THINK OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC ANIMAL SUBJECT OF UNIVERSAL APPEAL, a friendly face peering into the camera lens and on into the eyes of the viewer. Think of kittens, puppies, bear and fox cubs and bunny rabbits.
There are many interesting and strange creatures to be encountered in the sea, but few could be described as "cuddly". Who would claim that a moray eel, whale shark or barracuda had such a quality, impressive as they might be in other respects?
No, this secret ingredient is limited to one or two species, first among which is undoubtedly the seal, with its doleful dewy eyes. Seals are often difficult to find and approach, and can be unco-operative, but there is another species that has many of the right attributes, can be reliably found in almost any sea and is normally willing to pose for the camera - the blenny family.
Blennies (Blenniidae) come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but what they all have in common are their almost comical features, with inquisitive binocular eyes which stare enticingly into the lens, coupled with a lopsided grin that seems to imply a shared joke with the viewer. Some are exotically patterned and coloured, while others decorate their eyebrows with "deely bobber" feelers to complete the court-jester appearance.
If you know where to look, these cute characters are easy to find and photograph. They are territorial, so you can return to a site again and again to meet an old friend. These are the species you can expect to find at some of the most popular diving locations around the globe:
British Isles/North Sea
These waters are home to several blenny species, including one of the cutest-looking and most colourful. The tompot blenny's pussycat factor has made it the star of many national and international photographic competitions. It comes in a variety of sizes and colours, but the most exotic are those with a red/orange and blue pattern, most common on shallow coastal reefs.
Check out every crack and crevice and eventually you will find your quarry. It might initially seem nervous, but its inquisitive character soon overcomes its fears and it will come forward, perch on the edge of its home and grin happily for the camera.
If you are patient, the tompot will become confident enough to pop out of its hole to feed quickly on some morsel before resuming its vigil.
There are several other species to look out for, including the less-common Yarrels blenny, the black-faced blenny, the shanny and the butterfish. All have similar behaviour patterns but are perhaps less striking in appearance than the tompot.
The northern waters of the British coastline and Scandinavia are home to the biggest blenny of them all. It's more of a scarred old tomcat than a pussycat, but deserves a mention nonetheless.
The magnificent wolf-fish can grow almost a metre long and is often assumed to be aggressive because of the way its impressive set of teeth protrudes from the mouth. These teeth are used to crush prey, mostly of shellfish and crustaceans, and only rarely are used offensively towards divers.
These fish, like their smaller cousins, are territorial. You will often encounter them hunting out in the open, where they will fearlessly, and sometimes alarmingly, approach you, often too close to photograph!
Stand your ground, however, and you will be rewarded with a number of poses as the wolf-fish checks you out. I don't know if it has any known predators in the sea, but man certainly is one.
You won't often see wolf-fish on a menu in the UK, but in Scandinavian countries such as Norway it is a popular dish and, I must admit, delicious!
Blessed with clear, warm waters, the Mediterranean can appear devoid of fish life at some locations that have seen years of heavy inshore fishing. Fortunately, this has not prevented those smaller species which dwell on the reef from thriving, among them the blenny. You will find our old friend the tompot in the same sort of habitats, but often in different patterns and colourways.
If diving on one of the many wrecks in the Med, check every pipe-end and rivet-hole and you will often find someone at home. There are also a couple of significantly smaller species for which you will have to search rather harder, but your reward will be another grinning little face.
This is the yellow-faced blenny, often found in old tubeworm casts and even discarded shells. It rarely does more than peek its head out into the current to snatch a passing titbit, so you must time your shot for these moments.
The most common examples in this part of the world are tiny critters often called secretary blennies. As they peek from their burrows to feed frantically, they are said to resemble the chattering occupants of a typing pool - obviously a grave slur on today's hard-working keyboard-operators, but it probably made sense at the time.
You will find secretary blennies in tiny bore-holes only a few millimetres across, particularly in dead or dying coral in shallow water and in the sides of barrel sponges. You will rarely see more than just the head peeking out at you but they are quite bold and will happily hold a pose while giving a toothy grin.
Other species to be found on the reef and in sponges are the red-mouthed, diamond-backed, triple-fin and arrow blenny, the last of which hovers in the water with its tail fin cocked at an angle to enable a fast strike at passing prey.
Some of these species are more skittish than others, and might call for more patience in achieving a frame-filling portrait.
Red Sea/Indian Ocean
The Red Sea provides our closest tropical diving, while the Maldives in the Indian Ocean is an increasingly popular diving destination. Both have reefs teeming with fish life of all types. Such is the frantic activity of the reef that the small blennies, which inhabit the nooks and crannies, are all too easy to miss unless you slow your progress and look carefully.
There are several species. Some are full of their own egos and pose naturally for the camera, while others are very wary and skittish when approached.
One of the most common and attractive is the Midas or canary blenny, so-called because of its yellow/gold hue. These guys have a real cheeky-chappie expression and often a touch of blue in their eyes which contrasts well with their yellow bodies.
The Midas blenny is particularly common on wrecks, making its home in any convenient hole. It has a habit of popping its head in and out every few minutes, so you need to concentrate your gaze on a likely area for a little while.
When searching for these fish on the reef, look closely where you see schools of anthias. Midas blennies will often dart out to join a group of anthias to feed for a few moments, and you might spot them heading home as you approach.
Also common on the reef and seen free-swimming, though for a more sinister reason, is the sabre-toothed or mimic blenny. This fish has evolved to resemble closely the striped cleaner wrasse, and varies its diet by taking a chunk out of unsuspecting fish which turn up at the local cleaning station for a manicure.
Its ideal home appears to be a discarded tubeworm cast, so check out any likely holes in the hard corals. If you find one empty, the owner might soon return.
Towards the top of the reef, often in only 2-3m of water, are two other species which are particularly camera-shy and require a good deal of patience to capture on film.
The first is the common black or chestnut blenny, easy to spot sitting out on top of the reef and at first glance quite dull, though some have brilliant red markings around their eyes.
Black blennies are very wary of your approach, and you will need a lot of patience to gain their confidence.
The second is one of the most exotic-looking blennies, even next to the tompot - the splendid leopard-spotted blenny. Many people assume it to be rare but in fact it is common but excellently camouflaged and very shy. It favours branching corals as a habitat in which the shadows match its spotted livery, like the big cat after which it is named.
You do need patience and determination to find a leopard-spotted blenny, but there is generally more than one and they adopt a routine patrol area with convenient stops. Successful photographs of these two characters requires an SLR camera with a 105mm or 180/200mm macro lens.
More and more divers are making the longer journey to the fish-rich reefs of the Far East, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Their varied blenny populations include many familiar faces from the Indian Ocean - canary, sabre-toothed and black - so you can follow a similar hunting procedure.
In shallow water, check out the abundant large dead barnacle- shells which provide ideal homes for blennies of all description.
You can find rows of barnacles all occupied by perky little fish darting in and out to feed. The larger species can often be found at home in discarded clamshells, which collect on shelves on the reef or along the sand line.
hardly cuddly, but the wolf-fish is technically a blenny, and photogenic for different reasons
a less colourful member of the UK blenny family, the shanny
The Mediterranean tompot blenny, as quirky as the home-grown variety but darker in colour
also from the Med, the bashful yellow-faced or striped blenny
the tiny Caribbean secretary blenny, giving office staff a bad name
The bold Caribbean triple-fin blenny
the Midas or canary blenny is one of the most common Red Sea varieties, and a bit of a poser
the striking diamond-backed blenny is easily approached in the Caribbean
The Red Sea's sabre-toothed blenny poses as a cleaner fish to get a free lunch
the comb-toothed blenny, a perky character found among coral rubble in the Far East
from the same part of the world, a smooth or yellow blenny
you need a macro system to capture blennies
TEN PHOTO TIPS
ONE Most blenny species are ideal subjects for both rangefinder (Nikonos and Sea & Sea) and housed SLR systems. If you are using a Nikonos or Motormarine, an extension tube (perhaps 1:3) or a close-up lens is the ideal tool.
TWO Some smaller blennies will happily pose inside an extension-tube framer if you are patient, but with larger species such as the tompot, you might need to use a close-up lens without its prods/framer and guesstimate the distance.
THREE For SLR users the ideal tool is a macro lens in the 50-105mm range, which will allow you to frame the subject tightly.
FOUR Some of the more nervous species might require a longer lens of 180-200mm. These are difficult to use because of their narrow depth of field, but will produce excellent results if you persevere.
FIVE Blennies are ideal subjects for TTL flash and autofocus cameras as they are likely to dominate or fill the frame and offer a good range of contrast.
SIX Don't forget to vary the picture format from the horizontal (landscape) to vertical (portrait), as this will often have more impact when filling the frame with the head of the fish.
SEVEN Make a slow approach and spend time watching the subject until it begins to accept that you offer no threat. When its inquisitive nature takes over, carefully bring your camera closer and take a couple of shots.
EIGHT The firing of the flashgun might make the blenny jump at first but it will ignore this surprisingly quickly. You can then concentrate on composition and catching its cheeky expression.
NINE Watch the position of your flashguns so that you don't cast shadows from protruding rock or coral around the blenny's home.
TEN A second slave gun positioned on the opposite side to the key flash can also help to reduce shadows and make the lighting look less harsh. Or try ring-flash, ideal for photographing the shyer species in deeper holes in the reef.