Changing Planet

Stunning underwater photography project sheds light on our acidifying oceans

By Safina Center Staff

Last week an international team of marine scientists published a paper in Scientific Reports that heeds a strong warning to the world: Carbon dioxide emissions from human activities are heating up the oceans and making them more acidic, killing coral reefs, kelp forests and countless marine animals. Digging deeper into their warning is the following question: Do we want to continue burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation, and industrial farming and manufacturing—emitting high levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—with reckless abandon, or do we want to preserve as much life as possible in the oceans before it’s too late?

Underwater filmmaker and performer Christine Ren, also called “The Underwater Woman,” addresses this important question in her latest project, titled “Carbonated Ocean,” which launched this past World Oceans Day in June. The output is a series of underwater photographs and a video, starring Ren, that illustrate the issue of ocean acidification and what’s at stake if the problem continues to worsen over time. Her project also includes tips on how to reduce ocean acidification, which includes transitioning to a plant-based diet. The works were shot by Chiara Salomoni, an underwater photographer working with ocean advocacy organization Mermaids for Change.

Previously, we have written about Ren’s earlier underwater film and photography projects, which cover the topics of derelict fishing gear, overfishing and plastic pollution. This August the Safina Center interviewed Ren to learn more about the inspiration and urgency behind her latest project.

Photo: Chiara Salomoni and The Underwater Woman

The Safina Center: Why address the issue of ocean acidification in your work now?

Christine Ren: I am an entrepreneur as much as I am a creative, so I am always on the lookout for gaps in the market, or in this case, the media and science arenas. Certain ocean conservation issues, such as plastic pollution and shark overfishing, are quite in vogue now, and while they are incredibly important, the goal with my imagery is to bring awareness to critical issues of science and conservation that are not receiving the level of popular attention they deserve based on the magnitude of their effects. Ocean acidification, a complex, invisible chemical process affecting our oceans globally was a natural choice of topic to translate visually—though also one that proved incredibly difficult to conceptualize. 

TSC: How did you prepare for the shoots? Did you have to do any research on the issue to help decide how to portray the problem?

CR: Most of my conceptualizing starts with a look through peer-reviewed research on various ocean issues. For ocean acidification, there was a NOAA study I was already familiar with that had visualized the effects of seawater conditions under elevated CO2 emissions scenarios on pteropod shells. That image, taken by David Littschwager of the National Geographic Society, and the study is included in the “Carbonated Ocean” campaign video and served the foundation for how I went about crafting these images. To truly visualize ocean acidification, we had to look to its effects: dissolving the shells and skeletons of marine creatures and coral reefs.

Photo: Chiara Salomoni and The Underwater Woman

TSC: How did you choose your photographer?

CR: We chose each other. These collaborations generally arise naturally from my constant networking with other visual artists in the space. I had seen Chiara Salomoni’s work online previously and simply extended an email to meet and chat. From there, we talked about how our combined creative powers and passion for ocean conservation might manifest in a next imagery series. We both agreed we were concerned about ocean acidification so that was a great jumping off point for the artistic collaboration.  

TSC: What messages do you want viewers to take away from your work?

CR: My hope is that viewers feel inspired to explore their own connection to the ocean and to realize through the visual and narrative bridges I create, that ocean conservation is a human issue. And as Sylvia Earle says, “The ocean is not too big to fail.” We are losing our life support system and while I’m not worried about Mother Earth being around for another 4.5 billion years, I am concerned about whether the human race will be. We choose, every day, with every action we take, whether we want to invest in a future for both the ocean and us.

Photo: Chiara Salomoni and The Underwater Woman

TSC: Were the shoots challenging in any ways? 

CR: This series, in particular, relied on building a new level of underwater sets than I had done previously. With everything in constant motion underwater, set-building in this medium is a feat unto itself. Chiara and I were drilling holes in massive shells to get them to sink and hanging a tiered set of nautilus shell cross-sections down into the water column for me to interact with. From a physical standpoint, I had to have precision control underwater so as not to knock everything over. I was relying on my dancer’s spatial orientation skills primarily when it came to that as I never have goggles on, so everything is quite blurry visually in the pool. We were also working in a 12-foot pool, which meant much further down and up repeatedly to drag my fabrics and heavy conch shell props. It was tiring, but a blast.

Photo: Chiara Salomoni and The Underwater Woman

TSC: What’s your next project?

CR: In the future, I’m working on tackling ocean acidification again, but using the catchphrase ‘osteoporosis of the sea.’ My findings from the release of Carbonated Ocean have indicated that the public associates acid with corrosiveness and burning. People loved the photos but many gave feedback wondering why I wasn’t covered in acid burns, which in my mind, would’ve been a gross misinterpretation of the science. The term ocean acidification relating to a slow degradation and wasting of shells, just doesn’t compute clearly for people and this should have implications for all ocean scientists speaking about this issue. Osteoporosis, a condition widely understood and experienced by many people, will be one of my next visual experiments for conveying the science of ocean acidification.

Additionally, in the next month, I’m releasing a series related to coral bleaching in collaboration again with Brett Stanley. I turned myself into a living painting under the deft hands of body painter Lana Chromium and the results are mind-blowing. Be sure to watch for it and what you can do to mitigate local stressors on coral reefs on my website.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

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