Fiona Ayerst

Dive Industry Profile

Fiona Ayerst, Professional Underwater Photographer

Fiona Ayerst is a professional stills underwater photographer. She is also a writer, public speaker, and a passionate conservationist who speaks up for animal rights. Fiona has a legal degree and practised as a litigation attorney in Johannesburg over the course of 18 years. DAN-SA recently caught up with Fiona’s hectic lifestyle and fired off a couple of questions.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO UNDERWATER PHOTOGRAPHY?

I feel safe and happy in water. It is my “go to” place if I am ever stressed. I have always been fascinated with animals, particularly those of the oceans. I try to show people what many of them may otherwise never see – the beautiful underwater world.

YOU OFTEN PHOTOGRAPH SHARKS – IS IT NOT A BIT INTIMIDATING TO GET SO CLOSE TO SHARKS WHILE PHOTOGRAPHING THEM?

Sharks are inquisitive creatures. I have not yet felt particularly threatened but when a shark swims through your legs, there is always a moment of intense panic, no matter how many times you have swum with them.

WHAT HAS BEEN ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGES?

One of the most difficult things for me has been balancing my life as a mother and entrepreneur. I had a child at age 45 and this was a time when my career as an underwater photographer was gaining momentum. My career had to take a different path for a while, as a result of Finn’s birth. I am back on track now that he is seven and have no regrets whatsoever.

IS THERE A DAY THAT REALLY STICKS OUT AS BEING ONE OF THE BEST?

Definitely. I was in Sodwana Bay in 2014 when I swam with two whale sharks, six dolphins and three humpback whales at the same time. It was one of those “Walter Mitty” moments where I was so stunned that I did not want to miss the scene and I did not take a photograph. It was all over in about 10 seconds. Nothing stays the same for long in the fluidity of the ocean. I will never forget those 10 seconds and those moments, for me, were life-changing. I try to apply the thoughts and feelings of those specific moments to many of the things I do and think. My experiences in the water give me a positive outlook on life, in general.

THERE IS GREAT DEBATE OVER HOW BIG A PROBLEM OUR OCEANS ARE CURRENTLY FACING. WHERE DO YOU STAND?

I am concerned for the oceans. Most people have concerns around whales and dolphins but very few people know that if just one sea cucumber is picked up from the sea floor, a myriad of smaller animals living on it die too. Very little in our world is balanced at present. If protected, the sea can bounce back strong and hard. In 2016, I read that 21 Marine Protected Areas have been proposed for South Africa. That was the best news I have read in years.

WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST CONCERNS FOR THE OCEANS?

I have been diving for more than 25 years and I, along with many avid long-term divers, have seen a decline in the numbers of fish, and in particular, sharks. I am hopeful that the world is awakening to the need to protect our oceans. People think the problem is beyond them but it is not. I urge everyone who reads this to pick up as much plastic as you can whenever and wherever you see it, as likely no-one else is going to do it. If that is all you can do to help, then do it, as it is one of the best things you can do for the ocean.

I urge everyone who reads this to pick up as much plastic as you can whenever and wherever you see it.

HOW IMPORTANT IS CONSERVATION TO YOU?

I am busy re-thinking the word “conservation” and how and if it is working in the way we Westerners use it. I am not sure it really is. There are a lot of social media posts showing people care, and that is wonderful, but I have a concern that “armchair conservation” is stopping them from actually doing something, other than posting, which makes no difference at all. I would urge people to stop posting and get doing.

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