On Manta Beach, Ecuador, photographer Sean Heinrich took out his camera to photograph the horrific scene on the beach. This town used to be a thriving community that made its living from tuna fishing. But the giant commercial industry has overfished these waters in recent years to the point that many local fishermen have turned to the malicious shark fin trade for an income. Now, men drag piles of dead sharks from boats on the sand, where machetes men chop their fins like butter, coloring the waves with ominous blood and destruction: every year, estimated 100 million sharks They are killed for their fins, pushing them to the brink of extinction and throwing entire ocean ecosystems out of balance.
Heinrich’s goal was to capture the harrowing images needed to spur international protection for these animals. Close to carnage. Until a man turned and threw a machete over his neck, and shouted at him in Spanish.
Heinrich manages to talk his way out of his throat, but for the next 24 hours in Manta, she takes cover from the bullets under a hotel room bed and fends off gang members with a single base camera – all in the service of photos that helped convince the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has listed thresher and mako sharks for protection under the global treaty.
Heinrich, an Emmy-winning cinematographer based in Boulder, Colorado, admits that much of his work involves swimming in the wonderful waters photographing whales and manta rays. But part of it involves risking his life, going undercover to the global front lines of illegal wildlife trafficking, pollution and habitat destruction, hunted by mafias and taking his life away – all in the service of a photoshoot that motivates people to protect the ocean’s most vulnerable species and habitats.
“Even though every second we breathe comes from the oceans, even though they provide us with a lot of food, most of us don’t see or feel the direct effects of the collapse of ocean ecosystems,” he says. “Photos and cinematography create this deep connection to people. 90 percent show these creatures to be beautiful and vulnerable, and 10 percent are gut punch that shows the extent of the devastation.”
Conserve the oceans through the lens
Instead of scythes in the throat, Heinrich, 49, could be enjoying an enormous fortune from his career as a tech entrepreneur right now. But more than a decade ago, spurred on by the growing threats to ocean ecosystems, he walked away from the luxurious future and picked up a camera instead. In a short time and without formal training, he became one of the leading photographers using images to advocate for ocean conservation.
“I was the unwelcome person to go do the work I do now. But I didn’t want to feel helpless in the face of a crumbling natural world.” “My story can inspire others who feel powerless to do something really important in their lives.”
Thanks in part to Heinrichs’ work, CITES has expanded the list of marine animals under protection from whale sharks and great whites to dozens of species. as one of the founders sea legacy, who uses art as a tool to stop ocean destruction, Heinrich is currently working to expand the Galapagos Marine Protected Area to isolate it from aggressive commercial fishing, while his SeaLegacy teammates are helping the Bahamas implement its plan to protect 30 percent of its oceans by 2030.
“In the next decade, we will decide the future of our planet,” he says. “Either we turn a blind eye and hope someone else will take care of it, and lose everything. Or we will protect our life support system, and make wise decisions about what we consume, and what we dispose of. It is up to everyone to make the decision.”
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