Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dispatches from the Field_ Abrolhos_Cristina Mittermeier

Part I. Chaperons
It takes two full travel days to get here. The itinerary goes something like this: Washington, DC to Sao Paulo to Porto Seguro by plane; Caravelas by car, Isla Sta. Barbara by boat….for a total of about 36 hours. The journey is not a hard one…it is just tedious and laborious to get here. And now that we are here and poised to photograph o
ne of the most unique and rare coral reefs on the planet, the winds will not relent. If this was more like the Great Barrier Reef or the Caribbean it wouldn’t matter, as visibility there is seldom an issue. This particular reef is known for being able to survive in very, very low visibility…we are talking 3-5 feet and maybe 7-10 on a good day. That means I am barely able to see beyond the bubbles of my dive buddy.

We are traveling on board the Sanuk, a spacious catamaran that is dedicated to recreational and scientific diving in this area. The Sanuk is often used by scientists from Conservation International as a live aboard vessel for their research but for the duration of this expedition, the Sanuk will become a photographic boat.

The expedition team, is composed by two CI staff, videographer John Martin
and producer Peter Stonier and by three iLCP photographers, Luciano Candisani, one of Brazil’s top wildlife photographers, Paul Nicklen, a Canadian national who shoots for National Geographic Magazine, and myself. The team will be traveling throughout the Arbolhos ecosystem and shoreline to document the marine and coastal biodiversity, the use of the resources, the threats and the conservation opportunities. This is a Tripods in the Mud Expedition in which top conservation photographers partner with conservation groups to document important areas or issues.

One of the greatest challenges of working in this seascape is the poor visibility. If you are a coral or a sponge this is good news as it means that the water is loaded with oxygen and nutrients. If you are a photographer, this poses all sorts of challenges. Despite the fact that the month of March is supposed to be the best for diving, on our first dive we can barely make out the shapes of the chaperons or pinnacles, which are monolithic structures made out of coral. As we descend below the 50 ft mark the large coral structures emerge from the murky water like ghostlike castles.

Perhaps the most interesting point in this story is that this
particular reef is able to not only survive but thrive in these waters. The water is in fact so murky that at some points it is like swimming through milk and the currents are so strong that a short decompression stop in open water can mean a 500 ft swim back to the boat.

Despite appearances, the pinnacles are covered in life. Once you are able to see beyond the brown, shapeless form of this peculiar type of reef, you can start discerning the amazing array of marine life that inhabits these coral formations. Bright red sponges, minute glasslike shrimp inhabiting fleshy anemone, jacks, angelfish, barracuda, sea turtles, they all share the tiny real estate provided by the coral structures. Unlike most other reefs, which grow in long, shallow barriers in places where the water is warm and clear, the chaperons of Abrolhos form tall structures whose clear aim is to reach towards the surface and rise above the surf and the sunlight.

Where the water is shallow, the pinnacles often break the surface during the low tide. During high tide it is barely possible to see them below the surface of the water.....if the winds are soft and the tide is still. For someone who has never seen a coral reef like this before, the hardest thing will be to reconcile the idea that this reef is a more important, more biologically valuable and a far more interesting reef than the ones we are used to seeing in the Caribbean or the Australian Great Barrier reef. Almost all the species that we are looking at, be it corals, small invertebrates or large fish can be found nowhere else on Earth, but this tiny speck in the larger marine map.

Diving during the day it is possible to see blue parrotfish feeding on the bulbous brain coral heads; moray eels laying still while they wait for their prey, schools of trigger fish, angel fish and even barracuda. Our team spent 5 days diving in this area and every day brought in some new characters to the ocean scene before us. Our most rewarding diving experience, however, was the afternoon we spent diving and snorkeling with a group of 7-8 green sea turtles. The large reptiles have sought refuge in the guarded bay of Santa Barbara Island, where they feed on an endemic species of sea grass.

This afternoon I focused on photographing the sea birds nesting on Redonda island while Luciano and Paul took off their diving gear so as not to scare the turtles off with their scuba bubbles. As I climbed to the top of the island, I could see them both in the bay, snorkeling with the turtles. Every time one of the turtles dove to the bottom, the two photographers would sink with it and hold their breath at 10 feet or so to photograph them foraging. As the turtle emerged to breathe, so did the photographers. This dance played out during the entire afternoon and the images they made are not only truly magical but they really capture the gentle and dignified essence of these animals.

One of the mysteries that struck all of us, was the notable absence of any sharks. During our 6 days diving we didn’t spot a single one. It was not until a few days later, when we traveled to the town of Alcobaca to photograph the fishing boats coming to shore that the reason for their absence became clear. One single medium size boat unloaded at least 10 tons of large groupers, snappers, dorados and other large fish, but what left us in a state of shock was the many tons of sharks and dogfish that also came out of the entrails of the ship. Paul noted that all sharks had already been finned even before reaching port. It was really sad to see the once majestic predators reduced to a bloody pile of meat to be consumed many thousands of miles away in countries ranging from Mexico to China. This is so far away from the small sustainable fisheries we have been photographing along the coast. For a couple of days we followed “Za” a young spear fisherman who took us along on his boat (his mom is the boat driver!) to see how he works. In an entire morning of strenuous swimming, Za can catch 10-15 fish that will feed his family and make him enough money to buy a few essentials.

Contrasting that to the large-scale indiscriminate fishing practices, like the long-lines that caught these sharks, is our job. Luciano points out that it is sad that this kind of fishing is legal and Brazil, and Paul remarks that being legal doesn’t make it moral. I agree.

Six days are clearly not enough to produce a significant body of work, but they were sufficient to offer us a glimpse into this amazing ecosystem and the threats it is facing. Tripods in the Mud is one of the many ways in which the iLCP is helping conservation groups secure the visual assets they need to tell their own conservation stories, both of success and struggle.


  1. I found your report very interesting and relevant for myself, bacause there si so little information about the Abrolhos available.
    I wonder if you have more information about local nature watching tourism and diving touism partners.

  2. Where can I see the complete work?
    How did the images work with local people and with the conservancy agencies?
    I am interested in apply some of the metodology you use with photography in my job, where we are making a campaign for the conservation of water in Yucatán.

    José Luis Fajardo.