From the Huckberry Journal: Andy Mann is ‘A Voice for the Oceans’

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Andy Mann takes a long pull on a Pacifico and drops a pair of dice into a weathered brown cup. “Sailor shit,” he calls out with a chuckle, giving the dice a vigorous shake before rolling them across the backgammon board. For Andy and his colleagues at SeaLegacy, these are rare moments of calm after long days of shooting in complex, chaotic, sometimes dangerous, but always epic marine environments.

The organization’s expeditions often visit locations familiar to those who grew up watching reruns of Cousteau’s Silent World, or reading faded yellow editions of National Geographic; names like “Galapagos” and “Revillagigedo,” or “Timor-Leste.” But this mission doesn’t have Andy and the team quite so far off the grid— we’re moored in the harbor just outside La Paz, a sleepy port town halfway down the Baja Peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. Perhaps best known in the world of motorsports as the finishing line for the seminal Baja 1,000 off-road race, the modern La Paz has more recently been earning a different identity—that of a marine conservation hotspot.

Co-founded by Mann and fellow National Geographic regulars, biologists Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, SeaLegacy calls itself “an agency for the ocean”—a small collective of elite photographers and filmmakers who use the power of their platform to shape legislation, enact change, and grant a voice for oceans, upon which the survival of our planet depends.

It’s a complicated mission and ‘awareness’ is often the only tool available to deploy. But through the use of award-winning imagery and films, SeaLegacy has earned a seat at the table in negotiations with governments around the world. That table is where that legislation is created, where marine parks are established, and where the ocean’s next chapter is being actively written.

Isla Espriritu Santo doesn’t look like much—it’s a barren, orange-colored lump of volcanic ash and lava that rises from the Sea of Cortez. On approach, it casts a rugged silhouette against its aquamarine surrounds, and the jagged rock gardens, white-streaked cactus and sheer cliff faces offer little reason to believe that anything could survive here, let alone thrive.

In fact, in the late 1980s, an enterprising real estate developer thought so little of protecting the island and its sparse landscape that he attempted to develop a resort casino here. But a savvy group of leading conservationists and eco-adventurers saw a better alternative, forming a coalition to effectively outbid the developers and save the island before ultimately donating it to the nation of Mexico. By the year 2000, the Mexican government had designated the Gulf of California islands a protected area — one that would become a UNESCO World Heritage site just a few short years later.

All for a spit of undeveloped rock covered in bird shit? Absolutely.

Back in the present, Andy has worked all morning with a pair of savvy local guides to comb the rock formations just below the surface of Isla Lobos (the northernmost formation of Isla Espriritu Santo). The water here is shallow—maybe five or six meters (16 – 20 feet)—and in the bright light of a midday dive, the full picture of the battle for these islands comes into sharp relief all at once. These waters are teeming with life.

In the open waters of the Pacific to the west, dolphins and marlin form massive bait balls this time of year, triggering enormous feeding frenzies just below the surface. But here, in the warmer, protected waters around Espriritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez, the same silver fish mass around shallow shorelines, attracting other groups of predators; ravenous pelicans and cormorants, rowdy sea lions, and lightning-quick tuna all join the hunt.

As we get deeper into winter, whales will migrate to the peninsula to calve and feast on phytoplankton blooms. Every week of every month brings a new wildlife viewing opportunity around Baja, so it comes at no surprise that La Paz has become something of a second home for Andy and his team this year.

Andy doesn’t hunt with a rifle or a speargun, but rather a state-of-the-art camera protected by a special underwater housing. Keeping the mission on schedule is another traditional adventure totem: a Zodiac Super Sea Wolf LHD — a justifiably feature-rich dive watch from a Swiss maker with a long history of making reliable tool watches for wet work in far-flung locations.

Its stainless steel case is finished in a black, diamond-like coating (DLC) increasing its hardness and lending it a menacing, spartan appeal — the sort of utility one might actually find on a dive boat patrolling some remote archipelago.

The watch’s 200 meters of water resistance isn’t the most useful feature to Andy—most of his diving takes place in the “photic zone,” the uppermost part of the ocean that gets the most sunlight—but he definitely relies on the bright orange GMT hand. This displays a second time zone by orbiting the dial once every 24 hours and is particularly handy for the climber, diver, arctic explorer and Emmy-winning filmmaker who’s also a father, and still needs to keep track of home time no matter where his next dive expedition might launch from.

If you were to take a brass navigation divider and drop one point on La Paz, then trace a circle that carved around Isla San Jose to the north before splitting the peninsula in half, arcing around Magdalena Bay to the west, before completing the circle by arcing past Cabo San Lucas and Cabo Pulmo in the south, you’d effectively have an outline for why Andy is diving these waters: the mission to create a vast, marine park on three sides of the Baja Peninsula, protecting the habitats for untold numbers of fish and marine mammals — from the innumerable sardines, tuna, and marlin, to enormous whale sharks and even orca.

SeaLegacy isn’t the first organization to set its sights on documenting and protecting the wildlife in Baja, in fact, the region has a rich history of exploration by notable conservationists and marine scientists. Just a few short clicks to the southeast, you’ll find “Jacques Cousteau Island,” recently renamed to honor the legendary French oceanographer who called the island and its surrounding crystal-clear waters “the world’s aquarium.”

Perhaps more than anyone, Cousteau understood the power of storytelling as it pertained to the ocean. And while Jacques captured the imagination of an entire generation, it was his son Philippe who adapted the tools of his father’s legacy into a stronger focus on conservation, using storytelling as a means to excite and engage the audience.

It was this precedent that Andy, Paul, and Christina have carried into the social media era, inspiring millions to learn, explore, and experience firsthand the wonder of nature. Because who, after freediving with mobula rays or swimming alongside a giant whale shark, who wouldn’t want to protect them?

Now Andy is drawing methodical, deep breaths, his regulator exhaling a long, lazy chain of bubbles to the surface. The former rock climber calls land-locked Colorado home, but moves with ease and grace between the glittering wall of sardines, kicking his fins only when needed, camera dome fixed upward, waiting for a sea lion or a pelican to dart into frame.

An encounter with one of these wild creatures only lasts a moment, but a powerful photograph is the sort of thing that becomes currency in the mission to create meaningful protections—and just like this sun-drenched spit of rock, those are the sorts of things that can last forever.

You can learn more about the Sea Legacy mission and donate here. You can also pick up the watch on Andy’s wrist right here.

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