Octavio Aburto-Oropeza started taking underwater pictures as an undergraduate marine biology student in La Paz, Mexico. Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego had donated an underwater camera to the lab where he worked as a student assistant, and Aburto-Oropeza volunteered to operate it.
He was supposed to use the camera to conduct ecological surveys, but he couldn’t help himself. He started snapping non-scientific shots of the fish and the reef, mainly because he wanted to “use these images to explain to my family, especially my mom, what I was doing,” Aburto-Oropeza said.
Twenty-five years later, Aburto-Oropeza is still using photos to communicate his scientific work, but his audience has expanded significantly. He’s a professor of marine biology at Scripps, and his photos depicting marine life have won international awards for photography and conservation and been published everywhere from National Geographic to the Daily Mail. His work is the subject of an exhibit at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. And now, he’s garnered one of his most prestigious prizes yet: the Explorers Club named Aburto-Oropeza as its 2017 Rolex Artist-in-Exploration.
The award is a $25,000 grant, sponsored by Rolex, to support an artist working in the spirit of the Explorers Club, a renowned professional society that has supported scientific exploration for over 100 years. Aburto-Oropeza’s grant will support four expeditions to document four different mangrove forests in the Tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Mangroves are trees that grow in the transition between land and ocean in tropical and subtropical areas, and provide many critical ecosystem functions.
“Similar to what the skin does for our bodies, mangroves protect the coastal areas from erosion, hurricanes and natural events,” Aburto-Oropeza said, “and in doing that they generate habitats for many species that we later hunt or harvest.”
Mangroves are also super carbon dioxide sponges, soaking up about 14 percent of the ocean’s total carbon uptake every year.
Les Guthman, a documentary filmmaker who chaired the award selection committee, says Aburto-Oropeza was an obvious fit for The Explorers Club.
“Scientific research is an important part of exploration, and marine science is always a top priority among our expeditions,” Guthman said. “Octavio’s proposal really represented the best of all these worlds.
Guthman and the rest of the selection committee were also impressed with how Aburto-Oropeza uses his photos for effective social media outreach on conservation issues, and how he combines his photos and scientific research for maximal impact; Aburto-Oropeza produces a portfolio of images to tell the story for each of his scientific publications.
“I have found that the most powerful tool is when there is an image, but behind the image there’s robust scientific information,” Aburto-Oropeza said. “That combination really has a huge punch, because without the content, an image, even if it’s a beautiful image, won't necessarily engage the people in the way that we need in order to save the mangroves.”
In the expeditions to mangrove forests he’ll take this year as the Rolex Artist-in-Exploration, Aburto-Oropeza hopes to capture images that will motivate action to protect mangrove forests, which are being lost to deforestation at rates of about 3% per year on average.
“Sometimes we believe that the challenges we’re facing to protect nature are so big, because the human population is growing, and many people say we cannot grow economically without destroying nature,” Aburto-Oropeza said. “I think mangroves could be one of the best examples that we can use to demonstrate that this is not true.”
Aburto-Oropeza argues that because mangroves occupy such a small fraction of land area, less than 0.001 percent of the planet, and because about two-thirds of all mangroves are concentrated among just eight countries, conserving the mangroves is a very achievable goal.
With his photos and his research, he hopes to demonstrate that “protecting them is very easy,” he says. “We don't need a lot of money to protect them, and then they will continue giving us forever all these services that they provide.”
- Mallory Pickett