Member profile - Michal Biniek

The impact of COVID-19 has been felt by every Australian and, in fact, by almost everyone in the world. For many, it has become a life changing event, compounding the fear of illness with separation from family and community. There is no doubt that it has created a nostalgia for the old “normal” times, which looks good to many of us today.
For some, the ocean has provided a refuge from pandemic, as it is clear the virus seems to avoid the salt water. While not encouraged to congregate on the shore, many have become solitary divers/snorkellers, practicing isolation in the sea, and exploring the environment close to their homes, as travel has also been discouraged. Our project numbers have grown over the months of the pandemic, where some fortunate participants have been exploring their close local locations, and other have been supportive with identifications and encouragement. This bio’s subject Michal Biniek (on the right in the photo, above) clearly illustrates this response to isolation, as much of his body of work has been observed in the waters surrounding his residential neighbourhood of Manly, in Sydney.
Michal’s contribution reminds me another aspect of exploration as well, the exploration of a new country and culture. He reminds me of my past travels, working overseas in countries where a different language is spoken and is located far from family. Many project participants have worked overseas during their careers, and most will tell interesting stories about their adventures and misadventures, however, I would guess that their experience was not always a bed of roses. There were times when the distance from home, from family and from a native language created a challenging set of circumstances. In some ways, Michal reminds me of the additional challenges which must encountered when a pandemic and travel restrictions are added to the mix of overseas employment. Michal is a relative newcomer to our country, far away from his roots in his native Poland, however, it is clear he has quickly built himself a community, both physical and a virtual, in a very short period of time, during a global pandemic.
Michal came to Australia, from Poland three years ago. The purpose of the move was to join an Australian-owned software company, as a software engineer. He resides in Manly, NSW, where his odyssey in underwater photography started. Michal tells us, “Photography is my long running hobby. I started taking photos on film when I was a kid. Nature photography brings another level of difficulty as it requires many different factors to go well - it takes proper timing, light and composition to take a “good photo”. That’s especially challenging to achieve when chasing moving objects like animals.”
Michal did not do much underwater exploration in Europe but that changed after he moved to Sydney. Introduced to the underwater richness of the Sydney area by friends from the company’s scuba social club, (hello @kopper!), he learned that Sydney is an amazing place to discover underwater life. Not only that, but the place where he lives, was the perfect taking-off point for this underwater adventure. And take-off, he certainly has done, compiling an impressive record for the Australasian Fishes project. Since joining in April 2019, he has recorded 1,442 observations of which 1,288 have been for Australasian Fishes. His impressive list of observations encompass 262 species to date. In addition, in such a short time, he also helped in over 2,463 identifications. Michal has truly jumped in with both flippers! It is important to note that at least a third of his time in the project, was during a global pandemic (so far). When many others were looking for toilet paper, Michal was looking at his underwater neighbours.
Having a background in nature photography, he quickly wanted to know the names of the fish he recorded. He says, “iNat was recommended to me by friends in a company scuba social club as a great place to learn and seek for help identifying underwater species. @markmcg does a great job recruiting people to this amazing project. I’m impressed by the community around Australasian Fishes - great specialists, so when in doubt, we can get really precise expertise - as well as plenty of members submitting new interesting observations every day. I'm a huge fan of underwater photography, I take a camera with me on every snorkelling session. I have made a routine to process photos the same day as they were taken, or at least these with uncommon findings, so I can post them to iNat.”
He explains that “Manly has been my home for the last few years - that’s why most of my observations are done around there. Thankfully, I live really close to the water so I can get to the water pretty often! Additionally, due to COVID and travel lockdown I couldn’t really explore much further, so I took the opportunity to explore local waters even more carefully. Both sides of water offer great, yet different conditions and species. Shelly Beach - definitely better to “catch” big fish - like sharks or bull rays, but it can get busy. The Harbour side is a less common choice to swim, but that’s where I saw my first turtle in Sydney, hey!”
Michal prefers a lightweight set-up as much as possible, so his exploration is snorkel/shallow freediving only. This allows him quick trips to the water during the day. His current schedule allows from 2 to 3 trips a week, of course, depending on the weather and visibility. He reports any conditions with 15m visibility makes him simply take his fins and go straight to the water.
Michal discusses his preferred photography equipment, “I use Canon G7X mk II with Fantasea underwater housing - I shot photos with natural, ambient light - it takes a while to find out how to take better photos with that setup, but even with such minimalistic equipment it is possible to take “good photos”. I have found Manly-local Ian Donato’s guide a great start for beginners (https://www.housingcamera.com/blog/underwater-photography/on-being-an-underwater-photographer-who-favours-the-shallow-end). I wish I had read it earlier. My personal hints (for snorkelers) are usually specific:
• Chasing fish is usually a lost cause - is never ends with good photo; my tricks to get better angle of the fish is to swim parallel to it (works well with dusky whalers) to hide and surprise fish from behind a rock (juvenile butterflyfish) or simply wait - they may turn around and actually get curious.
• Some fish may get used to humans around - e.g. I observed some tropicals like brown tang which tend to ignore me after few minutes of me diving up and down.
• When without light/strobe, I set the shutter to fixed 1/250 - that helps with sharp pictures when diving “deeper” or during not-sunny weather when auto mode switches to 1/80 (sigh).
Nature photography, thanks to its challenges, is very rewarding. When moving to the opposite side of the globe, everything around is new and exciting. I wanted to learn more about them - taking pictures and identifying them helps and can be fun too. I also felt that the harbour deserves a little bit more attention, however it is hard to compete with Cabbage Tree Bay. As I live nearby Manly Cove, I have decided to scan that area with more attention - turns out that you can find such interesting critters like keyhole angelfish or a green sea turtle in the harbour as well!”
Finally, Michal’s engagement in the underwater community has been impressive, even while in isolation when the pandemic was in full swing. He is a strong supporter and contributor of the Facebook group VIZ, (https://www.facebook.com/groups/sydviz/) which is a private group dedicated to reports of underwater visibility conditions across the Sydney metropolitan area, focusing on conditions for divers. Like Australasian Fishes, it is volunteer site, with individuals and groups reporting water conditions, temperature and abundance of marine life across the regional area. The reporters are extremely enthusiastic, and their passion is almost infectious, as they report on conditions at famous and less famous dive spots. There is a good mixture of shore dive and boat dive reports, so the site is useful as a condition guide and motivator for getting off the couch, where many are waiting out the pandemic, and into the water. Another advantage, like Australasian Fishes, it creates a sense of instant community for all, including the newly arrived, COVID isolated individuals and those passionate about exploring the local marine environment. Michal quickly became a highly valued member of this Facebook community, as his reports have been on the lesser explored areas of Manly in Sydney. It seems like every few days, during the pandemic, Michel has been contributing photos, videos and water condition reports of the Manly area, harbour side and ocean side. This useful service has been appreciated by fellow members of the VIZ group, many of the observations he has made for our project have been featured in his reports on water conditions.
In summary, the pandemic has created an interesting challenge for many people in the world. For some it has been isolating, both physically and emotionally. A difficult time to overcome. Projects like Australasian Fishes and VIZ have help some to bridge the barriers of physical isolation, by allowing us to feel engaged with others in interesting and meaningful projects. When looking at these citizen-driven initiatives it is clear to see the dedication and passion reflected in the written reports and observations. There are often notes of encouragement and support which come through exchanges found in these online initiatives as well. Such camaraderie is important during periods of isolation and pandemic. Michal Biniek has reminded me that family and community can be found in many places on Earth, and online projects play an important role not only in the science of our times, but also in the human engagement of our times.
This journal post was written by Australasian Fishes member, Harry Rosenthal.
Posted by markmcg markmcg, October 12, 2020 06:05

Comments

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Thank you @harry! Great work 👌

Posted by biniek-io about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Oh wow, what a story. Very well written @markmcg and @biniek-io . Reads like a script for a movie about covid for future generations.

Posted by kopper about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Great to read about you Michael (and great write-up Harry)

Posted by fiftygrit about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Great contributions @biniek-io and always interesting to hear how people found their way into the water :)

Posted by amandahay about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Nice work @biniek-io and an interesting little bio!
Great to always see your shots :)

Posted by henrick about 2 months ago (Flag)
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Thanks guys! It's always fun to upload/identify fish when there are such passionate people around!

Posted by biniek-io about 1 month ago (Flag)
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It was my pleasure to introduce you to the rest of the community. We are grateful for your ongoing contributions.

Posted by harryrosenthal about 1 month ago (Flag)

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