Whales & Humans

A conversation with Adam Ernster

AlgiKnit: We’re so curious to find out: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

Adam Ernster: My name is Adam Ernster. I was born in Los Angeles, California but moved to Orlando, Florida as a young child. Here I was surrounded by all kinds of amazing wildlife. The lake in my backyard acted as a microcosm for our planet's oceans. I developed my love for all kinds of wildlife here especially ones that live in water and those with scales. For a few years I worked as a reptile caretaker for a reptile shop back in Los Angeles, California. I honed my experience in reptile keeping and my love for animals of all species. However, I never lost my love for the sea. After conducting some research projects in Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California, and in Mexico, on plastic pollution and whale shark identification, I knew my life would continue to revolve around marine life. After returning form Baja, I fell in love with photographing marine life of all kinds. Using the camera/social media to connect people and animals is something I’m extremely passionate about. This passion lead me to a job in Santa Barbara, CA as a wildlife photographer on a whale watch company called The Condor Express. The family/crew I met on this boat changed my life forever - along with some incredible marine encounters. Breaching humpbacks, feeding basking sharks, and playful killer whales all show their faces in my photography portfolio. Although I haven’t given up my job in Santa Barbara and will return in a few months, I am now working for a company on Orcas Island, Washington for the summer. Outer Island Excursions provides a once in a lifetime experience on our whale watch boats and sea kayaks. Hundreds of killer whales call this area home and I hope to showcase their faces and stories to share them with the rest of the world.

The lake in my backyard acted as a microcosm for our planet’s oceans. I developed my love for all kinds of wildlife here especially ones that live in water and those with scales.
— Adam Ernster

AlgiKnit: Your work largely revolves around marine life. Why is it so influential to you and what role has the ocean and its ecology played in your life?

Adam Ernster: Our planet is composed of about 71% water which makes the oceans the most important influencer in our lives. They regulate atmospheric CO2, keep our planet cool enough to provide life, and are a source of food/energy for billions. Because of these facts, the importance of our oceans and the life within it cannot be overemphasized. Biodiversity in our oceans has declined in massive amounts since the industrialization of the modern world. Entire food chains and ecosystems are at risk if we don’t start to take care of our oceans and its inhabitants. The subjects I tend to photograph are normally at the top of these food chains. They regulate our oceans and keep everything in check in a natural process. Removing, harming, or polluting these animals can have a drastic impact on both our oceans and ourselves. After swimming with 35 foot whale sharks in Baja California, I knew my life was going to revolve around protecting and educating the public about marine animals of all sorts. Looking into the eyes of such a giant, yet gentle, creature was inspiring and life changing. The fact that people worldwide harm/ kill these animals for shark fin soup is even more life changing. I believe experiences like this are what is going to put our planet into action. A connection like that can change one’s outlook on life, prosperity, and the future. This is why I choose to photograph these animals and choose to work for responsible ecotourism companies like The Condor Express in Santa Barbara and Outer Island Excursions in the San Juan Islands.

AlgiKnit: You mentioned that in the past, you worked on research projects involving plastic pollution in Baja California, Mexico. How prevalent has pollution been in general in your time working with marine life, especially with your work involving whales and sharks? Is pollution a constant, does it fluctuate, or is it simply contextual to the given area that you're working in?

Adam Ernster: Micro-plastics in Bahia de Los Angeles in Baja California, Mexico are prevalent but not abundant. Out of the 3 different trawls I conducted in 3 different locations around the bay, only 20 pieces of micro plastic were found. Bahia is one of the most secluded parts of the world yet still has micro-plastics. Whether these plastics are coming from the small town, are being brought in from the open ocean by the currents, or are being swept down from towns of the North is not known. I will need to return to finish that part of the study. Although there aren’t a ton of plastics in the bay, it is probable that most of the whales, whale sharks, and rays, are ingesting some sort of plastic since they are filter feeders. Again, this cannot be concluded without further study.

AlgiKnit: The notion that as humans, we're often intruding on the living space of animals in their natural habitat - a prime example of this being humans swimming and boating in the home waters of sharks - is hard for many to swallow. You, however, seem to have embraced this idea and have dedicated yourself to bridging the gap of understanding between humans and marine animals. Could you say a little more about our human relationship and responsibility to marine animals, as well as what it means to have a positive influence on marine ecosystems as a whole?

Adam Ernster: Bringing people and animals closer together is something I have devoted my life to. Whether that be through my photos, through ecotourism opportunities, or putting myself in the water with these animals and sharing that experience, that is my ultimate goal. I have worked for multiple whale watch companies along the west coast of the United States in both California and Washington. The look on a small child’s face when a humpback whale breaches from the water is something I will never forget. Especially because our children are the key to the survival of our planet, and who knows when I’ll have the next Steve Irwin on one of my tours. As for the diving/ being in the water with sharks or other marine animals I think it is important to show the world these are not evil ugly man-eating animals. And the only way to do that is to get in the water with them. As long as shark diving is done in an ethical, and sustainable way, I don’t think it is harmful to either party. The people get an immense educational experience while looking into the eye of a new creature, and so do the animals. That being said we do work with wild animals and there is no predicting their reactions.

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AlgiKnit: Considering you've worked extensively with sharks and whales, are there any extraordinary experiences with them that stick out in your memory?

Adam Ernster: Probably my favorite wild encounter occurred on July 6th, 2019 with southern resident killer whales. These critically endangered group of whales typically spend everyday of the summer months in the Salish Sea. However, this year was the first year on record they weren’t spotted in the whole month of June. When they did show up in early July, everyone was hesitant if we should even watch them or not. A recent addition to whale watching rules/ regulations in the Salish Sea required us to stay 300+ meters away from them. But, on July 6th, we had no other choice than to watch them because there were no other whales around. As we stayed our respectable 300+ meters away, and out of the blue, a large bull killer whale breached an astoundingly close 30 m behind our Blackfish Express vessel. After I missed the first two breaches with my camera, the whale known as L87 Onyx saved the best for last and breached right at us. After this, he rode a wave and looked me directly in the eyes before heading off to the rest of J-pod. Onyx is known for scaring the living daylights out of whale watch boats in a friendly and curious manner. I think he likes to hear our shrieks of joy!

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Bringing people and animals closer together is something I have devoted my life to. Whether that be through my photos, through ecotourism opportunities, or putting myself in the water with these animals and sharing that experience, that is my ultimate goal.
— Adam Ernster

Adam Ernster is a marine researcher and an ocean and wildlife photographer. Prior to his current work on Orcas Island, where Adam works with, a whale-watching ecotourism company, Adam worked extensively in Baja California and Santa Barbara photographing native wildlife. To learn more about Adam or to see more of his work, visit https://www.instagram.com/adam_ernster/ or visit his Facebook page here.

Photo Credit: Adam Ernster

Photo Credit: Adam Ernster