Conservation

A change of scene

Words and photographs by Tanya Houppermans

We all need somewhere to go to where we can feel unencumbered, and immersing myself in nature, particularly the water, is where I find my peace.

From a career as a mathematician and military defence analyst to one as an underwater photographer and shark conservationist, Tanya Houppermans is a force to be reckoned with. She’s on the Ocean First Institute board of advisors, an Isotta Housings ambassador and the recipient of numerous awards for her photography, including Underwater Photographer of the Year 2018 (portrait category). We go behind the lens to find out more about her world beneath the waves.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): You’ve moved from mathematics and military defence analysis to skydiving and underwater photography. Do these worlds collide?

Tanya Houppermans (TH): I’ve always been very analytical and focused, and I think these traits are something I use regularly in all of these endeavours. Being a mathematician and working in military defence requires a great deal of analysis, but so do skydiving and underwater photography. Underwater photography is where I get to combine the analysis and focus with art, and I love using both sides of my brain at the same time to do that. When I’m photographing sharks, I am intently focused on everything going on while in the water such as the sharks’ behaviour, the conditions, the dive plan, my equipment, etc. But I am also analysing those things that will make a compelling image, such as what the light is doing, what angles might work best, what camera settings I should use, what power and position I should set my strobes at, and possible image compositions. It’s all very challenging, but so incredibly rewarding when everything comes together.

OM: What does it mean to you to be able to immerse yourself in the natural world?

TH: Forming a connection with the natural world tends to motivate people to want to protect it, and of course this is vitally important. For me, there is also a very personal reason to immerse myself in nature – it’s where I find my happiness. Whether I am inside of a shipwreck off of North Carolina surrounded by sand tiger sharks, face to face with a crocodile in the mangroves of Cuba, or slowly drifting through kelp beds off the coast of Scotland with a bluefire jellyfish, I am happy. I am in my element. I am focused on that moment, and all of the anxieties I otherwise have on a daily basis are out of my thoughts. We all need somewhere to go to where we can feel unencumbered, and immersing myself in nature, particularly the water, is where I find my peace.

OM: How is the world of adaptive scuba diving for those with disabilities changing?

TH: Adaptive scuba diving has been life changing for people with special needs like my son Richard, who has autism. Richard is 22 now, and he was certified as an Open Water diver through the Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) when he was 17. He absolutely loves to dive, and my husband Scott and I have taken him diving in Bonaire, Florida, North Carolina, and Mexico. I’m so glad that Richard and others with disabilities have these opportunities now through organisations like HSA and Diveheart. Not too long ago it would have been unheard of for someone with a disability to become a diver. But attitudes are changing, and instead of thinking that someone can’t be a diver, the approach now is to ask what can be done to accommodate each person’s unique situation while allowing them to explore the underwater world as safely as possible. For some, it’s simply a matter of minor gear modifications. For others, it might mean multiple support divers in a more controlled environment. Unfortunately, sometimes there are challenges that are simply too severe to overcome to allow a person to dive safely. But at least now most people who are interested in becoming divers, regardless of their individual circumstances, are provided the opportunity to try.

Tanya Houppermans spade fish
Tanya Houppermans sand tiger sharks
Tanya Houppermans Kittiwake Horse Eye Jacks Grand Cayman

OM: What came first, photography or shark conservation?

TH: I became involved in shark conservation before I ever knew I was going to pick up a camera. I was horrified when I found out about shark finning, and how so many shark species are on the verge of extinction. For a couple years I did what I could, whether it was supporting shark conservation organisations, writing letters to lawmakers, and even running a marathon to raise money for shark conservation efforts. But I still felt like I could do more. So I decided to take pictures of sharks to hopefully inspire the public to care about them more. The only problem was that I didn’t know anything about photography when I bought my camera in 2014. I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. I took my first shark picture in September 2014, and everything progressed quite rapidly after that, although there was a lot of hard work I was putting in to become the kind of photographer I wanted to be. In the summer of 2015, I left my office job behind to concentrate full time on underwater photography and conservation. And since then, the goal of my photography has always been the same – to motivate people to care for and want to protect the animals and environments I photograph.

OM: What is it about sharks that you find so enchanting?

TH: There are so many things I find enchanting about sharks, but most of all, quite simply, I think they are strikingly beautiful. That might be a word most people don’t associate with sharks, but when you watch them gracefully and effortlessly glide through the water with their glistening skin and piercing cat-like eyes, and I don’t know how it’s possible to not think these animals have an inherent beauty. I am also struck by the dichotomy of how robust and powerful sharks look, yet in reality they are incredibly fragile. With tens of millions of sharks being killed by humans every year, this poor creature doesn’t stand a chance unless we change our attitudes and value them for their critical role in the marine ecosystem as apex predators. I feel very protective of sharks, which motivates me to do whatever I can to save them.

OM: Do you think attitudes towards, and fear of sharks is dissipating?

TH: I do think that the public’s perception of sharks is changing for the better, but we still have such a long way to go. It’s a constant struggle to have to dispel all of the misconceptions often propagated by the media about sharks. For instance, when I speak in public, my audience is usually surprised to hear just how few people are killed by sharks every year worldwide (the average number being six fatalities). While each of those is a terrible tragedy, it really puts things in perspective when I tell them that humans kill over 70 million sharks every year. There have been many times where I actually seen the facial expressions in the audience change to that of compassion and sympathy for sharks. And once someone forms that emotional connection, they usually want to know what they can do to help.

Tanya Houppermans american crocodile
Tanya Houppermans sand tiger sharks
Tanya Houppermans lemon sharks

OM: You’ve mentioned previously an occasion where a shark was hooked by a fisherman, but instead of letter her go, he stabbed her and threw her into the sea. Do you find it like quite hard to speak to people who knowingly harm the creatures you love?

TH: It can be very difficult to speak with people who knowingly harm sharks and any other creature I love. But beginning that dialogue is critical, as is the way it’s done. It does no good to start yelling, name-calling or accusing people. If someone approaches you like that, what is the first thing that happens? Typically, your defences go up, and any chance of a meaningful dialogue at that point is usually hopeless. So I start by listening to their point of view, and acknowledging that I understand what they’re telling me. Then I provide facts to convey my point of view. For instance, if I see someone kill a shark, absolutely nothing will be accomplished if I start screaming at them. But if I speak with them about why I care about sharks, and just how many sharks are being killed, and why it’s so critical to the our oceans to have healthy shark populations, at least I can provide them with some information to think about. Maybe this will eventually lead to a change in their attitude toward sharks, and maybe it won’t. But nothing positive can happen unless you are able to begin that meaningful dialogue.

OM: How can your work advocate for sharks?

TH: Sharks can’t speak for themselves, but I can be their voice through my images. And their stories are fascinating! I have images showing just how social and curious sharks can be. I have others showing how beautiful sharks are, as well as the beauty of the environment they live in. Sadly, I have pictures of sick, injured, and dying sharks, many of them ending up that way due to mistreatment from humans. I have photos of adorable juvenile sharks, pregnant females, and large males. There are so many facets to the life of a shark, and when people look at my photos I hope they see sharks in a new light and perhaps have some of their misconceptions about sharks dispelled.

OM: Why do you think community is important in terms of ocean conservation?

TH: Community is critical in terms of ocean conservation. I do believe that one person can make a difference, or else I would still be sitting behind a desk at my former office job. But collectively we can do so much more. There are many amazing organisations out there dedicated to ocean conservation. Being around others who share your passion instils that sense of community, which is a very powerful force for change in the world.

OM: You’re known by many for your extraordinary photo series of sand tiger sharks. How are you getting involved with their protection?

TH: Right now I am most excited about the projects I am involved with that combine three things I’m passionate about – sharks, science, and photography. One of those is Spot A Shark USA, a citizen science program I helped to develop with the North Carolina Aquariums and their research partners to study the health of sand tiger sharks along the east coast of the United States. Most sand tiger sharks have a unique spot pattern on their skin, and we can use these patterns to identify individual sharks. Anyone who photographs sand tiger sharks during their dive can upload it to the Spot A Shark USA website and we can then match it to a shark already in the database or log it as a new individual. We have already made breakthroughs in our understanding of sand tiger sharks by showing that some females are returning to the same shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, sometimes up to a few years apart (these findings were published in the journal Ecology earlier this year). This winter I have been invited to join a research team from the University of Miami to document their research on tiger sharks in the Bahamas. While I have dived with tiger sharks in the Bahamas several times, this will be my first scientific trip. To get to dive, photograph sharks, assist with scientific research, and contribute to shark conservation all at the same time is really a dream come true.

Discover more about Tanya’s work with tiger sharks in Issue 08 of Oceanographic. Her feature, ‘Understanding North Carolina’s sand tigers’, looks into the recovering population along the east coast of the US.

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