Capturing life in the ocean through photography
Floating in a cage below the surface of the Pacific, Rodney Bursiel felt as if his head were spinning. But when a great white shark appeared out of the darkness, he immediately became calm and focused, and began shooting . . . with his camera.
Swimming in the ocean with these huge creatures is therapeutic for Rodney. The son of a SCUBA instructor, Rodney learned to dive before he learned how to ride a bike. However, it wasn’t until years later that underwater photography sparked his enthusiasm.
In 1993, Rodney settled in Wimberley, where he built rental cabins. Those rentals allowed him the freedom to explore other interests, including working briefly as an actor in Los Angeles. In 2001, he went on a vacation to Costa Rica, and his snapshots turned out surprisingly well, which encouraged him to develop his growing talent for photography. He shot everything from concerts to fashion, from wildflowers to cowboys and horses in San Miguel de Allende.
Rodney says, “I kept getting reinforcement that I was good, but I was always exploring, trying to find my niche.” He found it in the music scene when he connected with Billy and Dodee Crockett of Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio, which hosts concerts in Wimberley. For eight years, he photographed almost every performer.
His talent—and the patience to get what he calls “that shot,” that perfect photo that captures a musician’s spirit—earned him a reputation as a respected photographer. He has done shoots for the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
Despite his success, Rodney began to feel stagnant. So when he read about the surf camps offered by one of his favorite musicians, Donovan Frankenreiter, he bought a water housing for his camera and booked a trip to Indonesia. His intention, he explains, “was just shooting Donovan as a musician and surfer. This was my opportunity to go and meet him and really get into who he was. I had no idea what I was going to get.”
When Rodney got back in the water with a camera for the first time since childhood, the experience ignited something in him. “I was always looking for something new to do, to stand out from the crowd,” he says. He realized that “something new” was in the ocean. He now wanted to go deeper.
In his dives growing up, Rodney was seeing only smaller life forms. Now he wanted to see “the big stuff.” So he embarked on a cage-driving trip to Guadalupe Island to photograph great whites. “I couldn’t get enough,” he recalls. “I would spend the entire day in the cage under water.”
Next, Rodney was off to the Socorro Islands for more challenging diving, deep in the ocean where severe currents run. “I wasn’t prepared for that kind of diving,” he admits. “I was nervous, but I thought, I’ve got to go do this.” Once he was in the water with manta rays and sharks swimming right by him, he was hooked.
Rodney describes the sensation of weightlessness under water, the silence except for the bubbles of his breathing, and the absolute focus on the animals as mystical—a feeling nobody can fully understand unless they’ve experienced it for themselves.
He now goes on every diving expedition he can—from Guadalupe and Socorro to the Bahamas, Tonga, Fiji, Hawaii, and Cuba—always eager for better shots. “Every trip is completely different, and whatever trip I’m on is my favorite at the time,” he says.
For Rodney, one experience stands out as a turning point. He’d been swimming with a humpback whale and her calf, growing attached to them, especially to the playful baby. After days of photographing them, the crew was getting ready to leave when they heard a disturbance: two Orcas were after the calf. Rodney dove back into the water, witnessing the heartbreaking hour-long hunt before the orcas took their prey away into the depths of the ocean.
“My DNA was rewritten that day,” he says. Having witnessed firsthand the beauty, personalities, and feelings of these animals, the experience “really did change who I was emotionally and how I viewed the world. . . . Originally I was just trying to find something new and exciting to shoot, but I see how the photos are bringing awareness of the oceans and its animals to people.”
With his photos, he tells their stories—of mothers and babies, of sharks swimming with rusty hooks stuck in their mouths, of powerful hunters and gentle creatures who patiently allow humans to enter their world. Most people will never experience the life that pulses under water, and Rodney’s hope is to bring that world above the surface for others to understand, respect, and appreciate.
Visit Rodney’s website at rodneybursielphotography.com to learn more about him, read his blog, and see his photos.