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Under the Surface with April Wong

By Annie McBride

April Wong’s comfort zone is farther and deeper than most. She’s a waterwoman and photographer who dives into her travels to capture important environmental and cultural stories. She’s an admirer of nature as much as she is a protector and, recognizing the fragility of what’s in front of her lens, she’s empowered to share — to educate us. Her photos give us a clearer vision of what’s at stake and what could slip away if we’re not careful.

We caught a moment with April in between her adventures to capture some of her story: what draws her to the ocean and photography, the impact of travel (especially her recent encounter with humpbacks!), and why we need to keep an eye out for everything, big and small. Alongside her incredible photography, here’s some of our conversation. . .

You were just somewhere amazing. Tell us.

We started in Fiji, then Tonga, before ending in Australia. It was kind of a belated honeymoon built around seeing humpback whales. They spend the summer in Antarctica feeding in the cold water where food is abundant, and when it gets to winter, they migrate north to subtropical and tropical waters to mate and give birth. So we met them in Tonga.

What was that experience like?

We had five days on the water and saw humpbacks every day. We’d slip into the water as quietly as possible without making any splashes and swim in a direction where we could meet them, but keep a good distance. We wanted to be mindful that we didn’t invade their space.

The first time it was surreal. I had never seen anything that big in the water before — it’s like seeing a school bus cruise by underwater. There are so many feelings that overcame me at the time. You almost want to cry because it’s so beautiful. It’s hard to put into words. They would come up, and when they swam by you could see their eye and see them taking a good look at you. After spending all that time with them, I began dreaming about humpback whales when we left Tonga. The whole experience made me want to learn more about them and reinforces how much we have to protect them.


Our ocean has issues. What’s one you’ve seen firsthand?

I’ve seen a lot of dead or dying coral on other trips (side note: 50% of our reefs are gone), but on this trip we went to Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and were surprised by how intact and vibrant the reef was. It was a glimpse of what it all used to look like before the last few decades. I’ve also seen plenty of sea lions and turtles caught on squid lures and fishing nets left out at sea.

You do some volunteering too?

Yes, with the marine mammal rescue team at California Wildlife Center in Malibu. It’s like being a zookeeper for a few hours a week. We rescue animals that uncharacteristically beach themselves, prepare fish gruel for the sea lions and northern elephant seals that haven’t learned how to eat solids yet, and we clean a lot of poop, but it’s not so bad! It’s nice to be able to care for animals who need help and learn more about them and why they are being stranded.

In all the time you’ve spent underwater, what is a highlight?

My husband and I did a night scuba dive in Kona earlier in the year to see manta rays feed on the plankton. That was breathtaking. We were sitting with our tanks on the seafloor watching these manta rays with a three-meter wingspan glide right above us, just centimeters away from your head. It showed us how mindful they are as they got so close but didn’t touch.

Where have you been recently and what’s next?

We were just in Yellowstone to see the bison, Zion National Park, and San Simeon to see the elephant seal rookery. We pretty much just travel to see wildlife now. Then the Galapagos Islands are definitely on our list. We want to see the sperm whales in Dominica too, orcas in Norway, and sharks!

What draws you to the ocean?

I grew up near the water in Sydney with so many coves, bays, and beaches around. When that’s what you’re used to and spend so much time in or near the water, it’s hard to imagine not having access to the ocean. The water is healing. Every time I’m in the water, I always feel more alive and energized, and there’s the added treat of getting to see animals in their natural habitat. I can’t give you one straight answer. It’s an indescribable feeling.

How did you get into photography?

I’ve had a camera since high school, and it’s always been something that I’ve liked doing. But as I got into my career, working in marketing for a travel company, I realized I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I felt like I wasn’t using my skillset to do good, so I quit my job and traveled for almost a year and was constantly taking photos. I started working with adventure travel companies, and it evolved from there. More recently, I’ve decided to focus on shooting wildlife and culture.

Your photos are powerful. What’s your intention when you shoot?

It’s great taking a pretty picture, but I want there to be a story behind it, especially an environmental or conservation story. I’m trying to show why a place or animal needs to be protected. To use photography to educate people and inspire them to think twice about their actions.

Why is travel so important to you?

I think we can get so stuck in our bubble and routine and way of doing things. Comfort can be the easiest path, so I think by traveling you can open your mind and broaden your horizons — take in what you see and what you experience. There’s never any negatives when it comes to learning more. It develops your character, the more you see and experience. I think it can help us be more open-minded. And sometimes it even helps us appreciate what we have at home.

Follow April's journey @aprilwongphoto. She looks stunning in our Rhiannon Wrap Top above.

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