October 18, 2023
SINGAPORE – Avid diver Lilian Koh was at a depth of about 20m off the coast of the Philippines when her guide asked her to drop everything and swim towards a small grouper fighting to free itself from the jaws of a much larger lizardfish.
She paddled her fins furiously to where she was able to see the tussle between the fish – three to be exact.
Ms Koh, 47, a freelance underwater photographer, said: “In the beginning, it was fish-eats-fish-eats-fish. But I didn’t see until later that the grouper spat out a small whitebait fish – it was so small I didn’t even notice (it).”
The grouper was caught between the jaws of the much larger lizardfish and about to be swallowed whole. But it managed to wriggle away after a 10-minute struggle.
The lizardfish was likely about 10cm long, while the young grouper was about 4cm, she said.
Ms Koh’s photo of the encounter – titled Fish Eats Fish and taken in 2018 off the Anilao coast in the Philippines – won her the first prize in the annual Siena International Photo Awards in the underwater life category.
Unlike other photo contests, this one has no restrictions on when photos are taken. Ms Koh’s prize includes a statuette trophy, and her photo will be featured alongside other winning works in an exhibition.
Anilao is a popular diving spot about a three-hour drive from Manila.
Ms Koh, who attended the Sept 30 prize-giving ceremony in the Italian city of Siena, said predatory behaviour in nature is not uncommon, but with fish, it is usually over in the blink of an eye.
“It’s the first time I have seen a fish struggling with the mouth open.”
She is also extra pleased that her winning entry was a macro photo, a form of close-up photography of small subjects, including tiny critters living in the water.
She said: “At international photo competitions, most of the time, photos of sharks, whale sharks, humpback whales or anything huge and exotic will win the top prize.
“So, for a macro underwater picture to win is a big thing because most of the time, the macro world has been kind of neglected. We need to create more awareness and let people know that all these small little critters are part of the ecosystem as well.”
The Siena International Photo Awards – organised by the non-profit Art Photo Travel Association – is popular with amateur and professional shutterbugs. In 2022, the contest drew 48,000 entries from 156 countries.
Ms Koh said underwater macrophotography can be tough on the body.
“You can wait for a creature to yawn for an hour, so it’s a bit taxing on the body to hold that position for an hour underwater, not moving at all.”
She started diving in 2000 before later getting hooked on underwater photography. Earlier in her career, Ms Koh worked in the interior design and financial services sectors, but is now pursuing photography.
The largely self-taught photographer said she learnt from trial and error.
Said Ms Koh: “Previously, I didn’t even know how to use the camera or the setting, and so I started to learn from scratch and tried to figure out for many, many years how to do it.”
She joined diving trips to “get my addiction fix”. Now, she tries going on such trips every two to three months at least, with each trip getting longer and longer.
Ms Koh first entered a photo competition in 2016, and has won many awards since. The Fish Eats Fish photo landed a prize in another contest called the Asia Pacific Underwater Photo Challenge.
Her love for diving has taken her to many places, from Okinawa, Taiwan and Indonesia to Malaysia, Thailand and Costa Rica, she said.
Ms Koh added that she conducts underwater photography workshops in Bali.
All that she asks for, she said, is that photos taken by her can educate people about the oceans.