If there's one thing a professional photographer hates, it's numskulls who block the light and ruin an otherwise perfect shot. But underwater lenswoman Sara Shoemaker didn't mind when it happened to her last February. She was scuba diving in Papua New Guinea when she spotted a rare pygmy seahorse curled around a knobby pink sea fan. Just as she started shooting, a shadow swept across the scene: three giant charcoal-gray mantas swooping overhead, ruining one great shot while offering another. "I was so overwhelmed," she says, "I didn't know what to shoot first."
Shoemaker, 24, has had more than her share of choices for shots—having logged more than 1,000 dives around the world, from algae-choked lakes in northern California to clear St. Lucia reefs. She started her business 18 months ago—armed with a B.A. in art photography from Stanford—and already grosses $40,000 annually by providing imagery for print ads, articles, and conservation videos for clients such as the World Wildlife Fund, Skin Diver magazine, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium."If people can see the life down there," she says, "they might take responsibility for protecting it."
A noble sentiment, to be sure, but Shoemaker notes that her job has its banal moments. "Getting in and out of my dry suit is like giving birth to my head," she says. And her subjects can be downright uncouth. Last year she was filming sandtiger sharks in a tank at Boston's New England Aquarium when a 600-pound green sea turtle plunked itself down on her head. Then there's her travel schedule—five out of six months. "I buy milk in half-pint containers," admits Shoemaker, "and consider myself lucky if I get the laundry done before my next assignment."