• October 7, 2015

A Scientist Becomes a Photographer to Help Save Our Oceans

Becky Harlan

Doctor Enric Sala was working as a marine biologist when one day it dawned on him that he was “writing the obituary of the ocean.” He realized that his research alone wasn’t going to save the ecosystems he was so passionate about. So to the title of scientist he added a slew of new roles, including public relations expert, advocate, and photographer for his work with the Pristine Seas project.

Sala, who is now an explorer-in-residence for the National Geographic Society, initially pitched the idea of Pristine Seas to the Society in 2008. They’ve been dedicated to “exploring and protecting some of the last truly wild places in the ocean” ever since. To date, Pristine Seas has created seven marine protected areas (the most recent, Chile’s Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, was declared on October 5, 2015) and protected over 2.5 million square kilometers of ocean.

I spoke with Sala about his transformation from scientist to photographer, his new book on the Pristine Seas project, and why he works so hard to share his infectious love of oceans with the world.

A large gorgonian, which is a colonial animal bearing branches formed by thousands of small polyps, is backlit by sun streaming through the water's surface
Sunlight streams through the water, backlighting a large gorgonian. These colonial animals bear branches formed by thousands of small polyps, each of which consists simply of a mouth, a small digestive pouch, and eight tentacles.

BECKY HARLAN: You play a lot of different roles in your work with Pristine Seas. How do you balance it all?

ENRIC SALA: It’s really fun, but I feel like I live a schizophrenic life going from the suit to the wet suit. I started as a marine biologist, and then I realized that I had to do much more and learn much more about other disciplines for the science to have an impact. It was really fun to learn about communications, media production, policy, and politics. I have a great team of people who do all that, but I think it’s very important for me to know a little bit of everything that is needed to translate the science into real conservation action.

A goby is camouflaged within the branches of a red coral.
The Pristine Seas team encountered a broad diversity of species in the Republic of Palau’s abundant waters, including this little goby camouflaged within the branches of a red coral.
an underwater and above, water shot captures the pristine nature of The Republic of Palau, including its healthy coral reefs and limestone islands
The Republic of Palau claims the word ”pristine” as part of its official slogan. Underwater, healthy coral reefs thrive, and above, spectacular limestone islands lie covered in lush tropical jungle.

BECKY: What comes first, being a photographer or a scientist?

ENRIC: Personally, I see myself as all of these things. Most people still identify me as a scientist. One thing about publishing the Pristine Seas book is it’s a strong statement about the stupidity of putting people in silos. “You’re a scientist, so you cannot write or take photos.” “You’re a photographer, so you can’t explore.” “You’re a scientist, so you can’t know about poetry.” So it’s been really satisfying to prove all these people wrong.

blacktip reef sharks swim in the lagoon of Millennium Atoll
In pristine areas sharks tend to inspect the odd human visitor carefully. These young blacktip reef sharks surrounded the Pristine Seas team as they waded across a reef flat in the lagoon of Millennium Atoll.

BECKY: When did you take your first underwater photos?

ENRIC: I had done a bunch of expeditions in academia. I was counting fish, entering data, and working on the details side of it. I was really jealous that I didn’t have time to take photos, which I loved. So in 2009, at our Southern Line Islands expedition, I decided I was going to bring someone to do my job, to count the fish. I spent a year and a half raising funds and preparing, so since I did all the work to make it happen, I would do something that would make me very happy in the field.

Pierre-Yves Cousteau, youngest son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, observes a Mediterranean dusky grouper at Cabrera Archipelago Maritime-Terrestrial National Park. underwater
Pierre-Yves Cousteau, youngest son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, observes a Mediterranean dusky grouper at Cabrera Archipelago Maritime-Terrestrial National Park. Protected areas like Cabrera allow large fish to come back and attract divers, who cannot see such large fish anywhere else in the Mediterranean.

BECKY: What was that first photographic experience like?

ENRIC: It was a total disaster. They were out of focus. I didn’t have a strobe. They were so bad. It took me a while to make a decent photo underwater. I learned from different ways. Just looking at David Doubilet’s books was my big inspiration, and then afterward learning from the greatest underwater photographers at National Geographic and practicing a lot, seeing what works and what doesn’t.

A school of orange Chilean sandpaper fish swims through a coral cave
A Pristine Seas diver shines a light through a coral cave in the waters of Desventuradas Islands, illuminating a school of endemic Chilean sandpaper fish.
anemones grow like underwater flowers on a kelp canopy which covers Franz Josef Land's rocky reefs
Franz Josef Land’s rocky reefs are covered by a thick kelp canopy, below which anemones grow like underwater flowers. Mysid shrimp swarm like bees over the ocean bottom.

BECKY: One of the goals of Pristine Seas is to create marine reserves. How does photography play into that goal?

ENRIC: Photography and film play a very important role: to share what’s there with people. The science [and] the economics show these places are important from a rational perspective, but we also need to inspire the leaders and the public emotionally. We need them to fall in love with these places. Sometimes [public leaders] can join us on the expedition [for] a day or so, but sometimes they can’t come with us on remote expeditions. We bring the place to them—that’s why photography and film is important.

Two orange gobies attach to a sea lily
Two cling gobies spend their entire lives among the tentacles of a sea lily, a close relative of sea stars that extends its tentacles to capture plankton in the water.

BECKY: What are the biggest threats to the health of the ocean?

ENRIC: There are three big issues. One is overfishing. Taking fish out of the ocean faster than they can reproduce—some [fisheries] have already collapsed. We’ve killed 90 percent of many species of sharks in the last century.

The second is pollution, especially plastic pollution. Every year, eight million tons of plastic [goes] in the ocean. If it continues like this, by 2050 there will be one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish in the ocean. And the fish end up eating the plastic we put in the ocean, so we’re polluting ourselves.

The third is climate change. It’s making the ocean warmer and more acidic, which affects species, from the smallest to the largest, throughout the entire food chain.

a green turtle seen from above swims through the waters of Millennium Atoll
A green turtle swims safe from poachers in the waters around Millennium Atoll. Turtles nest
unbothered on the remote beaches of the southern Line Islands, whereas in most other places they are killed for meat and their eggs are collected.

BECKY: Why should people care about the ocean?

ENRIC: People care about land areas because they are able to see them. The ocean suffers from the “out of sight, out of mind” problem. But protecting these large areas of the ocean helps us keep the ocean healthy and productive. The ocean gives us more than half of the oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe. Microscopic plants and microbes in the ocean produce all of that oxygen, more than all of the forest and lands together. And they give us millions of tons of seafood every year. The ocean captures a quarter of the carbon pollution we produce every year. Coral reefs protect shorelines from storms and big waves. The oceans provide a large part of the goods and services that make life on this planet so wonderful. So if we want to have a rich life, we need to have the ocean.

Learn more about the awe-inspiring conservation work of Pristine Seas here.

There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Beáta
    July 10, 2016

    This is remarkable. I’m glad I saw this.

  2. Oscar
    February 22, 2016

    Great pictures, but please, document yourselves before you write your articles. You can see great dusky groupers in many other areas in the Mediterranean, not only in Cabrera MPA.

  3. Alyssa Marks and Richard Peters
    October 16, 2015

    Wonderful and incredible – we need our underwater diversity… These photos are so beautiful and inspiring.

    My names Alyssa I’m nine years old want to see these when I’m ninety because they are so beautiful and they should still be beautiful forever.

  4. Jennifer
    October 14, 2015

    Beautiful photographs. I admire your work for conserving the oceans. Your choice in becoming a photographer to expand your knowledge of the ocean was very bold and a smart move!

  5. adriana
    October 12, 2015

    Safe Colombian corals

    Safe Colombian corals and species

  6. Rob
    October 11, 2015

    Great work, very inspirational, beautiful images, revealing the world beneath the waters surface

    October 11, 2015

    Great project and great photo. Keep it up

  8. Frederick Arioli
    October 11, 2015

    Exceptional underwater photos! If we don’t save the oceans, we are doomed. The oyster farms are now threatened due to increased acidity killing the larvae. Fishing off of California is being decimated. It’s happening.

  9. Jenny
    October 10, 2015

    Beautiful pictures and advocacy! I impressed by people who can reinvent themselves and to become more than what they were originally about. Thank you for sharing..

  10. Gina Morris
    October 10, 2015

    Beautiful pictures! As a society we all must take part in preservation of the environment we live in. It is vital to the survival of all living things on our beautiful planet. If we all change what we do a huge impact that is positive will help. Leaving a good imprint on our footsteps. Many people are becoming aware of simply changing products they use. Education yourself and others to better all environments worldwide.
    Keep up the work you do. Thank you for sharing your story.

  11. Lisa
    October 10, 2015

    The Beautiful Sea

  12. Dr. Lilliana Corredor
    October 10, 2015

    Beautiful shots and beautiful heart. Thanks.

    I am also passionate about the waters of our planet. I’m doing a volunteer campaign to Help Save the Mekong River and it’s 60+ poor people from a chain of Mega- Hydropower Dams, both planned and in construction.

    Could you please help? We need to get 12 scientists on different areas of expertise. Each to write a 2 page summary on the risks and impacts of Dams on the Mekong Ecosystem and its Delta. And offer Best Management Practices on their area of expertise.

    Papers will be part of a Joint Submission by our group at the:
    “ASIA 2016 – International Conference for Water Resources and Hydro-Power” in Vientiane from 1-3 March 2016.

    Our submission is entitled:

    “Hydropower Dams vs. Food Security & Ecological Stability – A Multidisciplinary Scientific Review”

    We will also give a copy of our Submission detailing Best Management Practices to the government representatives of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand & Lao PDR.

    Please visit:

    Please join us here:

    Bless you.
    Dr. Lilliana Corredor
    Founder & Coordinator
    Scientists for the Mekong

    Marine Biologist, Oceanographer, Ethologist

  13. David Korte
    October 10, 2015

    Enric, I agree with your comment that photography and film inspires and brings these special places to the notice of leaders and the public. Photography and science work so well together.

  14. Tam Warner Minton
    October 9, 2015

    these photos are amazing…I love them. I, too, do everything I can to promote ocean health.

  15. Donna
    October 9, 2015

    Inspiring and informative. I didn’t know about the ocean’s role in the air we breathe.

  16. Silas S
    October 7, 2015

    Becky, David Doubilet’s photos are remarkable, and I remember pondering over his NG shots more than a decade ago. Enric’s shots are exceptional too. Of course, Conservation is beautiful!

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