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Charlotte’s life: Picture perfect

Tuesday December 04, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
She is an Instagram "influencer" with over 193,000 followers and is in talks with Canon to take her photography even further past the reef. 18112139 She is an Instagram "influencer" with over 193,000 followers and is in talks with Canon to take her photography even further past the reef. 18112139

FIRST LIGHT on a glassy palm-fringed Rarotonga lagoon is as picturesque as it gets, but it’s what lies beneath the surface of the crystal waters that draws Charlotte Piho to the depths below every time she returns home to the Cook Islands.

She free-dives her favourite Ava'avaroa passage spot, an exposed reef break on the western side of the island, using her incredible lung capacity and extra-long flippers that propel her several meters down to the ocean floor.

Here in the stillness of the moment, away from the sound of the thundering reef, she is completely at one with her surroundings, alone, except for those that she has a very special bond.

Floating on the lagoon floor she shares “magical moments” with her close turtle, eagle ray and tropical fish "family", something that, up until recently, she kept private from the rest of the world…

Piho is already internationally recognised for her above the water exploits, include riding monster waves surfing professionally around the world, as well as running arguably the most sort after SUP Yoga retreats on the planet that have featured in leading lifestyle magazines and on Australian TV.

But these days “the real Moana” is now turning her talented hand at capturing some world class underwater photography, with her passion for the ocean setting her apart from other leading camera professionals.

And she says, everything in her life leading up to this point, including big wave riding, has helped her master it, having trained for years to hold her breath for more than 5 minutes underwater, in case she was ever trapped beneath a wave.

“Being able to hold my breath that little bit longer enables me to take my time in capturing just the right shot.”

Often there are a dozen eagle rays gliding towards her at a time as they enter the passage. She skillfully manages to position herself over them holding her camera as still as she possibly can to click a shot so detailed you can imagine you’re right there staring the sea creature in the eye before it sails away.

In one of her favourite photos Piho captured the warm fuzzy moment a turtle swam towards her, “not with its hands out to run left or right, but with its flippers tucked in, as if giving me a hug.

“It’s very rare to see that, a one in a million shot. And for a turtle to do that meant she felt no threat from me being there.”

Piho says she strives to take more than just a photo, but to capture a moment in time that people can really feel.  

And in the past year her Instagram account has exploded after sharing these amazing close encounters of the marine kind with her now over 193,000 followers.

“I’ve now got a lot more photographers following me.

“And the funniest thing is, so many people I looked up to (professionals) now send me emails asking me about what camera or lens and settings I’m using.”

Something she finds surprising. But it’s evident from her latest passion that the ocean is continually helping her to grow as person and bring-out her many talents.

And the shift in focus hasn’t been due to a slowing down of her unique brand and business, far from it.

Her stand up paddle yoga get-away’s have just been listed by Lonely Planet in their newly launched book as one of the best “well-being” retreats in the world.

And Flight Centre are listing it in their upcoming 2019 brochures internationally as one of the Top 50 things to do next year.

Piho says her retreats run in Byron Bay and the Cook Islands are no longer just focusing on SUP yoga, but also taking her guest snorkelling and swimming with the turtles.

“Instead of just being SUP Yoga, my guests are now getting an over and under the water experience, as my retreats are a model of my life and the things I love.”

Piho says out of the many countries she’s traveled, the Cook Islands still has the most amazing underwater environment in the world.

“It’s very unique, they’re just in their natural habitat, freely swimming. We’re not feeding them to come. They’re just doing their own thing and I think that’s really special.

“The turtles here are so beautiful, as also in Australia Fiji, Tahiti, and other places I’ve visited, but here I find the turtles are different… They’ll really look and have more of a connection with you.

“They’re like old souls, as if this has always been their home, they’re not going anywhere, so they love it. Whereas in other places, turtles are always in and out and changing.

“And I find some turtles here do want you to take their photo. I’ve found if I’m taking shots of one, another will come along and want to be in on it.”

Piho says she’s always been into photography, especially the last three years, after picking up her skills from former partner and award winning Australian wedding photographer, Chris Prestige.   

“I learnt so much from him about photography – that was also all about capturing moments and peoples face. I still focus on getting the same kinds of shots, but with marine life.”

And now that Piho has stepped out with her own unique photography she is attracting the attention of some of the biggest players in the industry.

Professional underwater camera-housing firm AquaTech snapped up Piho earlier on as an online “influencer” for their international product suite. So far she’s promoted an “eXo” for the iphone X.

She says that was great for her retreats as she could take photos and give them to people directly via Bluetooth.

But then, AquaTech were so impressed with the shared images online that they started promoting her as an actual photographer.  Now Piho’s using a Canon D mark 4, which she says, is equipped with some of the best lenses on the market.

“They said they were super impressed with my photos, as apparently it’s hard to find females that are always nailing the shots.”

And now through her growing under-water reputation, Piho’s about to hit the holy grail of photography with a potential relationship with Canon, the world’s leading camera manufacturer.

She’s entering into talks with their Australian PR team in the coming weeks to see how they can best support her journey and to look at potential collaboration opportunities.

“This really is a dream come true for me, for them to be looking at my work and seeing how they can support me. It’s a massive step forward in the right direction. And makes all my months of trying to improve a little bit each day, get out practicing shooting whenever I can, pushing myself mentally, physically and emotionally a bit more each day, all worth it.”

Piho has been swimming with turtles since she was a child, and started diving the potentially dangerous Avaavaroa passage when just 12-years-old.

She used to dive without the aid of flippers or a mask, keeping her eyes open, as she wanted to be completely free in the water.

A stark contrast to today, being held-down with a weight-belt, snorkelling equipment, and state of the art camera equipment. But she still exudes a child-like freedom and joy for what she is accomplishing, doing what she truly loves.

“I think my photography is about capturing what other people can’t see, because I can dive a little bit deeper and I can hold breath for a little bit longer.

“And most people don’t like being out on the water alone, and I think that’s where I feel like I’m in my element, when I’m on my own. I feel it’s just me and that moment – that’s when I feel I have my most magical moments.

“And often, the best photo’s I’ve ever shot, are on the days when no one else will go out because it’s grey and the water looks stirred up.

“I find all my favourite images are like that, because the eagle rays rise, the turtles come in, everything moves a little bit up and everything is moving around.

“I’ve sat and watched them for hours, just circulating, watching their movements and seeing what they were doing. And I’ll kick-out and then dive down again and come up so I can study them, not just clicking and clicking them.

“Because when you’re photographing them, it’s very much like being a spear-fisherman. I could never kill a fish, but shooting them with my camera is the same process.”

And through her stunning shots, Piho now wants to promote the Cook Islands under water world on a global stage.

“I just think it’s more beautiful than all the palm trees and beaches… (promoted in tourism) everything’s about the mountains and the palm-trees, and I’m like what about our amazing marine life?”

When she’s back home in Australia, with her Bondi surf break on her front doorstep, Piho says she now can’t decide between going surfing or diving with her camera.

“So the good news is now, if there’s no surf, I can always dive. I love both just as much.”

She adds that she’s striving to take her underwater photography as far as it will go - just as she’s already done with surfing and her retreats.

After so many years of being in front of the lens having shots taken of her riding waves or promoting her SUP yoga product, Piho says she’s now found a new home behind the camera sharing her love of the ocean and her unique underwater view with the world through her photos.

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