For Ralph Pace, the journey into photography started not with a love of images but a love of the ocean. He earned a graduate degree in marine conservation from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, spent time in Costa Rica rescuing sea turtles. In Escondido, Mexico, he successfully advocated to stop a marina project that would have ruined a mangrove lagoon – a critical sea turtle nesting habitat – by demonstrating the economic value of a surf break.
It was at his brother’s urging to get a camera that Pace got started, and found a way to bring his love of the ocean to greater awareness among people on land by capturing extraordinary images from the sea. He is based in Monterey, but his freelance photojournalism work regularly takes him around the world, with trips to Mexico, the Caribbean, Chile, Hawaii and more.
Pace is also a World Press Photo winner, a prestigious global competition that recognized him in 2021 with a first place award in the environmental category, for a local image taken at Breakwater Cove in Monterey. The image shows a sea lion in murky water, curiously swimming straight toward a floating face mask – a potent depiction of the intersection of the human and wildlife realms during the pandemic.
On a recent foggy September day, Pace was using a Canon R5 with a strong telephoto lens to capture whales coming to the surface of Monterey Bay. He spoke with the Weekly about wildlife behavior and his work with news outlets, marine-focused nonprofits and government agencies.
Weekly: Your first love was not photography. How did you get into it?
Pace: I didn’t really want to do it, but a lot of people were encouraging me to do it. I was doing grad work, doing this project on saving a bunch of habitats. I was interested in how you can give a community tools on how to save things and the environment. I kept telling everyone that they would ruin this beautiful habit. “What’s beautiful?” they would always respond. My brother is a photojournalist and he sent me a camera; I went to take some photos.
The roots of your career are in conservation. What was that pre-photography era like?
It was a really fun time. I love being a field biologist, but ultimately I would’ve had to get a Ph.D. and you don’t get to work outside as much. It was amazing and it was really important for photography because I got to understand animals, conservation issues and the science behind helping save species.
How do you connect photography and conservation?
At the heart of all conservation issues is just a human issue. It is really easy to go out and take a picture of an animal dying, but you have to be able to show how it connects to humans.
What was it like when you found out that you won World Press Photo?
Oh, it was amazing! I never planned on it. Growing up I would look at these “wildlife photographer of the year” winners just to see them – it is amazing to see what people are out there documenting. It is really educational.
It made me feel like I was getting out of imposter syndrome a little bit; when I made the switch [to photography] I told myself if I can’t make it as a photographer then I will go back to science.
The photo that won, it’s such a powerful moment to capture this marine mammal with its big, relatable eyes interacting with a piece of human litter. Did you know you had something when you took it?
I was out looking for jellyfish. But it had rained the night before, so the water was really nasty – and there were no jellyfish. I swam down to the end of Breakwater [Pier] and some sea lions were playing.
I actually was going to call the dive and was swimming in when I saw sea lions diving down, playing with something – the strings hanging off a mask. I thought, this is important. At the moment, I am thinking “I hope it is in focus and I don’t mess it up.” I was trying to find a balance of how close I can be, and there was not a lot of light.
Then I grabbed the mask and swam back in. The one I thought was the photo, the strobes didn’t fire right. I went home and didn’t look at the rest of the photos for over an hour. And I had one.