Interview with Shawn Heinrichs and Hannah Fraser

Shawn Heinrichs and Hannah Fraser on Wetpixel
Image by Phil Sokol.

As the founder of Blue Sphere Media, Shawn Heinrichs is a both a tireless conservationist and a talented photographer. The mission statement for Blue Sphere Media says it all, “We fuse dramatic imagery with intimate and thought-provoking stories, to connect people to globally important issues and inspire action.” His footage and images have been used in documentaries and campaigns to educate and motivate viewers worldwide.

Hannah Fraser is not only a dedicated ocean activist, but also the world”s first professional mermaid. While Shawn shines behind the camera, Hannah performs in front of it in an attempt to bring awareness to the ocean and its plights.  

Shawn Heinrichs and Hannah Fraser on Wetpixel

Shawn and Hannah have collaborated on several conservation campaigns, most notably a whale shark fashion shoot and the Manta’s Last Dance film. Wetpixel has featured their images in this week’s Full Frame and caught up with them (in between trips) to ask them a few questions:


Wetpixel: How did you come up with the idea of pairing Hannah with wild animals?

I have admired Hannah’s work for quite awhile now and for years we had been trying to connect on a project. When we came up with this project, it is hard to imagine a better candidate who would bring such sincerity, competence and passion to delivering! My specialty underwater has been capturing unique and exciting encounters with the ocean”s most charismatic marine life . I have a passion for sharks, mantas rays and cetaceans. This passion has taken me to some of the most remote locations on the planet to document the greatest spectacles in the ocean. 

But, I have also been fighting to stop the destruction that has been wiping these vulnerable creatures off the face of the earth. Documenting this destruction and sharing it with the world has certainly raised awareness but has failed to stop the devastation. My imagery of this destruction has gone far and wide in global press over the years, with features covered in most major media outlets. 

As important as this sounds, I have been saddened by the realization that most people have STILL remained ignorant or even uninterested in destruction happening in our oceans, and as a result the destruction has only continued.

It finally struck me when I realized that I was speaking the 1% of the converted, the believers, but I was not reaching the other 99% of the population in whose hands the fate of the oceans rests. My mission is not to raise awareness, but rather to inspire action and drive change. 

What I discovered is that most people are not that interested in the oceans or the creatures within them. Most people are focused on their daily lives, and influenced by pop culture and fashion. After a long days work, they want to relax, they want to be entertained - not be reminded of how bad it is. So they turn to mainstream media outlets to escape. And this is where we need to get our message, at first subtly, but then leading to decisive action.

People connect with other people far more readily than they do with abstract and strange looking marine life that they never experience in their “real” lives. As such, they have little or no sense of connection and compassion for these animals when they are being exploited. This is where our imagery featuring humans and marine creatures comes in. I believe that art is an essential tool in halting the destruction of threatened species. By connecting people with the beauty and vulnerability of marine species, we ignite a new level of curiosity and passion for the oceans. And through this connection, I hope the world will ultimately share my passion for these creatures and be inspired to act before it is too late.

Wetpixel: What compelled you to tackle such a Herculean task, we know underwater fashion photography is tricky in itself, but then adding the unpredictable wild animal element? 

As discussed above, we must connect humans with these animals in an exciting, engaging, yet intimate manner. The connection between humans and marine life can reach far broader audiences, getting our message outside the dive and conservation communities, and reach the rest of the world!

Wetpixel: How long did it take to plan for each shoot?

We spent months planning each shoot. Hannah and I are both perfectionists and committed to not only delivering our best, but really setting the bar beyond reach. We want to create imagery that is surreal, that captures the imagination, and draws people in. To accomplish this requests extensive knowledge and experience shooting these animals, understanding their behavior, targeting the best environmental conditions, yet being prepared to deal with the worst possible conditions! It also requires understudying what materials, outfits, model poses will achieve the best results. Between Hannah and I, each with many years of experience in our respective specialties, we have it covered.

Wetpixel: What equipment did you use to capture the images?

I am working close with Berkley and Sterling at Backscatter to ensure I have the absolute best equipment for each shoot. I use Canon 1DX and 5D Mark III cameras, together with nauticam housings and Zen or Nauticam dome ports. Lens choices include the Sigma 15mm fisheye and a 1.4 x teleconvertor. I have used up to 16 Light and Motion SOLA 4000 lights to light up scenes, and also use SOLA 2000s and 1200s on occasion. Lastly, I use a Backscatter Wahoo HD monitor to check focus an framing when shooting video.   Wetpixel: What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

Overcoming incredible challenges we face in these projects is probably the most satisfying part of the job. The absolute mind-meld of creative inspiration when working with Hannah is something incredibly hard to replicate and plays such an important role in the creativity and energy in our shoots.

Wetpixel: Do you have any idea how many dives you have made capturing the images for the two projects?

We have about 3 weeks shooting together on 3 projects so far. Each of these involve months of preparation then incredibly long days on shoot. Many days we are working 18-20 hours from early morning make up to final image upload and review late at night. It is exhausting work!

Wetpixel: Between mantas and Whale Sharks, what were the most challenging animals to photograph and work with?   Whale sharks are far more predictable in their movements which makes them easier to set up shots for. That said, given their immense size, tendency to block out the sun, and difficulty in creating a feeling of connection, it can be very hard to get “THE” shot that really captures the inspiration we are seeking. 

Mantas are naturally more energetic and graceful in their movements and unto themselves, incredibly beautiful creatures to shoot. But they are much faster, more evasive and less predictable. To create situations where they finally approach Hannah and interact comfortable requires incredible patience, effort and work. Forced interactions with mantas simply don”t work and create images that appear intrusive and disconnected. Lastly, the wing position of a manta and its massive size relative to the subject are really important. Slightly off, and the manta appears like an odd shaped orb or not so big relative to Hannah. Given that Hannah only see fuzzy shapes and light when she freedives without a mask, she has to really nail it for us to get the shot. I don”t know anyone else who has the tenacity and skill necessary to achieve what she can.

Wetpixel: Do you believe Manta’s Last Dance had an affect on the CITES vote this past March? Is your work protecting mantas done?

Absolutely. Manta’s Last Dance was the final crescendo in the drive to CITES, the last media push before delegates and nations voted to protect (or not) mantas. Going in to CITES, with less than 2 months left, we realized that the world, and even the delegates of CITES, for the most part has no idea what a manta ray was, often confusing them with a giant sting ray that “killed” Steve Erwin. We needed to dispel that myth and share with the world, the beauty and vulnerability of manta rays that we as divers experience. People protect what they love and we needed the world to suddenly love mantas! The video went viral overnight, with 200K downloads in just 24 hours and features around the world in mainstream press including WIRED, NY Times, Smithsonian, and many others. It was even featured on the front page of the Bali Post! 

All this said, the success at CITES was a result of years of work by a number of groups and individuals focused on ending the slaughter of manta rays. This included scientists, conservationists, photographers, film makers, diver operations, and concerned citizens. The manta Ray of Hope project, an initiative supported by WildAid and Shark Savers, served to unify these individuals and groups, and enable a global campaign to protect manta rays.

Our work is not over by a long way. manta fisheries for domestic consumption continue in many regions, most nations have yet to implement CITES regulations for mantas (they have 18 months to do so) and mantas continue to get captured as by catch in fisheries around the world. We must now focus on serious national protection for mantas in key range states….and we are doing just that. Look for exciting news soon on that front!

Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat to manta Rays? Similarly, what is the greatest threat to sharks?

The greatest threat to manta rays to day is unsustainable exploitation to satisfy the gill raker trade. For sharks, targeting by industrial and coastal fisheries fueled by the shark fin trade. 

Wetpixel: So mantas and Whale Sharks, what’s next?

We just completed another exciting project with mantas that will be released shortly. We have project that we completed with certain species of cetaceans that we are waiting to release. Our next project involve whales and “should” be very cool!

Wetpixel: Do you think that photographers can be a force for good or change? Do you think that pro photographers are seeking to engage more with marine issues? The documentation of the shark fin trade for example seems to have raised public awareness, is this a sign of things to come?

Yes, yes and yes. Especially given that we are making our living from documenting the beauty marine creatures, we have a duty, no an obligation to work harder to project them. In our hands, the photographers and film makers, we have the tools to inspire the world to care more and take action now to drive critical change in how we use our oceans.

Wetpixel: What is your most hair-raising (underwater) event so far? The most difficult shoot technically? Additionally, which shoot has been the most demanding physically?

When I consider our most difficult shoot together, hands down it was mantas Last Dance in Hawaii. The shoot presented us with massive technical requirements, an 8 person in water production crew to orchestrate, safety hazards, difficult sea conditions, large mantas appearing and disappearing without warning, chilly water conditions, long days and late nights, and much more. Lastly and most significantly, the physical and technical challenges faced by Hannah required such incredible skill, sacrifice, suffering and dedication, it was beyond comprehension. I don”t know of anyone else who could have pulled this off with such grace and elegance!

Wetpixel: How much post processing do you do? How much is acceptable?

Many folks ask me this. The honest answer is a fair amount. Each image is a personal expression of our passion and art. As such, they must be all they can be. Contras, saturation, curves and gradients are the primary elements I work with. I do have hard rules that for me are important to my message - that these images, as surreal as they may appear, are very much real. As such, I don”t add anything to the image that wasn’t there in the original image. I can can remove things such as scatter, debris, noise, and unwanted objects (a divers fin for example). I want my images to be art, not exact replicas. If you want those, shoot 50mm lens, fixed ISO, and no processing. As soon as you use lights, fisheye, and any post, you are now modifying reality. Where you draw that line is based on your own personal views and objectives. Mine is to create surreal expressions of very real experiences that captivate viewers and inspire them to act! 

Wetpixel: Media rich capture devices are blurring the creative process. How do you see the future with still cameras catching video, cell phones capturing hi res images and video, and people looking at them on tablet computers?

The future of convergence is already very much upon us. So many video shooters now shoot with SLRs and many still shooters are rapidly becoming quite competent in video. Mixed media (stills, video, animation, etc) are now all part of a single production process and viewing experience. All my films now include these elements, elegantly and creative woven together to create a story. I often say that still images capture a moment and video tells a story. With the convergence we are now capturing moments, telling stories and delivering a much better end user experience.

Wetpixel:  How did you manage to make underwater photography your profession? What advice would you give to people wanting to emulate your career now?

Underwater photography (and video) started as a hobby for me. I realized over time that there was nothing I wanted to do more, so I committed to letting go of my prior job and giving it a go. From the outset I committed to not compromising and avoided seeking other employment to pay the bills. I realized if I became dependent on alternative income sources, it would only prolong my transition time or even prevent it. Though highly risky financially, it forced me to focus and commit to being the best I could be and to always delivering on my client commitments. Overtime this commitment has paid off and enabled me to make my entire living off my photography and film work.

My advice to other wanting to get into this profession is to think long and hard about it. If you want to do this as more than a hobby, you mush be ready to work twice as hard for a fraction of the income you can earn in other professions. You must love it, eat, sleep and breath it if you want to succeed. You must also be a person comfortable with uncertainty, unpredictability, inconsistent hours, last minute scheduling, and very long hours. In short you must be sure you are truly passionate about the profession and committed to making the necessary sacrifices to succeed at it. But, if you are that person, I can say with certainty, this is incredibly rewarding and inspiring profession and I cannot imagine doing anything else!

Shawn Heinrichs and Hannah Fraser on Wetpixel


Wetpixel: How did you come up with the idea of pairing yourself with wild animals?

My greatest passion is swimming with large ocean animals. I’ve swam with whales, great white sharks, seals, manta rays, turtles, whale sharks and many others in an attempt to bring awareness to the decreasing numbers of these species due to pollution, overfishing and eco-degradation. Shawn”s equal passion for these animals met it”s match in me, and we have formed the “dream team” to capture these moments of humans in harmony with nature to inspire the world to care for these sentient beings better. I’ve never worked with anyone else who had such a focused work ethic and such incredible skill in the water to capture the exact moments of these once in a lifetime encounters!

Wetpixel: Hannah, you were the first to make Mermaid a full time profession, what was your motivation for pursuing this as a career? How long have you been working as a professional underwater model?

I’ve been a professional mermaid for 11 years.. I”m the first freelance mermaid to travel the world full time, working on numerous projects such as music video clips, films, photo shoots, live events and eco projects.

As a kid I naturally swam with my legs together and felt totally comfortable underwater. I used to go to the library to research where I could find mermaids in real life! I was so frustrated that no-one seemed to be able to tell me. When I saw the film Splash when I was 9 years old, I realized it was my dream to have a tail too, and created my first mermaid tail with the help of my artistic and supportive mother.

I have always been fascinated by mermaids.. as a child I drew stick figures with tails! I continued making mermaid art for 20 years.. and was also modeling and costume designing.. at one point all my passions converged and I became the living example of my artistic dreams.

I feel incredibly lucky that I have a talent that allows me a public voice to campaign for causes and issues that I feel strongly about. This is the part of my job that gives me most satisfaction, where I feel like I can be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. The ocean creatures are unique, magnificent, intelligent and imperative to our world’s ecosystem to keep everything balanced. Seeing these animals diminishing in number around the planet, getting sick from pollution, being slaughtered by humans and fished into extinction breaks my heart. I decided to create beautiful images of the connection possible between humans and ocean creatures to inspire people around the world to protect and love them. 

Wetpixel: What motivated you to shoot fashion underwater with wild animals?

Both of our approach to creating imagery seems to be: if it was easy, don”t bother doing it!!

We both want to create art that is so far advanced it looks like it”s surreal. But all of it actually happened. 

The challenges we faced would have made many think twice about continuing but we are both so passionate about the reason we are doing these shoots.. which is to bring awareness to the ocean and it”s endangered animals.. that we are willing to push past the normal breaking point!

Wetpixel: How long did it take to plan for each shoot?

We both put months of planning into each shoot. We conceptualize the ideas, and story lines together, and then storyboard it. We have a very particular vision that we are aiming for. The funny thing is that we are actually choreographing what the animals will do and how I will interact with them.. and yet, of course you can”t actually plan any of that with wild animals! But somehow every time I work with Shawn, things magically work out the way we envisioned them!

Wetpixel: Hannah, how long can you hold your breath? Any advice for free diving photographers?

I have practiced yoga and breath work my whole life, which is invaluable in free diving. I can hold for about 2 minutes at present. I also dance a lot to create a flexible spine and keep up my cardio fitness, and I eat a healthy vegetarian diet. A lot of being comfortable underwater is to do with your fear levels, and your surrender to being in a different environment. I find it mediative and calming, which slows down the heart rate and therefore requires less oxygen to the brain. If you can get into a semi trance-like state and breath slowly and deeply before entering the water your skills will increase a lot.    Wetpixel: What was the most enjoyable part of the project?

Swimming with manta rays is like meeting alien creatures. They’re the most gloriously graceful beings under the sea. They’re so relaxed, so smooth and so aquiline. They make me feel ashamed of my own movements.. I just want to be as graceful as they are! I experienced such beautiful moments like swimming upside down belly to belly with a huge four-meter manta ray and blowing bubbles onto its tummy as it flew like a massive bird above me with the sun rays filtering down around it”s graceful shape. It was just bliss for me.

Wetpixel: Do you have any idea how many dives you have made capturing the images for the two projects?

We have probably shot for about 18 days total to create 3 separate projects so far. We were pulling 16 hour days in Hawaii to achieve the manta ray shoot, and also fit in extra shoots with all the other amazing marine life in Kona!

The making of “mantas Last Dance” from NINETEEN87 on Vimeo.

Wetpixel: Between mantas and whale sharks, what were the most challenging animals to photograph and work with?

Both are amazing animals to shoot with. The advantage of both is that they are very docile and harmless creatures. Of course you need to be very aware of their behavior and movements so as not to get in their way and inadvertently get “fin-slapped” by accident, as they are huge powerful animals. Whale sharks are generally on trajectory and you can interact with them as they sail past if you position yourself correctly. This take s a lot of knowledge and understanding of how they move, their speed and behavior. They have very rough skin like sandpaper, so you want to make sure you don”t touch them or vice versa, as well as not bothering them in any way. 

manta rays are harder to see as they are smaller and they swim lower below the surface. Sometimes they will be curious and spend time swimming near you and if you are lucky you will encounter a “twirling” manta ray, doing graceful somersaults near the surface, exposing their white bellies to the light and spinning around you numerous times. Positioning yourself to connect with a manta ray is a little more challenging than a whale shark as they can change course so quickly.

Wetpixel: Do you believe mantas Last Dance had an affect on the CITES vote this past March? Is your work protecting mantas done?

As long as mantas are still being killed, our work is never done. The protection we achieved at Cites by listing them as endangered species is just the first step. We have just completed another manta ray shoot that will be a follow up to manta’s last dance, to keep the pressure on to uphold the new law, and expose more people to the beauty of these incredible animals. We timed the release of manta”s last dance to hit the world media just 2 weeks before the Cites meeting, as well as being showcased at the convention itself, and I believe the international awareness and interest this created certainly helped the new law to be put in place.

Wetpixel: What is the greatest threat mantas and sharks?

At the moment, the numbers of sharks and manta rays being finned is astronomical, and is a senseless, needless loss of these animals lives. The use of these fins in food is just a “fad” and an unfounded superstitious belief that they hold some kind of magical power of virility or health tonic. This is killing over 100 million sharks per year!!

Bycatch in commercial fisheries is also a major threat, especially bottom trawl fisheries. Habitat degradation is also an issue, affected by climate change, pollution and destruction of breeding and feeding grounds such as mangroves and reefs. 

Wetpixel: So, mantas and whale sharks have been completed what’s next? 

We are going to highlight whales next as there is an added threat of them being delisted as protected animals. At the moment a handful of countries have still been slaughtering whales under the loophole of “scientific research”. With the delisting, it would be open season on an already beleaguered species that has been decimated by commercial fishing over the last 100 years. THey are a highly intelligent, sentient species with complex family units that should be cherished and protected.   Wetpixel: What has been your most challenging shoot so far?

My most challenging shoot I have personally done is swimming with great white sharks some years back!! But that’s another story!

The most physically and technically challenging shoot Shawn and I have done together is the midnight manta shoot in Kona, Hawaii.

So many things have to be in alignment to make a shoot this challenging come together successfully.. Weather, swell, water visibility, animal interaction, the model”s underwater ability, safety divers, lighting, temperature, and of course cameraman skill! I was tied down 30 ft deep to the ocean floor with 50 pounds of weights on one ankle, a huge swell pushing me back and forth onto the sharp reef, with viper eels occasionally wrapping around my legs, holding my breath for minutes at a time, unable to see clearly without goggles, in freezing cold water at midnight with huge wild mantas of up to 15 ft wide brushing up against my head.