Oceans: An Overlooked Oasis

by Simon hilbourne

Once you see the life below the waves, it’s hard not to want to protect it.


Simon Hilbourne

Simon Hilbourne is a Marine Biologist, ocean conservationist & underwater photographer. He works for the Manta Trust, leading the Maldives Oceanic Manta Ray Project. He also launched the charity Fish Free February to raise awareness of environmental issues surrounding global fisheries.

Simon had an interest in marine wildlife from an early age, watching his parents scuba dive amongst the reefs in Sri Lanka, where he grew up. Simon developed skills with an underwater camera and eventually enrolled at University to study Marine Biology. After graduating, he found himself in the Maldives, working to protect Manta Rays. Simon talks about how he developed his love of underwater animals and how a tourist trip to a fish market in Sri Lanka was the start of his campaign to help protect the wildlife in our oceans.

Conservation is a curious thing. I wish it weren’t necessary, even if that did put me out of a job. Unfortunately, the human race is exploiting nature for everything it’s worth, putting profit before planet. Over consumption of wild habitats, animals and natural resources has pushed ecosystems and biodiversity to the brink of collapse. Marine conservation has a whole other level of challenges to overcome in that we are fighting to protect a world the vast majority of humans will never see. The phrase ‘out of sight out of mind’ couldn’t be more apt for the 70% of our planet covered by water. But once you do see the life below the waves, it’s hard not to want to protect it.

I have been lucky enough to swim alongside the largest sharks in world, make eye contact with a humpback whale mother and calf, and visit the world’s most biodiverse coral reefs. I have also witnessed the destruction of the oceans; turtles entangled in fishing nets, coral reefs turned to rubble from bleaching, a Mediterranean Sea void of nearly all fish and piles of drying shark fins and manta gill plates. As a marine conservationist and a passionate underwater photographer, I want to bring both sides of this story to light.

I had an unusual upbringing, attending secondary school in Thailand. My parents were already recreational scuba divers, having fallen in love with colourful tropical coral reefs whilst living in Sri Lanka. Back then I was too young to dive, but I would float on the surface with one parent watching the other below.

As soon as I was old enough, I learned to scuba dive and we carried on diving as a family for a number of years. On most dive boats there are fish identification books to help divers figure out what they saw underwater. I would flick to the sharks and rays’ section to read about the different species, testing my knowledge after by identifying the photos by memory.

At eighteen, I moved to Australia for a year to work as a dive instructor. I soon came to realise that I was far more interested in the animals than the tourism side of the business. Diving the northern Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea from the liveaboard vessel, I started to grow my interest in underwater photography. I would jump back in the water with the trip photographer between dives to get an extra fifteen or twenty minutes underwater during my breaks. Some days I would log up to six hours underwater. Shooting with just a small compact camera, the photos were mediocre, but I was hooked.

Moving to the UK for the first time in my life for university, despite being British, was certainly a change of scene for me! I completed my MSci in Marine Biology at the University of Southampton. Although dredging limpets in the Solent River and counting barnacles on rocky shores wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, the course set me up perfectly and equipped me with the knowledge and skills I needed for my dream career. My final year dissertation project took me out to La Paz, Mexico to study seasonal whale shark aggregations. Just before this trip I bought my first DSLR camera and underwater housing second hand. La Paz is situated in the Sea of Cortez which Jacques Cousteau aptly named ‘the aquarium of the world’ and the abundance of whale sharks and sea lions gave me plenty of opportunities to sharpen my photography skills.

Fast forward a few months and I was sat at a desk in my first job out of university as a junior marine environmental consultant; with British winter looming, I knew it was time to head back to warmer waters. I wanted to continue taking photographs which could engage people with the marine world and work on projects with conservation value. I struck gold when an opportunity to work in the Maldives with the Manta Trust popped up.

On the way to the Maldives I had an unexpected stopover in Sri Lanka. Returning to a country I had the fuzziest of memories of living in as a toddler was an exciting prospect. With only a few days to explore Colombo, I did my best to cram in as much tea, culture and cuisine as possible. On my last day, I heard about a fish market near the airport which had shark landings. Intrigued, I took an early morning tuk-tuk and to my surprise the driver knew the market well and showed me pictures of a huge hammerhead shark caught the day before. The fish market was quite a tourist attraction!

At the main landing site, I passed through a dozen or so tiled benches where cutters filleted large tunas into steaks for restaurant owners and locals. Just past the benches was the covered auction house part of the market. Right on the harbour front, fishing boats bunched in tightly to unload their catch of big game species like tuna, marlin and swordfish. Winched out from the ice holds and carried by two or three men, these 70-100kg fish were laid out on the market floor and auctioned off. Dotted around the market were small piles of manta and devil rays (collectively known as mobulids) and a few sharks. Once sold, a cutter would then come along and remove the fins from the shark and the gill plates from the rays before the buyer would take the meat away.

After most of the tuna and swordfish had been sold, just as I was about to leave, a truck backed up to the tiled area. They opened the back doors and started unloading sharks one after another from the lorry. My heart sank as I watched the lifeless sharks being kicked and thrown out of the back of the truck and laid out in rows. Over the course of an hour I watched as they unloaded more species of shark than I had seen in 10 years of diving. There were great hammerheads, scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, blue sharks, silky sharks, mako sharks and many more. Once all the sharks had been laid out they then unloaded half a dozen rice sacks full of shark fins.

The onus is on the consumers, the people who are creating a market and demand for these products and making it financially viable to hunt them.

The first and most overwhelming emotion was of anger; anger at these fishermen for slaughtering animals that I was launching myself into a career of studying and protecting. But the more I learnt about the industry over the months and years the more I realised my initial anger was misplaced. These fishermen are merely trying to earn a living to pay for their children’s schooling. Speaking to the fishermen, many of them don’t like going out to sea for weeks at a time, away from their family, living on cramped, rickety old wooden boats, working gruelling hours and they certainly don’t enjoy killing sharks and manta rays. Instead the onus is on the consumers, the people who are creating a market and demand for these products and making it financially viable to hunt them.

Shark fin soup originated in China hundreds of years ago but only increased in popularity in the 18th and 19th century when it is seen as a symbol of status and wealth. Shark fin soup is falsely marketed to have medicinal properties and features in Traditional Chinese Medicine literature. The trade and demand for mobulid gill plates is far more recent. The gill plates that manta rays use to feed are dried out and consumed as a tonic or in a soup similarly to shark fins. Again they are heavily marketed for their false magical healing abilities that ultimately results in creating a market for these animals.

I returned twice more to Sri Lanka on mini ‘holidays’ to learn more about the fisheries from the Blue Resources Trust and to see if the same thing was happening at other landing sites. Waking up groggy at half past four in the morning to trundle along to a fish market, where the stench of decomposing shark and ray meat clings to your clothes, bags, skin and even your camera, and to slosh through ice cold water and fish trimmings that litter the floor isn’t everyone’s idea of a holiday, but I felt I needed to document the extent of the issue.

Working with the Manta Trust team in the Maldives, it was refreshing to be in the water and among live manta rays and sharks. All sharks and rays have been protected for a number of years in the Maldives. The country also hosts the world’s largest population of reef manta rays, which I was helping the Manta Trust study. During the Hulhangu Monsoon season, a combination factors including wind speed and direction, productivity and the orientation of an inconspicuous horse shoe shape of one small coral reef system called Hanifaru Bay results in one of the most spectacular phenomena in the natural world.

This natural wonder has to be up there with the Serengeti wildebeest migrations, the Eastern Cape sardine run or Alaskan salmon fishing bears. In Hanifaru Bay there can be up to 200 reef manta rays, growing to 3.5m (11ft) wide, congregating to feed on tiny shrimp called zooplankton. Swimming in tight formations, silent but graceful and with incredible spatial awareness, they swoop within inches of snorkelers. Co-operative foraging can result in what researchers have termed ‘cyclone feeding’, a vortex of mantas creating a spiral formation from the surface to the sandy bottom 18 metres below. Sometimes huge whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean, may join the feeding frenzy.

If the overexploitation of the oceans carries on as it is, fish stocks will collapse, the food web will become unbalanced, endangered species will fade into extinction and the sharks and rays that divers travel the world to see will become harder and harder to find.

Our team and I would spend days searching for mantas. Once spotted, we’d jump in and photo ID them. Each manta ray has a unique cluster of markings on its underside. Like a human finger print, these uniquely identify individual mantas. With over 70,000 sightings of nearly 5,000 manta rays, this is the largest population of reef manta rays in the World. From this data, the Manta Trust has answered questions about their life history and migrations, which inform conservation efforts around the world. Once the ID work was done, I would spend time snapping photos for fun and trying to capture the beauty of these animals.

Whilst I have experienced some incredible manta and shark encounters, the scenes at the Sri Lankan fish markets are still engrained in my memory. If the overexploitation of the oceans carries on as it is, fish stocks will collapse, the food web will become unbalanced, endangered species will fade into extinction and the sharks and rays that divers travel the world to see will become harder and harder to find. In the case of manta rays, they reach sexual maturity at 10-15 years. Females reproduce only every 2-5 years and give birth to a single pup at a time. These life history traits make manta rays extremely susceptible to overfishing and there is no way they can be sustainably fished.

In many countries around the world there is a growing movement towards a more sustainable plant-based diet. Much of the emphasis of these campaigns is geared towards reducing beef and the consumption of other land animals but seafood is often left out of the picture. Earlier this year I launched the Fish Free February campaign to raise awareness of the environmental issues surrounding global fisheries and to encourage people to reduce the amount of seafood they eat, because the fact of the matter is we can’t carry on plundering the oceans at this rate. I am using Fish Free February as a platform to educate people about the extent of overfishing, the countless species that are being wasted as by-catch, the unimaginable quantity of plastic pollution from discarded ghost fishing gear, and worrying extend of falsely labelling seafood protects in the hope that people will reduce their seafood consumption. At the end of the day, that is the easiest and fastest way to have a positive impact on the blue planet.

For many people the ocean is just a source of food. They never experience the beauty below the waves, making it hard to inspire them to protect it. Through my underwater photography I hope to show people the wonderful underwater world we risk losing and convince them to stop exploiting the oceans so we can work towards a world where conservation isn’t needed.