PHOTO: BETHANY AUGLIERE/@bethanyaugliere
Liah McPherson is a marine biologist, underwater photographer, and free diver currently studying wild dolphins. You can also follow Liah on her Instagram @mcfearsome or her website!
T: Tell us a bit about you!
LM: I was born in snowy upstate New York, but my family moved to North Carolina’s Outer Banks when I was eight, so I got to grow up by the ocean. This childhood nurtured my passion for dolphins and the ocean, but I was obsessed long before we left New York! My parents recently showed me a video of when I first saw the ocean in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I was about 4 years old. This is cheesy – but in the video, I ran to the water’s edge with my brother, and then a few minutes later, he runs back to the camera complaining about how I wouldn’t leave the ocean. And I’m just standing there in the distance staring at the water... Love at first sight? Anyways, now I’m a Biology and Cognitive Science major (and marine science minor) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I’m graduating in May! I’ve researched phytoplankton and coral reef optics, and currently study wild dolphins with two different organizations. I’m a marine biologist, a photographer, and freediver.
T: How did you get started in photography?
LM: I inherited an older Nikon DSLR from a late family friend and was immediately hooked. Once I saw the beautiful images that people captures of the ocean and its inhabitants, I knew I had to become an underwater photographer. Unfortunately, this obsession means that every time I work hard and save up enough money, I spend it all on new camera equipment (oops). I shoot mostly with my Nikon D810 and my DJI Mavic Pro. Being a photographer has helped immensely with photo identification research, and I actually am using my drone for a current research project!
T: What inspired you to pursue the study of wild dolphins?
LM: Good question! I guess I’ve always found them fascinating, but I don’t remember how this started – I was drawing anatomically pathetic dolphins at an age I can’t even remember. In high school I started doing dolphin research locally, on the Outer Banks and I loved it. The rest was history. Dolphins are so intriguing – Humans and dolphins are separated by millions of year of evolution, yet we’ve converged at a place of intelligence and adaptability seen in few other species. Intelligence in primates make sense: we’re more closely related, but dolphins... they’re like aliens. Dolphins are the intelligent life form humans keep looking for in outer space, but they’re right under our noses.
T: If you could ask dolphins one question, what would it be?
LM: “What do you think about humans?” Who better to tell us how to treat and protect dolphins than the dolphins themselves?
T: Tell us about one of your favorite experiences underwater!
LM: This one is tough. I’ve had many amazing experiences with dolphins, so I’ll pick something a bit more abstract. I think hitting 30 meters for the first time while freediving in open blue water was one of my most surreal experiences. Pausing to look around at that depth, with nothing around you in every direction but velvety, dark blue water... It’s probably the closest thing to being in outer space someone on Earth can experience.
T: What is at the top of your bucket list?
LM: Freediving in Mexican Cenotes, meeting a whale shark, and diving at Raja Ampat would all be cool, but honestly, as long as I can keep studying and discovering more about dolphins, I’ll be happy. When I’m in the field, I’m so happy that going to sleep at night is exciting because it means I get to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.
T: What’s your main advice to others interested in making their day to day lives more eco-friendly and safer for the ocean?
LM: Reduce. It’s difficult to completely eliminate something in your life that you’re used to depending on. I suggest reducing things in your life that are harmful to the ocean, even if you can’t cut them out completely. This includes single use plastics and polyester clothing... many people don’t realize that some of the most harmful plastics in the ocean are micro plastic fibers from clothing that drain out of washing machines. Moreover, reducing the amount of meat and seafood you eat is one of the most important things you can do. Overfishing, pollution from factory farming runoff, deforestation, methane and carbon emissions from these practices... they’re all harmful to the ocean and environment.
T: What do you hope the next year has in store for you?
LM: In addition to spending next summer in the Bahamas researching dolphins, I plan on focusing on my freediving. I really love the sport and want to get into the competitive community. I’m taking a year off between undergrad and grad school so hopefully lots of travel, freediving and underwater goodness! Then back to the books. :)
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