Have you ever looked at a picture and truly lost yourself in it? Immersed yourself to be where the camera person was? That's how TFUI Founder Melissa feels every time she looks at one of Bethany Augliere's pictures. And perhaps it's maybe because she's more than "just" a person behind the camera- she's also a scientist who truly knows her subjects inside and out. Perhaps that extra bit of knowledge allows her to capture sure beauty with a click of a shutter. TFUI is excited to show her and her work off to its readers today in this special interview...
The Fins United Initiative: First off: why did you become a conservation photographer? What does that exactly entail?
Bethany Augliere: Well, for most of my life I’ve been a biologist. I’ve always had a camera though, whether that’s documenting my own travel and fieldwork or taking pictures for photo- identification of animals, like dolphins. In 2009, I started working as a graduate student with the Wild Dolphin Project, founded by Dr. Denise Herzing. For our fieldwork, we’d live out at sea on a research vessel for the summer months. My job was to video and film dolphins underwater to record behavior, vocalizations and environmental data. Even though I was conducting research, I loved learning the dolphins as individuals, being immersed in their world, and capturing moments in their lives. I wondered if by sharing intimate moments about these dolphins, people might care about them and want to protect them and the ocean they live in. So, I started blogging for the project and sharing content on social media. Eventually, I wanted to find stories beyond the dolphins I studied in the Bahamas.
TFUI: That is so cool!
BA: Now, I still collaborate with WDP as a biologist and photographer, but I also work with other research groups and scientists to share their stories in various online and print outlets. To me, conservation photography is about inspiring people to care about the planet and to take action, by raising awareness concerning the plight of wildlife and the environment. That can also include documenting the work of scientists and conservationists trying to understand more about those animals and even saving them. I’ve spent a lot of time photographing animals and now I want those images to mean something.
TFUI: What has been your favorite picture- and why?
BA: Wow, that’s a tough one; Different photos are important to me for different reasons. But if I had to pick, I’d say the photo I took of a young giant manta ray, named Ginger, while out last summer with Marine Megafauna Foundation’s Florida manta team. It’s a special photo for a couple reasons.
TFUI: How so?
BA: I had been photographing mantas all summer, and most are pretty skittish and shy, since they are young. While I was in the water with Ginger, she flipped over and swam beneath me for 5 minutes or so. She was curious, and it was the first time I had experienced that. Mantas have the largest brain of any fish, relative to body size, and in this moment, it felt like someone was behind those eyes looking back at me.
TFUI: It sounds wonderful!
BA: At the same time, it was ultimately kind of heartbreaking because as you can see in this image, she’s got a bright fishing lure hooked right on her face. So, as I was staring down at her, sharing this amazing moment, I couldn’t help but notice this hook. For that reason, it’s an important conservation image because it clearly shows this animal’s threats.
TFUI: Any cool projects you can share with TFUI readers?
BA: I have a few cool projects I’m working on. One I call mysterious manta rays, which I recently wrote about for Oceana. I’ve been out with a brand new manta research team under Marine Megafauna Foundation to document a never-before studied population of manta rays in South Florida. So far, the team is finding that these rays are all young, which means this region could be an important nursery area and habitat for young mantas. I have a few others, and some down the pipeline.
TFUI: In regards to photography, what has been the biggest source of inspiration in your work?
BA: I mean, it’s simple, the planet is my biggest source of inspiration. I want wildlife to survive and thrive, because I think they have an intrinsic right to exist, just as humans do. But, perhaps selfishly, I also want to swim in an ocean with sharks and dolphins, without plastic. I want future generations to have healthy oceans, full of vibrant coral reefs. That in turn, helps humans who are part of this planet, and rely on healthy ecosystems for a whole host of reasons, like fish to eat and coastal economies. On another note, there are giants in the field of conservation and wildlife photography, whose work is changing the world. And those people have and continue to inspire my work. Their skill, creative vision and storytelling have been an inspiration to push myself as a photographer and what I show when making an image. And as a final note, the people doing the work to understand and protect these animals inspire me. My work wouldn’t be possible without them letting me into their world and sharing their stories.
TFUI: You're primarily a dolphin biologist! Have you seen any interesting shark/dolphin interactions?
BA: I’ve been studying dolphins in the Bahamas since 2009, and honestly, I haven’t seen too many shark interactions, though I’ve seen lots of sharks in general. We’ve had tiger sharks follow us in the distance, when we’re with groups of moms and calves. I think the coolest thing I’ve seen is when the nurse sharks show up when the bottlenose dolphins dig in the sand searching for fish. The sharks follow the dolphins around, probably trying to pick up some scraps or stirred up fish.
TFUI: What has been your toughest experience out in the field?
BA: That’s also tricky. There are very obvious difficult experiences, like when I got stung by a box jellyfish 4 hours from land, and had to deal with the pain and fear of not knowing exactly what was happening to my body. Or, the time I had a blister get infected out at sea with a bacterial infection that landed me in a Bahamian hospital for a few days. I was alone before I could get back to the states and wasn’t sure if I’d lose my toe, foot, or worse. I had nothing to distract me — no phone, no internet, no TV. So, it took a lot of mental willpower to just stay okay and in control of my emotions. Then, there’ just the normal things about being in the field that can be hard. I live out at sea and there’s bad weather, it can be boring, you’re dealing with a lot of different people from all over the world, and sometimes you just get tired and cranky but need to remain professional. In that case, I just hide in my bunk and listen to music or an audiobook. I have all 7 audiobooks of the Harry Potter series, they’re a lifesaver. If I can, I get in the water and go swim. The water always makes me feel better. You have to learn coping skills.
TFUI: Do you prefer Nikon or Canon, other? And what’s your favorite lens?
BA: I’ve always shoot Nikon. My mom shot with Nikon film cameras years ago, so that’s what I grew up with. For underwater photography, my favorite lens is the Tokina 10-17 mm lens. It’s really wide, which is great when animals like dolphins, mantas and sharks get really close.
TFUI: Do you prefer RAW or jpg? Why?
BA: I always shoot RAW. Even though raw files are huge and the images always have to be processed, but I think the pros outweigh that. Basically, with a RAW image, there is no compression so there is no information lost and you can get the highest level of quality. That also means, when processing your images, there is more information to work with. And maybe even most importantly, you don’t lose image quality over time with RAW files. I had no idea when I first started shooting years ago that every time you open or save a jpeg image you lose quality.
TFUI: Any advice for those starting out with underwater photography?
BA: Yes. Being underwater is a totally different experience. You have to deal with weighting yourself properly for buoyancy control, currents, low visibility and all kinds of other environmental factors. So, first and foremost, you should be comfortable in the water and comfortable multi-tasking, as well as responding to different emergency situations. I’m certified as a scientific diver, which really helped with my comfort in the water. I’ve also done scuba diving training up through divemaster certification. Most of my underwater photography is actually done freediving or snorkeling, so I’ve taken a freediving certification course as well. I think being able to freedive is the most valuable skill I have as an underwater photographer.
TFUI: Definitely agree.
BA: The second part of underwater photography is the photography itself. There’s a lot to consider when starting out, like which camera to use. I started out with a GoPro and it was a lot of fun. Eventually, I decided I wanted to have more control and invested in housing for my digital SLR camera. If that’s the route you go, I recommend being very comfortable with your camera topside and shooting manual. Underwater photography is a big investment in gear and it’s never ending!
TFUI: What is your whackiest experience while out shooting?
BA: Whackiest experience, let me think. You know, I probably have better stories than this, but this is the one that comes to mind because it was most recent. I was snorkeling off the beach in Florida, freediving on shallow reef. While I was at the surface, I heard a seagull calling above me, and then all of a sudden I felt pinching. This crab was swimming around attacking me, pinching me multiple times! I think what happened was maybe the gull had a crab but dropped it and it happened to land near me. I’m not really sure, but man, this crab was ticked off that I was around him. Of all the creatures I’ve been around in the ocean, this little critter was by far one of the most aggressive!
TFUI: What has been the coolest encounter with a shark (or other Chondrichthyan) that you've had?
BA: I think the experience I mentioned earlier about Ginger was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. The first time I saw certain species underwater, like whale sharks, tiger sharks and hammerheads were each really memorable, mostly because it’s just special to be in their presence; They’re big, gorgeous creatures. I did have a pretty amazing encounter with a different manta ray while out with the Marine Megafauna Foundation Florida research team. This was with a manta ray named Stevie Nicks. She had several hooks in her wing tip that were dragging lead weights and she had some hooks with trailing line coming off wing tip. Some of the line was digging
into her cephalic fins, up by her face.
BA: The lead biologist decided to try and cut this line, so I stayed in the water to document it. After 30 minutes of repeatedly diving to cut the line, and total exhaustion, she managed to cut all the line and weights. The manta was surprisingly mellow and tolerated our presence. At any point she could’ve swam off, and didn’t. I can’t say the ray knew we were helping her, but for whatever reason, she did let us cut the line. Then, once we were done she swam off. I was really proud to be a part of that experience and it was such a tangible feeling of accomplishment and directly helping an individual animal.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
BA: The most rewarding thing about doing conservation photography is that I hope I’m doing my small part to make the world a better place, and affect change. By telling stories of threatened wildlife and their plight, and the people working to understand and save them, I hope I generate an interest not only in science and our natural world, but inspire positive action toward the environment.
TFUI: What do you hope people take away from your photographs?
BA: I hope people feel and take away an emotion, whether that’s curiosity, sadness, hopefulness, or joy. And I hope they do something with that emotion, like learning more about an animal, wanting to spend more time in nature, or avoiding single-use plastic.
TFUI: What’s next for you?
BA: I have a few photography projects that I’m hoping to find a way to fund and support. Other than that, I’ll keep working on the projects right in my backyard on dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles and gopher tortoises, and try and get those stories out to the world.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK BETHANY FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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