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Oceanicallstars use photo and video to spread environmental messages

The goal of Oceanicallstars is to produce images that sends a conservation message. They say,” a picture is worth a thousand words,” and we hope our images speak loudly to an audience across the world. As scuba divers, we know our oceans are in serious trouble and this impacts everyone. Whether you live in Florida or Colorado, you need the ocean.

photo by Jillian Morris

Oceanicallstars members regularly travel across the globe to capture photo and video of different environmental issues. But you do not have to be a professional to share the story of the ocean. Digital photography has reduced the cost of equipment, allowing more people to take their cameras underwater. (My partner) Duncan and I decided that we wanted to host an underwater photo and video seminar that was conservation minded. People take pictures for fun; why not share with them how those images can really have a voice.

Duncan and I, having lived on Bimini, decided that it would be the ideal location to host a week of imaging. The wild dolphins of Bimini draw people from all over the world. Atlantic Spotted dolphins are very curious and social, allowing people to have incredible interactions with them. The crystal blue water above white sand makes an ideal place for shooting. Bimini, famous for its dolphins, is also home to spectacular reefs, massive stingrays, numerous species of sharks and mangrove mazes that are teaming with life. We were happy to return to island paradise and share our love for the ocean. We knew the Dolphin Expeditions vessel would provide the perfect work platform, keeping us on and in the water as much as possible. The week was set to be very busy with our class being taught, but also being filmed for a television pilot about learning vacations.

We wasted no time getting in the water and getting everyone comfortable with their gear. The wild dolphins respond better to freedivers than they do to scuba, so the entire week would be bubble free. This creates another challenge, as people have to learn how to work the camera, but also hold their breath while doing so. We honed the skill while living on the island and working on the boat as videographers/photographers.  Although it is challenging there is something very peaceful about swimming down, on a single breath and silently capturing an image. You are free to move and the animals seem not to be bothered as much by your presence. Maybe they know we are not staying for long.

Our first dolphin interaction came rather quickly that afternoon. It is amazing to watch as people have their first moment with a dolphin. You can describe it and explain what might happen, but until it is your own, there are really no words. Aside from our pets at home, we have very few, if any, shared interactions with animals. The spotted dolphins look you in the eyes, they engage you and they play. We are welcomed into their world, although it may be brief, but you do truly feel welcome. The most amazing part is that any person at any age can be in these moments. You are weightless in the water and dolphins do not segregate or judge, they simply share the ocean and accept us. If only more people had this mentality. Watching a person dance with a dolphin, no words spoken, for the first time is a pure thing of natural beauty. Gliding down and having a dolphin on either side of you, so close, maybe even touching you and looking you right in the eye, is one of the most peaceful yet exciting moments I have ever had.

Throughout the week we hosted class in the morning with one on one time throughout the day. We started with the basics of photography to give people a base to work from. Everyone had a different camera, so it was fun to try all the different options and let people get really creative. Building from the basics we went into the effects that water has on light and color and composing a shot. Now composing a shot while holding your breathe is a bit more challenging than when you can happily sit on the bottom for 20 minutes, but it also allows for some unique shots.

Our footage of the wild dolphins is delicate because we are moving in the water with them, free from gear and bubbles. They welcome you into their pod and often times you are surround by grey bodies. Your breath hold also increases when you are focusing on an animals rather than your need to breath.

On the second day we had another interaction with the dolphins and people were ready to take their cameras in. The trick with the dolphins is to focus on one animal, easier said that done when they are zipping in and out. I still find this a challenge because sometimes another dolphins want your attention when you are focused on another. They will move in and out of the screen or even stare right into the camera. Other times they get so close that all you see is grey or white. I will not complain when that happens, but the photos pale in comparison to the moment. At night we looked at images and discussed options to improve and how to make the camera perform a certain way.

Photo: Jillian Rutledge

On day three we swam with some of Bimini’s other notorious characters; stingrays and Caribbean reef sharks. Honeymoon Harbour is south of Bimini and is a shallow protected area that attracts large stingrays. People can gather in a circle, kneeling in the soft sand and hand feed these friendly critters. Often times they will sit on your lap or goose you from behind, making for a good laugh. They seem to enjoy the cameras, rubbing over the dorm ports. People have misconceptions about these barbed animals and this is a positive way to interact with these gentle animals. They do not attack and spine people, most injuries are accidents and or could have been prevented.  Like any animal, if you approach them cautiously and with respect you will have better luck than sneaking up from behind. It is shallow and the sunlight was gorgeous, a perfect combination for some great photos. I think people were also happy that they did not have to hold their breath.  After a short snorkel with the free- swimming rays we made our way to the shark dive site.

Triangle Rocks has been used for shark dives for 20 years. The Sharklab uses the site to introduce volunteers to sharks, for research and filming. In 20 feet of water it is possible to see dozens of Caribbean reef sharks, black nose and sharp nose sharks. The guests on this boat were nervous and excited. Most had not signed up for sharks. It is amazing what 5 minutes in the water can do for people’s negative opinions of these animals.  The conditions were perfect with bright sunlight bouncing off the sharks and lighting up the clear water. We could hear giggles, laughs and some “ ekes,” as people watched the sharks. A chubby little Atlantic sharp nose showed up, sadly with a hook and line attached to his left jaw. Many of the sharks have hooks or hook scars, reminders that even this site is not protected. On a positive note it shows the guests how beautiful the sharks are and the damage that fishing for them can cause. We turned a boat full of dolphin lovers into shark fans! I have done this dive dozens of times and it never gets old. I love every minute in the water with these guys.

As the trip near its end we spoke to the group of their role as conservationists. People looked a bit surprised when we said it, but that quickly turned to sense of pride when we explained where we were coming from. Each person would no doubt be taking their photos and video home to show friends and family. Dolphins easily illicit empathy because they are charismatic and most people love them. Sharks on other hand, do not have as large of a fan base. We encouraged the guests to show as many people as possible their shark photos and videos. Tell people how amazing it was to see them swim, eat and breathe. Describe how beautiful the light was reflecting off their backs, or how cute the chubby sharp nose was. Yes, I said cute. Each picture is worth a thousand words, so share the ocean’s story with as many people as you can. An excitement spread around the room and I knew that each person would do just that. They learned a lot about creating images, but they also learned how they could, as one person, make a difference.

The week was incredibly rewarding and we were lucky to have such an amazing group of people. We shared some remarkable moments and saw everyone transform to a place far from where they had started. People gained confidence in their camera skills, but also as their new role as ocean advocates. The week was set to be a traditional workshop but evolved into something far deeper than that (no pun intended).

For more information about future photo & video seminars check out our website and find us on facebook (

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