Ocean Currents

3 Tips for Ethically Photographing Marine Wildlife

Learn how to responsibly document your favorite ocean critters

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© Emily Brauner

By visually capturing life underwater, photographers give individuals that may never experience journeying to the depths of our ocean, the opportunity to view the incredible lives and habits of marine wildlife.

Thanks to underwater photography and videography, millions of people are able to see how wonderful the world beneath the waves is and learn more about the wildlife that call it home—from barrel-rolling manta rays and waltzing humpback whales to tiny sea slugs and spawning corals.

Many of us are visual learners and photographs of wildlife play a huge role in environmental advocacy. By documenting and sharing the visible threats to our ocean such as marine debris, habitat loss and increased shipping, individuals are better able to understand these issues and develop a powerful, emotional connection with a world that once seemed so secretive.

And just as we respect wildlife on land when photographing wildlife and environments, it’s important to understand our impact and responsibility as observers in our ocean, before we deep dive to document the wonders below. Below are some tips to responsibly document your favorite marine wildlife.

Wildlife comes first.

Two sea turtle hatchlings crawl towards the sea lit by the golden pink glow of sunrise.
© Alexandra Gulick
Don’t touch wildlife—observe, distance and minimize your interaction. Never move, damage or destroy habitat to get a better image. When possible, study your subject in advance to recognize signs of distress so that you can quickly remove yourself from their area.

When we see baby sea turtles struggling through what appears to be mountains of sand compared to their small figures to reach the ocean, there’s the temptation to help these tiny turtles, especially when knowing their odds of survival are so grim, but we must let nature run its course. By interfering with this natural journey, hatchlings are unable to gain the information and skills needed to survive as adults. When photographing these creatures, clear the way and keep your distance—document and cheer them on from afar.

Know the rules.

Lone whale shark in blue sea.
© crisod/Thinkstock
When heading out on an expedition to photograph specific wildlife, do your research to know the rules and regulations of interaction. If following a local guide, respect their instructions and advice—obtain any permissions needed to photograph in the area beforehand. Refrain from participating in the baiting of wildlife, a controversial issue among photographers and conservationists, considered illegal in certain regions.

In the Philippines, whale sharks contribute to a booming tourism industry, bringing in thousands of visitors anxious to photograph the spotted giants. But the large gatherings of these endangered whale sharks seen in viral social posts are not naturally occurring—they are brought about by regular hand-feeding of the sharks. Although this may seem harmless, we don’t know what the long-term effects of this sort of feeding will cause. For example, poachers, eager to harvest their meat, fins and oils, can easily be mistaken as a friend by the sharks.

Be honest.

Close up of a female walrus.
© Ryan Kingsbery/USGS
If you want to practice ethically photographing wildlife, be transparent about how the image was captured. When sharing on social media or with an organization or outlet, share the story behind the photograph. It might not be obvious to the viewer if the animal was in captivity, if they were trained or if bait was used.

By letting others know how you photographed your subject, you’re contributing to the education of responsibly documenting wildlife. And if you did photograph wildlife in ways you’re not proud of, acknowledging and owning up to unethical practices still helps others understand the issues and encourages photographers to commit to practicing ethical photography.

We are all in a perpetual state of learning—it’s through reminding ourselves of the intention behind our imagery, respecting wildlife and doing our part to educate others, that we can work towards preserving the natural beauty of our ocean, together.

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