Stormy Waters: National Geographic’s David Doubilet, Part I

This is the fifth in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. David Doubilet, an acclaimed underwater photographer for National Geographic, has spent decades photographing underwater images and has seen firsthand how…

This page was published 12 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

This is the fifth in a series of Q and As on Earthjustice’s oceans work, which works to prevent habitat loss and overfishing, as well as reduce the impacts of climate change on the ocean. David Doubilet, an acclaimed underwater photographer for National Geographic, has spent decades photographing underwater images and has seen firsthand how ocean stressors have negatively impacted the aquatic environment he loves. Check out to learn more about our oceans work. 

Jessica Knoblauch: What made you first want to document the underwater world?
David Doubilet: I began to go underwater not very far away from where I live now in a small lake in the Adirondack Mountains. I was at summer camp. I was a terrible camper. I hated the horse; I hated the mountains; I didn’t like to hike. And the counselor said, “Why don’t you try this mask and go underwater? Put your head underwater and look under the dock.” I put on a French blue rubber mask, I put my head underwater, and everything that I knew about in life completely changed. Here was an entire world completely different than the world we live in. It was mind-altering, even for an eight year old, and I knew this was the direction that I wanted to go in.
There’s a certain amount of hypnotic quality to being underwater. You’re in a world that’s weightless. You’re in a world of blues and greens. And what you see underwater is most of the life on the planet. You have to think of this planet as a water planet, not as a land planet. So Earthjustice may have to change its name in some ways to OceanJustice to really cover our planet as best as possible. It really is the heart and soul of what life is. In this very, very empty, very, very dark universe, here’s this one tiny orb that glows blue. And the color of life as we know it is blue.

JK: You’ve been taking underwater pictures since the 1970s. What kinds of changes have you seen over the years?
DD: There’s been a lot of sweeping changes. Let’s take the Caribbean where a lot of the sea urchins and almost all of the elkhorn coral, these great brown corals, have disappeared. But most of the changes are in the number of fish. In the Caribbean, you go onto an average Caribbean reef and you don’t see the big sweeping schools of grunts and snappers and all of the things that used to course over a reef top. They’re mostly gone, overfished and fished out.
JK: What about climate change? How has that impacted the ocean?
DD: It’s very hard to photograph climate change on a coral reef, but that is the other front line of where the climate is changing. It’s not just the disappearing polar bears and the fact that we now have rain on the Antarctic Peninsula. There’s a much more insidious situation that’s going on right now within the ocean because of climate change and, more specifically, the enormous amount of CO2 that we’re putting into the atmosphere, which is absorbed into the sea. And this packing of CO2 into the ocean has basically re-arranged and changed the chemistry of the ocean.
Now how this affects the coral reefs is that all corals develop a calcium-carbonate house, a little tiny house that they live in. A coral reef is basically a biological action that produces a geological fact, and it’s all done by a creature smaller than an infant’s fingernail, the coral polyp. As the coral polyp goes to work, it builds this wonderful calcium carbonate house and then dies, and then the next coral polyp builds another house on top of it. So you have these massive unbelievable cities in the warm belt of the sea, stretching from the heart of all coral density and biodiversity, which is in Indonesia, all the way across the Pacific, all the way across the Indian Ocean, up into the Red Sea and into the Caribbean, like a great warm belt of water all populated by these little coral polyps.
Ocean acidification inhibits the ability for the coral polyp to build these calcium carbonate houses. According to Dr. J. E. N. Veron,— one of the leading coral experts in the world—the Great Barrier Reef within 30 years will begin to change considerably from climate change and by the end of this century it will be gone as we know it. That’s a hell of a prediction. Because of the way we’re living on this planet, we’re looking at the changing of the entire environment.
JK: You’ve been spreading awareness about the state of the ocean for some time now. What do you consider yourself as first, an activist or a photographic journalist?
DD: Well, lines are very blurred these days between being a simple photographer and an activist. I think primarily the job of the photographer is to make images that are compelling. Before you protect anything, you have to know exactly what is there to protect. If you look at why we have, for instance, Yosemite Park, it’s in many cases because of the ability of Ansel Adams’ pictures to communicate the absolute beauty of this place. His pictures have very, very long legs in terms of the aesthetics and strength. And that’s what a photographer’s job is to make an image that turns people around. But if you go into a situation and say, “I have to make these pictures because I have to illustrate the importance of this place and protect it,” you may be limiting yourself to how you see something.
We need two types of pictures. We need the picture of the smoking fish and we need the picture of the fish itself. Both of them work to change people’s attitudes. The biggest problem in photography and in the way we approach everything is that we end up convincing the convinced. The hardest job is to convince the unconvinced.
JK: What effect do you hope that your underwater photography will have on people’s perceptions of the marine environment?
DD: Hopefully if people look at the images that I make underwater, they will look at this place in an entirely different light. They will say, “Wait a minute. This is an extraordinary part of our planet.” The coral reef is a tapestry of biodiversity. It’s more like a Jackson Pollack painting of life. It’s a jewel on our planet, and it’s going to be gone.
I wish it weren’t true. It’s like a Damoclean sword hanging over all of our heads. For a lifetime that I spent photographing underwater I’ve always imagined that there’s going to be something more, something astounding in the future of generations to come. Now I’m afraid that a lot of the images that I’ve made underwater are going to be documents of a time passed. That’s a frightening thought.
JK: Do you have hope that humans will decide to protect the ocean before it’s too late?
DD: The idea of what is beneath the very surface of the seas is an idea that’s only about 60 years old. We have just begun to look into the ocean and my realization is that we, as humans, have acted in a normal human way that we do. We are conquistadors. As we discover, we destroy. It’s a very sad fact, but if you turn this around at least we have a place now that we just found out about that maybe, just may be worth the justice that humans can sometimes bring to a place. We can preserve.

Jessica is a former award-winning journalist. She enjoys wild places and dispensing justice, so she considers her job here to be a pretty amazing fit.