Earth Day

Michael Aw: Marine Creatures Are Sea Life, Not Sea Food

The award-winning marine photographer believes that reconnecting with nature is key to mitigating the climate crisis.

Michael Aw: Marine Creatures Are Sea Life, Not Sea Food
Marine photographer Michael Aw

Climate change, in my opinion, is a misnomer. What we are experiencing right now is a crisis, with the warming of the ocean threatening the survival of species both underwater and terrestrial. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand.

Two weeks ago, I returned from an Antarctic expedition where I observed what seems like just 10 per cent of the biodiversity that existed 20 years ago, when I made my maiden trip to the region.

The dwindling of wildlife species can be attributed to a changing climate that has forced animals to venture farther afield to feed. During the penguin hatching season, for instance, penguins must travel further to forage due to the loss of sea ice. This threatens the survival of their chicks, many of which perish while waiting for them to return. Sea birds too, are suffering, as water temperature changes alter the migration patterns of fish they feed on.

A deep sea squid
A deep sea squid

All these changes are very tangible, especially so in the polar regions, although I’ve also seen coral bleaching in the Maldives and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Across the globe, we’re experiencing more frequent severe weather conditions – just look at the recent floods that have deluged the east coast of Australia, following the bushfires that blazed across the country two years ago.

But now is no time to panic. Though we’re past the point of reversing climate change, we can slow it down and give nature time to adapt. Hence, it is essential for each of us to take ownership of our individual carbon footprint. Reducing it can be as simple as cutting down on your red meat consumption, given that farming is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases such as CO2.

In my work documenting the effects of climate change from the depths of the ocean, I’ve had my share of hair-raising moments, from being lifted out of the water by whales to coming face-to-face with crocodiles head butting my camera. I usually don’t have time to react to fear, though, as getting the job done is of utmost importance.

Financially speaking, I will say that the risk of not finding the animal – bearing in mind the unpredictability of marine life – outweighs those associated with getting into the water with the animal. This is because trips to places such as Norway or Greenland cost a lot of money and I stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars for coming back empty handed; this has, in fact happened many times despite our knowledge of animal migration patterns and the weather.

A Bryde's whale ploughs through a mass of sardines
A Bryde’s whale ploughs through a mass of sardines

We do, however, enjoy bringing people along on such expeditions – together with scientists armed with a deep understanding of animal behaviour – as it allows them to appreciate animals from a safe distance, within their natural habitats. As a matter of fact, I’m about to lead a 17-man expedition in the Maldives to study shark species in four of the Southern atolls.

I strongly believe that everyone should take time to interact with nature and see how the lives of animals are linked to their own. The pandemic did a good thing, in the sense that people started taking more walks outdoors in places such as Pasir Ris Park. Suddenly, birds, owls, snakes, sunsets and sunrises became prominent on social media – Covid-19 did this! I hope we can keep the conversation going, to get people to fall in love with nature. Go swim in the ocean and walk in the forest, take pictures of the otters – things like that are fantastic.

It would be good if people could view marine creatures as sea life rather than sea food. These animals, from your fish to crocodiles and sharks, hold their own memories. Having explored the oceans on a regular basis since the 80s, there came a point where I realised that the fish I’d spent enough time observing actually recognised me.

When I look into an animal’s eyes, whether it’s a polar bear or orca, I see a sentient being that I’m able to converse with, even though I don’t speak their language. Just like us, they need to rest and procreate; even something as diminutive as a clownfish displays parenting rituals in the way they nurture their eggs.

Michael Aw’s Ocean & Climate exhibition runs from April at the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ CDL Green Gallery.

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