Shannon Switzer is an award-winning photographer, published
writer, and National Geographic Young Explorer whose work focuses on
At left: Shannon free diving in Caño Island, Costa Rica, where she embarked on a stand-up paddle expedition of the Osa Peninsula to explore tributaries and document plastic pollution.
Photo by Morgan Hoesterey
As a kid I learned to love the ocean by being in it, and that fascination carried over into my adult life, fueling a desire to explore. On one of my favorite ventures, I sailed with one other girl (Liz Clark) from San Diego down to Costa Rica. I was surprised that not only did I appreciate the marine life I encountered–the whales, sharks, dolphins, turtles and manta rays–but that I also appreciated meeting the people who made a living from the ocean.
One day in an idyllic bay in northern Costa Rica, we were invited to come pull nets with the local fishermen who had anchored their boats directly next to us despite the vastness of surrounding space. So we went with them at 5:30 the next morning and hand pulled net after net. I was saddened to see the discarded catch thrown back to sea dead, although the seagulls and pelicans made quick work of it, but I also admired the knowledge and respect these men had for the sea.
A few days later, when we were pulling out of the bay to move on to our
next anchorage, we spotted a massive fishing boat, heavy with
complicated machinery dangling off its sides. An avalanche of rejected
fish was cascading from the boat back into the water in quantities too
large for the birds to recover before it all sank to the bottom. My
friend and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing: That is
not the way.
By actively placing ourselves at the center of the action through
exploration, we witnessed a real-life example of what we’d both learned
in textbooks about sustainable fisheries. It made the problem more real,
filled in the gaps, and put the final strokes of cultural subtleties on
Photo by Liz Clark
Unfortunately, not everyone has the chance or desire to personally
interact with the ocean. Nevertheless, we are all directly affected by
its health, whether we realize and acknowledge it or not. This is where
storytelling comes into play. By using powerful forms of media like
images, film, words, and illustrations to tell a compelling story, we
can engage people who wouldn’t otherwise know or care about the ocean,
and who certainly wouldn’t care if they were forced to sit down and read
a scientific paper about it.
There is nothing more powerful than a story to move people to action,
and we need storytellers more now than ever before, because the ocean is
a vast, complex system full of drama and suspense that has yet to be
narrated. Many of its stories may go forever untold as marine species go
extinct and islands of plastic waste continue choking the sea. But it
is not too late, and the more honest stories we can share now, the fewer
sad ones we will have to tell later.