Vocation: underwater photographer
Born: 29 July 1946, Lake Zurich, Switzerland
Lives: Bandol " La Madrague" France / Cote D'
Passions: Diving, photography, jazz,mountaibiken,wind and
Life and Career:
As a photographer, teacher and environmentalist, Kurt Amsler's
influence over modern diving is comparable to that of his hero, Hans
Hass. An innovative photographer, he has authored countless books
and articles which have brought the underwater world to a wider
audience. Brought up in the pleasant lakeside town of Waedenswil,
Switzerland, his father was a photographer and mountaineer who
sympathized with the young Kurt's appetite for adventure.
At the age of 14, he took one of his father's costly Leica cameras
and put it in a makeshift housing fashioned from the rubber bladder
of a soccer ball, with a Plexiglas window. Incredibly, the home-made
system survived its first descent into Lake Zurich, and Amsler
returned with a black-and-white photograph of one of his friends. 'I
still like the shot, although there's perhaps not enough contrast,'
he said. 'I showed it to my father, and the first thing he wanted to
know was which of his cameras I had used!'
He took a four-year diploma at the Zurich School of Photography and
Art, which gave him a comprehensive training to build upon. 'There's
no doubt that I benefited from the training, but it was valuable
because they didn't bother telling me which settings to use on the
camera. They taught me not to accept the concept of the camera as a
separate object, but to regard it as an extension of myself.'
Amsler's diving began in earnest in 1965 when, aged 19, he went to
the Red Sea with $300 in his pocket and a sailor's bag with his
diving gear, a 10-litre cylinder and the world's first amphibious
camera, the Calypso-Phot. He spent eight months in the Gulf of Aqaba,
and decided to pursue a career in underwater photography. In the
early years he supplemented his earnings by playing in a jazz band
(he still plays drums in the band that performs each year at the
Antibes Underwater Festival in the South of France). He also took up
diver training as a means of income, working as an instructor all
over the world and later running dive schools in Kenya, Lake Zurich
and the Maldives.
Having established himself as a leading underwater photographer,
Amsler increasingly became involved in conservation issues. He
famously led the successful push to protect reef sharks in the
Maldives, and most recently has devoted his time to fighting the
turtle trade industry in Bali, Indonesia, working alongside PADI's
Project AWARE. He still lives on the shores of his childhood haunt,
Lake Zurich, where he shares a home with his wife, Isabelle, son
William, 10, and daughter Alizeee, who is three.
What prompted you to take up diving?
When I was ten years old I was given a book about Hans Hass, and it
was a real inspiration. At the time, my father was a photographer
who specialized in sport and mountaineering, and I saw diving as the
next big adventure. My obsession with diving was all-consuming, like
a virus. I started by holding my breath in the bath, then progressed
to free-diving in Lake Zurich. Before long, I was using very basic
home-made rebreathers and other crazy inventions to breathe
Where did you train and when?
I bought an Aqualung in France in 1963 and taught myself to use it.
Years later, I decided that to earn money I needed to have one foot
in the 'training camp' as well as one in the photography side, so in
1969 I became a NAUI instructor in the Bahamas.
What are your qualifications?
Having become a NAUI instructor first, I became a three-star
Instructor of the Swiss Federation, a three-star Moniteur of CMAS,
and ended up as a PADI Master Instructor. It all helps me to offer
the best training to clients. But really, for me, the certification
card is just a piece of plastic - to be a good instructor is a
matter of attitude, not the 'trademark' you belong to!
How many dives have you done?
Many thousands. I don't have a record. Once, a journalist from
German television who was making a film about me worked out that (according
to my average fin speed) I must have swum around the world one and a
What is your best diving experience?
Nothing in particular comes to mind. For me, the happiness that
comes through diving is achieving your goal underwater. I find the
enthusiasm that comes with underwater photography is addictive.
I am always enthusiastic about what I do, and I think that's the key
to success. The fish feel it too - I hope.
What is your worst diving experience?
The only times I've been in danger have been because of other people.
Several times I've found myself helping divers without even knowing
their names. For example, once while diving on my own, I saw two
divers drifting on the surface. It looked as though they were both
panicking, so I went up to the surface to help. They had been pushed
far from their boat by a strong surface current, and by the time I
had calmed them down none of us could see my boat either. The
adventure ended up with us all drifting at the surface for a total
of eight hours. After the first six, I was asking myself why I had
put myself in that position to help the guys!
Where have you dived?
I've been to all the obvious places, but there are still a few gaps
on my list. I don't know much about the Pacific, from New Caledonia
down to New Zealand, but I'll go there one day.
Who is your regular buddy?
If you look back at most of my photographs over the years, the model
has usually been my girlfriend at the time. For the past 14 years,
my buddy has been my wife, Isabelle. She's a doctor, which is very
useful for when we go on long expeditions. I like the idea of diving
voyages being family trips. When my son, William, was born ten years
ago, we always took him with us. So by the time he started school,
he had spent more time walking on sand than on carpet.
Why do you dive?
It's an obsessive love. When I first went to the Red Sea, I funded
the trip by doing welding work, then I hitchhiked to Eilat. I don't
come from a very wealthy background, so I had to work hard to make
my dreams come true. I dive mostly to take photographs, but I'd
still go diving if someone took my camera away from me.
Where do you want to dive next?
I've got an advertising job for Daimler-Benz which will take me back
to Lake Zurich. It's always nice to go back to my diving roots!
What equipment do you own?
For a long time I used mid-format Rolleiflex and Hasselblad cameras
in housings. Then in 1978 I changed to Nikon 35mm cameras. I started
with an F2, and up to the F5 in Subal housings that I helped to
develop in collaboration with the people at Subal. I also did use
Nikonos RS and V cameras. Sincw 2003 I'd change 100 percent to
Digital !! Using D1-X, D-100 and now the D-200 ! All in
SECAM Housings . I don't like to use too much light, just enough to highlight the
important parts of the picture. I prever the small Nikon105, and Sea & Sea
YS-90 /YS-120 strobes and of course the new small SEACAM 's
Which five songs would you put on a liveaboard compilation tape?
The best music for diving has to be Yellow Submarine by the Beatles.
It's got a good rhythm, which is really nice to fin along to if you
play it in your head. If you try finning along to the The Big Blue
soundtrack, you end up going around in circles!
Have you a dive tip that has helped you?
My advice for underwater photographers or film-makers who want to
succeed in this industry is to be aware that it's a very small world,
and your reputation is of paramount importance. I get quite a lot of
advertising work, and have worked for big magazines and agencies for
decades - I like to think that this is because of the way I have
conducted myself over the years. Too many photographers go up like
rockets in terms of fame, then they start behaving like idiots and
dig their own graves. I had the best possible start, because I
trained as a professional topside photographer and had excellent
teachers who give me a solid grounding in how a responsible
Which figure, living or dead, would you like to take diving, and
Hans Hass is my diving hero and also a great friend. Often, your
hero can turn out to be disappointment when you meet them. But I
worked with Hans on his last film, and I was relieved to discover
that he is a great person as well as a great diver. If I had to
choose someone who hadn't been diving, I'd go for a politician who
has to decide on laws that will affect the oil or plastic rubbish
that is dumped in the ocean. I'd take them on a 24-hour drift dive
in the Gulf Stream, at a place where three currents converge and
there's piles of junk floating around. Then they would have a better
insight into the enormity of the problem.