Swimming with the Fishes

Marine conservationist and photographer Wolcott Henry ’79 has captured thousands of beautiful underwater images.

Fin to fin, the school of Jacks in one of Wolcott Henry’s underwater photographs swims down-ward in a great wave—all, that is, except one. This lone silvery fish peels off from the pack, heading out in his own direction. Henry has captured the rays of sunlight breaking through the deep blue water as well as the darkness that the school is descending into. There’s a sense of movement and purpose—so much so that the fish actually have a look of determination. And Henry captures the personality of the break-away, who is looking up and away. The image is one of Henry’s favorites. He sees something of himself in that solo swimmer.

With roughly 1,200 dives to his credit, Henry probably has thrice as many stunning images: the red-tipped starfish walking through an emerald bed of anchor coral, the leaf-green bubble coral, the intricate striations of a mushroom coral. There’s the soft curve of a deadly banded sea snake gliding along as it looks directly at the camera. These photos are luscious and crisp textures and shapes as much as they are exotic glimpses of nature.

But the exquisite images are not the ones nearest to his heart. The photographs that mean the most to him are harder to look at: Dead coral covered in a cobweb of sea algae. Ash-gray reefs that look mildewed—but they’re not. They’re dead. There’s the yellow and black striped goby swimming out of the tab of a muck-covered Pepsi can and the case of souvenir alligator heads in a curio shop in the Florida Keys. One of the hardest photos to stomach is a shark lying on a fishing boat with a gaping wound where  its fin had been cut off—harvested to use for shark fin soup, a delicacy in some cultures. “Finning” the practice is called. All of the fins are cut off with a knife and then the shark is dumped back into the ocean where it will either bleed to death or drown. 

These disturbing images are what Henry calls his conservation photographs—his personal contribution to the cause. It’s an outgrowth of the professional work he began 20 years ago as president of a private foundation providing seed grants to support the conservation of marine fisheries and coral reefs and the development of marine-protected areas. Henry’s photography grew out of seeing brochure after brochure with grainy pictures that failed to convey what is going on in the world’s oceans. A few years ago he established the Marine Photobank web site to collect his and other photographers’ images and make them available for use by nonprofit organizations.

Henry knows a heck of a lot more about fisheries, coral reefs, and other marine conservation issues than he did in the early 1980s. Back then, he was a new Northwestern University MBA working as a management consultant and harboring a wish to put his education to use in the nonprofit world. After three years in the corporate world, he was offered the opportunity to head the Munson Foundation, then newly endowed. The foundation’s original goal was to support environmental groups. “I said, ‘Let’s niche that down as far as we can to something that we can make a relevant contribution to,” remembers Henry. His research led him to realize that very little was being done to support marine conservation outside of creatures like whales, dolphins, and giant sea turtles—“telegenic megavertebrates,” Henry calls them.

There are plenty more fish in the sea, so the saying goes. But that’s not so true today. Ninety percent of the large ocean fish such as tuna, marlin, swordfish, and cod are gone, he reports. Ninety percent. A third of the world’s biologically diverse and productive—not to mention beautiful—coral reefs are dead. Industrial fishing has led to the overfishing, depletion, or extinction of 70 percent of the world’s commercial fish stocks. “I’m not a screaming liberal,” Henry says. “It’s just common sense not to kill the life that sustains you.”

Henry remembers coming up with his first sound bite on sustainability in the early 1990s: If the average- size swordfish caught is 90 pounds, and they have to be 100 pounds to reproduce, what does that say? It was a convincing little speech that managed to boil down the complex issue of overfishing. Or so he thought. One day at a street fair he heard the woman next to him in line order swordfish. So he turned to her and made his case. Her answer? “Well, maybe I should have two.”

Henry is unruffled by such responses. “The ocean is so big that people can’t imagine there would be a problem,” he says. “But we can catch all the fish today. The technology has now allowed it.”

There’s a delicate balance in presenting the issues to the public. “You have to start off with the pretty pictures that show why we care. And then the photographs of human impact to show why we have to do something about it. You have to come up with some hope because you can lose people at each level. If you show them great things, they think there’s no problem. And if you show them a lot of bad things, they feel like there’s nothing they can do about it.

“The balance is to say that there are problems in the oceans and if we get on it right away, there will be a way to address them,” he adds. Sustainability and the recovery of fish stocks and coral reefs are goals. “It’s not a ten-year effort,” he says. “It’s a hundred-year war.” 

Published March 2006