James Morgan

24 February 2015

Region: Headquarters

James Morgan, who won the RPS Postgraduate Bursary in 2009, updates us on the project that won him the award:

"I’ve been fortunate to see most of the world’s oceans the past couple of years. I’ve worked with coastal communities in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, in the Arctic and recently on the Great Barrier Reef. But one place I keep coming back to is the Coral Triangle. Home to over three quarters of the world’s coral species, The Coral Triangle is the underwater equivalent of the Amazon. It encompasses an area half the size of the United States and harbours more marine species than anywhere else on the planet.

My first introduction to the Coral Triangle was through the eyes of a group of Bajau sea nomads. In the last few decades, many Bajau have been forced to settle on land, but a dwindling number still call the ocean home, plying their ancestral routes between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. The individuals in these images were the first people I met who had spent more time at sea than on land, and something in that resonated with me, so I ended up staying.

Traditionally, the Bajau fish with nets and lines and are expert free divers, going to improbable depths in search of pearls and sea cucumbers or to hunt with handmade spear guns. But over the years these traditional techniques have slowly given way to dynamite and cyanide fishing; practices driven predominantly by an insatiable demand for live reef fish from Hong Kong and mainland China. In order to catch sufficient quantities of the target species, Bajau are using compressors to dive ever deeper and paralyse fish using a toxic mix of potassium cyanide. The consequences for both humans and nature throughout the Coral Triangle have been catastrophic with fish stocks radically depleted, entire reefs decimated and compressor diving becoming the single biggest cause of death amongst Bajau communities. From Borneo down to the edge of the South Pacific, the Coral Triangle has some of the most breathtaking underwater landscapes I’ve seen, but the majority are buckling under the pressures of overfishing, resource extraction and climate change. The effect this is having on the 140 million people who rely directly on the ocean’s abundance is incalculable.

Despite this, conservation has never felt like the real focus of my work. Scientists and anthropologists paint a bleak picture of the Coral Triangle’s trajectory, but Bajau cosmology - a syncretism of animism and islam - continues to reveal a complex understanding of the ocean which remains both multifarious and unifying. And as one of the planet’s most biologically significant and culturally diverse ecosystems is gradually diminished, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m seeing another form of loss. Something I can’t quite photograph or shoehorn into a statistic, something we probably won’t fully understand until its gone, and which draws me back to the region over and over."

To find out more about The Coral Triangle visit: www.thecoraltriangle.com

For more of James’ work in the region and on sea nomadism visit: www.jamesmorgan.co.uk