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His job is to actually really stare at octopus, seahorse, jellyfish

Pale Octopus Octopus pallidus Specimen No. 9; mantle is 4.5 inches long; Moonlight Bay Resort, Rye, Victoria, Australia
David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Pale Octopus Octopus pallidus Specimen No. 9; mantle is 4.5 inches long; Moonlight Bay Resort, Rye, Victoria, Australia

Updated June 27, 2022 at 12:17 PM ET

"Nature loves to hide" — a famous quote by Heraclitus

Liittschwager's response: "I want to see."

"That license to stare that photographers have? I've always liked that," David Liittschwager tells NPR. "You're rarely given the permission to really, really look at somebody. My job is to actually really stare at octopus, seahorse, jellyfish."

Liittschwager, a photographer for National Geographic, spent 12 years photographing octopuses, seahorses and jellyfish at more than 28 locations around the globe with his portable 500-pound photo studio.

Western Spiny Seahorse Hippocampus angustus Specimen Nos. 78, 79 male and female 3.25 inches tall; Seahorse World, Beauty Point, Tasmania, Australia
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Western Spiny Seahorse, Hippocampus angustus; specimen Nos. 78, 79; male and female; 3.25 inches tall; Seahorse World, Beauty Point, Tasmania, Australia.

In this book, Octopus, Seahorse, Jellyfish, which features essays written by best-selling science writers Elizabeth Kolbert, Jennifer Holland and Olivia Judson, Liittschwager captures more than 135,000 exposures using light and condenser lenses to create the white background that can be seen in most of the images it features. Many of the seahorses and most of the jellyfish were shot using large condensers to capture the detail of small hairs and translucent tissue.

"Because they're moving (sea creatures) and sometimes fast and small, there's a whole lot of things you can never see in life," Liittschwager tells NPR. "You have to get it as a still — a high resolution still photograph can reveal parts of these creatures that otherwise would remain unseen."

Flower Hat Jelly Olindias formosaSpecimen No. 246; bell is 2.5 inches across; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Flower Hat Jelly, Olindias formosa; specimen No. 246; bell is 2.5 inches across; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan.

"A pregnant male seahorse, a shape-shifting octopus and a jellyfish that can cleave off a piece of itself to make another have been wondrous sights to behold."

From French Polynesia to Tasmania and southern Spain — to list a few — Liittschwager's writes in his book about the places he's traveled to capture nearly 500 different specimens, with the help of aquarists, scientists and collectors along the way. His goal, he says, is to show the world what's really there.

As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the book's forward, "The images are an opportunity to explore the fantastic world that exists under the surface of the seas."

In a world where marine life is impacted by climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification, oil spills and plastic waste, Liittschwager says his hope is that the book will encourage more affection for underwater creatures.

Octopus

California Two-Spot Octopus Octopus bimaculoides Specimen No. 26; mantle is 3.5 inches long; Oakley Evolution Lab, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, United States
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
California Two-Spot Octopus, Octopus bimaculoides; specimen No. 26; mantle is 3.5 inches long; Oakley Evolution Lab, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, United States.
Rock Tako Octopus oliveri Specimen No. 3; mantle is 2.25 inches long; Kewalo Basin Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Rock Tako, Octopus oliveri; specimen No. 3; mantle is 2.25 inches long; Kewalo Basin Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States.
Day Octopus Octopus cyanea Specimen No. 29; mantle is 2 inches long; Dive Gizo, Ghizo Island, Solomon Islands
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Day Octopus, Octopus cyanea; specimen No. 29; mantle is 2 inches long; Dive Gizo, Ghizo Island, Solomon Islands.
Southern Keeled Octopus Octopus berrima Specimen No.7; mantle is 2.25 inches long; Moonlight Bay Resort, Rye, Victoria, Australia
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Southern Keeled Octopus, Octopus berrima; specimen No. 7; mantle is 2.25 inches long; Moonlight Bay Resort, Rye, Victoria, Australia.

Seahorse

Pot-Bellied Seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis Specimen No. 70; male giving birth; 5.5 inches tall.
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Pot-Bellied Seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis; specimen No. 70; male giving birth; 5.5 inches tall.
Pot-Bellied Seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis Specimen No. 72; male; hatchlings are 0.75 inch overall length; Seahorse World, Beauty Point, Tasmania, Australia
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Pot-Bellied Seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis; specimen No. 72; male; hatchlings are 0.75 inch overall length; Seahorse World, Beauty Point, Tasmania, Australia.
Pot-Bellied Seahorse Hippocampus abdominalis Specimen No. 54; 4 inches tall; Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Pot-Bellied Seahorse, Hippocampus abdominalis; specimen No. 54; 4 inches tall; Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California, United States.
Line Seahorse Hippocampus erectus Specimen No. 11; 6 inches tall; Birch Aquarium Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Line Seahorse, Hippocampus erectus; specimen No. 11; 6 inches tall; Birch Aquarium Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California, United States.

Jellyfish

Cannonball Jellyfish Stomolophus meleagris Specimen No. 240; bells are 3 inches across; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Cannonball Jellyfish, Stomolophus meleagris; specimen No. 240; bells are 3 inches across; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan.
Scyphozoan Jellyfish Rhopilema sp. Specimen No. 256; 3.5 inches overall length; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Scyphozoan Jellyfish, Rhopilema sp.; specimen No. 256; 3.5 inches overall length; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan.
Comb Jelly Bolinopsis infundibulum Specimen No. 258; 2.5 inches overall length; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Comb Jelly, Bolinopsis infundibulum; specimen No. 258; 2.5 inches overall length; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan.
Moon Jelly Aurelia sp. Specimen No. 266; 4.5 inches across; from Palau; Kamo Aquarium, Tsuruoka, Yamagata, Japan
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Moon Jelly, Aurelia aurita; specimen No. 189; 7 inches across; Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research & Restoration in Summerland Key, Florida, United States.
Common Octopus Octopus vulgaris Specimen No. 12; mantle is 3.5 inches long; Florida Keys Marine Life, Big Pine Key, Florida, United States
/ David Liittschwager/National Geographic
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David Liittschwager/National Geographic
Common Octopus, Octopus vulgaris; specimen No. 12; mantle is 3.5 inches long; Florida Keys Marine Life, Big Pine Key, Florida, United States.

David Liittschwager's book, Octopus, Seahorse, Jellyfish, was published on April 5, 2022, by National Geographic. Liittschwager's photography has been exhibited at major museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and he continues to work on his "One Cubic Foot" project.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Castillo
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