They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But we can do better, you and eye.
I wish I could tell you what it’s like to have a sea lion virtually smile at you! Dip and dart and fly.
Dive under you, nibble on your hair and tinker with your tank before shooting off to playfully chase a fish it’s not trying to eat.
Make you feel the connection one does when a dolphin comes within meters or swims with you, looking right in your eye.
To feel that privilege.
I wish I could express how utterly amazing it is to see the interaction between a mother whale and her calf, the love and concern and relationship they share.
Or what it’s like when a young calf approaches your group and, completely unafraid and beyond curious, swims right up to you and bumps you before passing by.
That one time a mother humpback turned directly toward me, spreading her immense pectoral fins as she hovered vertical, her calf moving off behind her.
And tell you how, at that precise moment, I was SURE I was the happiest man and luckiest human on Earth.
To tell you how beautiful every hue of an angelfish is…
How amusing and silly an octopus can be. How bizarre their method of propulsion, astounding their color and texture variations. How funny it is when they squirt ink at you.
To tell you what it’s like watching a turtle graze on sea grass or munch on coral next to you.
To tell you how trusted and enamored you feel when a turtle sits just meters away, not moving off in fear.
That a small hawksbill turtle at Highbourne Cay stayed with us for 45 minutes a few months ago and seemed as interested in my buddy and me as we were in her.
And recount to you how angry a novice diver friend was when I abandoned him – at the safest, shallowest site I know – to swim with a hawksbill for an hour! Until I ran completely out of air. How beautiful her carapace was, how her eye looked like a camera lens, and how every instant by her side was worth it. How silly was my friend to worry when two instructors and 3 divers were tracking his bubbles from a boat above?
How absolutely graceful a manta ray is as it hovers immobile in the current, gorging on plankton, or glides by you, slowly raising and lowering its wingtips.
The strangeness of a frogfish, its lure dangling and flicking above its eyes, hoping to surprise.
A ghost pipefish, its snout pointing down and tail up, blending perfectly with its surroundings – waiting to suck up its tiny prey.
Tell you how lost and lonely and confused a remora seems when without a host.
To share with you the time a spinner dolphin stuck its tongue out at me!
To express how utterly viciously a clownfish couple guard their nest.
Let you know the meanest fish you might encounter are damselfish, diminutive and defenseless, fiercely trying to keep you out of their territory – an individual coral head or cranny!
To gift you the experience of looking up at a sun blotched out by a cloud of little fish.
Or swimming completely surrounded by jacks, as far as the eye can see, in Cabo Pulmo.
I’d love to show you a flatworm sliding across coral or undulating in the water column.
A nudibranch in a field of tunicates…
A shark cruising confidently above the reef.
You would want to know why a thresher shark has a ridiculously long tail and why razorfish swim upside down.
I might tell you how strange it is to have dolphins mate right in front of you – rudely (how rude!) and as if you weren’t there.
Without a care in the world.
That watching a small group of them interact is delightful. To witness them bumping and pushing each other, flipping upside down, joining together at the chest…holding onto each other’s mouths, and even rubbing pectoral fins together as if greeting one another.
I would tell you that seeing coral spawn, which happens once a year, is as unexpected as it is stunning. That it’s hard to comprehend how tiny spheres float away from surfaces that look so unlikely to produce them.
Probably I would mention the time “Emma”, a 14-foot tiger shark who was pregnant at the time, leaned into me with her whole body and weight. That it was non-threatening; just hard to ground my feet and push back against her. Tell you Emma is a regular at Tiger Beach and has never shown a diver aggression… and the feeders feel affection for her.
I wish I could show you all of this and more.
I would want you to know that out of two schools of hammerheads and hundreds of individual sharks I’ve seen
I’ve only been frightened by three. That out of over 350 species of shark one could only consider a
handful “dangerous”. And that we kill a hundred to two hundred and seventy-three million sharks a year while
they only kill six to eight of us.
I would show you that they are disinterested in us 99% of the time, and say that they are so elegant
and supremely streamlined that it’s hard to be afraid.
But I would also have to tell you of the horrible changes I’ve seen.
How plastic, which I never saw in the past, is everywhere now. As common on a beach in Agadir as a dock in Marsa Alam, in tide pools in Sardinia and wrapped around coral in the Bahamas.
How a friend and I spent 45 minutes on a dinghy in Sataya last November, pulling out bottles and caps, bags, cardboard, an old T shirt, a bag of chips and a sandal... And we hardly made a dent.
That I watched spotted dolphins swim through plastic and paper and trash last August in Florida, probably finding it hard to distinguish between the jellyfish they play with and the cigarette pack wrappers they shouldn’t.
That, to my absolute horror, I witnessed two oceanic white-tip sharks, among the rarest of the rare – whose numbers have dropped by 90%, circle pieces of tinfoil at Elphinstone last year. How one ingested and spat out a piece four times before finally swallowing it on the fifth. How sad it was not to be able to take the tinfoil away before it was too late.
I would tell you — and show you — that about a third of all the sharks I see have a hook stuck in their mouths and some a line trailing behind them as well.
How I saw a bullet hole in one shark…
And once found a large, friendly porcupinefish we’d seen for days lie lifeless close to its mate, a pole spear through its head.
After seeing hundreds of manta rays in Yap, Micronesia, on trips in 1992 and 2000, I didn’t see a single one in 2015.
Some of the reefs friends and I saw years ago that were kaleidoscopic, cornucopias of corals hard and soft, each and every one more captivating than the other, are now reduced to rubble, barren fields, bleached skeletons. Tragically sad remnants of what once was.
I want to tell you that they say coral reefs will be entirely gone, disappeared, within perhaps 50 years, more likely 30.
That we have pushed the extinction rate to probably a thousand times what it used to be, that we have lost sixty percent of our wildlife in the last forty years. That our goal of keeping warming at less than 2 degrees by the end of the century looks unrealistic — with the end result probably 3 or 3.5 degrees if we don’t change. That a third of all cetacean and shark species are already at risk. Ninety percent of the big fish are gone. Polar bears are on their last legs. And by 2050 there will be more plastic in our seas than fish.
So it is with great sadness that I sometimes think that nearly everything you see in my images is under some form of threat.
Be it from climate change – warming, acidification and sea level rise; habitat destruction; deep sea trawling, dynamite and overfishing; pollution and plastic; changes in the food chain and more,
Ecosystems and wildlife are at risk.
And so are our income sources and food security.
There is no doubt that for decades we have been patched fools! We have used and abused the planet. Refused to manage resources wisely. Ignored warning signs. Believed Earth is so enormous, the sea so immense, natural systems so resilient, that we have inflicted monstrous damage.
And now, amid all the information we’re bombarded with, media of all kinds, threats of cataclysms, cynicism, apathy, guilt and a sense of hopelessness, it’s sometimes hard to see the coral for the reef. To identify and work on problems one by one.
But as an individual one CAN make a difference!
Having said that — and feeling hopelessly incapable of sharing with you even a tenth of the beauty, movement and emotion I would want to — might I please ask you a couple of favors?
Might you try to stop using plastic completely? Buy glass instead. Insist on reusable straws. Refuse plastic utensils, cups and more. If you absolutely must use a plastic bag, use it hundreds and hundreds of times!
Might you please try to recycle everything you can?
Plant more. Plant everywhere. Become an Olympian planter! Have a plant in your kitchen!
Buy local as much as you can. There’s no point in importing FIJI.
If you don’t urgently have to travel for work, you can choose to teleconference instead.
You could sometimes take the train instead of a plane… As trains are comfortable, too. And there is no turbulence on a train!
You could consider using solar panels and even wind. Consider switching to an electric car if you can afford it.
Perhaps you could resist further financing the pet trade, which is considered one of the greatest threats to wildlife today. If you do buy a pet try to make sure it’s captive-bred. Or pick one up from the pound instead.
And if being a carnivore isn’t paramount to you, you could consider eating less meat.
A long list of options indeed; some of them hard to follow. But we can, must, all start somewhere.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all have a chance to see dolphins, turtles, sharks and whales in the wild for years to come? To breathe clean air. To be able to keep growing our crops and feed ourselves. To drink clean water and not waste it. To be measured and thoughtful. To reduce our impact. To roam plastic-free beaches and witness clean deserts and plains.
To trust that we’re breathing and eating less microplastics. To still have rainforests and reefs, the chance to follow the Great Migration in the Serengeti and the Sardine Run.
To feel like we’re doing our level best.
I don’t honestly know how much we will change or save over the coming decades even if we try as hard as we can.
But I believe it’s worth doing every single thing, making every effort, we possibly can to try. That we will feel and live better if we do and that the generations behind us will be grateful for our successes as much as they will be disgusted by our failures.