Aaron “Bertie” Gekoski took a very long and winding path before he arrived at his current destination. The award-winning photographer, journalist and all round adventurer began his career in the world of modelling before switching to his attentions to his lifelong passions of diving, travel, conservation, and wildlife.
Aaron has taken on some incredibly interesting and hard-hitting projects in recent times, and they include; an undercover mission to expose Namibia’s annual seal cull, pursuing the “turtle mafia” through Madagascar’s forests, and training as an anti-poaching ranger in Zimbabwe. However as mentioned earlier, Aarons main passion is for the underwater world, and this is reflected in his most recent programme, Borneo from Below which charts life behind the scenes at one of the top dive destinations on earth.
After upping sticks and completely changing his career path, it is clear that Aaron is someone who is extremely passionate about wildlife and conservation and we thought that this was an opportunity which was too good to miss! Aaron was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule to talk to us about his adventures, and what got him into the world of animal conservation and travel! Read the results below:
What made you decide to change career paths so drastically, from the world of modelling to the world of travel & animals?
I had been feeling unhappy in the modelling industry and in London for a while. Tax returns, demanding clients, moaning models, a mortgage - it was all a bit much at the tender age of 28. And then a couple of things happened that made me realise I needed out. One (though I cringe admitting it) was watching Into the Wild. That film changed my life! Granted, the character dies in the end, but I was still seduced by his romantic ideals. Another was playing the alter ego game with my family at Christmas. In a parallel universe the person I would have been was David Attenborough, or another of the great explorers. And then it dawned on me: why spend your life fantasising about someone else's?
So I sold my business and after a period of travelling, soul searching and discovering the joys of diving, I signed up to the Wildlife Film Academy based out of Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2009. After that I started exploring various wildlife crises around Africa and went on to shoot films on shark finning in Mozambique and another on elephants in Zimbabwe. I also travelled extensively as a photojournalist and went on a mission to expose Namibia’s annual seal, trained as an anti-poaching ranger in Zimbabwe, lived on a commercial tuna boat off South Africa, pursued the 'tortoise mafia' through Madagascar’s sacred forests, and more. At every turn there were wildlife stories that need more media exposure.
What attracted you primarily to the world of underwater exploration?
Really, we know relatively little about our oceans. In fact - despite the world comprising of over two-thirds ocean - we have only explored around 10% of them. There are still many mysteries, places to be discovered, and important stories to be told. The more I dived, the more I learned what a mess we’re creating. Our oceans are overfished, polluted and rising. For some reason though, ‘conservation’ is still viewed as a dirty word in the media. Mention it to broadcasters and they run a mile! It’s all “deadliest this…” and “scariest that”. There is a lot of sensationalist rubbish out there and it drives me up the wall. We can still tell environmental stories, but do it in an entertaining way. So I decided to try and plug a gap in the market - I call it ‘funservation’. That’s what my new weekly online series, Borneo From Below is all about.
As we have diving projects here at The Great Projects, what would you say to persuade people who have not done diving before to try it out?
There are so so many reasons to try diving. What most people love is being transported to another world. It’s incredibly therapeutic...way better than therapy! Diving with a humpback mother and calf, witnessing manta ray mating trains, taking selfies amongst massive schools of black tip sharks, snorkelling with feeding killer whales, cage diving with great whites...I can safely say that some of my most memorable experiences ever have been underwater. It’s devastating that our children, and our children’s children, might not get the chance to see some of these animals. Do it whilst you can!
As you’ve recently filmed a series out in Borneo , how did you find the island, the people and the wildlife?
Whilst Borneo is renowned for its jungles filled with orangutans and pygmy elephants, beneath the waves it’s also pretty special. Sipadan Island is regularly voted the world’s best dive site and the place to see big animals and even bigger schools of fish. But it’s not just about the larger animals - there are also incredible spots for macro life such as blue ringed octopus, hairy frogfish, flamboyant cuttlefish and more.
In terms of the people, we’ve done lots of filming with the Bajau Laut (aka sea gypsies). This nomadic fishing tribe typically spent their entire lives at sea, almost never setting foot on land. In fact, many actually get land sick! They have adapted so well to life at sea that they can free-dive for minutes on end and plunge to extreme depths. However - in an all too familiar tale - as fish stocks diminish, they are having to travel further and further to catch less fish. Because of this, many are now forming settlements on land. Overfishing has far-reaching consequences.
Sabahans, for their part, are genuinely some of the nicest, most hospitable people I’ve encountered on my travels.
So with that in mind, what has been your favourite destination you have travelled to?
Sipadan Island, off the coast of Borneo takes some beating: massive schools of sharks, bumphead parrotfish, jackfish and of course the torpedoing barracuda. If I had to select one country though, Indonesia is sensational as it’s so diverse: Lembeh has the best macro diving on Earth (rummaging around in muck, unearthing crazy looking critters), whilst Raja Ampat is off the charts for sheer fish life and coral reefs. For adrenaline junkies, South Africa is the shark capital of the world.
…And your favourite animal encounter?
The one stand out moment was snorkelling with feeding killer whales and bull sharks in Mozambique. On our way to a dive, we saw the orcas' unmistakable fins from the surface. They were feeding on what was probably a humpback whale calf not long before. So me and a buddy decided to get in amongst the action. Having the killer whales darting around us and being rushed by bull sharks was an incredible experience. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done though...
We have all seen just how wonderful wildlife can be, but there is a reason you have committed yourself to promoting conservation. So what problems have you seen, human-caused or purely natural, which are threatening natural ecosystems around the world?
I’ve written extensively, and shot films on, the shark finning industry. Every day, 270,000 sharks are killed to satisfy a demand for a nasty bowl of gristle, shark fin soup. Mainly due to this dish, one-third of shark species are threatened with extinction. Removal of a top predator has catastrophic implications for marine ecosystems: everything gets thrown out of kilter. We’re down to less than 3,000 great whites. A world without this creature is unthinkable.
Along with that, many of my projects have focused on overfishing. There are simply too many mouths to feed around the world and we’ve become too good at fishing - nets are laid that could fit a dozen Boeing 747’s, sea beds are wrecked by trawlers, vast longlines discriminate neither by species, nor age. Overfishing is one of the greatest environmental threats of our era.
What do you think is the best way to solve the above issues?
First off, we simply can’t keep having so children: we don’t have the resources to provide for them all. However, try telling this to a rural African family, where infant mortality is through the roof and children are relied upon to support the family. It’s a mind-bogglingly multifaceted issue and there are no easy solutions.
Tourism has a critical role to play in conservation. Studies show a live shark in Borneo is worth up to $800,000 a year. Dead on a market it might be worth $100. Tourism not only brings in much-needed revenue to developing countries, it also helps create jobs. When people are persuaded that a fish is worth more alive than dead, we’ll be getting somewhere. Also, at the moment, only 3% of our ocean is protected - this figure needs increasing. Well managed Marine Parks are the future of marine conservation.
In terms of shark finning, attitudes are beginning to change, but for many species it could be too little, too late. We need keep up the awareness campaigns, get celebrities to endorse a fin-free Asia, and open up diving to the Chinese market. Swim with a shark and learn about the threats it faces and I can guarantee you will no longer eat shark fin soup. Education is vital.
You’ve travelled to some amazing places all over the world and must have taken some amazing pictures in your time, so what is your favourite photo you’ve ever taken?
This changes daily, but for now I like these five shots:
1) Children playing in the waters off Alor, Indonesia
2) Mandarinfish mating in Lembeh, Komodo
3) Sea gypsy girl celebrating Lepa Lepa festival, Borneo
4) Endangered radiated tortoise, Madagascar
5) Diver amongst a school of fish, Cape Town
And last but by no means least, what would you say to others to persuade them to travel like you have?
The world is a big and beautiful place. In the grand scheme of things, we each have a nano-second to appreciate it and make our tiny imprint on it. Do not waste this chance: take risks, push your boundaries, travel, see new cultures, get diving, make life changes.
If Aaron’s passion for travel and conservation has inspired you to explore the world then why not bite the bullet and work with us to create your own adventures, aiding the conservation of animals all over the world. Whether you want to venture underwater and help the Whale Shark, or dive into the incredible waters of the Perhentian Islands and see the varied and vibrant ecosystem, we can help. If you don’t think your sea legs are quite up to a diving trip, then why not visit Borneo, the home of the Orangutan and, as mentioned by Aaron, the incredibly nice and hospitable Sabahans! There is something for everyone, so get your kit ready for your next adventure!
Aaron 'Bertie’ Gekoski is an award-winning photographer, journalist, film-maker, and the in-house presenter at Scubazoo, one of the world’s leading underwater production companies. His work - primarily covering the areas of diving, wildlife and conservation - has been instrumental in bringing important issues on the natural world to a wider public. To see more of his photos, videos and articles, please visit http://www.aarongekoski.com/and to watch his latest series about life around Borneo, please 'like' www.facebook.com/borneofrombelow or visit www.borneofrombelow.com.
Please note, all pictures are credited to Aaron Gekoski apart from the first image, which is credited to Christain Loader.
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Come face to face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators whilst aiding great white shark conservation. As a volunteer, not only will you get the incredible opportunity to dive with sharks, but you will also assist the team in raising awareness of the great white as you work alongside tourists and local school children to provide them with knowledge of the local environment and the importance of living in harmony with South Africa’s marine life.
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