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March 21-22, 2009


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Under the sea with marine photographer John Natoli kPage 14

Clockwise from far left: Reaper cuttlefish at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay Spine-cheek anemonefish, Great Barrier Reef Spotted eagle ray at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay Juvenile yellow boxfish at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay Small fish nibble at a jellyfish at Julian Rocks




■ It’s never too late to discover a passion as John Natoli discovered several years ago on the Great Barrier Reef. Seanna Cronin chats to a man who has gone from being a workaholic real estate agent to an award-winning underwater photographer


ohn Natoli has been around long enough to know some people aren’t averse to calling real estate agents names. As one of the Gold Coast’s higher profile agents, he’s negotiated enough property contracts over the years to know some people walk away from the table muttering words such as ‘shark’ and ‘shyster’ to describe the poor bloke caught between a seller wanting a little bit more and a buyer wanting to pay a whole lot less. Not many descriptions would shock him these days but that was his exact reaction a few weeks ago when he was preparing to sign a contract and the buyer described him as a ‘hero’. ‘‘He said to me ‘oh, you’re my godson’s hero’ and I said ‘what, because I’m a good real estate agent’,’’ laughs Natoli before going on to tell the story of how the buyer’s 15-year-old godson has multiple sclerosis

and had recently stumbled upon the property agent’s other life. ‘‘When the kids go out to play sport, he goes to the school library and he recently came across (my) book in the library and he was so taken by the marine life (I’ve) captured in the book, he now wants to be an underwater photographer. ‘‘That really touched me. I went ‘wow, that’s an experience that differentiates my working life from what I do as a passion’. If other people enjoy your photos it’s nice (but) not important, but this kid who suffers from multiple sclerosis, who probably has limited career paths, now wants to be an underwater photographer. ‘‘Wow, I’ve touched someone’s heart. That’s very rewarding.’’ The book the youngster had got his hands on is Hooked on Julian Rocks, a 56-page tribute to the underwater world that has not only touched Natoli’s heart since his

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Lionfish on the Great Barrier Reef

first dive several years ago but stolen it. With an initial print run of one copy – a Christmas present for his father – the book has now evolved into 2000 copies largely due to positive feedback from peers and the sponsorship of the NSW Marine Parks Authority. It features a stunning collection of photos captured at Byron Bay dive site Julian Rocks and as the man whose name is on the cover will openly admit, the big blue is a world away from the career he has forged on the Gold Coast for the past 15 years. Natoli is more famous in these parts as a player in the prestige real estate market, having earned his stripes under Max Christmas and been recognised within PRDnationwide as one of its top salespeople. His two worlds of real estate and underwater photography are chalk and cheese, black and white, but intrinsically linked by the fact one saved him from the other. You see, discovering scuba diving is what

Natoli claims stopped him from becoming a workaholic. ‘‘In those early days of trying to get established in real estate, I was typically working seven days a week,’’ he says. ‘‘I didn’t want to burn out and decided it was time to discipline myself and have a day off a week. ‘‘But I didn’t have anything to do – I’m a bad golf player – so it was very easy to be tempted to go back into work even on days off until I discovered scuba diving. That changed everything.’’ Having experienced his first dive as a 45-year-old while on a family holiday in the Whitsundays in 2002, it wasn’t until a year later that Natoli made the decision to commit to the pursuit wholeheartedly. Before long he had chalked up his first 100 dives around Cook Island off the Tweed Coast but the words of one of his first instructors in the Whitsundays continued to ring in his ears. ‘‘He asked me where I lived and when I

told him the Gold Coast, he said ‘you live next door to one of the best dive spots in Australia. Do yourself a favour and go dive Julian Rocks’.’’ On July 20, 2003, Natoli finally made the drive to Byron Bay to do exactly that and it’s a journey that has changed his life. Since that landmark day he has made the hour-long trip from his Gold Coast home to Byron Bay every Friday to commune with his fellow divers and descend into the ocean they love so much. Averaging two dives a week for the past five years, Natoli stopped keeping track of his dive tally years ago but when pushed for a number, he suggests he’s done about 800 with three-quarters of them at magical Julian Rocks. ‘‘Now you can’t get me on a Friday . . . Byron on Friday has become a way of life,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s diving, catching up with people, sitting and enjoying a coffee. ‘‘I would sit at a coffee shop on the Gold

Coast and people would say ‘how’s real estate?’ and I’d be happy to talk about it but I don’t want it to consume every minute of my day. In Byron I wasn’t known. Nobody spoke to me about real estate and I enjoyed the freedom of that.’’ And then there is the freedom of the ocean, the freedom that comes from suiting up and rolling backwards off a dive boat into another world. ‘‘It’s so peaceful and serene when you’re down there,’’ says Natoli. ‘‘There are other divers around you but you just sit there in total awe of the ocean. You have to pinch yourself. ‘‘I’d be happy just being down there blowing bubbles. It’s just a completely different world from what you’re used to on the surface. Even though I dive the same spot quite regularly, the fact is the sea produces a constant surprise of different animals coming in and out of the area.

Weekend Bulletin PARADISE, March 21-22, 2009 - PAGE 15

Natoli’s famous photo of a grey nurse shark with a gaff stick stuck in its throat ‘‘At Julian Rocks there are some sites where you feel like you’re positioned in the middle of an aquarium and you think ‘what’s everyone else doing today because I know what I’m doing’.’’ Every diver has their tales to tell and Natoli is no different. He talks about being blown away the first time he saw a shark, while the memory of spending 20 minutes with a manta ray that was ‘so close you could rub your hand on its underside and look at it eye to eye’ still moves him. He even reminicises about his first encounter with an endangered grey nurse shark with the sort of detail most men reserve for recalling the first time they met their wife. ‘‘I can still remember seeing my first (one),’’ he says. ‘‘We were in Hugo’s Trench, which is an unusual place to see them, and we hid behind a small bommie and just watched the shark cruise past us. I was in absolute awe of it. ‘‘I just fell in love with them.’’ It is one thing to talk about these experiences though. What Natoli soon found he wanted to do more than anything was show people what was he was experiencing. ‘‘I started photography not just to shoot the sharks but to share those experiences with (wife) Kim at home,’’ he says. ‘‘She doesn’t dive and I wanted to share those experiences with her, to show her what I was seeing underwater. ‘‘Photography helps me share my diving experiences with people who don’t

Blue-lip anemonefish at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay


At Julian Rocks there are some sites where you feel like you’re positioned in the middle of an aquarium . . .

John Natoli

Take an underwater tour of Julian Rocks with John Natoli online at


PAGE 16 - Weekend Bulletin PARADISE, March 21-22, 2009

dive, particularly my family, and then it becomes addictive. You want to take better images and then it grabs hold of you.’’ Natoli’s first photographic effort was at Julian Rocks using a small digital camera in waterproof housing and he discovered a tradesman can indeed blame his tools as the quality of his equipment did no justice whatsoever to what he was seeing below the surface. ‘‘If you take a crappy little photo on a point-and-shoot, what’s so exciting about that?’’ he says. After seeing images a dive buddy took with a digital SLR camera, he made a hefty financial investment in expensive equipment. The problem on his occasion was he realised he only had himself to blame for the resulting images. ‘‘ I thought ‘what have I done?’ I regretted spending every cent,’’ he says.


‘‘I didn’t understand anything about photography. I didn’t understand anything about exposure or shutter speed. I thought you just went out there, set it on auto and took photos.’’ Natoli’s desire to do justice to the biodiversity of Julian Rocks, home to more than 1000 species, motivated him to educate himself in the ways of the photographer. He read books, subscribed to magazines and newsletters, and practised at home using his billiards table, lining up the balls and experimenting with exposure and depth of field. His focus then shifted to the specific challenges of underwater photography – the way colours disappear with depth, how particles in the water can reflect light back towards the camera and the struggle to get close to marine life that can be shy or swim much faster than the fittest diver.

‘‘I just want to take the best photos not because I want to be better than someone else. It’s just for personal satisfaction,’’ explains Natoli. ‘‘It is no different to my whole psychology of being in the real estate business. You want to be good not because you want to make more money. You just want to be good at what you do.’’ Natoli is good at what he does. It may have taken him a year to feel comfortable with his camera and abilities as a photographer but his photos were soon appearing in an online catalogue of Julian Rocks’ marine life, while Byron Bay scuba centre Sundive was using his images on brochures and posters. He has now snapped more than 15,000 photographs, some of which won him the underwater photography competition at

the inaugural Byron Underwater Festival in 2006. For the most part, however, he shies away from competitions. ‘‘If I start taking photos to be competitive it frustrates me,’’ he says. ‘‘We all have different styles of shooting – that’s why to be competitive is silly. I take photos for my enjoyment.’’ Besides which, it seems Natoli doesn’t need to win awards to make a name for himself. After all, it was his photos of a three-metre female grey nurse shark with a metre-long gaff stick stuck in its throat last year that inspired a massive rescue operation that earned international attention. Having spent about five minutes with the injured animal while diving at Julian Rocks, Natoli’s first task once back on dry land was to ensure marine authorities were


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Juvenile three-spot Dascyllus at Julian Rocks, Byron Bay

aware of its distress. The second was to deal with the feeding frenzy from media outlets desperate for his amazing images. ‘‘It was interesting to see their tussle for exclusivity,’’ he says. ‘‘My first thoughts were ‘I can’t believe this has generated such a strong interest around the world’ . . . I never thought it would be such a big story. It certainly gave me some great publicity.’’ Natoli’s photos of ‘Broomstick’, as the shark was christened, appeared in some of Australia’s biggest selling newspapers, while the photographer was also interviewed by US television channel Animal Planet about the incident. More importantly, the photos inspired marine experts to rush to the shark’s aid and save it from a slow and painful death. ‘‘It was exciting to have a shark actually be the victim instead of the predator,’’ he says. ‘‘I was blown away someone like Sea World was prepared to go to such lengths. I think it’s a positive story for conservation.’’ Next month marks the third instalment of the Byron Underwater Festival and, not surprisingly, one of the community’s adopted sons will be among the thick of the action. Natoli will present Hooked on Julian Rocks as part of the festivities and while he will no doubt receive plenty of praise for his photographs, he is the first to admit there are times when it’s best to leave his camera above the surface. ‘‘There was a day recently when we came into the needles and there were just swarms of fish everywhere – big bull rays, turtles, schools of kingfish coming through, lots of those morwongs, schools of blue-striped snapper. So much marine life it was awesome. ‘‘I decided not to take the camera on the second dive. It was too distracting to be stuck behind the lens. I just wanted to sit there and observe. It was absolutely amazing.’’ ■ To see more of John Natoli’s photographs, visit www.natoliunderwater.com or to find out more about the Byron Underwater Festival, visit www.underwaterfestival.com.au

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Photography of John Natoli  

How award-winning underwater photographer John Natoli fell in love with diving and photography.

Photography of John Natoli  

How award-winning underwater photographer John Natoli fell in love with diving and photography.

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