By Jeannette Hinkle, The Melrose Free Press.
Alex Shure felt a tug on his flipper.
The photographer and Melrose resident turned around to see a 250-pound harbor seal, a rare sight in the cold waters off the coast of Rockport he was exploring with Cape Ann Divers.
In Shure’s experience, seals are either skittish or playful and this pudgy Phocidae was definitely feeling playful – making it the perfect subject for an award-winning photograph.
“It started twirling around and kind of dancing all around me,” Shure remembered. “I probably got to spend about 15 minutes with it. I let the seal do all the work, I just hung around and shot pictures while it was showing off.”
Shure took about 40 photos of the seal about 20 feet below the water’s surface with his Canon 5D Mark III camera. One – a portrait highlighting the five-foot seal’s soulful eyes, splayed whiskers and speckled fur framed by a bright and wavy bed of kelp – was recently awarded the top prize in Mass Audubon’s annual statewide photo contest.
“That wasn’t even my own personal favorite of the photos I took, but I felt like it had some energy behind it that people might connect with,” Shure said. “Maybe just because it was a total cuteness overload.”
His photo shoot with the seal was memorable, but even more enjoyable for Shure is the challenge of shooting the ocean’s more grizzled wildlife.
“There are wolffish and monkfish that are very elusive that you might only see once or twice a year, so nailing a very clean, well-composed image of those knowing you might get five of those images in a lifetime is really exciting for me,” Shure said. “They are the fish with a lot of character, fish that look like they’ve had a hard life.”
These creatures are what make the North Shore of Massachusetts Shure’s favorite spot to dive in the world.
When people think of underwater photography, Shure said, they picture the neon blues and white sands of the Caribbean – the North Atlantic is undeservedly underrepresented.
“It can be gray and menacing at times, but there is a huge variety here that you don’t see in other places,” he said. “It is this submerged mountain of granite. There are these sheer walls, really beautiful, colorful, shallow reefs, really dark and scary places. It’s this incredible variety just offshore.”
It was the mystery of the area’s submerged landscape that originally drew Shure to start diving in his early twenties.
“I have always had that fascination with the water, partly because I was scared of it,” Shure said. “The mystery of not knowing what was under there is kind of what lured me in.”
Though that inscrutability is part of what makes Massachusetts waters so alluring, it can also make local underwater habitats more vulnerable, Shure said.
“I think the ocean and marine animals are hard to conserve because people can’t see them,” Shure said. “It’s not in your face. You’re not driving by a forest that has just been bulldozed to put up a new building or something like that.”
Shure hopes photography like his can play “at least a humble role” in conserving places like the Salvages, where he shot the seal.
“A lot of the destruction and habitat loss that happens underwater is completely unseen by most people,” Shure said. “You rarely see images from colder, more temperate waters up here so I like to be able to share it. The more people share their experiences, whether it is good things or bad things happening, I think that’s important.”
Advances in technology and the rise of social media are making it easier to take underwater photos and share them widely, and Shure said that’s a good thing.
“Even when I started diving just 10 years ago, it was hard to get an underwater camera system without spending thousands and thousands of dollars,” Shure said. “Now anyone can get a GoPro or a little point-and-shoot camera and put it underwater. It’s becoming easier to share and I think that’s a really important part of conserving any space, whether it’s above or under water. People need to see what needs to be helped.”
Shure said he felt honored his photo was selected for the win from more than 4,000 images that were submitted to Mass Audubon in this year’s photo contest. But it’s the sea, not the accolades, that keeps him coming back to the Atlantic.
“I think there are very few activities where you kind of tune everything else out and focus only on what’s there in front of you,” Shure said. “It’s just endlessly inspirational for me.”