Born and raised in Bali, 14-year-old Cruz Erdmann has been exploring the ocean for as long as he can remember. Shooting underwater photography since he was 12, in 2019 Cruz won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his portrait of an iridescent big fin reef squid captured on a night dive in the Lembeh Strait off North Sulawesi, Indonesia.
My mum is Canadian, and my dad was born in America. My mum met my dad in Sulawesi in Indonesia while she was backpacking around Asia and he was doing fieldwork for his PhD in marine biology. We were a typical expat family. We often went on trips to places like North Sulawesi or Raja Ampat to dive, snorkel and explore. I was 7 when I first tried scuba, and I was snorkelling way before that. Indonesia is my preference for diving because the reefs are healthier and there's more diversity.
I especially like manta rays doing anything, they're magical. Anything to do with large sharks, they're always cool to see. A lot of places you can dive, it's mostly kelp, rock and a few species of fish, whereas in Indonesia there's so much colour and mass with hundreds of thousands of species of coral and fish.
In Bali, we lived in Canggu. It was more of a surfing place and the closest beach to us, the water was quite brown. The waves were huge and there was a lot of rip tide so I avoided the water there. Bali is very nice, but it was getting busier and it wasn't handling the growth very well. Also, when it comes to extracurricular activities, in Bali there's not much besides maybe surfing and football so when my older brother and sister were ready for high school we moved to New Zealand for more opportunities.
Photography was not something I thought was particularly cool or practical. I just thought it was an expensive hobby and some of the people who did it were kind of self-important. My dad, he's not a photographer, but he uses an underwater camera for his scientific work, and in April 2018 he got himself a new camera and asked if I wanted to learn to take photos underwater with his old camera, [a Canon EOS 5D Mark III] and for one entire dive trip I just experimented.
The biggest art to underwater photography is simply being underwater. Because I'd been diving for a long time, I already knew about buoyancy and how to control myself underwater, so the biggest challenge was learning to handle the camera. Also because I'm quite calm and don't crash around, I'm good at getting close to fish.
My early photos, I wasn't trying to do anything artsy, I just wanted to take photos of the reef and the fish, for my photos to be in focus and colourful. When they turned out better than I expected, I just wanted to do it again.
I took the squid photo four months after being given the camera. I knew it was my best, that was for sure, but I didn't know it was competition standard. I just thought it was a really nice photo. Then my mum suggested I enter the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest and see how far it could go.
I signed up online and entered eight photos. Two months later, I learnt that three of my photos had been shortlisted. In March, when the category winners were announced, I knew I'd won the 11-14 age group, but they didn't announce the overall youth winner until the awards ceremony in London.
It was so exciting. I'd never seen anything like London before. The highlight was the Natural History Museum where the event was hosted. We were taken on a private tour of the museum's back rooms to look at the collections, including some specimens from Charles Darwin. I particularly liked the baby blue whale foetus which looked exactly like a miniature adult.
The awards ceremony was very long but very exciting. It was black tie, so everyone was in a suit although, being wildlife photographers, some of them were a bit quirky. The reception was held in the main hall with the huge blue whale skeleton above us and during the dinner they announced the winners. I felt nervous anticipation, then I had a huge adrenaline rush when I got up to receive the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award.
The prize was £1000, so around $2000. I've spent some of it, a pair of headphones because I love listening to music while I edit my photos and I also bought some aquarium gear because I'm a big aquarist. But the most valuable part of the prize is recognition. About a month after I came home from London, the organisers of The World Economic Forum in Davos invited me to go to Switzerland to give a talk in January. Without the award, that would never have happened.
At Davos I gave a 14-minute talk and visual presentation about my underwater photography. I talked about why I do what I do, and also about the connection our species has to the ocean and how I want to use photography to highlight the importance of marine ecosystems to people everywhere.
A lot of the young people I met at Davos, the general trend I noticed, they saw something they needed to do, and even if it was a little action like a school walk-out, they were recognised for it and from that event their work gained momentum. For people who want to make a difference, just do what you want to do, that's my advice. Movements start with regular people doing simple things. For me, I'm just doing what I enjoy, but it has a purpose.
When I got back from Davos I was just happy to see my friends and get back to rowing training. That brought me back to earth. My friends like me for different reasons, rather than my photography. They're supportive, they know about the award, but I don't think it matters very much to them.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is on at Auckland Museum in the Auaha Atea Nui Special Exhibition Hall until May 10. Entry is free with museum entry.
Read more about the teenage change makers that Cruz Erdmann met at Davos here.