In photos, Ralph Pace speaks the language of the sea


Ralph Pace often flips through his photographs as he sits in a homemade Windsor chair in his converted California garage. Around him, among heaps of diving gear and waterproof cameras, are the vast collections of his sea voyages: swordfish bills and bathymetric charts, abalone shells and abalone irons.

Pace calls it his other office, the comfortably crowded cove he returns to after long trips and reporting assignments. Images come to life here, many of which hang on the crowded garage walls.

What Pace considers his main office to be a much simpler and more peaceful place: the sea.

In 2009, Pace’s football career in the big leagues in Australia was drawing to a close. Overwhelmed with injuries on the ground, he switched gears and began diving along the country’s coastal coral reefs. He loved the liberation experience so much that he traveled to Indonesia and did the same.

During these early trips, it never occurred to him to take a camera. But the more he dived, the more he was fascinated by the marine ecosystems he observed.

In 2012, Pace returned to school to study marine conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. His research has focused on where tourism and natural ecosystems have converged. This led him to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico, in April 2013, which is home to a rich aquatic biodiversity and one of the most famous surf spots in the world.

There he studied a proposed marina project that threatened to destroy much of the mangrove lagoons of the Oaxaca coast, American crocodile habitats, water bird ecosystems, and sea turtle nesting beaches – all of this, potentially lost to development, Pace calculated, for $ 8-10 million tourists a year.

With that figure and the help of NGOs, Pace rallied around environmental activists to help block development, which to date has not been built. It was also around this time that Pace began playing with a camera, a gift from his brother accompanied by an accompanying note: “Prove it.”

“I was telling everyone this place is beautiful, this place is perfect, but those are just words,” Pace said.. “Show them something! So I started taking pictures.

Shortly after, on another Scripps research trip to Costa Rica, Pace photographed freshly hatched sea turtles as they moved away from ocean waters toward the bright lights of nearby buildings. With his photos, Pace went door-to-door and helped convince building owners to turn down their lights so newborns could find their way to the sea.

“You quickly realize that by being able to show photographs to someone, you can have a much bigger impact,” Pace said.

Pace describes himself as a “scientific interpreter” and he spends much of his time accompanying scientists on research expeditions, documenting, for example, the geographic range of great white sharks off the coast of California. or massive starfish deaths. He prides himself on learning the complexity of natural phenomena and then communicating it through his images in a way anyone can understand. He likens the process to turning a complicated scientific article into an ultra-familiar translation.

“I can understand what the guy in the high chair is saying, and now I have to be able to broadcast it to people,” Pace says. “The pictures allow people to enter the front door on their terms, and in the end, you hope you have written a message so that they can leave with a little understanding. “

Almost a decade after receiving the gift of his first camera, Pace is no longer tempted to take thousands of photos or capture “everything that moves.”

“Sometimes I go out on boats with fishermen for two weeks and take two or three photos,” he says. “I’m going to swim and take four photos, all for the lighting.”

Pace is particularly dedicated to documenting the impacts of climate change, such as when he ventures into the shady understory of floating kelp systems – a habitat he calls “underwater rainforests” – and photographs starving sea urchins. that proliferate in a warming ocean.

For three months a year, Pace lives in Maui, where he studies in what he calls “the school of whales,” taught by Flip Nicklin, perhaps the world’s foremost expert in humpback whale research. With Nicklin, Pace dives almost daily to discover and record the often surprising behavior and routines of whales.

During a spring dive in 2018, a humpback mother placed her calf on her nose and nudged it in Pace’s direction, perhaps seeing the presence of the underwater photographer as an opportunity for a lesson in sociability. The encounter gave Pace a close glimpse into mother and breastfeeding her baby. Another day, Pace observed a couple of men and women holding their breaths deep below the surface, lips to lips, as if they were kissing, before coming up together to breathe. An apparent exercise in energy conservation, Pace still likes to think that they spent their day “reciting telepathic love poems.”

And on still other dives, simpler moments catch Pace’s eye: the way the sun’s rays scatter through the bubbles underwater; two whales floating vertically, possibly engaging in courtship dance; the shedding of clouds of misty milk from mother whales to their offspring; the power of a humpback whale bursting to the surface.

When Pace witnesses such moments and is able to present to the world an image depicting something new about humpback whales or marine life, he knows he is fulfilling his brother’s original mandate. “Is it great,” he said, “to know that the world is different from what everyone else thinks it is? ”

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