Maxwel Hohn has one of the coolest jobs in the world. You might know him as the photographer who’s won accolades at the Monterey Digital Shootout the last two years running. Or you might have seen some of his footage on the BBC. Maxwel is an underwater photographer and videographer, and his career has taken him diving all over the globe.
Maxwel’s high school ambition was to attend film school. With a little time to kill before his collegiate program started, he took a trip to Honduras and did some diving…and never made it to film school. What was to be a brief summer interlude turned into a two-year stay, during which he became a scuba instructor.
The year 2005 saw him teaching recreational scuba in destination resorts and aboard private yachts. It’s a dream job that held him in thrall for another eight years when he tried his hand at technical diving and became an instructor in that. From there, the next peak to scale was commercial diving where he hoped to establish a more sustainable career.
“Scuba instructing is a great way to see the world,” he says, “It’s a cool lifestyle, but I wanted to buy a house and a car…”
But even that wasn’t enough for Maxwel, who hadn’t given up on making films after all.
Starting with GoPros and compact cameras, Maxwel practiced and refined his art by watching YouTube videos and learning from other industry pros. Eventually, he moved up to professional gear and began capturing images that have been used in a variety of contexts, from nature documentaries to surveying fishery data for government organizations. In 2018 he won 1st place in the video montage category of the Monterey Digital Shootout — and outdid himself this year when he won the Chuck Triolet Best of Show Award.
At the time of our interview, Maxwel was ten days from redeeming his prize from the 2018 contest — a trip to French Polynesia. He was expecting dolphins, mantas, and pristine reef, and the Wall of Sharks (which is exactly what it sounds like). Next year, he’ll be headed for Grand Cayman.
At home on Vancouver Island, British Columbia he likes to explore places people have never dived before. There, stellar sea lions group up in rafts of fifty or so and like to dogpile playfully on top of human divers.
“One will be biting your fin,” Maxwel says of the sea puppies, as he called them, “With another nibbling your head. And they’re big. They get up to eleven feet in length and weigh two thousand pounds. They have the same skull structure as a grizzly bear.”
No less impressive is the giant Pacific octopus that makes their homes there, or the spawning herring that sweep through in January and February each year.
Over the course of his career, Maxwel has seen some pretty amazing things. A year in Zanzibar exposed him to pods of curious dolphins, and a 50′ humpback whale and her calf near the surface during a particularly memorable safety stop. The year he spent in Norway gave him access to the fjords where the cold, clear water preserves ancient wooden shipwrecks almost completely intact.
He practiced tech diving in Africa and Thailand, learning to negotiate in-water decompression so he could go deeper and stay longer than he’d ever been before. Perhaps one of the most magical encounters he remembered was in Vietnam, where he saw and pointed out a cuttlefish to his fellow divers, only to watch in awe as the cephalopod lifted a tentacle and pointed right back.
Maxwel describes his love for diving and image-making as an addiction to a connection that he can’t get enough of. There’s no limit, and no matter how much you know there’s more to learn. Besides, if he didn’t bring a camera with him underwater, what would he do with his hands?
On the horizon for Maxwell is rebreather training and the broadcast of the BBC series First Year On Earth, which features some of his footage…and a lot of baby animals. There’s also a pilot for a show about commercial divers he hopes will get picked up so he can spend more time documenting underwater welders or shipwreck-raising salvage divers.
Next year he’s planning an expedition to Newfoundland with fellow Suunto Ambassador Jill Heinerth, who he really enjoys working with. They’ll explore icebergs and World War II wrecks with massive torpedo holes in the only place in Canada that saw live sea action. They may even discover a wreck or two that no one’s ever seen.
Around four years ago, a representative from Huish, Suunto’s parent company, reached out to Maxwel to see if he’d be interested in working with them to try out their computers, give feedback, and provide some photos for Suunto and the other Huish brands. He already owned some Suunto products, having gotten his first watch from them in 2004, and was excited to try new gear. Since then, he says he’s tried probably every model they make and has never had an issue with a single one.
“Suunto makes really solid products,” he says. “They’ve really figured out dive computers. They’ve set a standard for the industry. Safe, but not super conservative.”
His favorite is EON Steel, their high-end model with a big display. It’s got great battery life, especially in the cold water where he does most of his diving–and it fits over his drysuit. He wears it on almost every dive. For warm water diving, he switches to the D5, which he says may be the most comfortable watch he’s ever worn.
So, what does this noted underwater videographer suggest for other divers and aspiring image-makers? Regarding dive safety, he recommends going through a head-to-toe checklist before even leaving home and always having a backup of everything. To protect vulnerable–and expensive–camera gear, he says to check your seals every. single. time. Leaks are not inevitable.
With regard to data, Maxwel is constantly going through old photos. As he gets better at editing he’s been able to turn images he previously didn’t like into beautiful work. His philosophy is that even if he doesn’t like it now, he may like it next year. So if you take a lot of photos or videos, be prepared to invest in some external hard drives.
Although he never made it to formal film school, Maxwel has still managed to see and document some of the most amazing phenomena the natural world has to show us. His passion for photography accompanied him on every adventure, from a detour into the deep via Honduras to the kind of professional success that dive dreams are made of.
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