Simon Hilbourne and Alistair Bygrave are young scientists who share a passion for underwater photography and marine conservation. Aside from their own individual experiences and projects – with Simon documenting shark fisheries in Sri Lanka and Alistair conducting surveys in the Antarctic (among others) – they took the initiative to set up a forum called Scubography while at university. This is a place for all things to do with marine conservation and underwater photography. It provides tips about photography, as well as information about marine conservation and biology. The two are looking to expand their platform and set up a grant fund for master’s students (studying marine biology) who want to go abroad and conduct research projects.
UW360 had a chat with these two members of the new generation of marine conservationists.
So what is it that you both do?
Simon worked in marine consultancy in the UK before moving abroad to pursue an interest in shark and ray conservation in the Philippines and the Maldives. Alistair, also a marine biology graduate, is now a merchant navy officer, having worked on ships all around the world moving cargo and people. He has also visited Antarctic research bases to provide supplies and conduct surveys.
What got you into conservation and made you want to set up Scubography?
Both of us are avid divers and we are fascinated by the multitude of marine life. Scubography started as a way to share our underwater photos while we were studying at university. Although this is still a large part of Scubography, we now try to use the platform to disseminate scientific findings and marine conservation issues rather than just pretty pictures.
What are your main interests?
Both of us have a passion for photography and love to capture beautiful moments underwater. Simon’s research career has steered him towards large shark and ray species, notably whale sharks and mantas. Both of us, however, get great joy in swapping the wide angle lens for a macro lens and trying to capture the more intricate details of small critters. When not underwater, we enjoy shooting topside, especially wildlife and landscapes.
What are you currently working on?
As well as diving and underwater photography, Simon recently visited Sri Lanka to find out more and document the shark fisheries there. His recent second trip involved visiting four fish markets to survey the number and species of sharks and rays being landed. The hope is that this, and further work, will help Sri Lankan based conservation groups to push for better protection of marine life and result in changes to legislation to reduce the number of sharks being landed.
Is there any particular research or discovery that notably struck you?
Simon: Whale sharks and manta rays fascinate me the most. Considering their incredible size, we still know so little about them. One of the biggest mysteries for both species is birthing – we don’t know when or where they give birth. For whale sharks, we are not even sure how many pups they give birth to!
Alistair: While visiting Antarctica, I heard from researchers based there about a new study. Due to the melting of shelf ice, previously unexposed areas of seabed are becoming available habitats for Antarctic species. Researchers are looking at the progression of creatures moving in and colonising these new habitats. This is a unique opportunity, but unfortunately, it was only brought about by the rapidly changing climate.
What’s the hardest/ best thing about what you do?
The hardest part about marine conservation is expressing a sense of urgency. We are both young scientists, and yet we’ve already seen changes to the ocean environment. The severe coral bleaching in Australia and the Maldives, the reduction in shark numbers, and mass tourism booming in vulnerable marine sites are on-going problems which are not being addressed sufficiently. Oceans are close to the tipping point – if not there already. We need to make big changes to our lifestyle, and quickly for that matter, if we want to prevent irreversible change.
What do you hope to achieve?
Through the medium of underwater photography and videography, we hope to capture beautiful scenes that grab people’s attention and make them want to know more. From there, we hope people will be interested and more informed about the marine environment and become passionate about protecting it.
What lies ahead?
Scubography hopes to start offering opportunities for other people to get involved – in marine science, underwater photography liveaboard trips, or a dedicated research base and study site. For now, however, we just want to educate and introduce as many people as possible to the beauty of the oceans and the threats they face.
What message would you guys like to send out to our readers?
As divers, we are incredibly lucky to see the underwater world that many people never get to experience. But because they haven’t experienced it, we feel they don’t fully appreciate what there is to lose. The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” always comes up since people haven’t witnessed coral bleaching, fish depleted reefs, ocean plastic pollution, or the damage in many areas from tourism.
The small portion of the population who do dive and see these things must help to bring awareness to others. Beyond our own personal responsibility to try and reduce our daily impact on the environment and to dive responsibly, we need to be educators as well. There are still a lot of ocean “hope spots” and a lot to be optimistic about!