Eric Cheng

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The Accidental Conservationist

In Manta, Ecuador, photographing a huge shark-fishing beach (photo: Matt Potenski)

Seven years ago, I wrote a chapter for a book about eco-activism. It was during an incredible time in my life between spending 10 years chasing strange underwater stories, and what would later be a (pseudo)-return to technology. Ultimately, it was deemed that I was not "hardcore" enough of an eco-warrior; my chapter was silently struck after I was told that it needed to be "in some ways rewritten."


August 2009

I had no plans to become a conservationist, in any form, and the path that took me there was simultaneously serendipitous and inevitable. 

A swirl of excited bubbles momentarily obscures my vision as it whips by at high speed in front of my face. Just ahead, the source of the bubbles, a human/machine hybrid completely wrapped in neoprene, clings to the vertical rock wall, careful to make contact with the fragile environment in as few places as possible. A myriad of small, suspended particles flow by constantly, providing a way to track the movement of space around us. The moment arrives. We are trained never to do so, but we both simultaneously inhale deeply and hold our breaths, initiating a slowing of time.  Out of the distant blue, five, ten, and then twenty pale-gray, undulating forms emerge slowly, sleekness cutting steadily -- impossibly -- through the unstoppable, never-ending stream of water pushing against them. As they approach, each form begins to crystallize in clarity. Flat, wide heads are followed by supple bodies marred by spots and slashes of white and red – signs of alien, amorous coupling. Dozens of colorful, rainbow darts fly up from the boulders below, converging. Each gray form turns slightly sideways and stalls, waiting, hoping to be the next target. 
At Cocos Island, 100 feet below the surface of the Pacific ocean, we are bearing witness to scalloped hammerhead sharks being cleaned by wrasses and butterfly fish, a scene that repeats itself endlessly, regardless of whether or not we are there. To see this, I have flown thousands of miles and endured a 36-hour boat crossing across rough Pacific waters. It has been a multi-year dream to SCUBA dive at Cocos Island, and I am finally here.
After a minute and a half, a stream of bubbles begins to leak out of my mouth. I try desperately to hold on for a few more seconds, but my body is screaming for oxygen, and I know that I shouldn’t be holding my breath, anyway. Each second of an encounter like this is incredible, beautiful – fleeting. Finally, air explodes out of my lungs, and the burst is whipped away from my face by the strong current. Instantly, the hammerhead sharks bolt, disappearing into the blue, leaving behind only an idea of what was there before, an imprint indelibly stamped into my brain – and captured by my underwater camera. We are not mean to be here. To survive, we must wear 50 lbs of life-support equipment, and even then, we are awkward and disruptive. My exhalation of air is like a bomb going off underwater. The sharks can simply return for their cleaning once we are gone.

I traveled to Cocos Island for the first time in July of 2007. Scuba divers and marine photographers think of Cocos as being one of the best remaining places in the world to see schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks. True to its reputation, the aggregation of hammerhead sharks I witnessed were magical. The low visibility in sub-tropical Pacific waters makes it hard to estimate the overall size of a school of sharks, but it was typical to see upwards of 50 sharks together at a time – a sight a modern diver might only get to see once in his or her lifetime.

My excitement was short lived. One of the divers on my vessel had been to Cocos over twenty years earlier, a time when schools of hammerhead sharks were commonplace in many destinations around the world.

“20 years ago, there were so many hammerheads on the surface that we were afraid to get in the water. We saw them from the boat; there were thousands of them on the surface. On the surface!”

There was nothing particularly notable about that brief conversation, but it caused an intense feeling of loss that is hard to explain. It was a feeling of loss for something I never even had the chance to see – something I couldn’t even imagine. 

Everything shifted, inside. A seed was planted within that would grow to the realization that, as someone blessed with the extreme fortune of traveling to the ends of the earth to take pictures of wildlife, it was not only my job, but also my responsibility to capture and share compelling images of the marine environment.

The Accidental Conservationist

I had no plans to become a conservationist, in any form, and the path that took me there was simultaneously serendipitous and inevitable. 

My parents came to the America in the early 1970s for graduate school. As was typical for students from Taiwan, their first stop was at a graduate school in a relatively small town; in our case, it was the great metropolis that is Madison, Wisconsin. I was born in graduate school apartments – quite fitting, given the overbearing focus on education that comes out of being the offspring of first-generation immigrants. My parents were the first in their respective families to have the opportunity to pursue higher education. 40 years of martial law and oppression in Taiwan created a fierce work ethic in its new youth, and fresh college graduates landed in the States, eager to pursue the American dream.

I grew up quite typically for the first generation of Taiwanese-Americans. When I was two years old, our family relocated to San Diego because my father had gotten a job there after finishing his PhD in nuclear engineering. During primary and secondary education, I did all of my homework every day, and then did the extra homework assigned to me by my parents. I played both the piano and the cello and spent weekends in the car, drowsy, as my father drove me 2.5 hours each way so I could take music lessons from a good teacher. My favorite subjects in high school were chemistry, and then physics, and coincidentally, I first wanted to be a chemical engineer, and then, a physicist. I thought, of course I’ll get a PhD, and of course I’ll be doing cutting-edge research as a scientist! Isn’t that what everybody does?

After high school, I was accepted into Stanford University and chose to major in computer science, all the while continuing in my musical studies as a cellist. I was learning a lot, and better yet, I was really appreciating the opportunities that I had been given. But I was on autopilot – albeit autopilot of the most privileged form – and it wasn’t until years later that I actually started to take control of my life.

Despite having grown up in San Diego, I didn’t discover the ocean until I was 19 years old. During a summer internship in San Diego, I decided to get certified as a SCUBA diver. My interest in the marine world grew, and I started raising tropical fish and corals in my dorm room, reading voraciously about the waste cycle and other basic marine biology. I also developed an addiction to wildlife documentaries on The Discovery Channel, which I watched nearly every night before going to bed.

After I finished my Masters degree in computer science, I found myself at a little software startup company, where I worked 80-100 hours a week. It was during the tail end of the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 90s, and aside from frequent breaks to play the cello, I lived and breathed everything tech, alongside a small group of peers. I spent so much time at work that my co-workers became like family. After two years, I began to feel like I was missing something. Everything was perfect: I was working with brilliant people and getting paid well, but I came to the realization that there was more to see in the world than what was in front of me. Another year went by, and I started to feel like I was simply trading time for money. Where would I be in 5 years? 10 years? 

Desperate for a change, I booked a trip to Africa and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it wasn’t enough. I quit my job and booked a flight to Palau, where I had heard the SCUBA diving was fantastic.

I had been interested in photography since I was a child, and during college, I started carrying my father’s old, manual Pentax SLR with me wherever I went. Taking pictures became a sort of habit, in that I took a lot of pictures of what was going on around me, but there was never any motivating factor to push me as an artist. On a whim, I decided that it might be fun to take some pictures underwater. I bought a plastic underwater housing and a strobe for my little point & shoot digital camera and packed it up for the trip to Palau. I came back with hundreds of mediocre pictures of fish and divers; the photos weren’t great, but I was hooked, and diving in Palau opened my eyes to the wonders and mystery of the underwater ecosystem. On one particularly memorable dive, our small group watched as a school of sailfin snappers swam by for 24 minutes straight. Upon surfacing, my dive guide, who had been leading diving trips in Palau for many years, exclaimed, “you will NEVER see anything like that again!” I doubt he was trying to be particularly prescient, but his words have echoing in my head since that day.

Soon after, I got involved with and re-launched Wetpixel.com, a website dedicated to what was then the tiny little niche market of digital underwater photography. At that time, Wetpixel’s audience was tiny, consisting only of a small, hard-core group of underwater photographers who didn’t care that digital photography wasn’t yet practical for the mainstream. Within a few years, digital photography did, in fact, become mainstream, and Wetpixel quickly became the most respected online community for underwater photographers. In addition to garnering the respect of those people interested in underwater photography and wildlife imagery, Wetpixel.com also became highly ranked in search engines like Google. Anything we wrote about could be instantly and easily discovered by anyone in the world.

At the same time, my personal website, ECHENG.COM, also became both popular and highly indexed by search engines. As of mid-2009, Wetpixel.com and ECHENG.COM reach about 140,000 unique visitors every month. In absolute terms, those numbers aren’t considered to be very big, but considering that the largest SCUBA diving magazine barely reaches over 200,000 people per month, my websites’ numbers start to look pretty good. The real value, however, became apparent after polling our users, which revealed that we reach a very specific demographic:  affluent, educated people with a passion for the ocean. They are people who go out of their way to be face to face with marine wildlife, and who are likely to take action when presented with environmental issues concerning the ocean. 

Although Wetpixel’s real focus is underwater photography and videography, I use the online platform as often as I can to expose readers to ocean conservation issues. Over the years, I’ve found that getting support for certain topics in ocean conservation can be very difficult. For example, try to get people to sign a petition in support of sharks. It takes a dozen small conservation organizations months and months to reach 10,000 signatures -- embarrassingly pathetic! Just about every other cause out there gets more support, in less time. But there are some victories. For example, we managed to get a unique habitat in Florida protected via a petition and letter-writing campaign, and each victory, no matter how small, matters. 

Our educated, focused readership is also the reason our discussion forum doesn’t degenerate into the sort of flame wars that plague every massively popular community website out there. We are a self-policing board, and for a tolerant community, we are justifiably intolerant of attacks and unfounded claims. This makes the community the perfect place to host discussions about current conservation issues; the vast majority of our participants are able to objectively evaluate conflicts from both sides. I firmly believe that educated discourse is a much more effective way to reach people than is one-sided propaganda, which has the unfortunate effect of only really reaching people who are already believers. Search engines index everything that is discussed or written, so all of it is freely available for the world to discover.

While I was running and maintaining Wetpixel.com, I also was maturing as a photographer. My position as owner of Wetpixel opened all sorts of doors for me, and I was soon on first-name bases with most of the prominent underwater image-makers around the world. The pursuit of underwater imagery is at once dying and thriving. I’m told that divers, as a group, are aging. There are fewer of us, and diving is seen as now being a geeky, equipment-centric hobby instead of being seen as a sport for sexy thrill-seekers. Despite dwindling numbers overall, the mainstream availability of inexpensive underwater housing for digital cameras has effectively created one new underwater photographer for every new diver! It is strange to see an industry both boom and die at the same time.

The huge surge in the number of amateur underwater photographers can only be good. A quick search for images containing the term, “underwater,” on the popular image-sharing community, Flickr, returns nearly 600,000 images, and a search for “scuba” returns nearly 500,000 – and these are only the images that have explicitly been tagged or captioned as such. Our community alone has posted over 20,000 images on Wetpixel.com, and when our members’ personal websites are factored in, the number grows quickly. Each image posted online is viewed by many more people and is an opportunity to show yet another person why the ocean needs to be protected. It is an unfortunate thing that humans only want to protect whales, dolphins, and turtles – the so-called “charismatic mega-fauna” of the oceans. But show enough photos of nudibranchs to someone, and she may start to care about little slugs.

Part of my income is earned from the selling of my own underwater photos. Although I do accept money for the licensing of my photos, I spend a large amount of resources donating imagery and time to conservation groups. It is a frustrating situation, however, because once you become known as a photographer who is friendly to NGOs, the never-ending cascade of requests for free work begins. Some of my photographer friends react violently to such requests, lashing out about the unfairness of life, but I’ve managed to figure out how to deal with these requests by simply choosing a few NGOs to be friendly with, and politely declining other requests until I have time to properly evaluate their legitimacy. Personally, I favor lean organizations that know how to target the right audience. For example, in the fight to stop the wholesale slaughter of sharks for shark-fin soup, is it worth spending resources on organizations whose campaigns target white westerners? Probably not. I also really like organizations dedicated to making change via education. Educating the next generation of conservationists is the only viable long-term solution for turning around the destruction of the ocean and wild habitats. If I know that an image of mine has the potential to change even one person’s actions concerning the use of resources from the ocean, I will want to participate. Unfortunately, no one person has unlimited resources nor time, so I have to make choices.

There is tremendous irony in the current situation concerning our ability to properly document life in the ocean. With the mass adoption of digital photography, underwater imaging technology is improving exponentially over time. We have finally reached a moment in which we can capture very compelling footage of marine life: we can capture it in extreme high resolution, in 3-D, and in slow motion, but we have very nearly missed our chance to do so.

I mentioned earlier that this small – and relatively new – industry has enabled me to quickly befriend many of its pioneers. I’ve been lucky to have spent time with some of the people who were the first to do certain things, like document specific animals, behaviors, and locales. Each and every one of them speaks of the past with noticeable nostalgia, and whether it manifests itself as excitement or depression, it is as obvious as could be. 

In a truly unfortunate defect in human beings, each generation can only measure the current state of things against their own direct experience. This is a term known as “shifting baselines”, and was appropriately coined by a scientist within the context of fisheries management. Just as I can’t imagine a scenario in which thousands of scalloped hammerhead sharks swim at the surface of the ocean, my children will probably not be able to imagine a scenario in which any large marine mammal – or indeed, any large animal at all – is seen in aggregation. They will say things like, “My daddy used to swim with HUNDREDS of sharks!” – and to everyone in the new generation, it will seem like exaggeration or fabrication.
 
One issue that I am particularly passionate about is the fight against the killing of sharks for their fins. Reputable conservation groups estimate that, despite warnings about high mercury content, between 26 million and 73 million sharks are killed each year to satisfy the growing demand by Chinese people (and people in related cultures) for shark fin soup. Anyone reading this book probably already knows that shark “finning”, the method in which the vast majority of sharks are killed, involves removing a shark’s fins at sea and discarding the rest of the animal, which is left to die a slow death over time. Although it is illegal in many countries to take a shark’s fins without keeping the entire animal, global enforcement in ports and on the high seas is severely lacking. This has led to what is estimated to be a billion-dollar black market for fins. Shark fins are worth so much that the odds against those of us who fight for sharks are overwhelmingly unfavorable.

All you have to do to see how hard this fight will be is to visit Hong Kong, Taiwan or China. These cultures (my culture) revolves around food, and just not food that fits into a Western concept of food, in which the sight of an unfavorable animal part (e.g. head, eyes, feet, intestine, blood, etc.) invokes extreme disgust. In Chinese cultures, people eat every part of everything. The rarer the animal, the more it is worth. My Taiwanese heritage used to embarrass me. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine being from a culture with such a wasteful attitude about sharks and other animals! Since then, I’ve realized that all cultures are destructive and wasteful, and that conservation inherently involves selective hypocrisy. For every action, there is some sort of destructive effect, and you’re pissing someone off who is on the other side of some arbitrary line they’ve drawn in the sand. We simply have to choose the battles we want to fight.

Regarding trying to convince my Taiwanese family and friends to be responsible about food: I’ve been nice, I’ve been nasty, I’ve threatened friends with wedding boycotts (which I would seriously have carried out, had shark fin soup been served), and I’ve met with politicians in Taiwan (a dinner at which shark fin soup was served -- unbelievable!!). Mostly, I’ve been happily surprised. No member of my family will eat shark fin soup, and I’m extremely proud of my mother, who is vocal to her friends about how terrible shark finning is. Also, when presented with the facts, the younger generation seems to be extremely receptive to such messages. This, for me, is a little seed of hope. Education is going to be one of the most important factors in the future of sharks and other marine life, and no amount of legislation is going to make a difference if there continues to be growing demand for shark fins.

There are dozens of shark conservation organizations out there, and I spend a lot of time helping the ones I am friendly with. But mostly, I try to stay out of the way, because what the majority of shark conservation organizations do best is fight with each other. True, there are gems out there who seem to be effective in their spheres of expertise, but there seems to be no way to dodge the hatred that pours out of shark conservationists, even though everyone is on the same side. Did you feed a shark to take a picture of it? Did you tread on a shark scientist’s territory? Did you make friends with the wrong tour operator? At the risk of sensationalizing sharks (the norm in mainstream media), I’ve decided to use my pictures to make a difference. I don’t need an organization behind me to get a beautiful photograph of a shark out there in front of people, and I’ve seen the inspirational effect certain photos have on kids. Personally, sharing inspiring imagery has trumped all of the clashes between organizations, and from my point of view, has put me at peace with them.

When I think about all the wonderful undersea experiences I’ve had, I feel fortunate. I travel often literally half way around the world, to Indonesia, to Papua New Guinea, to the Solomon Islands, to see some of the lushest coral reefs in the world. The kaleidoscope of colors, textures, and movement always brings a huge smile to my face, but when I stop to think about things more, I wonder – where were all of the big fish? How did I do 120 dives over 40 days and not see even a single large grouper or shark? We should be feeling frantic desperation when we surface from such dives, but instead, everyone – including me – gushes at how amazing the scenery was. But I am grateful that experiencing wildlife in person inspires me and makes me gush about it. Without that gut response, where would the inspiration be, as a wildlife photographer? I’ve come to terms with the juxtaposition by trying to use my imagery to open dialogs about ocean’s current state of collapse.  Every time someone is interested in a particular photograph, I first share in the excitement before trying to get in a message about ocean conservation. There is a delicate balance; after all, no one wants to be accosted only with stories of death and destruction, and the normal reaction when confronted with such imagery seems to be to protect oneself by shutting down. 

Looking back, I have to say that it was a long, serendipitous path that made me into someone that might be labeled a “conservationist.” Most definitely, I have only just embarked upon the greater path of living responsibly and trying to make a difference. I struggle daily with the choice between optimism and cynicism, but I have to admit that I am mostly cynical these days. None of the old-timers I know are optimistic, either, but most of them seem to have successfully channeled their cynicism into a general sense of urgency about documenting what is left before humanity wipes all of it out.