National Geographic Journalists Share Stories, Communication Tips

This photo shows a sea turtle swimming in a reef.
National Geographic photographers David Doubilet and Jennifer Hayes presented their work at the Moss Arts Center September 17.

“The best skill you can have on this planet is communication,” National Geographic photographer and biologist Jennifer Hayes told a group of students from the graduate level Communicating Science course and elsewhere on campus. 

Hayes and her husband, National Geographic underwater photographer David Doubilet, were at the Moss Arts Center September 17 for a meet-and-greet session that preceded the National Geographic Live event, “Coral Kingdoms and Empires of Ice.” 

Speaking with about 30 students, Doubilet and Hayes shared stories from their many adventures and answered questions in small groups. 

While talking about their communication methods, Hayes explained, “What we’re trying to do with our storytelling at National Geographic is light the spark in someone who will become the next Jaques Cousteau.” Cousteau was a conservationist, scientist, photographer, and author whose many books and documentaries allowed the world to explore the oceans with him. 

Doubilet shared that “the first and hardest step in storytelling is figuring out the story,” explaining that finding the important message behind their work and how they want to go about communicating it to an audience is often the longest part of the process.

Throughout their talks, Doubilet and Hayes each stressed the importance of evoking emotion to connect people with the science being shared, encouraging researchers to communicate about our changing planet with more than just data points.

Later that evening in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre, Doubilet and Hayes took the audience on a visual journey of some of their many National Geographic expeditions.

As the lights of the theater dimmed and Hayes and Doubilet walked on stage, the packed house roared with excitement. Hayes returned the enthusiasm: “You know, I actually almost went to school here! It was at the top of my list, so this is a very special visit for me.”

Doubilet and Hayes began their presentation with photographs from one of Doubilet’s favorite places in the world — Kimbe Bay in Papua New Guinea.

“David has a schoolgirl crush on this place,” Hayes recalled, “and he really wanted to go back to see how the reefs have changed from when we first visited.” Doubilet and Hayes are currently documenting the effects of climate change on coral reefs around the world.

There are several indications of coral reef and marine ecosystem health, and as Doubilet pointed out, the presence of sharks is a big one.

“Ninety percent of all shark populations have disappeared across the ocean. . .but in Kimbe Bay, the sharks were there, and they were abundant.”

Kimbe Bay, located in the Coral Triangle, is one of the most thriving and healthy marine ecosystems in the world, benefiting from deep waters and rich currents. This, however, isn’t the case for many of the world’s reefs. In August of 2018, National Geographic reported that “since 2016, half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death.” Coral bleaching occurs when extreme ocean temperatures destroy the algae living within the coral. And while some coral reefs can survive this event, many do not.

“The main reason we went to Kimbe Island was to see if it stood the test of time,” Hayes continued, “where every reef in the world is now being affected by humans and climate change.”

Later in the presentation, Doubilet and Hayes took the audience through photographs of an expedition to Newfoundland, where they met a nursery of newly born harp seals.

Hayes recalled an experience where a cute harp seal pup became curious enough to approach her; however, she quickly realized that the pup’s protective mother followed closely behind.

“I decided it was time to head out, so I began to pull myself up onto the ice when, all of a sudden, I felt a very painful bite.” A defensive male harp seal was trying to win over the attention of the female, and it saw Hayes as his competition.

“Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the female harp seal go to attack the male that bit me — with a whack, and a whack.

To Hayes’ surprise, the female came back to not only lead her pup to protection but Hayes as well, guiding them both to the ice with her fins.

“Why the female did what she did, I don’t know. But it definitely changed the way I see things,” Hayes said.

Referring to a picture of the adorable harp seal pup, Doubilet reminded us, “This pup’s world is shrinking. He lives in a world of ice, on a warming sea, on a warming planet. It is up to us to protect him.”

Towards the end of their presentation, Hayes encouraged the audience to “go to all these places on the planet so that you can come back and share these pulses of life with the people around you.”

By Lauren Holt, Center for Communicating Science student intern

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