Photographing the undersea world at its most terrifying

A School of Fish swarms around Tori Hester in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Photo Credit Jeff Hester, 2014)

A School of Fish swarms around Tori Hester in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Photo Credit Jeff Hester, 2014)

By Gideon Scanlon

This fall, Jeff Hester will be heading to the coast of Mozambique. There, he will turn his talents as an oceanic photographer and videographer towards a Photographers Without Borders collaborative project with Love the Oceans, a marine conservation NGO. Like Hester, the organization is committed to protecting the undersea ecosystems of Guinjata Bay, home to one of the world's most biologically diverse – and least  explored – regions of the world.

For many, the idea of being making a career as an adventurer sounds like an anachronism, if not totally absurd. Jeff Hester, a San Diego-based oceanic photographer and videographer, begs to differ.

Since becoming a professional photographer in 2013, the 25-year-old's work has taken him to every continent and has allowed him build the public's awareness of the environmental issues affecting oceanic life – particularly global warming and ocean acidification.

Despite the brevity of his career, he has already found tremendous success. He has been published National Geographic. He has filmed for the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch." He has even been tasked with filming blue whales for the BBC nature documentary The Hunt, which was narrated by one of his heroes, naturalist David Attenborough.

Hester did not always intend make a living behind the camera. After earning a biology degree from Point Loma Nazarene University, in San Diego, he worked as laboratory assistant with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with the intention of forging a life-long career in maritime research. It did not take him long to decide he could be of more use elsewhere.

"As much as I loved being on the forefront of science, I always felt that our discoveries would be meaningless, unless they were able to reach the general public," Hester said.

To that end, Hester began a one-year fellowship with the Our World Underwater Scholarship Society, after which he took up freelance photography full-time.

As much as I loved being on the forefront of science, I always felt that our discoveries would be meaningless, unless they were able to reach the general public.
 A menacing Great White Shark off the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Hester, 2014).

 A menacing Great White Shark off the Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo Credit: Jeff Hester, 2014).

His reputation has been built on his ability to capture the undersea world at its most terrifying. The skill has has won him the praise of his peers and the scientific community, though it has also nearly cost him his life on several occasions.

"I have been attacked by sharks twice," Hester says. "The first time, a reef shark bit my hand, and I made the mistake of trying to pull it out, getting it caught in the sharks inset teeth."

Hester, who had been wearing protective chain mail, escaped with only minor bruising. He now concedes that the escapade was not his finest hour.

"It was a rookie mistake."

The incident is not, however, the source of his nightmares. That moment came while photographing great white sharks off the coast of Australia. He and another photographer, both working in the safety of an underwater cage, had only minutes of oxygen left when they realized the winch that was meant to pull them to the surface had become stuck.

"We looked at each other. We played rock, paper, scissors. I lost."

Mustering all of his courage, Hester left the safety of the cage, and, as stealthily as he could, swam to the winch to fixed the problem – all while the sharks circled above him.

"At the time, all I could do was regret how much we had chummed the water."

Despite these brushes with death, Hester still loves his work. In fact, he is committed to using his talents to help preserve the waters off the coast of Mozambique.

It is home to the most pristine coral reefs I have ever seen. They are almost totally untouched by the environmental problems which plague Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Blacktip Reef Sharks hunting in the Aliwal Shoal, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Jeff Hester, 2014)

Blacktip Reef Sharks hunting in the Aliwal Shoal, South Africa. (Photo Credit: Jeff Hester, 2014)

"It is home to the most pristine coral reefs I have ever seen. They are almost totally untouched by the environmental problems which plague Australia's Great Barrier Reef."

Hester has every intention of ensuring that the ecosystem remains protected. Prior to volunteering with the PWB project, he helped train children at a local school to understand the ecosystems importance, teaching them to document it on film.

"I believe the first step to sustainability, is community awareness. If people can see what needs protecting, they are far more willing to get involved."

This fall, Hester will return to Mozambique to work with Love the Oceans. He will train the organization's members to document the ocean ecology of Guinjata Bay with the goal of helping them to spread awareness about the fragility of the ecosystem.

"I have never been to the bay itself, but I am really excited. It is home to the one sea creature I have always dreamed of filming, but have never seen – the manta ray."

I believe the first step to sustainability, is community awareness. If people can see what needs protecting, they are far more willing to get involved.

CARRIBEAN REEF SQUID CRUISE NEAR THE SEA FLOOR, BONAIRE. (PHOTO CREDIT: JEFF HESTER, 2014)

Click here to donate to Hester's project

Member Login
Welcome, (First Name)!

Forgot? Show
Log In
Enter Member Area
My Profile Not a member? Sign up. Log Out