24 Mar

Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs

March 2017


I feel like the luckiest guy in the World

Because my favorite people in the World are here


Including my dive buddies – Maria, Noah, John, Lizzie, Trevor, Tamiko, Elizabeth, and Brian “Torpedo” Skerry, who swims faster than spotted dolphins and, probably Mako sharks.

Because Merit invited me to come and exhibit here – thank you so much, Merit!

I’m honored and thrilled

And there’s nothing I like more than to share my passion with people

And give them a taste of the beauty I see and the magic I witness in the sea



SIPA is a very auspicious place for me because JoAnn Crawford helped me prepare my first exhibit ever – of rainforest photographs in 2004 – at this very spot. And JoAnn has been incredible in curating The Living Sea. Ted Stiffel has also been fantastic throughout the process. Thank you very much, JoAnn and Ted for your kindness, help, diligence and encouragement!



My time at SIPA was one of the happiest of my life. Spending hours smoking in the fish bowl and investing energy in the Follies.

I loved it here. I loved learning about Afghanistan with Larry Potter, about the Middle East and North Africa… and the origins of Islam with Ousmane Kane and Amaney Jamal… economic and political development with Corky Bryant.

I hated taking statistics. Hated it. Didn’t understand a word except for the teacher’s joke – to never trust statistics you haven’t manipulated.

I was AWFUL at economics with Professor Della Valle – didn’t read the book enough and depended on my study group for the homework.

The high point of my economics career came when I saw “quite the contrary actually” in bright red next to something I wrote on a final exam. Quite the contrary.


So, the academic record was mixed, but I met wonderful people, had my first show here and even received a special end of year mention from the dean. Dean Anderson, I haven’t forgotten.

And I’m so glad to see you here! Thank you.


I’m so happy to see familiar faces and meet new people tonight.




I feel like the luckiest guy in the world


For having seen beauty and love and movement, courtship, predation

And behaviors that I couldn’t describe in a million words

Or a 100-hour conversation.


I’ve had the privilege of swimming next to a hawksbill turtle

For an hour, each of us mirroring the other in beautiful warm water,

Surrounded by soft coral.

O.k. I abandoned my friends Eric and John, who’s here tonight, for that turtle.

But it was worth every second.


I have looked in the eye of a humpback whale calf as it calmly bumped into my leg.


Watched triggerfish munch on coral for hours, chase other fish away

And even bite a friend


Seen clownfish of half a dozen species defend their anemone – and protect their tiny wriggling kids with all their energy.


Seen beautiful, rare and sometimes rather large sharks from up close -- and from afar.

Even oceanic white tips, once some of the most common animals in the world and now down to 3 % or less of their original numbers in parts of their range.


I once played with a sea lion pup in Mexico for over an hour. Every time it surfaced I followed it. Every time I descended it followed me.

It was like an adoring puppy. It let me rub its stomach, it nibbled on my tank,

it pulled at my remaining strands of hair.

Eventually I could even scratch its neck. Except for the fact that it took my fingers in its mouth and playfully, gently nibbled on them every time.

It was such an amazing encounter and I felt such a strong bond that I was literally miserable, floored, feeling the physical pain of heartbreak when it wasn’t there on the next dive.





… Rock-mover wrasse frenetically and endlessly pick up, transport and spit out pieces of coral.


Blue-ringed octopi bob up and down on their tiny tentacles, flashing their warning colors, telling you to go away or they’ll poison you to death within minutes of a bite.


I’ve seen sea lions chase after bewildered angelfish in Mexico and play with pufferfish in the Galapagos.

The same puffers dolphins reportedly get high from.


Had remoras try to attach themselves to me and seen others practically mate with friends!


Seen Angelfish of every color, triggerfish of every creed… eels of different faiths!

Enough landscapes and seascapes to populate a thousand dreams.



I have been fortunate enough to share perfect, beautiful moments with animals, and dive buddies… and experience magic encounters that one only wishes could better be recorded than just with a camera and in the corners of one’s soul.


This is why I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.



Honestly, I've felt privileged even being pooped at by spotted dolphins.
Yes, I said that. And I hope my mum would forgive me.

Privileged because... how many people have had that happen to them?

I think it was Brian Skerry's fault. You can always blame Brian for stuff like that.
The best underwater photographer in the world by far, he’s an instigator as well.


I asked Ted at some point what I might talk about tonight. And part of his answer centered around photographic technique. I wish I HAD technique, but technology and technique are not my strong points at all. It’s such a relief that we only ever publish one percent of one percent of the photographs I take.

Let us leave technique and technological proficiency to Brian and his kind.


I simply hope that what emanates from my images is love, a sense of honor and privilege, deep joy and wide-eyed amazement.

Because those are what I feel and those are feelings I hope you might share when discovering the beautiful, colorful, and fascinating creatures in the prints.


Many of these images come from Lembeh in Indonesia, the mecca of muck diving and habitat of some of the strangest, most interesting and rarest critters I’ve ever seen.

Some are from Raja Ampat, one of the two most diverse places on the planet – with Maria and Trevor.

The spotted dolphins in Bimini I first encountered with Brian I’ve since revisited 4 times – with Lizzie, Maria and Kristina. They’re on the wall… And they still poop at me!

My favorite image of all here is probably the spinner dolphins from Sataya in Egypt. Tamiko, her husband and I were enthralled by them for 5 days … and the shot is fantastic, to me, because it was completely unexpected: the dolphins were all bunched up at the surface 3 seconds before and they were bunched up at the surface again 3 seconds after. I’m not even sure I registered the moment or their positions until seeing the image an hour later.


It’s always a miracle, that sort of thing, because I’m basically a dive bum with a camera!

A very lucky diver, bewildered and enlightened by the miracles of nature, inebriated by the wonders in the water and attempting to record every moment.


Unfortunately, whilst this exhibit is called the Living Sea, we are all also witnessing the DYING sea.


Sometimes it feels like we’re witnessing the last hurrah, recording the end of an era.

At times one becomes massively saddened, despondent… there’s a sense of hopelessness in the idea that these incredible creatures and habitats are disappearing, that we might not be able to see them in 20 years’ time -- or even 5…  That whole ecosystems are being torn apart, decimated.


We have damaged, ravaged, savaged, debased and defiled everything around us for decades.

Done irreparable harm in the blink of a geological eye.

Convinced that our quests for wealth, success, survival and pleasure were worth everything we’ve lost, and everything we are losing.

Worth the eradication of creatures, ecosystems, landscapes and lifelines our children

Should be able to benefit from, and love.

Generations before ours and we ourselves have been stupid enough to think that the planet was so vast, so resilient, so utterly indestructible that we have moved in some, maybe most, cases beyond the point of no return.


Imagine, if you will, that

Coral reefs may disappear completely within 50 years’ time

That 90% of the big fish are already gone

We have pushed the extinction rate to somewhere between a thousand to 10 thousand times the norm.

We are killing between a hundred to 273 million sharks every year,

Where they kill only 8 of us annually.




I can only hope that the images here tonight can make you feel even a thousandth of the joy and privilege I feel when I see what I see and do what I do.