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Capturing the Solitary Life of a Florida Oysterman

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An oysterman pulls up oyster shells in tong heads from Apalachicola Bay.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill five years ago this month may be all but forgotten by those of us who buy seafood at the supermarket. But it forever changed the people who make their living trolling the waterways along the Gulf Coast for that seafood.

Even though the oil never made it up to Apalachicola Bay on Florida’s panhandle, much of the area’s once abundant oyster population is in decline, according to a University of Florida report. The delicate blend of fresh and salt water that helps oysters thrive has been out of whack for years, thanks to drought and water jurisdictional battles, and illegal catches of juveniles threaten future hauls. Yet third-generation oysterman Kendall Schoelles is unruffled, and soldiers on alone.

“It was like being with a Zen monk,” says videographer Joe Davenport, who spent hours filming Schoelles. He observed Schoeless in ways no one but the oysters do–from below, in his small boat, shrouded by morning fog. I reached Davenport via email to find out how he brought the story to life for National Geographic.

Our exchange was edited for clarity:

How did you find this oysterman?
“I was very lucky to be introduced to Kendall by Carlton Ward, Jr., a member of the Florida Wildlife Corridor expedition team and a conservation photographer. Carlton has worked with Kendall in the past, and he offered to take us out on his oysterboat to describe his lifestyle.”

Inside a Third-Generation Oysterman’s Tough Trade

What was it about Schoelles that was so compelling to you?

“The nature of his work is very physical, very repetitive, solitary, day in and out on the water, and it’s shaped him into such a patient and observant man. He takes everything in with such a frank contemplation. We would be swatting and dancing around the clouds of biting gnats while he calmly endured it. Even in the dense fog he knew exactly where he was. It was like being with a Zen monk.”

What made you decide to shoot him from that angle?

“My guiding idea was to give a sense of the isolation out there in the dense early morning fog. He seemed so iconic in that moment, this lone oysterman against a vast, blank expanse of water and mist, so I shot a lot of it from a low angle looking up to give him a kind of heroic stature. It’s a pretty small boat, too, so I didn’t have a ton of choices for where to settle myself!”

It practically looks like it was taken in one shot.

“The video itself is not a single take – you can thank the editor, Nick Lunn, for making it seem so! The morning itself unspooled in a series of long takes, though. I didn’t want to shoot a typical interview, so I just asked Kendall to do his thing and talk about what came up as he worked. I chimed in with questions a few times, but for the most part I just sat back and kept rolling and let him talk about his life on the water. The quiet and the fog and his stream of consciousness combined to make it all seem like a single take.”

For more National Geographic videos, see