July 29, 2022

‘Subaquatic Messenger’ connects people to sea





“Ocean ambassador” for the Ministry of the Environment’s Mori Sato Kawa Umi Project (Forest Village River Sea Project), Mymizu ambassador. Futaki set two new firsts recognized by Guinness World Records for free diving. She is a unique presence working to be an intermediary between the undersea world and the world on land. As both a photographic subject and a photographer in the world’s oceans, she depicts the connection expressed in the words “We are part of the Earth and live with the Earth.”

The Ai Futaki photo exhibition “Naka-Ima ‘Here and Now’” will be held until Aug. 31 at the venue Umi to Mori in Yoyogi, Tokyo. https://aifutaki.com/

All oceans are connected. The sea comprises 70% of the Earth’s surface area, with about 230,000 known kinds of creatures. Yet the sea remains a largely unknown world — it is estimated that over 90% of marine species have yet to be discovered.

We spoke with Ai Futaki, the “Subaquatic Messenger” reporting on the unknown world of the sea from the perspective of the creatures that inhabit it. Drawn to the undersea world she first discovered through scuba diving, Futaki focused mainly on underwater photography and videography in countries around the world (including Thailand and Mexico) before she started free diving over a decade ago. She felt keenly at the time that free diving was the only way to become one with the ocean. In 2011, Futaki aimed to set a record for “free diving through a cave in one breath” and actually achieved two firsts recognized by Guinness World Records.

Futaki said: “Since I initially aspired to be a documentary filmmaker, I felt I should more widely convey the magnificent world of the sea and the message that ‘human beings are not the rulers of the world — we live together with nature.’ I aimed for the Guinness record in order to raise my profile enough to transmit this message to the world.”

Many of Futaki’s photos capture underwater animals at amazingly close range. How is she able to get so close to them?

Ai Futaki approaches sea animals at extremely close range when free diving. | Darren Jew

The NHK documentary “Precious Blue” follows Futaki’s activities in the paradise of the Caribbean Sea, where sperm whales raise their young. The film features stunning images. | PRECIOUS BLUE BY NHK ENTERPRISES © 2014 NHK / CHIYODA RAFT

“With scuba diving, the sound of breathing and air bubbles ends up creating a distance between the diver and ocean animals,” she said. “With free diving, all you have under the water is your own lungs, the same as marine mammals like whales and dolphins, so you’re able to become part of their world. What’s important is to have a sense of respect and not barge carelessly into their territory. Also, the transmission of vibrations is four times as fast underwater as on land, so if I feel even slightly afraid or nervous, the animals sense that right away. I leave my ego on land, and in the water I concentrate on the feeling of ‘just being there.’”

Futaki, who roams the seas in various parts of the world, is also participating as “ocean ambassador” in the Ministry of the Environment’s Mori Sato Kawa Umi Project (Forest Village River Sea Pro-ject). How does she view the cascade of problems the world is currently facing, including climate change and plastic pollution in the ocean?

“When you visit the ocean in any country, all the local people say, ‘The sea was more beautiful 10 years ago,’” she said. “As in the case of garbage from East Asian countries drifting ashore in Japan, all the various environmental problems are connected by the sea. In particular, the more we learn about the ocean garbage issue, the more intricate and overwhelming it becomes. Things that are essential for sustaining people’s current way of life are continually streaming out into the sea. At the same time, plastic trash under the water can sometimes look quite beautiful. To creatures that prey on jellyfish, translucent objects that catch the light must look just like food.”

What can we humans do to preserve the beautiful oceans? On the invitation of various organizations — administrative agencies and local governments, schools and so on — Futaki presents her activities and offers suggestions.

“Even if people understand something in their minds, I don’t think anything changes unless their hearts are moved. In my case, my works don’t have titles or notes, and when I’m the photographer the pictures themselves are black-and-white. There’s no correct or incorrect. I’d like my work to be an opportunity for something to blossom inside each viewer and be felt with the heart. I often speak at schools, and it’s clear that showing photos and videos while talking about my own experiences of seeing sea creatures up close with my own eyes resonates with children more than answering questions in a formal way. I think that’s the advantage of real experience.”

She went on: “Also, environmental issues always tend to be thought of as something in a faraway place, but they’re intrinsically connected to our own lives in a direct way. I always say, ‘First of all, you should value yourself.’ For instance, you might change your daily eating habits, or buy things that are thoughtfully made and use them with care instead of buying things you’ll end up throwing away soon. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people were released from their busy routines and became aware of the discomfort they’d felt up to then. I think the most important thing is to be kind while being true to your own heart and valuing yourself.”

A whale parent and calf in a photo by Ai Futaki

Futaki places importance on addressing the senses and emotions of each individual. What is her vision for leaving the beautiful oceans for the next generation?

“All the creatures in the natural world live their lives while adapting to the environments they’re given at various times. They all have their own life cycles, and I always feel they transcend the limits of human understanding,” she said. “We often hear the slogan ‘Protect the ocean and living things,’ but I think the ocean is a much bigger presence than human beings are. I’m sure these words are meant to contribute to a better future, but since nature is bigger than we are, I’d always felt uncomfortable with the idea of doing something for nature solely from a human-centric perspective or position. Humans don’t own the Earth. We’re one type of being living with nature. If it’s true that the ocean formed on the Earth 4.3 billion years ago, our basis for judgement — the span of our existence — is very short, isn’t it? By definition, our time scale is something completely different from the ocean’s.

“What’s more, there must be a huge number of unresolved issues among the countless problems brought about by humans, some of which we’re trying to address, such as production and consumption structures — companies that keep accelerating consumption, waste disposal and so on. It may be difficult to find a breakthrough, but I think we should focus on our own problems first, and leave other creatures’ ways of life to them.

“It’s said that the human body is about 60% water. Water is always inside of us, and I think it will be a good thing if people are able to feel that human beings are part of nature.”




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