This week we interview ADEX Singapore 2016 Speaker Richard Smith, pioneering marine biologist, underwater photographer and writer. Aspiring to promote an appreciation for the ocean’s inhabitants and raise awareness of marine conservation issues through his images, Richard’s research on the biology and conservation of pygmy seahorses led to the first PhD on the enigmatic fishes. Over the past decade, Richard’s photographs and marine life focused features have appeared in a wide variety of publications around the world. He leads marine life expeditions where the aim is for participants to get more from their diving and photography by learning about the marine environment.
What got you into marine biology?
I have always been a wildlife fanatic and as a child growing up in the British countryside spent a lot of time enjoying nature and kept quite a menagerie of creatures from snakes to beloved chickens. When other kids wanted to be a fire fighter or police officer, I wanted to be a zoologist. After learning to dive at the age of 16 my focus shifted towards the ocean; however, I still went on to complete a degree in Zoology as I had always planned. I moved into tropical marine study for my master’s and doctoral research.
What’s the hardest thing/best thing about your job?
I am very lucky in being able to travel to some of the most remote corners of the globe for my work, and this is one of the best things about my job. I would imagine there are very few people who have been lucky enough to see some of the creatures that I have encountered. Indeed many are still undescribed or new to science. On the other hand, probably the hardest part is seeing how our actions are reaching even these last bastions of marine life. Visiting the most remote corners of the globe I still see plastic waste in the water and on beaches. The coral bleaching that’s occurring as a result of El Niño, and exacerbated by human-induced climate change, is currently working its way across the Pacific Ocean and laying waste to whole reef ecosystems. This shows how far reaching our influence on the environment is.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen/discovered while on the job?
I’ve seen some truly amazing animals and fascinating behaviours through my work. Most dear to my heart has been my research on the biology of pygmy seahorses. I spent hundreds of hours observing their social and reproductive behaviours during my PhD research and probably the most amazing behaviour that I witnessed was their mating. The male had given birth just prior and, exhausted from the ardours of labour, returned to his mate to accept a new clutch of eggs. The pair intertwined their tails and for about 45 seconds hovered just off the gorgonian in a miniature embrace as she passed her unfertilised eggs across to his brood pouch.
What do you help to achieve through your work?
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the oceans are as alien to most people as the surface of the moon. As divers, we are privileged to swim alongside the fishes and witness first hand vibrant coral reefs or the wonders that a muck dive has to offer. Most people can’t relate to this in any way. People just aren’t passionate to conserve something they don’t understand or relate to. I hope that my work as a marine biologist, underwater photographer and trip leader can help to share the wonders of the ocean with a greater audience so there’s something left for the next generation.
Who is your marine biology role model?
I get inspiration from many sources, not one single role model. The amazing work of scientists around the world is always an inspiration, but diving with passionate dive guides is equally motivating. Many people are working hard to protect our oceans, and thank goodness for each and every one of them.
What do you think lies ahead for marine ecosystems?
I worry that as the world’s population urbanises, people are increasingly losing their ties with nature and becoming apathetic about the state of it. Whilst terrestrial ecosystems are becoming more and more fragmented I think the hope for the oceans is that, by their nature, they are much more connected. We are really at a tipping point and our decisions now will have huge implications for the oceans of the future. I hope governments and the populous face up to the huge challenges we face.
What can the average person do to help protect life in the oceans?
The most obvious is through each individual’s decisions about the foods we eat, whether to recycle and such-like. Amongst divers, and especially underwater photographers, I would love to see a greater respect of animals and the environment. I am very passionate that we should enjoy our precious time underwater without damaging anything or harassing wildlife. In none of my images have the subjects been moved or manipulated in any way, so I hope this can show budding photographers that it’s best to leave those pointer sticks at home and just exercise patience to get the shots they’re after.