Travel has always been a vehicle for impact in my book. When I head off around the world, I do so purposefully and find as many opportunities as I can to give back and create art as activism.
When I first learned about the work of biologist and artist Spencer Arnold at the New Heaven Conservation Program in Koh Tao, Thailand, I knew I wanted to bring attention to his efforts.
Spencer creates underwater sculptures out of materials that coral propagates can settle and grow on. In addition, he helps head a coral nursery program where corals can be grown and transplanted out onto the artificial reef sculptures he creates.
Coral nurseries and artificial reefs are forms of active reef restoration aimed at increasing coral health, diversity, and abundance. Corals are colonial organisms which reproduce primarily asexually to grow larger or to repair damaged tissues.
Thanks to this asexual reproduction, scientists are able to grow new coral colonies from smaller or naturally broken pieces of coral called fragments. Many large coral colonies break due to many different threats such as large storms and waves, boat anchors and collisions, fishing nets, or irresponsible diving and snorkeling practices.
These broken corals, when rolling around the sand, have almost no chance of survival, and usually die. But, by securing these fragments in areas that provide the corals with proper growing conditions they can be rehabilitated, nursed back to a mature colony size, and then transplanted back out onto the reef or artificial reef structures.
Spencer's ‘Tree Of Life’ installation stole my heart and despite being 30 feet underwater and my freediving skills being nearly non-existent at the time, I made a plan.
Photographer Peter Rimkus and I decided we’d try to create an image series I was calling ‘Let There Be Life,’ where I held a coral prop backlit with a Lumecube swimming into the heart of this underwater tree installation. We recruited Bastien Soleil and an intern from the New Heaven program to be our safety divers.
The catch? I would have to have a scuba diver bring me down and swim air in and out between takes. As an advanced open water diver, I figured this would be a challenge but not particularly difficult. What I didn't account for was how cold it was at 30 feet underwater, nor how different buoyancy control was breathing off compressed air, nor the fact that I was basically blind once my mask was off, waiting with my life in someone else's hands I'd just met for air to swim its merry way back to me while my contractions hit.
Further, there was no bail-out option. Surfacing on my own if I was out of air wasn't possible because once you're breathing compressed air, technically, you need to slowly come up and do a safety stop.
In essence, it was way more frightening than I anticipated because I hadn't trained any of the indivudal components in preparation, as I normally do with my underwater performances. I simply didn't know what those individual components were at the time. Now I do.
After a few takes, I was freezing already and my mind had completely psyched me out. We had to call it.
I hate to disappoint others or miss the mark on a concept, but I called it when we needed to. Knowing when to stop is even more important than knowing how to push forward at all cost. Luckily, we did end up with a few shots and it left me determined to return to Koh Tao, with improved underwater skills.
Among a myriad of other reasons, I’m so excited to return this year in October to Thailand for my underwater movement and healing retreat. I can’t wait to see what new installations have been created and the coral life that is regenerating because of them.
Art director & model: Christine Ren
Photographer: Peter Rimkus
Safety diver: Bastien Soleil