Under the Sea: Precious ecosystems depicted in La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium at Scripps photography exhibit
By David L. Coddon
Octavio Aburto is a storyteller, and the stories he tells with underwater photography will likely take your breath away.
Picture a cluster of newly hatched infant crocodiles. Or a school of fish swimming together in the shape of a tornado funnel. Or a harbor seal staring right at Aburto’s camera in a photo titled “Peek-a-Boo.” One of the most dramatic images in the exhibition “Mexican Seas/Mares Mexicanos,” now open at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, is actually one above the surface: a magnificent devil ray leaping out of the water during its courtship ritual.
The 41-year-old Aburto is assistant professor of marine ecology at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
His exploration of the biodiversity in four areas of Mexican waters, funded largely by private founda- tions in Mexico, is documented in the digital images on exhibition at the aquarium. The goal: to emphasize the importance of conservation underwater, not only in Mexico but everywhere, including U.S. waters.
“We are trying to communicate the science beyond the academic sector,” he said, “and we want to disseminate the results to the general public.”
Aburto says protection measures enacted in Mexico should be a model for policy on a global scale. “I don’t understand why we don’t appreciate (the importance) of protecting nature and ecosystems,” he said, sounding a note of frustration. But at the same time, he is quick to point out that the conservation efforts in Mexico are hopeful developments, and that those stories he tells with his pictures are stories of hope.
Further, Aburto says his research has shown him that conservation is good, not only for the ecosystem, but for the economics of the communities around them, such as Cabo Pulmo, which will benefit from more tourists attracted to visit its reefs and more efficient fishing (as opposed to “overfishing”) outside the conservation area.
“These communities have realized,” Aburto concludes, “that protecting resources provides a healthy environment and produces economic benefits.”
Similarly, on San Benito Island, the people in that area formed a cooperative that protected the ecosystem from fishing, except for lucrative harvests of abalone and lobster.
“Most of the time,” said Aburto, “we in the States believe that communities down there (in Mexico) are overfishing and destroying everything. When you go to these communities, you find they are the only ones in the world who are trying to protect nature.”
The photographs in the aquarium exhibition represent at least five years of underwater research, which Aburto undertook using a Nikon digital camera and a Canadian-made Aquatica digital housing. While at times he worked at depths of up to 90 feet, at others he was in relatively shallow waters, as when encountering the crocodiles that are such an imposing, albeit fascinating, subject in this visual exhibition.
Aburto made the crocs photography stars to accomplish more than to amaze, however. “They are an important part of coastal lagoons and estuaries,” he said. Because of protection measures in Mexico, its waters boast a vast “genetically pure” population of American crocodiles.
Taking their pictures was an exercise in patience — he sometimes had to wait as long as 10 days for an “encounter.” But as to his proximity to sharp croc teeth, “If you are calm, they won’t attack you. They are looking for food,” but not of the human variety.
The crocodile photos may attract the most attention from aquarium visitors, but Aburto is most proud of the “tornado” of fish photograph, where he said everything came together “perfectly.”
“Having a picture that stands out requires thinking,” he said. “Also luck and hard work.”
“Mares/Mexicanos” is important to Aburto on both a personal and an educational level.
“What I’m proud of is the way I can tell stories with these images, stories that people understand and that will start them thinking about the big picture … and also to be inspired to do the same thing here (in the U.S.). These stories will open discussions.”
• IF YOU GO:
“Mexican Seas/ Mares Mexicanos” is on exhibit at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, and included with admission.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
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