Protecting pinnipeds

interview with and photographs by Celia Kujala

“I wanted to start a project to help all seals that impacted by humans.”

In the years since Celia Kujala first discovered her passion for underwater photography, she has won numerous awards, was a finalist in the 2020 Ocean Photography Awards, and has been made a member of The Explorers Club as well as the Ocean Artists Society. But when it comes to her subjects, Kujala is far from unbiased. With her project Seal Peace, she hopes to use photography as a catalyst for better protection and understanding of pinnipeds. Charismatic and curious, these fin-footed marine mammals are in need of better safeguarding. Here, she shares her story.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Celia Kujala (CK): My first physical encounter with the ocean happened at the Coney Island Beach in New York City when I was just one year old. I was so happy and I kept running into the water. It was love at first sight. I believe that was the beginning of my connection with the ocean. For as long as I can remember I have felt that connection deep inside.

OM: Which came first, a love of the ocean or a love of photography?

CK: Although I loved drawing and as a child, I didn’t find photography until much later. I was in California to run the Big Sur Marathon in 2016 and several people who knew how much I loved seals told me I had to go to San Simeon to see the Northern elephant seals. I tried to take photographs with my iPhone but quickly realised that it was impossible to portray what I wanted to without a more capable camera. Upon returning to New York City I bought my first DSLR camera and soon travelled to California, Alaska and the Galápagos Islands, teaching myself how to take better photos and falling in love with photography along the way. It was snorkelling in the Galápagos Islands that made me realise that in order to tell the complete stories that I wanted to, I would need to learn how to scuba dive and take my camera underwater. Eight months after getting my scuba certification, I took the plunge to house my DSLR camera. The first time taking the small fortune of electronics and the largest investment I have ever made into saltwater was very scary. The decision was life changing. From the first dive with it, I knew I had found my calling.

OM: What is one memory of photographing pinnipeds that you will remember forever?

CK: I was in the Coronado Islands this past autumn photographing the development of the California sea lion pups. The water had moderate surge that day, so I stayed in a more protected area. There were many sea lion pups playing and I was enjoying my time photographing them. Suddenly a Northern elephant seal appeared in front of me. Northern elephant seals spend most of their lives in the open ocean, usually only coming ashore for breeding and molting. It’s extremely rare to see Northern elephant seals underwater while diving and even more rare to see more than a fleeting glance of them, but she was curious and played in the shallows in front of me. It’s a memory that I will never forget and I still can’t believe that I had the good fortune to spend time in her presence.

Celia Kujala seal peace pinnipeds
Celia Kujala seal peace pinnipeds

OM: How do you think photography can help marine conservation?

CK: Photography is a powerful storytelling medium for sharing the beauty of the ocean and raising awareness of the issues that marine spaces are facing. It can aid in conservation initiatives by supplementing science with impactful images, which are often more powerful to many people than hard data alone. It can create an appreciation for species that people might not have otherwise been aware of and provide an impetus to future conservation efforts. One of the biggest compliments I’ve received was when a friend told me my photographs have made her love sea lions. Photographers have the power to be teachers and make people fall in love with the ocean and want to protect it.

OM: How do you adapt to the constantly changing conditions of the ocean while photographing your subjects?

CK: I think one of the most important things is understanding your subjects and their behaviour. I’ll always try to learn everything I can about a subject before meeting it for the first time. This helps me make the most of my time in the water with them and to be able to anticipate how the changing conditions of the ocean might affect my their behaviour. Before I get in the water, I have some idea of the type of images I would like to create and look for opportunities that are possible in the current conditions, while remaining flexible to ones that might open up as conditions and behaviours change. Being comfortable in the water and with my equipment allows me to notice opportunities that changing conditions of the ocean bring.

OM: In recent years you’ve focused a lot of your work on pinnipeds – what is it about them that you find so fascinating?

CK: When I was a toddler, I saw the California sea lions at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, New York. I felt an instant connection to them. My mom tells me I was worried about the crying sea lion pup that was left alone on the rock when the mom went for a swim. From that moment on, I have felt a special bond with them. Growing up, I didn’t have many opportunities to see pinnipeds in the wild, but I read every book that I could find and admired the photographs. I love their charisma, and that they spend time both on land and in the water, beautifully combining life in these two realms, serving as an ambassador for the protection of both. Additionally, they live on all the continents of the world. The stories of the different species bring one around the world and give a look into status of the world’s oceans and coastal areas showing stories of both hope and of critical issues that must be addressed.

OM: Can you share one key experience with pinnipeds that made you realise the need for their protection?

CK: In 2008, I was spending the summer in Monaco and was saddened that the Mediterranean monk seal, which had at one point been abundant throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea, had become the most endangered seal in the world due to hunting, entanglement, coastal urbanisation and pollution. One day, while looking out toward the ocean, the idea for Seal Peace came to me. I wanted to start a project to help all seals that impacted by humans. I had a few ideas for how I could make an impact, but it was not until I started photography and learned how to scuba dive that it became clear how I could best help. Through my photographs, I hope to engender an appreciation for each individual species as well as their diverse environments and use their stories to highlight the need for more intricate marine conservation.

Celia Kujala starfish pinnipeds
Celia Kujala seal peace pinnipeds

OM: What are the key threats facing pinnipeds today? Do you think they are sometimes overlooked in conservation efforts?

CK: Pinnipeds face threats from fishery interaction, entanglement, pollution, habitat loss, reduction in food supply, climate change and hunting. I have seen some of the threats they are facing first-hand. Once I saw a California sea lion pup that had a hook embedded in his mouth and he barely left my side for the entire dive. A South American sea lion pup once approached me swathed in a fishing net. Southern elephant seal mothers have their pups on remote beaches, but even these areas have garbage wash up along the shoreline. I’ve seen a California sea lion pup play with garbage instead of natural items found on the reef that make up the usual toys. These are just a few of the visual clues of the impact that humans are having on pinnipeds. Going forward climate change is likely to become the largest danger pinnipeds – and all other species – face. Yet despite all the threats there is still pinniped hunting occurring in the world, even of very vulnerable species. For example, Steller sea lions are listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, yet some hunting is allowed in some regions. Often it seems pinnipeds end up being the scapegoat for problems that are really human induced. Not only are they often overlooked in conservation, but many people support culling their numbers – a move which is not supported by science. Nature is the expert at balancing populations and humans should not interfere because the interacting relationships are complex and can have unintended consequences.

OM: How can they be assessed as indicator species?

CK: The status of pinniped populations can be assessed to infer the health of their ecosystems. Scientists have found that several species are very sensitive to increases in ocean temperatures. The heat drives the prey to cooler and harder to reach depths leading to more deaths and strandings. Toxin build-up also accumulates higher up the food chain, so deaths of pinnipeds could alert that pollution levels are rising. The extreme is when this causes the disappearance of a species from a previous habitat. One good example is what happened in New York City. From the beginning of its history, New York City threw garbage, industrial waste and sewage into the ocean. Garbage and industrial waste pollute the water, and the bacterial decomposition of sewage used up a huge amount of dissolved oxygen in water. The end result was a toxic environment without the necessary oxygen fish and other marine life need to survive. It was not until the Clean Water Act of 1972 that things started improving. As waters around New York City became cleaner, more fish species returned, and some seals followed. Today, 80 returning pinnipeds come south during the months of November to May showing how things can rebound and their presence indicates a thriving ecosystem.

OM: Why are they so important within the marine ecosystem and food web?

CK: Pinnipeds are apex predators and help keep prey species in balance. For many pinniped species this includes fish and invertebrates, but some, such as the Leopard seal, consume penguins and even the pups of other seal species. Pinnipeds also provide food to predators higher them in the food chains, such as sharks, orcas, and polar bears. They are also important in the marine ecosystem because living in both the water and land they spend a lot of time in the shallow water near the coast and enrich the water there by recycling nutrients.

Celia Kujala seal peace Arctic
Celia Kujala seal peace pinnipeds
Celia Kujala

OM: Are you collaborating with any conservation organisations currently?

CK: I have shared my photography with the Rare Pinniped Conservation Network. I have also been in touch with some other conservation organisations and have some collaborations planned for the future. More to come on that soon! This is an area I am very excited to do more so that my work can have the largest possible impact.

OM: What action needs to be taken to better protect pinnipeds?

CK: More education about their vulnerability and importance to ecosystems is needed. We need to prevent any large culls from occurring in the future and to stop existing hunts. Important breeding areas should be protected. Fisheries need to work to create more sustainable fishing practices. We must work to remove existing ghost nets from the oceans and prevent future nets from becoming ghost nets. Additionally, steps to address climate change and pollution will benefit pinnipeds as well as all other inhabitants on Earth.

OM: What projects have you been working on recently?

CK: My current project, Seal Peace, documenting the stories of all the pinnipeds around the world was born in 2017. So far, I have had the opportunity to photograph 17 species.

One of their stories that has been particularly heart-breaking is the effect of fishing and our plastics on the California sea lion population in La Jolla and in the Coronado Islands. I am hoping to create positive change with my images. I documented many California sea lions with fishing lures embedded in their skin and mouths, fishing line trailing from them, playing with plastic instead of natural debris. I am hoping to use this part of the Seal Peace project to create some positive change in terms of protecting the area the sea lions live in La Jolla from fishing. I saw several get embedded with a hook right in front of me. I will never forget their looks of terror.

OM: What is next on your photography agenda?

CK: I have had the opportunity to photograph half of the pinniped species of the world so far and have 17 species remaining to photograph. One place that I am really looking for the best opportunity for is Antarctica. Five species that I haven’t yet encountered live there and it’s the only continent I haven’t yet visited and a place that has been on my personal wish list even before I started photography. Three other places I am currently working on figuring out the logistics for are Chile for the Juan Fernández fur seal and South American fur seal, Russia for the Baikal seal and Canada for the Harp seal.