Aquatic studio (plein-mer)

Selecting my model in the sea of Cortez. (photo by A.J Stetson)

To expand my experiences of studying animals in their natural habitat, I chose to study marine animals in the sea of Cortez, in Baja California. The main challenge is to draw underwater, and the animals are very active. This is my first attempt at transferring my land-based sketching skills into water. I have never drawn moving subjects in open water, where the animals can move in any direction. My plan is to capture gesture, movement, silhouettes and attitudes caught in the moment. Extra photos can help me later to develop things further if necessary. However, I feel it’s essential to observe from life and attempt to draw it, to help process the full experience.

Baja California.

My materials are inspired from watching marine archaeologists or engineers draw underwater. “Why couldn’t I do the same” I thought. Drawing slates sold in shops were too small, so I made my own using white plexi, sanded down the surface for a good '“bite”, and used wax pastels for their waterproof qualities. The biggest challenge in these drawing materials: you can’t erase your lines!

Fish sketched at Swanee reef, sea of Cortez.

I arrive in La Paz with one missing bag! Not a good start, as my pastels are in there. Luckily I have my panels to draw on, but more on that later. The weather is warm, and a welcome change to the cold November I left behind in Europe.

I check into the hotel and meet our two talented guides who give our group an overview of the week’s plan. Their work is worth a look: Joanna Lentini and Alex Rose are both very talented and accomplished photographers.

Arriving at the natural reserve of Los Isolotes without all my drawing materials, today is a reconnaissance swim: to get accustomed to the current, the temperature, the behaviour of the animals. Before I get into the water, I can already hear sea lions grunting, as they sun themselves on the rocks. Once underwater, the first thing that strikes me is the schools of sardines encompassing the entire island. A conveyor belt of seemingly endless shimmering silver streaks, occasionally forming into clouds 6 metres deep, from surface to sea bed. Larger predatory fish swim amongst them, inside an empty globe created by the retreating sardines.

The main larger fish were Parrot fish, Surgeon fish and Groupers. Not forgetting the main attraction: sea lions. My first glimpses of them are a few pups, with a single female and a circling alpha male. Much was said about the alpha male, warning us that their perimeter swim is not to be taken lightly. The male glides past powerfully with a deliberate line, making a point of delineating his boundary. The pups are the complete opposite; swimming in circles, spinning, darting back & forth with energetic movements.

A natural arch connecting the north and south side proves to be the first close encounter with the pups. With a depth of about 8 metres, I dive down, while 5 pups in pursuit as I descend. I turn and twist to suggest that I’m playing and they responded in kind, with faster and closer twists and turns.

Six sea lion pups approach me. I float in the light current, admiring the young acrobatic sea lions, occasionally hanging upside-down nibbling at coral, while one takes off with a starfish like a new toy.  My prolonged presence and stillness makes them curious. One pup starts floating toward me, turning its head, darting its neck back and forth, and before I knew it, my camera disappears into its mouth.

Realising it is testing me, I tentatively stretch out my hand to tempt their curiosity further. It takes a light nibble of my finger, and shyly darts off. I’m now realising they are getting more comfortable. I dive down deep again, with the same twists and turns ensuring they don’t lose interest. Back up again at the coral plateau, I now have 2 pups fighting over who nibbles my hand first.

Ready to nibble.

Ready to nibble.

While one is biting, the others are swimming in circles around me. As I follow all their movements, trying to predict their next move, I see that their eyes are permanently fixated on me, supervising my every move.

On the way back to the boat, I feast my eyes on the schooling groupers, and the placid grazing Surgeon fish. For my first day, I have established a good sense of this environment, and I’m ready to draw.

On day 2, I improvise my drawing materials. Considering I had no idea when my missing luggage would arrive, I found replacements: “Crayola” from a random art store! Note to self: always carry ALL the drawing tools in hand luggage, just in case. When my luggage does arrive, I can finally have all my intended colours. But in these conditions where immediacy is key, I realise that it’s mostly about gesture drawing, rather than careful modelling.

We have the opportunity to observe Whale-sharks in the shallows in the morning. They are known to swim right in the bay, therefore there is a speed limit to avoid unseen collisions with them and ship propellers.

Our intention is to not to disturb the shark’s feeding patterns, so it is important to respect the rules, if we plan to allow this interaction to last into the future. Per shark spotted, we are only permitted to bother it for 30mn total time: 5 people at a time, 10mn each group, keeping a distance of 3m, no flash photography, no scuba (noisy bubbles) only snorkel, and stay clear of that tail!

Whale sharks are placid plankton eaters, and are no danger to humans. These sharks are all young males, measuring 6m long, When they grow up and swim to the seas of Indonesia, they can reach a length of 15m. Due to the unpredictable nature of this environment, I refrained from adding my drawing gear to this interaction.

Swanee reef, where a multitude of fish thrive, is where I can finally start drawing. This was my first day drawing, and I started with floating amongst a school of sargent majors. Capturing their silhouettes from the side, front, or from above. As i can’t erase any of my lines, this requires a great deal of concentration, and a confident commitment to my marks.

Various reef dwelling fish: Sargent majors, parrot fish, puffer fish, needle fish.

As I dive deeper, I encounter Needle fish, Porcupine fish, Puffer fish. 10m down, there are some large schools of fish on the sea bed. As I descend to swim under them, they start dispersing in slow motion.

Free diving under the Sardines of Los Isolotes. (photo by Alex Rose)

San Rafaelito is an outcrop of rock with an old platform that resembles an abandoned mini light house. In the heat of the mid-day sun the resident sea lions were sleepy, all napping on the rocks in the sun. As I swim up towards the rocks, the sea lions are hopping into the water. I immediately focus away from the fish and start sketching them instead. They are calm, as they have come into the water to cool down, and to continue napping. Their eyes are closed as they float along with the moving waves, as if completely oblivious to our presence. Occasionally, they open an eye to keep track of my movements.

On day 3, we start at Ballandra (voted the “most beautiful” beach in Mexico). Climbing up the dark rocky ridge gives me a good overview of the bay. I sit to sketch the panorama in the usual double page spread.

That afternoon, we are back in the water after setting up camp on Isla Partida. Once settled in, we have lunch, and then head out back to the sea lion colony of Los Isolotes. A great afternoon dive. With only a 20mn ride from camp to dive site, we get there earlier than everyone, and can leave later too.

I manage to sketch a moray eel today, that I find in a hole amongst the corals. I get to interact with 5 young sea lions again, sketching them with all sorts of gestures, in between moments of them nibbling my hand.

Tonight we have an exciting extra activity: A night dive with Mobula rays. At a depth of about 8 metres, our official guide Carlos goes down first with a light, to attract the plankton. The water is pitch black, with only a narrow pool of light from a flash light. Mobula rays look like mini Manta rays, have no tail-stinger, and are harmless plankton feeders.

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I look down from the surface, and see the arrival of the rays. They approach like an ominous bomber squadron, and then swoop in like bats through the plankton filled light beam

Mobula rays may be harmless, but if you’re in their way in a night-time feeding frenzy, 10kg of solid charging muscle will give you quite the bump. The atmosphere is eerie but hypnotic, as they move with such grace.

As a snorkeler I free dive around the group 8m below, keeping out of their way and their photos. 1 light source make a dramatic scene. After gliding through in groups of 10 or 20, they circle behind us in the dark, preparing their next approach.

I can’t draw in these conditions, as it would require my own light. An extra light would mean attracting plankton, and the Mobula rays would be all over me instead!

Day 4 is an early 6 am rise. In the water by 8am to be welcomed by the ever playful sea lion pups. Some are even still sleeping. They are very trusting as they float motionless at the surface, just a couple of feet away from me, opening an eye every few seconds. The light is great, as it beams in from the east, as I sketch the floating sea lions.

After 6 hours on the boat, we have a late lunch back on the island. Many are tired from the night dive and early rise. Some nap, others go hiking, or canoeing. I put my underwater gear aside, and spend the afternoon sketching the two cliffs that flank either side of our bay.

Day 5 is another early rise. and today I sketch in a small cave, where pups are swirling around under the watchful eye of an adult female

I started drawing, as some played, and others nap as they float. One was motionless with its eyes closed, just a foot away from me.

Moving out to more open water, I sketch another group. I am so engrossed in my drawing, that I don’t notice how the current is dragging me too close. The resident adult male decides to remind me of the boundaries. I notice his deliberate thrust towards me, and I stare at him, as I start thinking he’s coming straight for me. He keeps an eye fixed on me, swims right over the rock in front of me, and pulls off at the last moment, making a full circle back to his rock. Two swim-bys are a plain message that he wants me to back up a bit. He is an intimidating sight, and there’s no arguing. I continue sketching and manage to be productive today, filling 2 full 20x30cm panels.

Sketching at Los Isolotes (photo by Alex Rose)

Sketching at Los Isolotes (photo by Alex Rose)

It’s time to head out, and we travel 2h back to lapaz. But before returing to port we have a last visit to the whale shark feeding bay. The water is rougher today, a little trickier to spot them. But today, we find about 6 sharks in one area. I discover today, that when swimming with several sharks, you can miss what’s going on behind you!

At one point, as I was fixated on one shark upright, something made me turn around. As I twisted around, my whole view was filled with dark skin and white spots. The shark was on me! I instantly reacted by pulling in all my limbs to avoid contact, as it barrelled past under me, leaving me startled but excited at such a close encounter. 

The exercise of drawing from life is invaluable, and getting the opportunity to sketch animals in their natural habitat is a real privilege. The added element of working underwater is challenging, but preparation is key. Below are the main drawings I made while underwater.


Test your materials in a bath tub at home, or in the sea/lake if your local season permits. Obviously you have to be comfortable in the open waters. Without this, you will be mostly struggling with controlling your buoyancy and flow in the current before you can even hope to draw anything worthwhile.

When interacting with wild animals, always be aware of your proximity to them. These are not animals at the zoo, keep your distance. Out here, there can be real consequences to frightening an animal or encroaching into their comfort zone, as fear can often lead to agression. If the animal comes to you, then by all means let them touch you if you are comfortable with that, but never make the first move, nor chase after them. Young sea lions are very playful and curious, testing your boundaries. But the adults keep a watchful eye, and the resident male will make his presence felt he feels like you’re overstaying your welcome. You are a guest in THEIR home.


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— Pablo




toby wright