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Sea to believe

National Geographic explorers Thomas Peschak and Erika Bergman tell Lo Tien Yin about their lives in wetsuits

PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK

Sharks! The whale has bad breath

Whales have bad breath. Thomas Peschak had a first-hand whiff of it while shooting a pod of humpback whales.

Through his lens, he could see their mouths wide open, ready to chomp on some herrings. Then, whoosh. The stench, he says, is like what hits you when you open a fridge that has been left unplugged after returning home from a long holiday.

While sharks may not have bad breath, they certainly have a bad reputation. But the marine biologist and conservationist believes that sharks are more inquisitive than aggressive.

PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK

One of his most iconic pictures is a dramatic shot of a great white shark just metres from a kayaker. It turned out that the great white was really just being inquisitive and the kayaker was unscathed.

Thomas believes we can enter the world of marine creatures if we have a thorough understanding of their behaviour.

“I prefer to freedive as it allows me to spend more time – up to eight hours a day – in the ocean, and I am able to approach shy marine animals much more closely than with scuba gear. But scuba is an important part of my photographic repertoire.”

Before each expedition, he spends months reading up on the marine ecosystem and its inhabitants.

PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK

Retiring from science fieldwork in 2004, he became an environmental photojournalist and began shooting for National Geographic. His wake-up call came when he realised he could achieve more through his photographs than with statistics from his research.

National Geographic reaches tens of millions of readers in more than 40 countries. Being able to channel critical marine conservation stories through this powerful medium is the core reason I do what I do. In the wake of my photo stories, I have seen positive conservation changes occur, from dramatic reductions in abalone poaching in South Africa to greater protection for manta rays in the Maldives,” says Thomas, who is also Director of Conservation at Save Our Seas Foundation.

Named one of the world’s 40 most influential nature photographers, he has several BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards and two World Press Photo Awards under his diving belt. But lest you think it’s all about having the right equipment, he says: “For me, the real creative process lies mainly in the photographer’s imagination.”

PHOTO: THOMAS PESCHAK

For me, the real creative process lies mainly in the photographer’s imagination.

Life has never been dull for Thomas ever since he began using his parents’ bright yellow Minolta camera and started snorkelling – at age six.

“I think that being on boats, snorkelling and scuba diving from a very young age awoke my love for the ocean and instilled in me the fierce sense to dedicate my life to studying, documenting and protecting it.”


Adventures of Aquawoman

Enthusing young girls with her passion for exploration.

PHOTO: BARRY BROWN

The age-old proverb goes – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But for Erika Bergman, breaking things and fixing them back has made her what she is today.

The National Geographic Young Explorer, 29, is a submarine pilot and expedition leader at Ocean Doctor, a non-profit organisation that explores and restores oceans.

“When I was growing up on a farm in Hawaii, I worked on tractors and found their engines simple enough to take apart. My parents didn’t complain as long as I put the parts back together,” she says.

While studying chemical oceanography at the University of Washington, she worked as a diesel engineer and a steam ship engineer.

“I think engineering has been male-dominated, because it often involves building something and then breaking it to make it better. When girls are brave enough to break something, they are ready to become engineers. We just have to encourage more breaking of things!” she muses.

So when she’s back on land, she shares her passion for the deep with teenage girls to inspire them to develop their interest in science and engineering, such as at underwater robot camps.

PHOTO: OCEANGATE, INC

When girls are brave enough to break something, they are ready to become engineers. We just have to encourage more breaking of things!

Her love for all things aquatic has taken her across the world’s oceans to improve our understanding of them. The avid adventurer is also an extreme sports enthusiast.

In 2014, Erika was in a team that swam across the arctic from Canada to Greenland. “The water temperature was below freezing, and we used underwater scooters to move us faster through speeding rivers of ice. Along the way, we spotted polar bears, which are very rare now,” she recalls.

Erika seems unafraid of anything in this territory – except maybe the lionfish. “Lionfish are stunningly beautiful, but their spines are poisonous. So the only time I get startled is when I’m freediving through the water calmly and all of a sudden find myself face to face with the spiky thorns of a lionfish!”

But imagine getting up close and personal with these creatures – without all the usual risks. “I’m working on projects in augmented and virtual reality, where you can sit at your kitchen table, wear a headset and dive into coral reefs, and be surrounded by sharks or sea lions,” she says.

We are holding our breaths for that.

Incredible seascapes
Don’t miss the special talks on the NTU campus by marine biologist Thomas Peschak and ocean explorer Erika Bergman on 19 & 20 January, held as part of NTU’s tie-up with National Geographic to bring the excitement of scientific exploration and discovery to students.