced by the National Wildlife Federation, is honoring Cole in the May issue as its 2013 Photographer of the Year. This is high praise considering that NWF publications feature the best of the best.

Cole, who’s won many awards in his career, said there’s a deeper meaning to being honored by a youth publication.

“When I was a kid and saw pictures of amazing creatures from around the world it really drew me to nature,” he said. … “To this day, Ranger Rick continues to do a great job presenting the magic of wildlife to kids – the next generation of conservationists, scuba divers and wildlife biologists.”

However, the work of marine photography isn’t kid stuff.

“The possibility for danger, for chaos, is always there,” he said. “I’ve never become complacent, even after 9,000 scuba dives. Each time I fall into the water I try to remember that I’m diving into a foreign and potentially hostile environment.”

Operator error accounts for 99 percent of the close calls he’s seen or experienced, including poor decisions to pursue animals or staying down too long.

“Everybody asks if I’ve been attacked by a shark,” he said. “The answer: just once in more than 20 years.”

He was out at sea to photograph the Oceanic whitetip shark, a subject that requires baiting.

“Normally, sharks don’t want to have anything to do with scuba divers,” he said. “But with bait, sharks become more curious, bolder and more aggressive. Whitetips are pelagic, one of the more dangerous species that live off-shore in the great blue where they have to investigate any hint of food.

“One made a lunge at me. I whacked it on the nose with my camera and the shark turned away. That’s my one Hollywood moment in terms of danger.

“I’ve experienced being lost in shipwreck, and getting dizzy with my mind going fuzzy. Those situations can lead to serious injury. But with proper preparation, knowing one’s limits and working with other professionals, I’m not dicing with death every time I enter the water.

“Most of the time it’s a calm, serene, relaxing and rewarding experience.”

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email