10:11
Mission Blue II

Thomas Peschak: Dive into an ocean photographer's world

Filmed:

Somersaulting manta rays, dashing dolphins, swarming schools of fish and munching sharks inhabit a world beneath the ocean's surface that few get a chance to see. Conservation photographer Thomas Peschak visits incredible seascapes around the world, and his photos reveal these hidden ecosystems. "You can't love something and become a champion for it if you don't know it exists," he says. Join Peschak in a new, immersive TED Talk format as he shares his stunning work and his dream for a future of respectful coexistence with the ocean.

- Conservation photographer
Thomas Peschak strives to merge photojournalism and cutting edge science to create powerful media projects that tackle critical marine conservation issues. Full bio

As a kid, I used to dream about the ocean.
00:12
It was this wild place
full of color and life,
00:15
home to these alien-looking,
fantastical creatures.
00:19
I pictured big sharks
ruling the food chain
00:23
and saw graceful sea turtles
dancing across coral reefs.
00:25
As a marine biologist turned photographer,
00:28
I've spent most of my career
looking for places
00:30
as magical as those I used
to dream about when I was little.
00:33
As you can see,
00:37
I began exploring bodies of water
at a fairly young age.
00:38
But the first time
I truly went underwater,
00:41
I was about 10 years old.
00:43
And I can still vividly remember
furiously finning
00:44
to reach this old, encrusted
cannon on a shallow coral reef.
00:47
And when I finally managed
to grab hold of it,
00:50
I looked up, and I was instantly
surrounded by fish
00:53
in all colors of the rainbow.
00:56
That was the day
I fell in love with the ocean.
00:58
Thomas Peschak
01:00
Conservation Photographer
01:02
In my 40 years on this planet,
01:04
I've had the great privilege to explore
01:06
some of its most incredible seascapes
01:08
for National Geographic Magazine
01:10
and the Save Our Seas Foundation.
01:12
I've photographed everything
from really, really big sharks
01:14
to dainty ones that fit
in the palm of your hand.
01:17
I've smelled the fishy, fishy breath
of humpback whales
01:20
feeding just feet away from me
01:23
in the cold seas off Canada's
Great Bear Rainforest.
01:25
And I've been privy to the mating rituals
of green sea turtles
01:28
in the Mozambique Channel.
01:31
Everyone on this planet affects
and is affected by the ocean.
01:32
And the pristine seas
I used to dream of as a child
01:36
are becoming harder and harder to find.
01:38
They are becoming more compressed
01:41
and more threatened.
01:43
As we humans continue to maintain our role
01:45
as the leading predator on earth,
01:48
I've witnessed and photographed
many of these ripple effects firsthand.
01:50
For a long time, I thought
I had to shock my audience
01:55
out of their indifference
with disturbing images.
01:58
And while this approach has merits,
02:00
I have come full circle.
02:02
I believe that the best way
for me to effect change
02:04
is to sell love.
02:07
I guess I'm a matchmaker of sorts
02:08
and as a photographer,
02:10
I have the rare opportunity
02:12
to reveal animals and entire ecosystems
02:14
that lie hidden beneath
the ocean's surface.
02:16
You can't love something
and become a champion for it
02:19
if you don't know it exists.
02:22
Uncovering this -- that is the power
of conservation photography.
02:24
(Music)
02:29
I've visited hundreds of marine locations,
02:32
but there are a handful of seascapes
02:35
that have touched me incredibly deeply.
02:37
The first time I experienced
that kind of high
02:40
was about 10 years ago,
02:43
off South Africa's rugged, wild coast.
02:45
And every June and July,
02:47
enormous shoals of sardines
travel northwards
02:49
in a mass migration
we call the Sardine Run.
02:51
And boy, do those fish
have good reason to run.
02:54
In hot pursuit are hoards
of hungry and agile predators.
02:56
Common dolphins hunt together
03:01
and they can separate some
of the sardines from the main shoal
03:02
and they create bait balls.
03:05
They drive and trap the fish upward
against the ocean surface
03:07
and then they rush in to dine
03:11
on this pulsating and movable feast.
03:12
Close behind are sharks.
03:15
Now, most people believe
03:17
that sharks and dolphins
are these mortal enemies,
03:18
but during the Sardine Run,
they actually coexist.
03:20
In fact, dolphins actually
help sharks feed more effectively.
03:23
Without dolphins, the bait balls
are more dispersed
03:27
and sharks often end up
with what I call a sardine donut,
03:31
or a mouth full of water.
03:35
Now, while I've had a few spicy moments
with sharks on the sardine run,
03:36
I know they don't see me as prey.
03:40
However, I get bumped and tail-slapped
just like any other guest
03:42
at this rowdy, rowdy banquet.
03:46
From the shores of Africa we travel east,
03:49
across the vastness
that is the Indian Ocean
03:52
to the Maldives, an archipelago
of coral islands.
03:54
And during the stormy southwest monsoon,
03:58
manta rays from all across the archipelago
04:01
travel to a tiny speck
in Baa Atoll called Hanifaru.
04:03
Armies of crustaceans,
04:06
most no bigger than the size
of your pupils,
04:08
are the mainstay of the manta ray's diet.
04:10
When plankton concentrations
become patchy,
04:14
manta rays feed alone
04:16
and they somersault themselves
backwards again and again,
04:18
very much like a puppy
chasing its own tail.
04:20
(Music)
04:23
However, when plankton densities increase,
04:27
the mantas line up head-to-tail
to form these long feeding chains,
04:29
and any tasty morsel that escapes
the first or second manta in line
04:33
is surely to be gobbled up
by the next or the one after.
04:37
As plankton levels peak in the bay,
04:41
the mantas swim closer and closer together
04:43
in a unique behavior
we call cyclone feeding.
04:46
And as they swirl in tight formation,
04:48
this multi-step column of mantas
04:51
creates its own vortex, sucking in
and delivering the plankton
04:52
right into the mantas' cavernous mouths.
04:56
The experience of diving
amongst such masses of hundreds of rays
04:59
is truly unforgettable.
05:03
(Music)
05:06
When I first photographed Hanifaru,
05:54
the site enjoyed no protection
05:55
and was threatened by development.
05:57
And working with NGOs
like the Manta Trust,
05:59
my images eventually helped Hanifaru
06:01
become a marine-protected area.
06:03
Now, fisherman from neighboring islands,
06:05
they once hunted these manta rays
06:07
to make traditional drums
from their skins.
06:09
Today, they are the most ardent
conservation champions
06:12
and manta rays earn the Maldivian economy
06:15
in excess of 8 million dollars
every single year.
06:18
I have always wanted
to travel back in time
06:23
to an era where maps were mostly blank
06:25
or they read, "There be dragons."
06:28
And today, the closest I've come
is visiting remote atolls
06:30
in the western Indian Ocean.
06:33
Far, far away from shipping lanes
and fishing fleets,
06:35
diving into these waters
is a poignant reminder
06:38
of what our oceans once looked like.
06:42
Very few people have heard
of Bassas da India,
06:44
a tiny speck of coral
in the Mozambique Channel.
06:47
Its reef forms a protective outer barrier
06:51
and the inner lagoon is a nursery ground
06:54
for Galapagos sharks.
06:57
These sharks are anything but shy,
even during the day.
06:58
I had a bit of a hunch
that they'd be even bolder
07:03
and more abundant at night.
07:05
(Music)
07:08
Never before have I encountered
07:16
so many sharks on a single coral outcrop.
07:18
Capturing and sharing moments like this --
07:21
that reminds me why I chose my path.
07:25
Earlier this year, I was on assignment
for National Geographic Magazine
07:29
in Baja California.
07:33
And about halfway down the peninsula
on the Pacific side
07:34
lies San Ignacio Lagoon,
07:37
a critical calving ground for gray whales.
07:39
For 100 years, this coast was the scene
of a wholesale slaughter,
07:41
where more than 20,000
gray whales were killed,
07:45
leaving only a few hundred survivors.
07:48
Today the descendents of these same whales
07:50
nudge their youngsters to the surface
07:53
to play and even interact with us.
07:55
(Music)
07:59
This species truly has made
a remarkable comeback.
08:08
Now, on the other side
of the peninsula lies Cabo Pulmo,
08:14
a sleepy fishing village.
08:17
Decades of overfishing
had brought them close to collapse.
08:19
In 1995, local fisherman
convinced the authorities
08:22
to proclaim their waters a marine reserve.
08:25
But what happened next
was nothing short of miraculous.
08:27
In 2005, after only
a single decade of protection,
08:31
scientists measured the largest
recovery of fish ever recorded.
08:35
But don't take my word
for it -- come with me.
08:39
On a single breath, swim with me in deep,
08:42
into one of the largest
and densest schools of fish
08:45
I have ever encountered.
08:48
(Music)
08:51
We all have the ability
to be creators of hope.
09:03
And through my photography,
09:05
I want to pass on the message
that it is not too late for our oceans.
09:07
And particularly, I want to focus
on nature's resilience
09:11
in the face of 7.3 billion people.
09:14
My hope is that in the future,
09:18
I will have to search much, much harder
09:20
to make photographs like this,
09:22
while creating images that showcase
09:24
our respectful coexistence with the ocean.
09:27
Those will hopefully become
an everyday occurrence for me.
09:30
To thrive and survive in my profession,
09:34
you really have to be a hopeless optimist.
09:37
And I always operate on the assumption
09:40
that the next great picture
that will effect change
09:42
is right around the corner,
09:45
behind the next coral head,
09:47
inside the next lagoon
09:49
or possibly, in the one after it.
09:51
(Music)
09:54

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Thomas Peschak - Conservation photographer
Thomas Peschak strives to merge photojournalism and cutting edge science to create powerful media projects that tackle critical marine conservation issues.

Why you should listen

Thomas P. Peschak is an assignment photographer for National Geographic Magazine and the Director of Conservation for the Save our Seas Foundation (SOSF). He is a senior fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and has been named as one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world.

Originally trained as a marine biologist, he retired from science fieldwork in 2004. He became an environmental photojournalist after realizing that he could have a greater conservation impact with photographs than statistics. Yet he remains rooted in marine science through his roles as Director of Conservation for SOSF and Founding/Associate Director of the Manta Trust.

Thomas has written and photographed five books: Currents of Contrast, Great White Shark, Wild Seas Secret Shores and Lost World. His latest book, Sharks and People, was released in 2013 and chronicles the relationship between people and sharks around the world.

He is a multiple winner in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards and in 2011 and 2013 he received World Press Photo Awards for his work.

More profile about the speaker
Thomas Peschak | Speaker | TED.com