Q&A with Laura Storm: Award Winning Photographer, Diver, and Conservationist

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Laura Storm is an award-winning photographer, diver, and passionate champion for ocean conservation. She’s been obsessed with seeing understanding everything in our oceans — ranging from the smallest plankton to the biggest whales for nearly her entire life. Diver Magazine’s “Buddy of the Year” award inside her extensive dive log and she’s received numerous awards in underwater photography.

Luckily, we’ve caught Laura during one of her surface intervals to talk with us about her career, diving, photography, and her advice to others interested in pursuing a life spent under the sea.

Can you please tell us a little about who you are and your work as a diver, photographer, and conservationist?

Diving and the oceans have always been my grand passion in life. That and the animal kingdom. Ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper and running wild on the African plains, I’ve been fascinated by pretty much everything we share our planet with. My childhood was filled with off-the-beaten-track travel and extraordinary wildlife encounters. Perhaps I was born to walk a path less obvious but I knew from an early age that I wanted a life of adventure and exploration.

Photo of Laura by Mark Harris

Photography edged its way into my world and then became an obsession. During my years as a deep-water safety diver I was occasionally asked to film at major freediving events; national or world record attempts and big competitions. A typical brief was to stream live video footage from depth to a topside audience of judges and spectators.

After I stepped down from safety diving, I started shooting stills images underwater. I hit the ground running because I already had this wealth of experience from being around wildlife. Spending months on the road in the heat and dust, year after year, watching animals do what they do best is a brilliant apprenticeship.

My conservation efforts are a way of giving back, paying my dues to the ocean. I’m acutely aware of how precarious the balance of nature is – never more so than right now. I think we’re on a knife-edge and it’s going to take determination and a united effort to steer things in the right direction; to secure a future for our oceans and seas and all of life that depends upon them. It’s better to be part of the solution don’t you think? And so I do what I can; I give talks to raise awareness, write articles and I blog a little. I have also donated a few of my awarded images and contributed educational nodes for organisations like Mission Blue and the Shark Trust.

How old were you when you learned to dive, and where did you learn? Were you hooked immediately or did it take a while for you to really fall in love with diving?

It’s strange but I don’t recall ever learning how to swim. It’s one of those things that must have come naturally to me. I wish I could say the same about diving but my initial foray into SCUBA was fraught with challenges and frustration. Looking back, I remember that I was completely smitten by the idea of being a diver and because I was so adept on the water, had some misguided expectation of a smooth transition to depth.

I was only 12 at the time and was living at altitude in Nairobi. The only SCUBA place in town was a British Sub-Aqua Club that used a run-down hotel pool to train in. The water was freezing, the equipment antiquated and the lessons laborious. After months of soggy slog, I still hadn’t dipped beneath the surface of the ocean. It didn’t help that the Big Blue was 500km away!

Photo of Laura by Mark Harris

But the ocean kept calling and my slow-burn start eventually paid off. Since those early struggles I have gone on to enjoy decades of adventure, diving in incredible places and interacting with animals that I’m fascinated with.

Can you tell us about a dive that has always stood out in your memory?

So, so many, but let me tell you about one that was truly epic! Ten years ago I was diving up at Wolf and Darwin in the Galapagos. It’s a special place where time seems to have stood still. We were the first group of divers allowed back in the water after a long embargo, so the area had lain undisturbed for months from any human activity. Dive after dive there were wall-to-wall sharks; Galapagos, Silkies, Dusky sharks, Grey reef sharks, Hammerheads in the hundreds. There were Whale sharks and turtles and thousands of fish. On one particular dive, all this life closed in around us out in the Blue, it was mind-blowing. And then like a switch flicking, the ocean emptied. Everything disappeared, like silver bullets pinging off into the distance. In the instant that happened, I wondered if there had been some kind of seismic activity. But then from the gloom appeared two Orcas. A mother teaching her pup how to hunt! By the time we got back to our boat, the Captain was pacing the deck, fretting about our safety while all we could do was dance about, ecstatic. The Orca had killed a dolphin just metres from where we were and feasted on its belly, discarding the rest to Nature. That kind of raw experience is what it’s all about.

What is one of your favorite pictures? What did it take to get that shot?

This one holds a special place in my heart. It captures the moment when my partner, Mark, was accepted as a member of the pod. For a short while anyway. He’s a former British champion freediver and can hold his breath for as long as Atlantic spotted dolphins can. It’s mutually spellbinding! The action around these animals is always fast-paced and lively, I had to work like crazy to keep up, trying to compose and aesthetically freeze the scene. This was my first awarded image and I suppose went some way to lighting the fire.

Mark Harris swimming with a pod of dolphins

What are the main differences between freediving and scuba diving, for you?

Working on Mark’s book, Glass and Water: The Essential Guide to Freediving for Underwater Photography Picture of Laura by Mark Harris[/caption]

For example, I invested in some long-bladed fins, a low-volume mask, slimline weights and a custom-made Heiwa suit (a special type of neoprene) – all of which helped to make me more hydrodynamic. I started to breathe and adapt in the ways that Mark advises and writes about. Just making those changes has translated into doubling my comfortable breath-holding depth.

When it comes down to photographing wildlife, the less noise you make the better. I’m obviously able to move faster if I’m less encumbered by equipment and gadgets. I can move in closer to the peak-of- action and have valuable extra seconds when I’m trying to capture the scene.

We tend to mix up our trips and expeditions to include some that are dedicated to freediving and some to scuba. And they are very different! That mix has added a particular dimension to my photography and portfolio because when I’m freediving, I can interact with wildlife in a much more accessible and natural way. When I’m on scuba, I can play around with techniques and experiment in other ways.

Top three favorite dive sites in the world?

Roca Partida in the Revillagigedo Islands is my idea of heaven. It’s challenging because of the surge and currents and its remoteness but then, I live for that kind of ride. It is how the ocean should be, teeming with a richness of life. There are so many sharks everywhere it’s astonishing!

The open ocean around White Sand Ridge in the Bahamas. The light is spectacular! It’s like an underwater beach with mile after mile of shallow, rippled sand and crystal clear turquoise water. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. This is where we first encountered the Atlantic spotted dolphins I mentioned earlier.

My latest favourite sites are the Cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatán. They tick all my boxes when it comes to tripping the light fantastic!

As an avid conservationist, what’s the message or lesson you wish everyone took the time to hear?

That it starts and ends with us.

The flip side to most conservation projects or programs is that they are actually about managing human behaviour and within that sphere comes personal accountability. It is our impact on the planet that creates the most upset, the biggest imbalance. Left to its own devices, nature has its own rhythm and the health of the planet and our oceans would ebb and flow accordingly. Humans are competing with nature in a way that’s unsustainable.

One of the most pressing issues at hand is species extinction. Since The Salt Sirens is all about the oceans, let’s focus on sharks for a moment. Their importance as an indicator species in the vitality of an ocean ecosystem is paramount. More than a third of our shark species are now listed as threatened, endangered or on the critical list. I can’t say it better than Dr. Sylvia Earle, “No water, no life, no blue, no green”.

There are plenty of external forces and myriad factors that also have an impact or play a role. But above all else, for as long as humans are the most successful and intelligent species, we are by default the guardians of this incredible blue world. We haven’t done a great job so far because we don’t have a coordinated view but I think the tide is beginning to turn. There’s a lot of power and positive energy in a collective effort. Be a part of that!

What are some actionable things we can do to help the health of our oceans?

Self-education is a wonderful way to start.

Put yourself and your best skills out in the field. Join in with initiatives such as beach cleanups and reef ecology programs. Volunteer to help with organisations that work to protect and replenish the oceans and marine life.

Stay informed and use technology to reach out to people. If you’re part of the Millennial generation you’re probably ahead of the game there. Social Media is one of the best tools to help raise awareness; platforms like Instagram and Facebook can reach millions.

Only eat sources of sustainably caught seafood. Walk out of restaurants if they serve shark fin soup, and let the owner know why.

Go green! Use fewer chemicals and pesticides in and around your home. What you wash down the sink or spray around the garden eventually filters back into the ocean.

Think ‘reusable’! Use less plastic and recycle responsibly.

Do you think you’ve ever encountered sexism in the diving, photography, and conservation industries you’re in? If so, how did/do you cope with it?

Actually, not that I can recall. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated enormous support in my endeavors. Historically, technical diving and underwater photography are pursuits that appeal to and have been dominated by men. That’s changing, at least in the world of underwater photography. There is some incredible female talent on the rise. I can say quite candidly that my experience has been one of mutual respect. It’s a vibrant and refreshing tribe to belong to.

What advice would you give women wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Ambition isn’t a dirty word as long as it’s tempered with humility. Your journey, like mine, won’t be a linear thing. I’ve had my share of setbacks but I’ve stayed the course, so don’t give up when the going gets tough. Stay focused on where you want to get to, consciously live in the moment and embrace opportunity with open arms and an open heart.

It takes time to hone your skills. If you want to improve at anything in life, hang around someone who’s better. Find a mentor, be like a sponge and soak it all up. You’ll soon find that some of the magic starts to rub off. Work at your craft every day, even if all you have spare is 20 minutes.

I don’t cut corners.

A perspective that resonates with me is this, ‘How you do one thing is how you do everything’. Pay attention to detail. Often it’s the little things that in the end make a big difference.

Throw yourself, heart, soul, body and mind, at your passion. For what could possibly go wrong that won’t teach you something?

Go ride the waves, you’re already amazing!

Thank you, Laura! We can’t wait to see your latest pictures and hear about all that you get up to.

Follow Laura Storm and all of her underwater adventures on her website, Planet Plankton. You can also view more of Laura’s stunning work on her Facebook page and Instagram. All images in this post are owned by Laura Storm or Mark Harris.