Fighting fires on the waves


From some of the exotic images of wildlife that Simon Ager calls his own, you could be forgiven for thinking the photographer has one of most pleasurable and fulfilling jobs on the planet. Whether sailing on calm waters in the Caribbean or right the way

across the South Pacific towards Australia, his collection of memories, frozen in time, show over two decades of dedication to his art and passion. And even as we speak, the 49-year-old, currently in the Galapagos Islands on conservation patro, casually drops into the conversation the fact a turtle is swimming just a couple of metres away. It seems the ultimate, carefree life.

And yet, read a little further into what Simon and his Sea Shepherd shipmates encounter on their campaigns and you may not be so eager to send an email requesting membership. “I joined Sea Shepherd 10 years ago,” he begins. “It is a conservation group which is direct action, so we’re not going out holding up banners to vessels, corporation groups and poachers that read ‘don’t do that’. We’re actually directly intervening on their illegal activities; we’re at the frontline. So it can get a little crazy, to say the least.

“I think part of the appeal for me is being in the middle of something… it’s the fight. I document that through my photography, and from that, bring these matters to the wider attention.”

From tracking down illegal fishing in the open seas of the Americas, to chasing a rogue group of boats going after a Patagonian Toothfish across 10,000 miles and 110 days – the longest in maritime history – the Sea Shepherds are a group of conservationists deeply passionate about what they do.

Ager fits in perfectly. He is a native son of Alberta, Canada, and presently resides in Vancouver. His name is largely synonymous with TV work, from initially creating opening titles for such shows as Sir David Attenborough’s Wildlife on One in 1996, as a news cameraman, and as an award-winning Visual FX artist for film and television, most notably on Stargate SG1, Angels & Demons, I, Robot and Tropic Thunder, his workload has been prolific.

Yet a passion for nature and what lies beneath the waves has moved him away from the studio in recent years. Indeed, for the past decade he has been on over 20 marine-based campaigns, as a diver and stills photographer primarily, but also as an officer and ships manager.

“If I had nine lives, I would say that I have certainly used up at least four of them so far,” he laughs. “Going up to Antarctica and facing off against a Japanese fleet of poachers, as well as some of the most dangerous weather in the world, that was pretty tough going.

“We got hit by a rogue swell, a wave, which came over us and almost tore the portside pontoon right off the boat. It was hanging on by a slither of fibreglass.
“That chase is now the longest in maritime history. Around Antarctica, Australia and up the west coast of Africa. Eventually the crew we were after ended up scuttling the ship and everybody jumped into life rafts – we had to rescue them. Then when the ship was listing over, three of us jumped on board to gather evidence of illegal fishing activity.

“We were running around this sinking boat, picking up charts, laptops, mobile phones, even trying to find the engine room to see if we could save the vessel. When you’re watching the water coming up the stairwells, running around in the dark and being told to get off immediately… well, they are the moments when your heart is coming through your chest!”

An expert scuba diving whose photography has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic and other globally-respected titles, Ager was recently honoured as one of the first members of the SeaLegacy Collective, started by famed National Geographic photographers Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier. His remit is to continue to use his work to inspire others to become passionate about the oceans.

For more details visit Sea Shepard

It’s all a long way from a childhood spent in the UK and Canada. Ager completed his degree in film and photography at Suffolk University, and on his very first job got to work with David Attenborough on the BBC’s flagship natural history programme Wildlife on One.

“I was very lucky to get in there with those guys. My first few projects were on that show and I don’t know how you get better than that, really. Your career almost certainly goes downhill from there,” he laughs, “because once you have done something with David Attenborough, where do you go next?!

“So, I did a few years there and then ended back in Canada working in TV doing news graphics and camera work. Visual effects in film followed, and it was while in Vancouver that I bumped into Paul Watson, one of the founders of Greenpeace.

“The organisation was doing a trip to Libya to save the bluefin tuna, and I said I wanted to go with them. When the invitation came, it took me a few days to juggle in my head whether I could leave my well-paid job and health insurance, but I jacked it in and took off for what I thought would be a year, fully intending to get back to the film industry. It’s now a decade on!”

Ager’s passion for justice is bearing fruit, however, in the coverage and recognition he achieves. He wants us all to be affected and inspired to campaign for change, because protecting our oceans is a project that benefits everyone. “Every campaign is different and each one has a varying level of intensity and importance, but the current project to halt illegal sea fishing is arguably one of the most important. This trade is killing our oceans and people are still getting away with it. Statistics show that over 40% of the fish bought in supermarkets come from unreported catches. That shows the scope and the challenge that we are actually having here to try to stop this from happening.

“Are we winning? I believe we are, but there are always new battles emerging. Personally, if I can match up my thirst for conservation with a passion for photography, then I can’t think of anything else I’d rather to be doing.”