What other methods are people using to eek out a living from their passion and skills?
I imagine that back in the film/slide age it was probably easier to be a professional, as the market wasn't flooded with amatuer images. I know this is the case for friends who are surf photographers.
Interesting to read all these thoughts. I agree with most opinions here.
I´ll try to answer your question based on my own experience. It is possible to make a living in underwater photography nowadays when you are willing to work very hard and keep a modest cost of living.
It was definitely easier in the film days like you have suggested, but even then it took me a high degree of commitment. I washed dishes and filled tanks for a couple of dives a day in liveaboards to built up my stock, used home made and third-hand gear, and saved every cent for film processing and of course rolled my own film because it was cheaper. Every camera, strobe, lens and housing was considered as a tool that had to pay for itself.
Accepting I´d never be rich (in money terms) by becoming a UW photographer was the first step to overcome. Once you have that clear, everything is much easier. Why go on a $2000/day vacation when you can get paid to go to the same place? My holidays are more like $50/day trips and I´ll never be able to afford to pay for the trips that my guests are doing with me. But who needs a vacation when you work everyday in something you love.
You must have your priorities clear and realize that if you are making a living from UW photography you are already privileged. You don't need a big house or a nice car to be happy, because you are already happy doing what you wanted, right? I think if someone considers becoming an underwater photographer strictly as a job it is a bad investment, put that money anywhere else and it'll be more profitable, but if you consider it as way of life and value all the other benefits and positive experiences it may become your best decision in life.
But as low as you may want to keep your cost of living, there are bills to pay and gear to replace (mostly since digital era if you want to keep up). With the stock prices being frozen since the 90s (or even lowering), like Walt said, and the cost of living increasing annually it didn't take me long to realize that diversification was the key to survive. Looking at the general photographic business which may move a few years ahead of the underwater niche, it was easy to see that relying solely on stock sales and assignments could become a problem in the medium term. In my case, diversification came from photo courses, photo trips, gear sales, exhibitions, books, art galleries, writing... and keeping the stock sales, articles and assignments as healthy as possible.
People skills are as important as photo skills to keep the business rolling, or even more. I meet so many dive guides, editors, resort managers, writers... who have had bad experiences with arrogant "super-UW-photographers" with big egos. Hey, we are just photographers, like any other type of photographers, like butterfly photographers, (but poorer because our gear is more expensive and the photo prices are similar), nothing too special about it, no heroes of any kind. We don't even look good with all that gear ! I know all of you are super nice people :-) but some talented photographers put themselves out of business because their lack of people skills. Make a good job, leave a good impression and they'll call you back. I know this is general stuff for any kind of business, but in UW photography you really need them to call you back ! There aren't that many clients !
For me, every sale is important and every customer gets the same exquisite treatment. The teenager girl who buys a $1,5 postcard of a lovely dolphin is as important as the editor who pays big bucks for a front cover, because in few years that girl, in love with the Ocean, may work for a large company that becomes your advertising client, like it happened to me. I always think long term and try to keep the business rolling in circles, a quick buck is never good business: The new diver who buys a compact housing from me and is happy with my service will take a course to learn how to use it, and realize he needs a strobe (hopefully from me), If I teach him a nice course he may become interested in my entry level trip to practice what he learnt and after having a blast for a week, next year he will join me for a two weeks trip in a destination where I will be able to take new stock and when I come back I can write an article about those islands and place the stock in agencies and if I am lucky maybe win a price or two in a competition that may bring awareness of my last photo gadget to a new customer... by then the first customer will want and SLR housing and will bring his friends, and all over again. Keep the ball rolling...
Am I less "pro" because a larger percentage of my income doesn't come from direct photo sales? Maybe, I don't really care, because the old dream of diving around the world taking photos has turned real.
Now seriously, nobody else is thinking about becoming an uw photo pro, right?