Australian sea lions play in a bed of sea grass near Hopkins Islands in Spencer Gulf, South Australia. These sea lions are found only in Australia and are one of the most endangered pinnipeds in the world.
For more than 40 years, David Doubilet has been chronicling the magnificent and the mysterious for National Geographic as an underwater photographer. In that time, he has captured marine environments everywhere from Botswana to Tasmania to Canada. Doubilet is also a longtime Rolex Testimonee.
Now, in the International Year of the Reef, Doubilet is on a mission to comprehensively document the world's coral reefs. He aims to explore some of the world’s most remote and most critical reefs, at a time that sees them facing unprecedented challenges and threats. Doubilet recently answered questions about his work while in French Polynesia, just before a mission to photograph sharks and coral at the Fakarava Atoll.
You knew from a young age that you wanted to shoot underwater. How has your mission and sense of subject evolved?
When I was 12 or 13 years old, I was pretty certain much of my life would be spent underwater. I began to dive in a Caribbean Sea carpeted with dense fields of elkhorn coral, thick beds of turtle grass, and reefs raining fish. It was a boundless ocean, a seemingly endless paradise filled with extraordinary creatures that no one knew anything about.
Today, every dive is still a voyage of discovery, but now there is a difference: an underlying urgency to explore a place, an organism, or an ecosystem that may disappear. The ocean may be vast, but it is vulnerable. We have explored less than five percent of our oceans, yet we have fished, eaten, or systematically destroyed nearly 90 percent of the species in them. I enter the sea now to document both the devastation and the beauty, to advocate change and to provide a sense of hope.
How is photography important as a conservation tool?
Pictures have the power to celebrate, educate, honor, humiliate, and illuminate. They can be a direct catalyst for conservation of a species or entire ecosystem, inspiring many to personally experience what a place is about.
National Geographic published a story in January 1989 about divers swimming with seven stingrays that gathered beneath fishermen cleaning their catch in the North Sound of Grand Cayman Island. After the story ran, other divers began to travel to the Cayman Islands to see and swim with the rays. This encounter has grown into one of the most popular snorkel sights on the planet, and now a few hundred stingrays greet thousands of tourists each day. The rays have become protected, priceless ocean ambassadors.
What are some of your favorite images, either from an artistic or a conservation perspective?
A successful image transcends journalism. To protect a species or environment, you must understand it and be moved by it. Artistically, I am drawn to over-under images of icebergs, because they are a combination of water, light, and ice. They are also metaphors for the ocean, where only a small fraction is visible to the human eye. They are also a statement about global warming, glacier retreat, and sea-level rise.
Sometimes a conservation image has the singular capacity to shock or anger, such as the Japanese dolphin slaughter. The power of this image is emotion and reaction to the dolphins trapped in a harbor made crimson red with their own blood.
What do you feel has changed about your work as you have gotten older?
The digital revolution was an enormous gift to underwater photographers. We were no longer limited to 36 frames in each camera—we run out of air long before we run out of pictures. We work in a challenging environment with little to no light, low visibility, fast currents, and limited dive times, but now we can look at the back of our cameras and begin to correct our mistakes instantly.
A range of custom lenses allow me to shoot endoscopic micro-images and super wide-angle panoramic images of shipwrecks or coral reefs that vibrate with life and color. We have built-in DSLR video capability that allows us to add texture and breadth to storytelling. I am now making pictures that I could only dream about using film.
What kinds of reactions have you received from your work?
It is a wonderful feeling when someone comes up and says, “Your images changed my life,” or “Your pictures influenced me to become a diver, photographer, filmmaker, scientist, illustrator, or simply go into the sea.”
I firmly believe that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I am pleased to learn that I have influenced two generations of underwater photographers and to watch these new image makers stand on my shoulders and reach farther technically, scientifically, and artistically. I am especially proud of my fellow National Geographic underwater colleagues Brian Skerry, Paul Nicklen, Thomas Peschak, and Laurent Ballesta as they continue to push boundaries as underwater visionaries. We are all on the frontlines of a battle to protect and preserve a vanishing world.
Are there places to which you have a particular emotional tie?
I am emotionally attached to many places for different reasons. The Red Sea because I began my career there, the Coral Triangle because of the ultra-marine biodiversity—but I am especially connected to Gardens of the Queen National Park, Cuba, a marine sanctuary that resembles the untouched Caribbean of my youth. I have had life-changing encounters on the Canadian sea ice with harp seals, a species that became the face of climate change for us, drawing us back to document the harp seal pups' struggle to survive in a world of unstable ice.
Are there elusive places, subjects, or feats you still want to pursue?
Truthfully, oceans still remain virtually unexplored. Species and ecosystems are disappearing before we have a chance to understand and document them. I want to identify and document the areas of greatest marine biodiversity and those under greatest threat.
As a technical challenge, I want to capture a reef in our time, properly lighting a length of vibrant coral and capturing the complex layers at life-size scale before they are irreversibly degraded from the combined effects of climate change and overharvest. Most importantly, I want to give a voice to the voiceless and continue to make pictures that make people care about, fall in love with, and protect the sea.
What is the greatest threat to our oceans?
We are. Our action or inaction will dictate the future of our oceans and, subsequently, the future of our planet. As the oceans go, so do we.