When it comes to fulfilling one’s dreams, it’s always interesting to learn the journey that brings an explorer, entrepreneur or artist to their destiny.
One might not expect a woman with a fear of the water, living in the city and working in IT to one day find herself immersed in the deep ocean, photographing wild orcas and beluga whales. But for Ellen Cuylaerts, that was exactly the case.
Originally from Belgium, Cuylaerts holds a master’s degree in modern history and education. Although the art of photography had always captured her interest, she had never pursued it. It was a family decision to relocate from their industrialised surroundings that would eventually pave her way beneath the waves after both of Cuylaerts’ children, as well as her husband, were diagnosed with autism. In 2009, recognising the power of nature and desiring to distance themselves from their busy city life, the family decided to relocate to the Cayman Islands.
It wasn’t until June 2011 that Cuylaerts decided to push past her fear of deep water and take up scuba diving. Soon, she was combining it with her childhood dream of photography, a move that would open her up to a new world, both professionally and creatively. An incredible talent bloomed, as well as a passion to spread awareness of the ocean’s delicate ecosystem and to contribute to its preservation. Cuylaerts’ work has now been exhibited all over the globe, and in 2014 she was inducted into the Ocean Artist Society.
For Cuylaerts, having an intimate connection with her subject is essential to her work, and it translates beautifully into her images, capturing the subject’s essence and energy in a way that is both moving and inspiring. She describes it as wearing her heart on her sleeve whilst photographing. “I try to have the connection first. I want the animal to be interested in me, like I am in them,” says Cuylaerts. It’s no small feat, considering one photography session can consist of hours on the water for a mere minutes of interaction with the subject.
For Cuylaerts, photographing the animal in its natural habitat and not simply a setting that would make for an aesthetic image is also of great importance. For example, whilst beluga whales do migrate for short seasons to coastal areas or more shallow waters, Cuylaerts explains that they spend the majority of the year in very cold, dark water. Hence, rather than seeking vibrant images rich in colour, she travels to cold, dark waters, capturing a sharp contrast of the brilliant white mammals in their shadowy world. The results are ethereal photos that are heavy with emotion.
Cuylaerts has photographed a wide variety of large species, from manatees to polar bears. But there is one marine mammal she finds particularly captivating. “I love seals. When you have contact with them, they’re really looking through your soul,” says Cuylaerts. “I love them the most in the very cold, Arctic waters. The contact with the seal, for me, is the most healing, because it’s such an amazing, sunny creature.”
When it comes to sharks, the underwater giants many people fear, Cuylaerts hopes her photos can help challenge the status quo by celebrating them as a central force in the balance of the ocean. Avoiding what she calls “adrenaline shots” — meaning all tooth, speed and ferocity — she seeks to capture images that reflect their elegance and beauty. “I don’t want to impose fear. I never raised my kids with fear. They went in the water with a tiger shark, and they were not afraid,” says Cuylaerts. “They were just very rational about it. I was so proud. They are the best shark ambassadors you can have.”
The family’s journey is documented in the film Epiphany, a story of overcoming fear, the power of art to inspire and spur others to action, and the importance of protecting and preserving the world’s oceans. Earlier this year, Cuylaerts’ journey also led her to the stage of the United Nations General Assembly during World Oceans Day, where she delivered a speech on the crucial role photography plays in conservation. She also announced the winners of the fourth annual World Oceans Day Oceanic Photo Competition. Cuylaerts herself won first and second place in 2014 and 2015 in the areas of category interaction and seascapes.
From office space to reefs and Arctic seas, Cuylaerts’ tale is a true testament to the power of ambition, courage and exploring the full depths of one’s vision. “I decided to step out of my comfort zone and live life to the fullest, challenge myself and do new things, pick up old dreams,” she says. “The moment I experienced the effect my images could have on people and caring for nature, I never doubted that I could be a voice for the underwater world.”
With a rich biodiversity, intricate coral formations and ominous sunken ships, the waters of the Cayman Islands are an exquisite locale for capturing some breathtaking underwater images. Our Carry-on baggage allowance is up to 40 pounds (or up to 15 pounds on Express flights), making it easy to bring your photography equipment with you on your travels. For more information, visit caymanairways.com.
Author: Jessie Gilmartin
Photographer: Ellen Cuylaerts