Science, communication and conservation

Matt Draper is an Australia-based underwater photographer who specialises in wide-angle black and white imagery. He spends countless hours in the water, learning to better understand the species he interacts with. By meticulously studying and patiently moving through each untamed environment, he is able to reveal distinct characteristics and behaviours.

Words and photograph by Matt Draper

The thought of a scientist and an artist working together might seem strange. Bunsen burners and paint brushes, surely, just don’t mix. Professionally too, most would consider them to be at odds: one comes to objective conclusions based on experiments that either support or contradict an original hypothesis, while the other focusses on the subjective expression of a feeling, idea or opinion. Quite simply, they seem to conflict. Collaborations of this kind, however, are becoming more prevalent, particularly in the world of conservation. 

Central to this burgeoning partnership of disciplines is communication. While scientists often fail to communicate findings or compelling data in a way that connects with a wider ‘non-sciencey’ audience, artists do not – the discipline, at a fundamental level, is communication. Some science, of course, doesn’t need to reach the eyes and ears of those outside of the science community, but there is plenty that does – especially where conservation is concerned.

This need was perfectly summarised back in 1968 by Senegalese forestry worker, Baba Dioum, in a statement to the triennial meeting of the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” 

Half a century later, his words still hold true. The difference is that now we are bridging that gap between understanding and loving more effectively through science and art respectively – promoting nature’s inherent beauty and her biggest threats through visually striking imagery and compelling science-based narratives. As a package it’s powerful and engaging. It captures people’s attentions on an emotional level and backs it up with hard facts – a transformational combination that could be key changing collective will and protecting our blue planet. 

I often ask myself, what am I doing for this planet? How am I promoting conservation? What am I doing to stop the unnecessary slaughter of tens of millions of sharks? More to the point, how am I communicating science through my art? These questions sometimes seem hard to answer – as an artist, my ‘results’ aren’t always conclusive; they’re certainly no dataset. But, with a large social media following I am aware of my responsibilities, especially as my followers are people who appreciate the life and beauty found within our ocean.

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of regularly sharing the water with migrating humpback whales in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga. Witnessing these majestic creatures up close has been a powerful personal experience, as it has been becoming part of the small community that regularly works in this particular part of the world. 

As a photographer I hope the body of work I create here connects with people: An unassuming individual is scrolling through his or her explore page on a social media app when an image steals their attention – a curious humpback whale calf surfacing for air as the rising sun penetrates the water’s surface. The viewer navigates to the artist’s page and discovers an extensive collection of underwater photographs full of creative flare and valuable information. Over the coming months more images are uploaded. They learn that, the months of July to late October, humpbacks travel to Tonga to mate and give birth.

Excitement takes hold when a new image reveals the opportunity of joining an trip of a lifetime – to dive with the humpbacks themselves. They do it. They fall in love. They spend time reading about these amazing migratory creatures – researching, understanding.

Personal journeys such as this – stimulated by imagery, backed up with substance – have the power to create unimaginable change. 

Never before have we needed to better communicate the message of conservation. Science and art both have critical roles to play in the fight for positive change. We are all in this together, each voice as important as the next. My chosen voice is art. What’s yours?

Issue Three
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This column appears in ISSUE 3: Changing winds of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Three
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess

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