Eye to eye with elkhorn corals and tiger sharks
© Zach Ransom
SECORE: Zach, we have known your underwater images long before we met you in person for the first time during coral spawning in August. What made you decide to come to Curaçao and support our coral reef research and restoration work there directly?
Zach Ransom: I have been a fervent admirer of SECORE’s mission for years and always wanted to become more involved. Recently, Frost Science has become a SECORE restoration partner, which really opened the door for me to contribute in some small way to the incredible work being done by SECORE across the globe. About six months ago, one of my closest friends and Assistant Curator at Virginia Aquarium, Evan Culbertson, mentioned that there may be some potential for me to join the team in August for the spawning of elkhorn and staghorn corals, so I jumped at the opportunity and thankfully all of the pieces fell into place.
And you brought your cameras, as the various pictures show. Talking from your experience: Can photos change the way people relate to the ocean and coral reefs in particular?
We live in a society that is ever increasingly characterized by instant gratification, leaving little desire in the mainstream to grasp the nuance of complicated issues like climate change and its universal effect on the biosphere. Imagery is the universal language, able to convey these ideas in the most compelling way possible, not necessarily through intellectual means, but rather emotional connection. Reading a journal article about the decline of grazing fish populations on a given reef, and the associated proliferation of algae for example, while essential, may not strike a chord with the average person. However, seeing a historical image of a healthy, thriving reef, next to one of the same reef as a barren field of algae, may elicit a stronger emotive reaction. Aside from that, coral reefs are such a foreign and exotic idea for most people. I feel that the more we can illuminate the importance and beauty of these special places through imagery, the more likely people are to want to save them.
Elkhorn corals growing on reefs in Curaçao. (Zach Ransom)
What do you love about corals?
That is a difficult question… So much to consider, where to begin?! If I had to choose one, I’ve always been fascinated by the coral animal. At first glance, it is a relatively simple creature, but upon closer inspection corals are remarkably complex. Scientists are rapidly shedding light on the secret lives of corals, but we still have so much to learn about these mysterious animals. Seeing elkhorn and staghorn corals spawn for the first time gave me chills. Observing a phenomenon that has secretly and silently occurred under the cover of darkness for millions of years was a profound experience.
The various photos on your Instagram account show that the SECORE fieldwork has not been your first expedition. When did you start supporting ocean conservation by helping in the field and why?
I moved to South Florida in 2015, which is when I really became more of an active participant in conservation programs, particularly those associated with reef restoration. Ten to twelve years ago when I lived in the Midwest, I would make multiple dive trips per year to the Florida Keys, even revisiting particular corals consistently to see how much they have grown or changed. The keys were a special place for me, many of my formative memories of the ocean’s beauty took place on Molasses Reef in Key Largo. Even then the reef was quite degraded but still spectacular. When I dive many of the same sites today, the reef is almost unrecognizable to me. Most of the corals I used to know are long gone. Having witnessed this decline in such a brief period of time, I try to do whatever I can to assist organizations that are working every day to give coral reefs as we know them a fighting chance.
© Zach Ransom
Shooting the amazing underwater world is not the only way you are contributing to ocean conservation. You are also an aquarist, assisting with the practical details of coral restoration. What do you do when you are not joining a coral reef expedition?
In my current position as Curator of Animal Husbandry at Frost Science, I’m responsible for the health and well-being of our living collection of plants and animals, which also includes managing a dedicated team of biologists and technicians, as well as ensuring the smooth operation of our aquarium life support systems. No two days are ever alike and thinking outside of the box to solve unique problems is a necessity. I am fortunate to have had a fairly diverse career spanning several different institutions, much of that experience was focused on husbandry and propagation of corals in aquaria. I have been able to design and build many live coral systems, large and small, but I still learn something new from each one.
Did your reef restoration fieldwork on Curaçao inspire any new project or exhibit ideas for Frost Science?
Aside from broadening my own personal and professional horizons, I do feel that SECORE’s public aquarium partnerships are a vital tool to help inform millions of aquarium visitors around the country about the state of coral reefs, in conjunction with the incredible innovations that SECORE is developing to affect positive change. I think an exhibit highlighting the form and function of tetrapods in reef restoration is a natural fit that aquarium visitors will appreciate. I don’t yet have definitive plans for a new exhibit, but the wheels are certainly turning in my head!
© Zach Ransom
You have been diving and shooting underwater during day and night. Which time of the day is your favorite one to explore coral reefs?
As a photographer, I almost always prefer to dive when the sun is setting. The magic hour! The difference between a mediocre photo and an award-winning one is often merely a case of capturing interesting light, natural or artificial. Diving on a reef when the sun is setting changes the entire experience. The diffuse sunlight turns the surface water gold, the shadows become long and things seem to slow down as the reef inhabitants change shifts for the evening. Occasionally I elect to put down the camera and just enjoy the moment.
A decision each ocean lover can relate too. Thank you very much for this chat and we are looking forward to sharing more of your images in the future.
© Zach Ransom