Words and images by NOEL GUEVARA
When I decided to embark on this journey of becoming a conservation and wildlife photographer back in 2014, I knew from the onset that I was heading far out of my element. Having been a graphic designer for the first half of my professional life and then a director for the next, I had no background on marine conservation and didn’t even know how to properly use a camera for capturing wildlife. I was a fish out of water that only had the call of the sea and the passion to explore it to propel me. With much to learn and a lot of work to be done, I took it all in stride and even owned the moniker “Student of the Sea.”
Hundreds of dives and multiple assignments and expeditions later, I still find myself learning. With each day on the field or doing research, I encounter important lessons that I end up carrying with me every day, and would move our world toward positive change if more people took them to heart.
Let me share some of these lessons with you.
Love your backyard
We are extremely lucky to live in the center of marine biodiversity. The Coral Triangle is a six-million-square-kilometer area encompassing the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Dubbed as the Amazon of the Seas, it houses 37 percent of the world’s coral reef fish species, six of the world’s seven marine turtle species, and 76 percent of the world’s coral species.
With so much wonder and beauty to behold, such a paradise is inherently vulnerable. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and increased ocean acidification are some of the threats that are caused by human actions. Being more conscious and discerning about our everyday choices—opting for sustainably-caught fish, going zero-waste, and choosing reef-safe products when at the beach—are some examples of small changes that can go a long way.
Sharks are friends, not food
Like everyone else in my generation, the movie Jaws scared me out of the water. The book by Peter Benchley and the Spielberg film painted an undesirable reputation for the apex predators of the sea that has proved unchallenging to undo to this day. Sharks suffer from a stigma of being “mindless killers,” which one would realize is far from the truth once you spent some time with them in their natural environment.
Sharks are pretty skittish and would avoid you whenever possible. In fact, in order to take a good photo of one I have to anticipate its path, hide on the reef, reduce my bubbles, and only try to take the shot when it’s close enough to fill the frame.
Contrary to popular belief, only 15 human fatalities a year are caused by sharks. Conversely, over 75 to 100 million sharks are cruelly killed every year for their fins to make shark’s fin soup.
Without sharks, marine ecosystems will collapse due to dramatic changes in its structure and nutrient cycling—a phenomenon called trophic cascade. In turn, marine resources that we depend on for food and livelihood will disappear.
Skip a straw, save a turtle
The lesson itself is an oversimplification but does have its merits. One of the biggest lifestyle changes I made was to greatly reduce my dependency on single-use plastic. Plastic straws, utensils, bags, balloons, and even paper cups (usually lined with plastic) litter even the most remote corners (and depths) of our oceans.
One of the species directly affected by plastic pollution is the sea turtle. Some species such as the green sea turtle and leatherback feed mainly on jellyfish, and often mistake floating plastic bags as their natural diet. These bags clog their digestive tracts and cause slow, agonizing deaths.
Single-use plastic takes an awfully long time to break down. And even when it does, it just turns into microplastics, traveling up the food chain back to us. A collective effort to switch to ecobags, steel straws, bamboo utensils, and reusable tumblers can have a tremendous effect on reducing the amount of plastic that’s already smothering our seas.
Walking, biking, and commuting goes a long way
My latest expedition had me freezing my fingers in the frozen tundra in the Canadian subarctic. Last October, I made my way to Churchill, Manitoba—the Polar Bear Capital of the World—to take photos of the great ice bear.
Being able to encounter these kings of the great white north in such close proximity was a life-changing experience. My wife and I arrived at the end of October, which is the peak season for bear sightings. At this time of the year, the polar bears—hungry from months of just feeding on berries and kelp—are waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so they can hunt ice seals. Because of climate change due to a warming planet, sea ice forms later and melts earlier, reducing the amount of time for them to hunt. As such, human-bear conflicts have gone up as bears travel further inland in search for food.
Reducing your carbon footprint by leaving your car at home and waking, biking, or commuting to your destination is a step forward in the right direction. Voting for leaders who favor renewable energy over coal is an even greater leap toward the goal of preserving the fragile Arctic ecosystem.
Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words
It is only after my photo (a Thresher shark swimming with divers) sparked a conversation about shark conservation did I realize that the primary purpose of my work is to start dialogues. Photos are great ice-breakers and conversation starters, enabling different groups and audiences to converse and discuss issues that concern us today. They spark interest, change minds, and even give birth to advocates—all because people get to understand what they normally don’t see.
A friend told me before that we underwater photographers are the true ambassadors of the sea, because we bring the beauty of the sea closer to the hearts of many. Photos become portals through which a connection to the natural world can be established and strengthened.
In my quest to learn as a student of the sea, I came to appreciate two things:
First, that learning truly doesn’t end, and discovery comes in different forms—so be prepared to be surprised.
Second, as I continue to learn, take photos, and film videos, I am in turn teaching as well. As I share knowledge during talks and through microblogging with my photos on social media, I am— intentionally and unintentionally—creating new students of the sea. The hope, of course, is that I am making advocates out of my social media followers, live audiences, and casual passers-by.