MONTEREY – David Slater grew up observing ocean life through the lens of a disposable camera, the kind with blue shelling and the blurry possibility of developing a glimpse of scenes tucked under swells.
Years later, he’s still snapping shots below sea level but with admittedly better equipment and recognition, the Monterey-based emergency room technician hasn’t quite internalized.
Last month, Slater became one of a handful of winning photographers named in this year’s BigPicture: Natural World Photography Competition, an annual contest of visual prowess put on by the California Academy of Sciences. Slater’s work – a portrait of death entitled “Sea Lion Fall” – was recognized among more than 7,000 photographic entrants. His image took top honor in BigPicture’s “Aquatic Life” category.
“I was literally blown away,” Slater remarked, sitting down for an interview on a day off from working nights at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. “It’s just solidifying that maybe I do have this underwater photography thing down, after all these years of trying to be disciplined and become a better photographer. … I don’t know. It’s just surreal.”
Photographed on a dive off Monterey’s San Carlos beach, “Sea Lion Fall” is the tactful capture of starfish devouring a dead sea lion, settled on the ocean floor. A vivid mosaic of decomposition, Slater’s submission was the culmination of a series of dives to the animal, he explained, taken over two weeks in September.
Though Slater often made regular visits to San Carlos – his go-to for leisurely dives between hospital shifts – an unusual sighting of something unmoving in the sand 40 feet below piqued his curiosity and prompted investigation. Inching closer, Slater saw his subject clearly for the first time, dead with all but its tail tethered to the ground. At that initial visit, just two sea stars laid claim to the corpse, carefully covering its eyes as if a sign of quiet respect.
“I had never seen a dead sea lion like that on the floor, and just the way she was positioned … it reminded me of Greek mythology,” Slater explained, referencing Greek legend where coins would be placed on the eyes of the dead as payment to ensure passage to the afterlife. “As a photographer, it was inspiring. And it woke up the marine scientist in me – and my inner child.”
A self-described “water baby” his entire life, Slater, 32, earned his marine science degree from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in 2012, moving to Oahu after a childhood spent seaside in South Florida. Slater stuck around the island for five more years, picking up seasonal marine science jobs as he searched for a long-term gig. Meanwhile, Slater taught himself the intricacies of underwater photography on the side, frequently spending hours at coffee shops where he’d sift through videos on flash photography or the fundamentals of exposure.
Scuba-certified in 2010, Slater’s passions grew to complement one another, his science-trained eye and daily trips into the water offering ample time and understanding to practice his craft. Eventually, photography “just kind of morphed into a lifestyle,” he said.
But five years ago, Slater hit a roadblock. Stifled by minimal chances for permanent marine science roles in Hawaii, he moved to Monterey hoping for more opportunities. Options, however, remained few. So Slater took a career turn and went into health care. For three years, he worked as an emergency medical technician on an American Medical Response (AMR) ambulance, followed by his most recent move to Community Hospital’s ER.
When not scheduled, Slater still keeps close ties to the ocean, but now it is a break from, rather than for, his job.
“(I’ve discovered) this nice balance. I wanted the ocean to be in my life, but at the end of the day, I’m at a peaceful place where I have to work, and I don’t want to ruin my passion for the ocean by working some job that I don’t want,” he said. “So I kind of fell in love with health care and emergency medicine and helping people.”
And on work days marred by stress, which were inherent to Slater’s career even before the pandemic, the after-hours photographer looks forward to when he can escape underwater.
It’s a coping method Slater used last fall when he found himself “in a very dark period.” Working overtime and uncharacteristically uninspired, Slater resorted to diving. His instincts paid off, the technician’s dive for reprieve taking him to a sea lion slumped in the sand.
“I could almost feel myself getting out of this depression,” he said. “It really rang home of how this passion and this lifestyle completes me.”
Inspired but unsatisfied from his first encounter, Slater worked a night shift and returned to the fallen sea lion the next day, continuing to dive the scene “as much as physically possible” while working full-time.
With each successive trip, more sea stars crowded the placid creature, adding spots of warm-toned hues to its gray body. Two weeks into the discovery, equipped with his usual Nikon adapted for water and two strobes to liven the aquatic setting, Slater took “Sea Lion Fall.”
“I knew it was amazing, even underwater,” he said.
That was the last time Slater saw the sea lion. Though pleased with his previous day’s work, Slater came back the following morning, only to see a group of starfish mysteriously left in the animal’s wake. When asked if he was disappointed by the disappearance, Slater answered a conflicted “yes and no.”
“I would have loved to dive with her until she was this beautiful skeleton… (but) at that point, I was just happy to be part of it,” he said, adding his connection to the scene ran deeper than catching a fleeting moment. “…It touched me personally because working in the emergency field, almost every time I clock in, I’m dealing with death or dying and sickness. Death for me is very much present in my life, and it kind of reminds me of my own mortality.”
For Slater, the stark – and invigorating – wake-up call was reward enough. A nod from the California Academy of Sciences months later, one he went out for only after encouragement from family, friends and fellow photographers, was unexpected affirmation.
Since announcing the award on his Instagram page, where the story behind “Sea Lion Fall” was documented in real-time, Slater admitted “people joke I’m an ‘award-winning photographer now.’” He just smiled, brushing the title off.
“It’s definitely great validation, but I feel the same,” he said.
Pausing to consider what’s next, Slater explained his future is “uncharted territory,” as he harbors unfinished plans for his career in health care. This fall, Slater is set to study nursing at Monterey Peninsula College. He received his acceptance into the school four days after taking first place at BigPicture.
For now, Slater has not wavered in his commitment to earning his associate degree in nursing. But beyond the next two years, Slater is still weighing his choices.
“I kind of see my future as, if I can get through nursing school, maybe I have that to fall back on while I really try to pursue underwater photography,” he said. “But even if it’s how I have it now, with working at the hospital and doing underwater photography … I could see that being very peaceful.”
“Sea Lion Fall” will be displayed as part of an exhibition of BigPicture’s 2022 winners and runners-up beginning Sept. 30 at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. A full view of honorees can be found at https://www.bigpicturecompetition.org/2022-winners.
Contributed by local news sources