The Wonders Of The Deep
Are you fuelled by curiosity? One woman dives into the captivating and serene world of the ocean to find out how photographer and marine scientist Oriana Poindexter captures its beautiful yet unknown secrets
By Margarita Schwiebert
I watch the bright sun reflect the iridescent shimmer from Oriana Poindexter’s underwater camera housing into the lens of my mask. I motion the “okay?” sign through the deep blue and she mirrors me before we descend. One thought remains as I work to clear my mind for the dive, trying to release my thoughts of anything that may consume extra oxygen. I am about to be the subject of one of my favourite underwater photographers. Her work is what led me to this very moment in time: in the waters off the Big Island of Hawaii, on a freediving retreat with a group of 12 other women divers. It’s just us two for now; we’ve split up into smaller groups to ensure that each novice diver is paired with a more experienced one.
Before we take one last deep breath, I think for a moment about how, just about a year ago, I skipped class to attend her talk at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA. I came across her underwater photos online, and became so curious about the serenity and mystery of the sea that her work evoked. The images elegantly capture the realism of scientific inquiry, while simultaneously conveying the sort of creativity that makes the connection between science and art as inextricably linked rather than opposing subjects. Her detailed observations and storytelling was illustrated with raw, meticulously taken photographs, void of the heavy filters that tend to dramatise and idealise the ocean. I remember sitting in that aquarium theatre chair, astounded at one of Oriana’s images – a macro image of a baby abalone. How did I not know that abalone had eyes?!
These images seemed to be hopeful, encapsulating the minute details of tiny creatures, the grandiosity of the kelp forests, and the curiosity that fuelled these explorations. Her presentation that day left me wondering about just what it felt like to be below the ocean’s surface, as a quiet observer amid calm scenes of ocean life, carrying on effortlessly and powerfully all at once, despite the challenges humanity has thrown at it. After a tumultuous and isolating college experience, these images seemed like a path toward a deeper connection with something more expansive than the campus bubble I had been living in. I left the aquarium that night, hyper-aware of the reality that the patterns and colours of the underwater world would quietly continue shifting and growing; it would be my choice to inquire about it.
Now, here I am, suspended in the sparkly blue hues of my dreams – a culmination of committing again and again to a deep-seated curiosity. As I reap the fruits of this intentional commitment, I’m flooded with childlike glee, freediving in Hawaiian waters alongside an individual whose art and lifestyle seemed far out of reach just a year ago. We’re unbounded by the status and social roles that we lock ourselves into on land. It’s just a seasoned diver and a novice one, both taking in the mysteries of natural archways, moulded by volcanic rock, coral heads, and the power of the ocean.
We make our way down and through the wide opening of the archway and emerge breathlessly toward the surface in what feels like slow motion. I try my best to focus on the details, relax my muscles, and extend my finned kicks. We emerge towards the surface again, and our buoyancy increases as we get closer to breaking the surface of the sun-soaked water. We recover our breaths, check in with each other, and back down we go.
It’s dark now. Oriana’s driving, and I’m in the passenger seat of a super hip Honda minivan rental full of retreaters. We’re on our way to Kilauea volcano, and I flip through the radio channels, scanning through country music, classic rock, and country again. I give up my pursuit and lower the volume to ask Oriana about how she connected with Grace, the retreat leader and freediving instructor. It turns out that I’m not the only one that has been persuaded by her imagery: when they met, Grace’s curiosity was similarly sparked to explore the ocean’s depths rather than its surface. At the time, Grace was working at a local San Diego nonprofit as a surf therapist, but quickly grew curious about the therapeutic benefits of freediving. Oriana admits that when she first took Grace out freediving, she herself didn’t know all that much about freediving technique either, just enough to offer tips, like taking out your snorkel before diving down so it didn’t flood with water.
Although they were navigating different stages of the freediving experience, they connected with each other in their shared curiosity and explored them together. Today, Grace is the owner of Saltwater Bodywork, a massage studio that offers freediving courses that she leads. She has expertly paired her ocean knowledge with her healing work to provide a mindfulness approach to her courses. As someone who has grown up as a competitive athlete and had my fair share of coaches, I found immense healing in her mindfulness approach as one of her students. Before each diving session, we’re instructed to meditate and relax every muscle in our body, holding onto the float and slowing our heart rates, letting our bodies relax to the rhythm of the sea. Many freediving teams come to Kona to break records because of the warm water temperatures and calm, clear conditions, but with Grace, freediving is a modality to slow the brain and body, and to deepen the connection with ourselves and the natural world.
While Grace focuses on the healing nature of the sea, Oriana works to evoke awe, wonder, and respect through her visual art. She admits that occupying this space can be tricky – she often feels tension approaching the idealised and politicised space of environmental work with her natural pragmatism. With a background in fisheries science, Oriana believes we need to maintain a functional, two-way relationship with the ocean and its resources – and not to simply block it off as a recreational playground.
She shares this view through her art practice now, which is centred around the use of specimens collected from the ocean to create life-size cyanotype works, and connects with the San Diego community by teaching cyanotype workshops. This art form is one of the earliest forms of photography, and famously pioneered by Anna Atkins, a British botanist, in the mid-1800s. Oriana carries on this legacy by primarily using seaweed species she collects when freediving off the coast of San Diego. She loves using giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) because of its incredible scale–many conservationists liken this seaweed to the California Sequoias because of their immensity (100 ft+!) and their ability to sequester carbon from the surrounding water.
Oriana’s workshops continue to fuel public curiosity and appreciation for seaweed by exposing people to its visual beauty while growing awareness of its benefits as a regenerative resource. Oriana is at the forefront of this type of interactive, creative ocean education through her cyanotype practice and other ocean-related projects. During the Kona retreat, we were able to document our experience visually by creating cyanotypes, which allowed us to bring home a record of the flora and fauna without removing them from their native Hawaiian ecosystem.
I’m back at home, glancing at my framed Monstera cyanotype, reminiscing on my experience in Kona. When I arrived at the retreat, I noticed that those who went on the retreat gravitated towards healing as a profession or were seeking it out personally: we were a group comprised of massage therapists, a nutritionist, a family counselor, a cancer survivor, ex-competitive athletes, environmentalists, all with our own lived experiences but sharing the magnetic pull toward the ocean. Our medium is water, and maybe ideas and dreams are subconscious yearnings for healing the wounds of the past.
Although elite sports training has given me a long road ahead on my path to peace, I’ve found a practice that may get me closer to a healthier relationship with my body and the ocean. The group now often refers to each other as the “Seasters,” which is cringy and silly and hilarious all at once, similar to the silly names you might create at summer camp growing up. I live for these silly summer camp feelings.
Oriana reflects a similar sentiment on relationships cultivated in the water:
“Most of my closest friends today are those I can spend time in the water with. I’m lucky to spend a lot of time in the ocean, whether diving to take photographs or collect cyanotype materials, or swimming and surfing for fun and exercise. The friendships that evolve out of that quality time spent in the ocean together are the ones that I treasure most. They are based on an unspoken understanding that values what the ocean provides for each of us, and we each translate that into our lives on land in our own ways.”
In the midst of my existential dread about environmental disaster, a seed of hope sprouts. Maybe diving deeper into ourselves and our natural worlds can set us on our own path to healing, together.