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Guy Harvey: One Man and the Sea

Dr. Guy Harvey may be best known for his dynamic depictions of marine wildlife, but he is much more than an artist. Over the course of his colourful career he has travelled to remote regions, swum with giant ocean predators, set up marine research organisations and been instrumental in achieving better protection of vulnerable marine species.

Raised in Jamaica, where he spent much of his childhood swimming and diving off the south coast he developed an affinity for the ocean early on. As a teenager, learning to catch marlin from dugout canoes with local fishermen he developed what he calls an ‘infatuation’ with these fish and a passion for big game fishing that would last a lifetime.

“They grow up to 17 or 18 feet long and have beautiful colouration,” he enthuses. “When they’re on the line, their acrobatics, speed, power and endurance is like no other fish. The blue marlin is the ultimate big game experience.”

When his mother gave him a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the simple tale of one man’s epic struggle with a massive marlin resonated deeply. So much so that, aged 18, he created a series of 44 pen and ink drawings of the story. Years later, these illustrations would launch his artistic career.

Before that, however, he dove headfirst into academia, studying for a degree in Marine Biology at Aberdeen University, followed by a PhD in Fisheries Management at the University of the West Indies and later a teaching position there.

It was while teaching that he decided to exhibit some of his illustrations of The Old Man and the Sea. The overwhelming sales of his limited edition prints convinced him to set aside his scientific career for a time and turn his hobby into a business.

Within a few years, his drawings and paintings of billfish, sharks and rays were being reproduced on T-shirts, merchandise, licence plates and more, and his name became synonymous with marine wildlife art.

“Many [of these fish] are too large to be kept in captivity so art and underwater documentaries are the only way the public can access them,” he points out. His unique combination of artistic ability, scientific knowledge and face-to-face encounters with these creatures has enabled him to create extremely accurate, life like depictions of some of the least-known ocean dwellers.

After a decade or so of building up his art businesses, Guy says, he was in a good position to return to science and, more specifically, to marine conservation.

“Growing up in Jamaica I had seen over exploitation at its worst. Just in my lifetime, the degradation of reefs and overfishing of sharks, billfish and tuna has been devastating.”

Using proceeds from the licensing of his artwork to help fund his conservation activities, he set up the Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) in 1991 - the same year that he moved to Grand Cayman.

Based at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, it specialises in the objects of his fascination – billfish – and various species of shark, all of which have been overfished in recent decades.

A keen angler himself, he is at pains to emphasize that he is not against fishing: what he is against is overfishing. The ultimate aim is therefore to convince governments to enact legislation such as size restrictions, closed seasons and more marine protected areas that will ensure fishing activities are sustainable. The best way to argue the case is with scientific research.

But these fish are highly migratory, and gathering data is difficult and expensive, he says, so not many people do it. First one must travel to often remote regions to find the fish, then they must be caught, tagged and the data analysed.

An active participant on these expeditions, Guy has pioneered a technique that allows him to dive with marlin and sailfish. It is a rare privilege to witness these huge creatures swimming freely and serves as both inspiration for his art and provides exhilarating footage for the documentaries he and his daughter Jessica make about their work.

The data collected is less uplifting, however. In a study of mako sharks – a species that is particularly good to eat - 30% of the makos they tagged were caught and killed. “That mortality rate is totally unsustainable. But because of our research, all the regulations in America have been changed this last year. That’s the reason we do it,” he concludes.

Closer to home, GHRI has been monitoring the friendly residents of Stingray City since 2002. The long-term nature of the study meant that they spotted a sharp decline in stingray numbers in 2011/12. When visiting vets found no physiological problems that would account for this, it was determined to be the result of stingrays being removed from the site.

Indeed, four tagged rays were then found in captivity. It took a bad thing for a good thing to happen, he says, and the next year the law was amended to prohibit the taking or possession of stingrays in the Cayman Islands.

Working alongside like-minded organisations, GHRI has contributed to achieving similar protection of sharks, billfish and groupers in the US, Caribbean and Central America.

The Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation (GHOF), established in 2008, increased the scope and reach of his conservation work. In addition to funding and conducting scientific studies, its mandate includes telling the story of the research through documentary films and educational activities.

The films, Mystery of the Grouper Moon and Grouper Moon the Next Phase document the extensive research carried out by the Department of Environment and REEF in their fight to protect the last intact spawning aggregation site for Nassau Grouper in the Cayman Islands. It’s a true conservation success story and one that he is keen to see replicated internationally.

The GHOF recently concluded the second annual Ocean Conservation Month in Cayman, with a series of events ranging from beach clean ups and documentary screenings to lionfish culls and family fun days. The foundation is one of the few NGOs in Cayman that is concerned with marine matters, and one that people can volunteer with and get involved in – something he strongly encourages.

As with all environmental matters, raising awareness of the plight of the oceans is the first step towards protecting them. Through a career that has encompassed research, conservation, art, photography, film-making and more, Dr. Guy Harvey has done just that – and at the same time given audiences around the world priceless insights into the mystery and majesty of some of the ocean’s most elusive inhabitants.

For more info about the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation visit:

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