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Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

Photographing the Seas: Meet an Ocean Photographer

One of the most iconic ocean photographs ever taken is of a white shark trailing a man in a kayak off the coast of South Africa. The image quickly went viral, but what you can’t see is how the photographer captured the moment.

Thomas Peschak tied himself to the tower of the research boat and leaned over the waves, precariously hanging over the ocean to get the perfect shot (don’t try this at home). These extreme moments are a part of daily life for Thomas, a photographer whose work increases awareness of marine research and ocean conservation.

Now a committed conservation photographer (for National Geographic), Director of Conservation for the Save our Seas Foundation (SOSF) and senior fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Thomas Peschak took his marine biology background and applied it to his passion, photography.

He tells us about living an itinerant life on the seas and how he got his break.

When did your passion for the ocean and underwater photography begin?
My love affair with the ocean began the moment I put my head under the water. I started snorkeling at the age of six and began diving at twelve. At the same time I immersed myself in the work of Jacques Cousteau and the early underwater stories by David Doubilet in National Geographic Magazine.

The ocean was this irresistible lure that would just not go away and I wanted to experience for myself what I was experiencing on TV or on the printed page. I took my first underwater photographs at age 12 with a bright yellow Minolta Weathermatic and I got my first serious underwater camera at age 16. My parents gave me a Nikonos V for my birthday and that day changed my life.

Why is photography important for conservation?
The legendary conservationist George Schaller wrote, “Pen and camera are weapons against oblivion, they can create awareness for that which may soon be lost forever.” Schaller’s words are my mantra and inspire me to keep working for change. Photographs, I believe, are one of the most powerful weapons in the marine conservation arsenal, and it has become my life’s work to create images that inspire people to act.


Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

I spend upward of 250 days a year shooting all over the world. For half of that time I visit beautiful places and take photographs that celebrate the ocean. I commit the other half to documenting the effects of our growing demand on the sea. I take a “carrot-and-stick” approach to conservation photojournalism.

My aim is to tell balanced and honest photo stories that encourage people to revel in the beauty of the ocean but also to understand how human actions affect its health. I am a Senior Fellow and board member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a collective of some of the best wildlife and environmental photographers who together tackle some of world’s most important conservation issues.

The greatest conservation victories occur when photographers team up with each other and with the scientists and NGOs. A lone wolf at best can tackle rabbits or small deer, but a wolf pack can take down a 1300-pound moose. It’s the same with conservation photography.

What advice do you have for any budding conservation photographers?
To be successful as a conservation photographer, you have to be obsessed with creating images and telling stories that matter. It’s also essential to try to make original and memorable photographs. My editor at National Geographic Magazine, Kathy Moran, regularly encourages me with the following words, “Show me something that the world has never seen before or something that everybody is familiar with but in a way so different that people will be convinced they’ve never seen it before.”

To survive and thrive in this profession you have to be a hopeless optimist, believing that the next great picture is just around the corner, behind the next coral head, or mangrove root or…. just behind the one after that.  It’s not just the photography. It’s the drive. It’s the commitment. It’s the obsession with the subject. You have to be certifiably insane to make it in this game. That’s the reality. You have to want it so badly and you have to be in love with the process, with the research and with the science. You have to be hungry. It’s an ideas game these days. You have to have a great story.

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Photograph by Thomas P. Peschak

I think we’re losing a lot of great young photographers to other careers, which are perhaps more reliable. Working with the Save our Seas Foundation we have created a new photography grant for emerging conservation photographers. The grant will assist and mentor younger photographers to tell honest, truthful and engaging marine conservation stories in a balanced way.

What was your most memorable shoot? Why?
Hands down it was the 2008 shoot for my National Geographic Magazine story on manta rays. I worked with my friend and marine biologist Guy Stevens to document a unique feeding aggregation of manta rays in the Maldives. During the monsoon season, currents wash swarms of krill into Hanifaru bay, a cul de sac in the reef that attracts up to 250 manta rays into an area the size of a basketball court.

Sometimes it is a highly choreographed ballet of hundreds of manta rays feeding elegantly in a tornado like vortex, but it can quickly turn into the ultimate manta train wreck, with rays crashing into each other left, right and center. To get the images for this story I had to get right into the middle of a chaos-feeding group and the thought of being knocked unconscious by these 1-ton giants did cross my mind. However much to the manta rays credit, I only had one minor collision and a few near misses. This was my first story for National Geographic Magazine and launched my career as an assignment photographer for them.


All photos by Thomas P. Peschak. Find out more about his work at www.thomaspeschak.com and see more of his photos here.