By Toby SkinnerOctober 1st 2020

Underwater photographer Billy Arthur, aka Lona Brak, documents the rich and little-understood world beneath the waves around Shetland.

While many underwater photographers chase the big things, Shetlander Billy Arthur tends to focus on the tiny and undiscovered. His primary subjects are strange, almost alien creatures, with curious, sometimes descriptive names: nudibranchs, dead man’s fingers, Dahlia anemones, Devonshire cup coral. “They’re the things that a lot of divers don’t stop to really look at,” he says. “But to me they’re the most beautiful and fascinating.”

Like a lot of children in Shetland, Arthur grew up ‘platching the ebb’, the local term for exploring beaches and rock pools at low tide. “As a child, I was obsessed,” he says. “I’d constantly be looking under rocks for crabs or anything that moved, or studying guides to the shoreline.”

But it wasn’t until he went travelling that he learned to dive: doing his courses around Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and later going on trips to big-ticket spots in Mexico, Thailand and Egypt’s Red Sea. His biggest revelation, though, came when he returned to Shetland in 2010, after studying in Edinburgh. “It was like discovering this new world, which is all around us but which we don’t often think about,” says Billy, who now lives at Dunrossness in the south of the Shetland Mainland. “I knew Shetland waters were rich, but I couldn’t believe the beauty and colour of some of the creatures down there.”

I knew Shetland waters were rich, but I couldn’t believe the beauty and colour of some of the creatures down there.

While working in the salmon industry for most of the past decade, he has developed his photography, using his mirrorless Sony a6500 in an aluminium housing, often with a 90mm macro lens and underwater strobes. And, as his photography has developed, so has his appreciation of underwater Shetland. “It’s now my favourite place to dive anywhere in the world,” he says. “In a lot of more famous dive locations, there are other boats and groups of people, all chasing the same things. Here, it’s often just me, my dive buddy and these cold, clear waters. It only gets more magical to me.”

Here, he explains some of his otherworldly shots.

“One of the things that really struck me when I started diving a lot in Shetland was the nudibranchs, these bright sea slugs. Just off the beach at Peerie Voe, Spiggie, there can be thousands of them here in the spring, when they spawn. But it took me years to figure out how to photograph them properly.”

“A lot of it was about getting the buoyancy of me and the heavy camera right. I had to add home-made floats to my camera housing to make it more buoyant, and had to learn to shoot the nudibranchs with manual focus. They’d sit on the kelp, and I’d hover and wait for the kelp to sway into focus. The more I dived, the more I became obsessed with capturing the small things. To me, they’re often more beautiful and mysterious than the sharks or rays everyone will be chasing in Australia or Thailand.”

The more I dived, the more I became obsessed with capturing the small things.

“I shot this little guy at Grutness, near the airport at the south of the island, where the ferry to Fair Isle leaves from. The pier runs three metres underwater, and is really rich for wildlife. I saw this juvenile butterfish in a little hole in the pier, and just waited for him to peek his head out. For shots like this, a lot of it is about getting the lighting right, using underwater strobes to get the light right on the subject.”

“This is the gully at Peerie Voe, which is one of my favourite spots. There are a lot of lobsters here, too – this shot is of a friend, Marty Davis, with a stick to coerce one from its hole – and the walls of the gully are covered in anemones, crabs and Dead Man’s Fingers, a kind of soft coral almost like little cacti. This picture was shot in spring, when the water is cold but crystal-clear. By the end of spring, when the water temperature starts to warm, primary production begins in the waters around Shetland, with tiny animals and algae reducing visibility.”

“This is a gas mantle sea squirt, which I photographed in the voe at Whiteness. It’s the type of creature that really captures my imagination. If you see one out of the water, it kind of looks like a lump of snot; but underwater, it’s so delicate and beautiful, like a floating heart. You just think: How did that thing come to be? You get a lot of creatures like this that congregate in voes, or inlets, where they’re sheltered from the worst of the storms.”

You just think: How did that thing come to be?

“I photographed this plumose anemone at Levenwick. One of my strobe lights had stopped working so I only had one, which forced me to think a bit harder about lighting. It’s not perfect but the shadow adds a little to the image. This was actually the last dive I took before lockdown in 2020.”

“Seeing an octopus is one of those magical moments. There’s just this sense that they are intelligent – the way they watch you, and react to you. They’re also very skittish, so you can’t be too erratic with your movements around them. I try and slow my breathing, so that I’m not creating too many bubbles, and avoid eye contact. It sounds strange, but if you look straight at them, they’ll usually disappear quite fast. There’s a certain amount of pressure trying to photograph one, so it’s always a good moment when you get one.”

“When people go diving with me, they sometimes get a bit bored because I’ll be focusing on a stone or a bit of kelp for half an hour. This is a Dahlia anemone, which I found in just three metres of water off the beach at Cunningsburgh. I just love the colours, textures and details of it, and it’s easy to see how it got its name. You can see amazing things just walking off Shetland’s beaches with a snorkel and mask. To me, the main thing is learning to slow down and really look at things.”

“Having said that I love tiny organisms, I do still get such a thrill from seeing seals underwater. In Shetland, there are so many that people sometimes take them for granted, like they’re sheep. But they’re so beautiful underwater, the effortlessly graceful way they move. They’re incredibly hard to photograph, though, because they’re very wary of you in the water. You have to be really still, and kind of gain their trust. There’s often a group of seals that play in the waves at Scousburgh. I’ll sit in the dunes and watch them, and dream of getting that shot of a seal surfing. But they’re so aware of these strange ungainly animals in the water. Maybe if I stick at it for ten years, they’ll learn to trust me, and give me the shot.”

“This was shot in Ronas Voe in the north of the Mainland, on a small creek boat wreck. The boat sank to 30 metres off its mooring at the pier, and has become this sheltered spot for amazing sea life. These brittle stars are attached to an old railing, crowned by a plumose anemone (plumose means feathery). I love it when nature reclaims our waste and turns it into a bustling ecosystem on what was once just a spot of muddy seabed.”

“The steep cliffs of Noss, the little island beyond Bressay, are well-known as a breeding ground for birds, especially gannets. A lot of tourists and nature photographers go out there. It’s not my usual beat, but I went out with Richard Shucksmith, a local photographer who films and photographs gannets a lot. So much of what I do is very quiet, but having gannets plunge into the water at high speed for mackerel is quite an adrenaline rush, so it was tricky to stay calm underwater and get the shot.”

See more of Billy’s amazing underwater shots on his Instagram page.