Photograph courtesy Evolve IMG via Shannon Switzer
Name: Shannon Switzer
Place of Birth: Encinitas, CA
Current City: Vista, CA
Occupation: Water Conservationist, Freelance Writer & Photographer
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I think it changed daily, probably even several times a day. The most popular ones were a zoo veterinarian, Shamu’s trainer, and a biologist (although I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what a biologist actually did).
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 rainforests and on the coral reefs. Seeing how the freshwater system that ran through the rainforests directly impacted the health of the coral reefs fascinated me. Prior to this I hadn’t given the connection between fresh water and the ocean much thought.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to freshwater?
The ironic part about my dedication to conserving fresh water is my love for its salty cousin. Don’t get me wrong, I love exploring rivers, lakes and waterfalls and 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 many friends and acquaintances that have contracted life-threatening illnesses from immersing themselves in contaminated ocean water. For the Source to Sea project I recently completed, partially funded by a Young Explorer’s Grant from National Geographic, I trekked and photographed the seven major watershed systems in San Diego County -- the fifth most populous county in the United States -- to document what sources of pollutants and man-made obstructions they run through on their way down to the ocean. I also conducted interviews with people involved in organizations working in the area to protect both the fresh and coastal waters.
What I found was a gaping hole in the connection between how these two ecosystems are viewed and therefore approached when it comes to conservation and management, despite how interconnected the systems inherently are. I’m still not sure the best way to overcome this. There are a few organizations in San Diego that are moving in this collaborative direction, so that is positive. Perhaps, in the near future, I’ll have to start my own organization specifically addressing this issue.
For now I plan to use the imagery I gathered from the project to demonstrate the connection between the two worlds. To show people the beauty of the backcountry that isn’t usually associated with San Diego and how the water that flows through it ends up in our oceans. The question is: how do we keep the pure snowmelt that feeds the watersheds clean by the time it reaches the sea? Any solutions we develop towards this in San Diego can be applied in major cities across the United States and potentially the world, so it is not an isolated system. I find this universal effectiveness of potential solutions very encouraging.
What’s a normal day like for you?
Oh boy. Just like what I wanted to be when I grew up, 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, horse back 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, 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).
If you could have people do one thing to help save freshwater, what would it be?
Use reusable items instead of throwaway products, i.e. 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.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
One of the most interesting water-related things I’ve photographed lately was an algae farm near the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley. A masters student from Scripps at University of California San Diego, Kristian Gustavson, was based there for a few weeks to farm and harvest algae to produce enough biofuel to race in the Baja 1000. If he succeeds, he will be the first to race it entirely on biofuel.
We were outside most of the day in the 110-degree heat, as I photographed him straining the green algae biomass from the collection tank, raking it out on sheets of black webbing and letting it bake in the sun.
I learned that algal biofuel is a carbon neutral fuel, because while growing algae convert massive amounts of CO2 to Oxygen. I also learned that algae need a nutrient dense environment to thrive. This is exciting, because it means that if algae were produced on a large scale for biofuel, we could use wastewater runoff as its medium for growth. We could capture the traditionally toxic wastewater that is known to cause harmful algal blooms in lakes, rivers and the ocean and use it to produce fuel.
Although the assignment was a scorcher, I loved getting out to this desert region and learning more about this exciting alternative energy that’s still in development.
What are your other passions?
I love sailing on lakes and in the ocean, though I hardly ever get time to do it anymore. It’s something I want to get better at. I’d eventually like to captain my own boat around the world.
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 hanging out with family, playing games and eating big meals together. I also love getting out on the town with friends dancing, seeing shows (concerts, theatre, movies etc) and going to festivals, especially those that involve sampling local cuisines, wine and/or microbrews.
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