Shannon Switzer is a photographer and passionate conservationist.

Photograph courtesy Evolve IMG via Shannon Switzer

Birthplace: Encinitas, California

Current City: Vista, California

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

When I was little, I actually wanted to be an animal. I would literally run around on all fours pretending to be a dog, horse, cheetah, dolphin—I morphed into different animals all the time. Alas, at the end of the day I was still human, so by the time I got to middle school and high school, I had moved on to wanting to be a zoo veterinarian or trainer at SeaWorld. I also always loved writing, but for some reason I never declared that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I've always loved the outdoors, the mountains and ocean alike, and growing up in San Diego allowed me to explore both of these diverse ecosystems. At the University of California Santa Barbara I doubled in Environmental Studies and Biological Sciences, which gave me ample opportunity to get out in the field.

This was especially true when I studied abroad in Australia, where I worked both in the rain forests and on the coral reefs. Seeing how the freshwater system that ran through the rain forests directly impacted the health of the coral reefs fascinated me. Prior to this I hadn't given the connection between freshwater and the ocean much thought.

My time in Australia was also where I began exploring the art of photography and reporting on my discoveries in the field to friends and family back home.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to freshwater?

The ironic part about my dedication to conserving freshwater is my love for its salty cousin. Don't get me wrong, I love exploring rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, and I know that freshwater is our most precious and limited resource on Earth—we can't live without it. Freshwater is life. That alone is enough reason to be dedicated to preserving it.

However, the true driving force behind my obsession with keeping freshwater clean is my desire to keep the ocean clean. As a surfer and free diver, I know several friends and acquaintances who have contracted life-threatening illnesses from immersing themselves in contaminated ocean water. The scary part is we've almost started accepting this as a normal occurrence, when it should not be happening at all.

My belief that we should be able to enjoy spending time in our rivers, lakes, and oceans without worrying about it adversely affecting our health is what motivates me daily.

What's a normal day like for you?

Oh boy. This never seems to stay the same. Lately I've been spending way too much time on my computer building a new website, writing a book and various articles, and editing photos. It never seems to end! Even so, I have to get outside at least once a day to go trail running, swimming, surfing, horseback riding, hiking, anything outside. When I'm working on a project or assignment, I get to be in the field all day and often all night. I enjoy those days the most.

I also love being on the go, especially in places foreign to me. If I could, I'd be traveling in some shape or form 360 days a year (and would have to find a green mode of transport to sustain it).

Do you have a hero?

I add a new hero to my list every day. I'm always encouraged by the incredible number of people who are using their skills to effect positive change in their field of interest.

However, over the years, my unwavering conservation heroes have included Sylvia Earle, Rachel Carson, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Goodall, underwater photographer Brian Skerry, and I'd have to say Steve Irwin. (Even though I know he was controversial, I think he got millions of people otherwise not interested in the natural world to pay attention.)

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

A moment that will always be frozen in time for me occurred when I was photographing whale sharks in the Seychelles Islands. I had been following a shark who suddenly disappeared down to the depths. I brought my head up out of the water to determine where the rest of my small team had gone. To my surprise, they were now nearly a half mile away, apparently on the path of a different shark. When I put my head back in the water to try to swim closer to them and our boat, I discovered another whale shark directly beneath me, so close that I nearly kicked him with my fins.

I wasn't sure if it was the same one that had disappeared only seconds earlier, but this one seemed as interested in me as I was in him. We swam together slowly, side by side for nearly 20 minutes. Fortunately, he was headed in the direction of my team. Once we had nearly reached them though, he paused. I stopped too, and he stared at me with his curious round eye and then turned and headed in the direction from where we had just come.

Though I had experienced other friendly encounters with whale sharks prior to him, this one had seemed more personal. For me (and I'm sure most wildlife lovers), there's always something surreal about spending time with a wild animal that has chosen to approach and hang out on its own terms. In this case, I felt like I'd made a new friend and had been so mesmerized, I'd completely forgotten to use my camera at all!

What are your other passions?

I love sailing, though I hardly ever get time to do it anymore. I'd like to continue improving my skills with it and eventually captain my own boat around the world. I also love singing but am terrible at it.

What do you do in your free time?

Anytime I spend outdoors feels like free time, even when I'm on assignment. But other than outdoor activities, I love spending time with family, playing games and eating big meals together. I also love getting out on the town with friends dancing, seeing shows (concerts, theater, movies, etc.,) and going to festivals, especially those that involve sampling local cuisines, wine, and microbrews.

If you could have people do one thing to help reduce the human impact on the planet, what would it be?

Use reusable items whenever possible instead of throwaway products, such as stainless steel water bottles instead of plastic ones. It amazes me how simple this is and how few of my friends and colleagues do it, even people who I know care about the environment. It's a matter of changing habits. Once people learn to switch to reusable items, they reduce the amount of trash created (most often plastic), which reduces use of water needed to create the products and reduces the amount of trash that ends up in our rivers and streams.

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