When he was in college, marine biologist-in-training Octavio Aburto began using a camera as a tool, just as other scientists use microscopes in laboratories. He showed his mother photographs to explain what he was studying at the University of Baja California Sur in Mexico, thinking that if she could understand his work by looking at a photograph, anyone could.
“The general public, and especially decision-makers, can be inspired to make changes if they understand the scientific results that we produce,” says Aburto, now director of the Gulf of California Marine Program and a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Photography is a very good way to convince them or change their perspectives once they realize how important it is to protect and understand marine ecosystems—and how beautiful they are.”
Aburto has spent the past decade documenting one such beautiful place—Mexico’s Gulf of California, an international hot spot of marine biodiversity. Working underwater, Aburto takes photos of habitat destruction, and through them, shows what places look like when an area is overfished and when the ocean gets warmer.
For his latest project, however, the 2018 Pew marine fellow has been looking down on the Gulf region to research and conserve mangrove ecosystems using overhead drones. Mangrove forests—the trees and shrubs that live in the water between sea and land in tropical and subtropical climates—are natural protectors, shielding coasts from storms, sheltering marine species, and soaking up carbon.
“They are very, very important because they protect the shore, protect the coastal areas for many countries, and produce many benefits for humans, such as offering habitats for many juvenile fish and capturing carbon from the atmosphere,” he says. “More carbon, in fact, than any other ecosystem.”
But these ecosystems have been disappearing at an alarming rate. In half a century, the world has lost half of its mangroves. Forests are facing competition for resources from human activities, including shrimp aquaculture, the palm oil industry, and tourism development.
To capture an accurate picture of the ecosystems, Aburto’s drone photography is combined with high-resolution satellite imagery to produce 3D maps that can distinguish different kinds of mangroves and other plants. These maps can show real-time changes in mangrove coverage and reveal the hidden marine life that lives there.
“My job, of course, is doing science, but also communicating that science in the best way possible,” says Aburto, who believes that all researchers have a responsibility to tell stories to convey their work. “Nothing can really happen unless it can be communicated.”