As we Weave through the Forest

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Essay and Photographs by Joanna Smart

– Winner, OG Emerging Photo Journalist Award - Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year competition 2020

I WAS IN AWE. I hadn’t seen a kelp canopy like this in more than 15 years. I admired the healthy fronds, drifting in the gentle swell like golden threads and lamented the loss of the kelp forests that used to scatter the coastline of my home, Tasmania.

As I weave my way through the kelp off Anacapa Island in California, I watch my buddy disappear in and out of the thick fronds, like a bird, soaring gently through the treetops. The forest towered above me. Splinters of light pierced through the canopy and I was transported back to my childhood, where I would swim amongst a kelp canopy, watching the activity of the reef unfold.

I was in awe. I hadn’t seen a kelp canopy like this in more than 15 years. I admired the healthy fronds, drifting in the gentle swell like golden threads and lamented the loss of the kelp forests that used to scatter the coastline of my home, Tasmania. These have been lost to climate change. More than 90% of the kelp that previously covered the coastline has been lost since I was a child, and I couldn’t help but wonder; would we ever see such forests again?

I continued to swim along, admiring my surroundings, the experience bittersweet as I realised what we were missing on the Tasmanian coast. However, before I could sink too deep into my sorrows, I felt a sharp rapid tug on my fin. Spinning around as quickly as I could, I scanned to forest for the culprit. There was no one in sight. Maybe I was imagining things.

Turning back to follow my buddy, a dark shape darted past in the kelp, just out of view. It was large and moving with an agility that let me know it wasn’t another diver. Somewhat spooked I obtained my buddy’s attention and signalled; there’s something out there. Side by side, we looked out into the forest. It was then he decided to show himself.

A harbour seal, with large gazing eyes and a tubby, plump figure stared back at us from within the kelp. It’s enormous cartoon-like eyes and notable lack of neck was undeniably cute. He stared at us for a moment more, before darting forward.

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Swimming gently up to me, he grabbed onto my arm with his flippers. I nearly recoiled in shock from this surprisingly human gesture. As I regained my composure, I looked up to find him staring at me, eyes filled with curiosity.

At that moment I found myself wanting to ask, what was he thinking? Did he know what I was? Why I was there? Or was this simply a case of mistaken identity, where primitive curiosity leads her to examine this new object in his environment, determine whether it be friend or foe before returning to the most basic needs of food and reproduction.

My conceited human-centric mind would like to think the former is true. I wish I could say he knew what I was, and found me fascinating as I found him, but that may simply not be the situation. The minds of animals have eluded us for centuries. Anthropomorphism is the natural human response to anything that exhibits even slight human characteristics, but it’s not always accurate. The study of animal minds is an area of science still in its infancy. We simply don’t know.

As our dive continued, our new seal friend did not leave us alone. He continued to swim laps around me, teasing me with his easy agility. He darted in and out of the kelp with ease, appearing above our heads, tugging on our fins and nosing my camera. Overall, he stayed with us for an hour and a half, touching us, nosing us and examining his new companions.

I was overjoyed at this interaction, snapping photos as fast as my camera would allow. These were going to make powerful communication photos, I thought, to help educate about the importance of kelp forests. His large, friendly eyes would resonate with people as they stare out of the frame.

But as I swam around, the light passing through the kelp like a golden sunset, I looked at all the other creatures; the sea stars littered across the bottom, the garibaldi glowing like hot coals and the sheep-head wrasse, battling for territory. I wondered, why do we give this seal more value than the urchin I just swam past? or the giant kelp swaying in the current, that is the literal keystone of this entire environment?

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Why do we scream bloody murder when a whale hunt occurs but happily ignore a thousand trawlers taking tuna from the sea? How come we can’t bear to see images of a beached dolphin, and scorn those who eat whale meat for dinner but happily munch down on a random, unidentified white fish inside of our fish taco?

Why does an image on a turtle choking on plastic evoke public outcry, but we can ignore large scale disappearances of these incredible seaweed kingdoms?

These animals, such as the seal, are ‘charismatic megafauna’. In them, we see something of ourselves. Some resemblance of shared understanding, emotion and personality, and therefore we share some empathy.

We must save them, we cry, these animals that are like us. We must stop the hunts, ban the fishing and cancel the slaughter. But how can we save them, if we don’t care for their homes?

It’s not just my new seal friend we need to look out for, it’s the kelp. Whilst our motivations might be driven by these larger animals, it’s their habitats we need to care about. It’s the fish she eats, the kelp she hides in and the rocks she rests on that deserve our attention.

Seaweed will never be glamorous. It’s cold, wet, dark and slimy. It doesn’t have the jewelled glamour of a coral reef, glistening in the tropical sunshine, but it is just as important.

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