What lies beneath

Fiona Ayerst, spreads awareness about our oceans and its wondrous creatures


Conservationist and possible mermaid, Ayerst has had an emotional connection with the ocean almost since birth. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, she spent many holidays in the warm Indian Ocean around Mombasa.

“My parents say that I swam before I could walk. As far as I can remember, I have always been passionate about water and being immersed in it. As a child, water became my place to play and I developed a deep association with it. I have spent thousands of hours in the water—I feel totally at home in it. Even as a teenager, I was more interested in being in water than anywhere else. I would swim up to one hundred 25-metre lengths, four times per week. Not to swim fast, but just to be there, where I was happiest. As a child, I often dreamt that my entire home, as it stood above ground, was submerged under water. All my recurrent nighttime dreams involve water and always have. I feel safe and happy in water and up until this day, it remains my ‘go-to’ place if I am stressed,” she says.

She started photography as a hobby around 14 years ago, then in April 2007, she decided that she needed a career change. She was a Litigation Attorney with her own practice in Johannesburg at the time. She sold the files in her firm and instead decided instead to follow her passion for photography. She says that while some may have called this a ‘mid-life crisis’, she likened it to a moment of clarity.

“I knew that I wanted to spend my life doing something that I am ‘deeply’ passionate about. Whilst I enjoyed law, it was more of a means to an end. Getting out of law was a process for me rather than a specific one thing that happened. However, I do recall the decision occurred one day when all the signs I’d received from the universe came together in one day and I realised it was time to sell up and do something I loved even more than law. So that’s what I did,” says Ayerst.

Her images have won awards in numerous photo competitions and have appeared in magazines and newspapers worldwide. She writes for several magazines, works as an Editor for Beyond Blue magazine and is a Director of Africa Media. In 2003, she won South Africa’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year and in 2012, she gave a TED talk titled ‘My journey into water’.

“I live to see, smell and breathe animals, particularly those of the unknown and mysterious depths. Our oceans are magical and powerful, dreamlike places. South Africa has such a huge and incredible coastline with a wealth of diverse creatures and activities and I try to show people what they may otherwise never see. I also spend time trying to spread awareness of conservation issues through my lens. I’m also a keen writer and public speaker on these issues. Someone at one of my talks once asked me why I do these talks and I had to think about my response, which is: the ocean has given me so much over the years, so much joy and peace. It’s the least I can do to return the favour.”

While a Land Photographer as well, Ayesrt is best-known for her underwater shots and more specifically, her shark photography. With her images, she challenges viewers and fellow photographers to move away from stereotypical images of animals that elicit fear or a negative feeling, aiming to break this notion that once people see the same type of image constantly, they automatically start associating those traits with that subject.

“The human brain is a fascinating thing. We are able to convince ourselves of almost anything and we are also capable of being brainwashed. In the past, media has made us fear sharks, viewing them as killing machines that only want to eat us. Nothing could be further from the truth, in reality,” says Ayerst.

“I feel it is irresponsible for the media to brainwash people into believing something that doesn’t exist just to get sales from hyped-up images and footage. People do have a visceral fear of being eaten alive but it has been proven, scientifically, that we aren’t on the menu. I would like to replace fear with respect. That is my goal,” she adds.

She has swum with many species of shark, including the macro-predator, the tiger shark, and the massive but tamer whale shark. “As you can imagine, I have had some interesting moments involving swimming or diving with sharks as they tend to be curious creatures. I have not yet felt particularly threatened but when a shark swims through your legs and you only see it as it comes out in front of you, there is always a moment of intense panic, no matter how many times you have swum with them. They are amazing creatures that are sadly facing more and more threats by people,” she explains.

Ayerst says that the current major threats to marine environments are innumerable. Over-fishing and utilising without any clear idea of how it affects the ocean as a whole, pollution in its many different forms, global warming and a lack of respect and caring, are but a few that she mentions. Having spent a lot of time in and around oceans, Ayesrt is perpetually concerned for the oceans of the world and all of their inhabitants.

“I have been diving for more than 20 years, completed about 5000 dives and I have seen a decline in the numbers of fish and, in particular, sharks. I have seen turtles becoming increasingly petrified of interactions with divers,’ she says.

“Most people have concerns about whales and dolphins but very few people know about the delicate ecosystems not visible to the naked eye. For example, if just one sea cucumber is picked up from the sea floor, a myriad of smaller animals living on it die too. There are so many small and microscopic creatures that rely on the ocean retaining its balance but, presently, very little in our world is balanced. However, a few of the protected areas that we do have, have shown us that the sea can bounce back strong and hard. Recently, I read that 21 marine protected areas have been proposed for South Africa and it is some of the best news I have read in years. There will be opposition of course, but the benefits of MPAs are well-known to scientists and those who care for and study the sea and our effort to protect it,” Ayerst explains.

She says that while the world is awakening to the need to protect our oceans, sufficient progress is still happening too slowly. Ayerst believes that the sooner humanity stops viewing natural resources as commercial and personal commodities, the better and the more hope there will be for the survival of the oceans. Her message is for people to dig deeper than financial gain and they’ll be surprised by how much more they find.

“People can learn a lot from animals and have truly life-changing, positive encounters with them if they set aside this belief that humans are the superior species. What does superior even mean, after all?” questions Ayerst.

“Science alone won’t solve global challenges; we need to attune human behaviour with the wider world. We’ve been inspired by nature for many thousands of years and now we have the formal concept of ‘biomimicry’, which explores how we can learn from nature to solve human problems. Underwater, I watch how the clownfish couple protects and actively supports their eggs with passion and ferocity. I see how the anglerfish hunt using a ‘fishing rod’ and how the scorpion fish use camouflage. Just like on land, much of it is about food and reproduction. Why shouldn’t we learn from animals?” she asks.

While she initially started taking photos of wildlife only, she has started to incorporate people, exploring the relationship between man and animal, which she believes is an extremely unique one.

“Because animals cannot speak, the relationship between them and people is purely empathic. I have watched human beings take hooks out of sharks’ mouths underwater. This takes time, to gain the shark’s trust and to allow it to know that you mean it no harm and want to help, even though it was one of our kind that put the hook there in the first place. It’s a distinctive connection between human and animal. And there are countless other examples of interspecies communication all throughout the world,” she says.

Of her many memorable moments she’s had while photographing underwater, she says that any day on the annual Sardine Run, when you get a bait ball of sardines is a day that builds up hundreds of amazing memories. However, a day that really sticks out as one of the best was when she swam with two whale sharks, six dolphins and three humpback whales at the same time, in Sodwana Bay in 2014.

“It was one of those ‘Walter Mitty’ moments where I was so stunned that I didn’t want to miss the scene and I didn’t even take a picture. It was all over in about 10 seconds as nothing stays the same for long in the fluidity of the ocean. I will never forget those 10 seconds—those moments, for me, were life-changing. What I mean by that is that I apply the thought and feeling of that specific moment to many of the things I do and think. I think that gives me a positive outlook on life, in general,” explains Ayerst.

Asked if the lifestyle of a wildlife photographer is as glamorous as it’s cracked up to be, she replies that there are always two sides to every story and that while there is definitely a very positive side to being able to travel and interact with all sorts of incredible animals in exciting and strange countries, one has to be flexible and prepared to travel in less-than-luxurious conditions and sometimes downright dangerous situations.

A highlight of her job, explains Ayerst is the receptiveness of audiences to her talks.

“I think many people feel they know so little about life under the ocean, therefore, seeing my photos helps them to understand what there is to protect. I’d like to think that each of those people goes away wiser and ready to make a difference in their own way. I arrange monthly beach clean-ups in Mossel Bay and I am busy working on a new programme to teach swimming, snorkelling and, ultimately, underwater photography to underprivileged kids in my area,” she explains.

Ayerst is the founder and Director of a conservation education NGO, Sharklife. She gives talks around the Garden Route on the plight of sharks, the state of our oceans, overfishing and urging people to become more conscious of their seafood choices. She is a representative for the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI), which is part of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“As a Writer, I try to pick up on current topics and write about them from a conservation perspective. I also use my photos to teach as not everyone likes to read. I own a journalism internship programme where I teach young people to write environmental essays—as I believe the more good people we have writing about these issues, the further the word will spread.

With the oceans, it is going to take a massive effort from everyone. Kids learn from what their parents do. Thus, Sharklife and any other conservation-driven NGO have a responsibility to educate as many people as they can reach,” she explains.

Annually, she arranges the local “Paddle Out for Sharks” to raise awareness and build advocacy for sharks. On Sharklife’s website—www.sharlklife.co.za—people can take free online courses to understand shark behaviour and biology.

Marine conservation issues that she is currently working on include investigating conch and other shells, and their collection and conservation along the African coastline. She is regularly involved in the collection of plastics and other rubbish, together with other members of her community.

On whether she has found her purpose in life she says, “I have avoided controversy to some extent. I do not want to be seen as a ‘bunny-hugger’ although, in secret, I am one. I strive to be taken seriously by everyone as I think that in that way, more people will listen and to some extent, I feel I am still finding my voice.

“I have been struggling with the ‘activist’ title and have shied away from being labelled as such for the reason given above but also because it has been difficult for me to see animals suffering at the hands of humankind. More recently, I have become aware of the fact that I can overcome my intense disliking of this by confronting the suffering and trying to help alleviate it,” says Ayerst.

“I remain, however, a sensitive person and so it’s a process I am going through. I am working on it and I hope that once I can confront all the atrocities I see, I will be able to fight harder and with more vigour. Once I am at that point, I will believe that I have found my purpose in life. It is at that time that I will have the personal strength to do more and get more involved. At the moment, I feel as though I am still skirting around the rim and am still anxious about what jumping in will do to my psyche. I suppose I am protecting myself, not from the sharks—I don’t fear them, of course. It’s our anger and disconnection from nature that I fear the most,” she concludes. 

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