Calling all ocean enthusiasts: Australia’s premier diving and underwater photography festival is moving offshore, from pretty Byron Bay to exotic, faraway Christmas Island. Words by Tonia Liosatos     
The unspoilt marine environment around Christmas Island will be showcased by underwater photographers and filmmakers at this year’s Underwater Festival, to be held from April 24-30, 2010. Now in its fourth year, this marks the first time the festival will move offshore, after being held within Cape Byron Marine Park since its inception.

A largely undiscovered divers’ paradise, Christmas Island is the perfect spot for the annual event. As festival organiser Tim Hochgrebe says, “While the annual red crab migration is an amazing natural phenomenon, the bottom line is that there’s also amazing diving all around Christmas Island – the reef is healthy; there are hundreds of species of tropical fish, underwater caves to explore, massive whale sharks and hardly any people.”

"Taking images under the water is incredibly addictive – the array of colours, the iridescent quality and movement of the animals, you just don’t have that on land. You just want to take photos of everything."

Formerly the sole domain of Cape Byron Marine Park, the flagship event has helped put Byron on the map as a diving destination, and the Festival will potentially return from WA’s far northwest to the country’s eastern-most mainland point in the future – or perhaps to one of the other marine parks in NSW. “We’ve decided to make it a roving event,” says Hochgrebe. “We have a series of destinations for the festival all around the country. That way it won’t go stale over the years and will continue to attract interest and give regular participants something new to look forward to.”

The festival will run across two weeks, with the first week for the locals and the second for tourists, with the potential for locals to join in the social events and attend the presentations in the official festival week, including some seminars put on by WA marine park representatives. “It’s basically a celebration and come-together for divers, underwater photographers and video-makers and is open to professionals, amateurs and beginners,” says Hochgrebe. “It’s really aimed at everyone wanting to experience the marine environment. There are opportunities for everyone to participate in marine wildlife and artist presentations, underwater photography workshops, underwater photo, video and art competitions and night dives.”

Andrew Read from NSW marine parks says the Underwater Festival has not only highlighted the fantastic diving in Cape Byron Marine Park over the years, but has helped bridge a knowledge gap by encouraging the recording of animal life beneath the waves. With more than 20 years working in marine conservation, Read, also a keen underwater photographer, believes imagery helps educate the wider community and provides constant inspiration to the underwater image-makers themselves.

“Underwater, amongst all the animals, you feel like an intruder,” says Read. “And that increases your respect for their environment. Taking images under the water is incredibly addictive – the array of colours, the iridescent quality and movement of the animals, you just don’t have that on land. You just want to take photos of everything.

“You get a real sense of wonderment that’s insatiable. You can take a thousand photos in a day. Being underwater has a meditative quality – in this other world with other animals.”

DETAILS // Underwater Festival 2010

Where // Christmas Island, around 1700km northwest of WA.

When // From April 24, 2010.

Contacts // www.2008.underwaterfestival.org