With this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards, our chief adviser on all things marine – Louise Heaps – considers how important photography has been for highlighting the incredible diversity of life hidden beneath the sea’s surface.
What inspired you to start working with the marine environment?
I grew up by the sea, so I think that played a big part. But I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. Looking back, I think watching David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau programmes from a young age also inspired me to become a marine biologist. I did a biology degree at university and soon realised I was choosing all the marine options. I have pretty much been working on marine issues ever since.
I’ve had the opportunity to work on polar, temperate and tropical marine ecosystems – all beautiful and inspiring in their own way. I have a particular love of tropical marine environments though – for obvious reasons. But also because in many developing countries you can really see how vital a role the oceans play in people’s lives, livelihoods and wellbeing. Coral reefs are the real engine rooms for local coastal economies and cultures, and coastal fisheries are a critical source of food for so many people. Coral reefs also provide a wonderful natural barrier to storm surges, so they play a vital role in protecting many coastal communities.
Can photography and film affect people’s perceptions of the marine environment?
I think photography and film play a critical role in terms of the marine environment. Oceans have the very real challenge of being out of sight and out of mind. Looking out to sea, it’s easy to think that it is all just one big watery mass, but the diversity of the oceans is astounding. Photography and film bring the oceans to life. I am lucky enough to have worked in this field and to be able to dive, so I’ve had the opportunity to see what’s down there – which is a real privilege. But I haven’t been below 30 metres – and the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, goes down to depths of nearly 11,000 metres. There is so much we still don’t know – but sub-sea technology and film is enabling us to explore the deepest parts of the ocean.
The BWPA has seen some incredible photos in the coast and marine category. Which species have you found most fascinating?
There are so many species that I find completely captivating. Off our coasts, I enjoy watching seals and dolphins. They are so graceful and playful – they really make me smile! I think whale sharks are awe-inspiring. I’ve had the opportunity to swim with them in Tanzania and the Philippines and they took my breath away. They are huge and incredibly graceful creatures, usually growing to around 35 feet long. I’m not ‘size-ist’ though: I think the cutest marine animal I’ve ever seen was a pygmy seahorse in Papua New Guinea. I would never have noticed it, but luckily I was diving with someone who knew what to look for. It was the size of my small fingernail. Beautiful! But you don’t have to go to the other ends of the world to see wonderful sea creatures – there’s so much to see just walking along the beach, rock pooling, surfing and snorkelling! The great thing about the UK is that there is a natural aquarium not very far from any of us – so go out and explore!