Life in Salt: Mission Blue Photographer and Expedition Leader Kip Evans on Life in Exploration Through Photography

by Owen James Burke

Kip Evans and Submersible

Kip Evans with a submersible (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

Kip Evans has logged over 1,500 hours of diving and participated in or led over 50 expeditions throughout over two decades of exploring the world. He grew up as a Navy brat in the best possible sense; his father, a Navy doctor, led the family around the world instilling them with a sense of wonder and stewardship for the sea and the wild. While his father was stationed in Taipei, Kip found himself in the jungle, collecting snakes and spiders and whatever other deadly, venomous critters he could get his hands on. The family traveled to the Philippines, Tahiti, Thailand, and beyond, almost always staying on the water.

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A young Kip Evans and brother Sam, on vacation in Tahiti while the family was stationed in Taiwan (Courtesy of Kip Evans)

It wasn’t until the family visited the Virgin Islands that they took up diving. Within no time, it was all Kip wanted to do. Much of his time during his formative years was spent diving with his father, who had bought an underwater camera and would often let Kip take pictures on dives. Kip was enamored (it’d be hard not to be), but as his teen years set on, he found himself focused on those other things adolescent boys might occupy their minds with. 

If his father had set the fire inside of him, it was his first class in Marine Biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara that nourished it. He got on well with his Marine Biology professor, and it became clear that he wanted to work with the ocean.

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Schooling fish over one of Mission Blue’s Hope Spots, Jardines de la Reina, Cuba

Currently, Kip Evans is working with Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue as the right hand man for photography and documentary films, highlighting marine protected ares. These are places that show not what’s gone wrong or been lost from the sea, but where there’s, dare we say, hope. Mission Blue calls these places “Hope Spots” — places where things may or may not have taken an unfortunate turn in the past (mostly) due to human interference but where life is now flourishing anyhow. Kip’s job is to travel with Dr. Sylvia Earle to these “Hope Spots” and document their vibrance and beauty for the non-submersing world to see. It’s their way of saying, ‘Hey, we’ve still got it.’ Oh, and he also just spent 17 days underwater with Mission 31 at the Aquarius Reef Base off the Florida Coast.

But Mr. Evans is no stranger to adventure; he’s nearly been stuck almost 2000 feet down in a submarine by himself with no outside contact for two hours before resurfacing, he’s been left behind by the boat on a dive mission off the coast of Samoa, floating in the open ocean by himself for an hour, and he’s even experienced the sheer terror of being circled by a shark while adrift in the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles off the Louisiana coast at night, alone. He’s also a committed father, and despite his various forays into adventure which keep him on the road for a fair part of the year, he’s making sure to shape stewards of our oceans and our world by exposing his children to the wonders of the sea in the same way that his father did for him.

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Kip Evans undergoing hardhat training (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

In this media climate, Kip Evans, along with Dr. Sylvia Earle and the rest of Mission Blue, takes a refreshing approach. It’s not just the doom and gloom.


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We try to focus on the positive aspects — I mean, the truth has to be told where you can — but I think people really get excited about the hopefulness for the future if there’s still something to work with. If you present the doom and gloom, you feel overwhelmed and you feel like it’s already lost, what can I do?

May as well throw another plastic bag in the ocean.

Exactly. Our goal is to power people with messaging, images and products that we produce, and not discourage them.

Describe the genesis of your passion for the ocean.

I kind of grew up as what’s called a ‘Navy Brat.’ I’m the son of a Naval doctor; my father loved sailing, and he loved the ocean. When I was a kid we used to go visit places when we were living overseas. I lived in Japan, I lived in Taiwan, and when we were living in those countries we visited Tahiti, the Philippines, and we went to Thailand and Australia. I just grew up in the water in these places at a very young age.

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Kip Evans, diving at age 18 (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

Between assignments we lived in San Diego (that’s a big place for personnel) and I’d spend my summers at the beaches. Then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Because we were inland, I wasn’t going to the ocean as much and I was an early teen and I took a little break from it. It was kind of funny, because it was one of the most critical times as a developing adolescent to be influenced — in terms of a career — and it kind of escaped me during that time, until I was about 16 years old. My father, brother and I took a trip to the Virgin Islands; my dad wanted to try scuba diving. We all ended up diving and fell in love with it, fell in love with the ocean all over again. This was back in 1982, and without even knowing it, that was kind of the start of my underwater diving career. Over a period of years, I kept diving, took courses, went to college, studied Marine Biology and Environmental Studies (at UC Santa Barbara), volunteered on scientific research trips as a diver, ended up becoming a scuba instructor. Later on, I ended up volunteering with a rescue dive team in Pacific Grove (California).

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Kip Evans in classroom training (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

Where did your passion for photography come from?

I have my dad, again, to thank for that. He was really into photography and we were going on trips, so he purchased an underwater camera back in the 80s. He would let me shoot pictures when we were out on dives, so I just immediately picked it up and had a knack for it. It started off as something fun to do while we were diving. In my twenties, I finally got my own camera and started going to tide pools on weekends and shooting animals and diving evolved into taking pictures to teach.

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Above: “California Hope Spots” about the success of marine protected areas along the California coast (by Kip Evans)

I ended up teaching Marine Science for different institutions around the San Francisco Bay Area and I would use photos that I’d been taking in different locations in slide shows to educate people about marine life. It was really funny because people were saying, ‘Oh my god, your pictures are so good! You should think about publishing them.’ So that further inspired me to go out, and that was all I did. I had tons of time in my twenties to do that stuff, which is awfully painful for me now, ‘cause it just seems like all I do is email and answer all these requests—

Like mine.

The cruel irony. I have to leave the damn country to be able to go do what I want to do.

So where did you live in Taiwan? I just left there.

My dad worked at the Naval hospital in Taipei. I was just a kid then, 7 or 8 years old. I remember it pretty well though, my brother and I used to ride our bikes through all these jungle areas and rice fields. I’m sure it’s changed; this was back in the 70s. We lived across the street from this jungle just outside Taipei where a lot of international families used to live and I remember catching snakes and lizards and all kinds of stuff I shouldn’t have been playing with. I almost drowned, too, off the national park.

Kenting?

Yeah. I clearly remember getting trapped in the surf.

It’s dangerous there.

No one came out and got me, and I got out of it, but boy.

I actually, sadly, had a friend drown there, same thing.

Yeah, I remember it like yesterday. I was pretty far offshore for a little boy. They had a lifeguard on the beach and he stood up to look at me and I was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t even lift my hands, and he sat back down. It was just pure luck that I got out of it.

Why are you so driven to do these sorts of things? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning and do this stuff?

I just love being out in nature — I need a better word for that. I love wilderness. I’ll go out on my boat by myself out of Monterey Bay and get 10 or 15 miles offshore and cut the engine and listen to seabirds squawking and talking and if I’m around whales, just being able to hear them, and be there with them away from civilization and away from that protected, isolated environment that we kind of live in. I love it so much that I want to document it and share it with others, and that’s what got me into photography, just seeing and understanding these organisms out there and feeling compelled to do the best job I could to capture their beauty and inspire other people to care about them too. That’s what — originally — gets me out of bed every morning. There’s other realities like bills to pay and kids to get to school. I have a very unorthodox job, and it’s really hard because I don’t think everyone understands it. It’s a really different way to make a living and there’s no security in it and you have to be a real go-getter. I don’t want to fail; I want to be successful and do the best I can.

So did you feel at age five that you wanted to do something like this, or did you see yourself more as a businessman or a baseball player or something like that?

You know, I had no idea until I was actually in my first year of college and I took my first marine biology class. I was so inspired by the professor I had, Jenny Anderson, and that lit me on fire. I just loved being on the water and it was like being reconnected to a long lost friend.

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Kip Evans with Fabien Cousteau and the Mission 31 Crew at the Aquarius Habitat off Florida (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

When you were living underwater with Mission 31, did you ever pinch yourself and ask whether you were really there? Was it surreal for you?

Yes and no. As an outside observer you look at these expeditions and you think to yourself, ‘Oh my god, I want to do that! I can’t believe this is happening!’ It’s really different when you go through all the hard work to get there and I think some of the novelty wears off along the way. So, as an example, just to be able to stay in that habitat — part of it was being in the right place at the right time — and some of it’s like 30 years of preparation, if you know what I’m saying. You have to have the right background. Having lived through many expeditions — I’ve lived through or led over 50 expeditions — I’m used to environments like this and so it’s very comfortable for me. I won’t say it was expected, but I kind of knew what I was getting myself into.

With that said, the very first day we moved into the habitat as residents was really kind of a surreal moment. The way you enter the habitat is you go from a boat, you put on a scuba tank, you dive down and you come through the bottom of the habitat into an airspace and when you break that airspace as a resident instead of a visitor, it has a more permanent feeling to it. My first hour was just insane because I had to get all these cameras set up and I was waiting for Fabien (Cousteau) and the rest of the team to arrive, because I wanted to capture their arrival — it was one of the most important parts of the mission. So it was just total chaos and I didn’t really have time to sit down and say, ‘Oh my god, this is really happening,’ because there was just so much work to be done. But at night, when everything was finally done and it was time to get some sleep, I got in my bunk for the very first time. That was when I realized, ‘Okay, I’m staying in this underwater apartment for the next 17 days. This is my home. That kind of hit me and I was like, ‘Am I going to be able to do this for over two weeks? Am I going to like it?’

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Above: Fabien Cousteau with a school of tarpon underneath the Aquarius Reef Habitiat (Photo: Kip Evans)

About that same time, these giant tarpon started swimming in front of this port view window, and outside this port view window is a light that shines out into the water column. Every time these fish passed the light, their big, giant, silvery scales would reflect the light back into the habitat. That was really surreal to be sitting there watching these big fish 60 feet under the water, all by yourself, way off the coast of Florida.

Beautiful. Can you recall any hairball experiences that you look back on and realize, ‘Jeez, that was heavy,’ from this mission or others?

You can’t do this for a living and not have hairy, close calls.

That’s half the fun, isn’t it?

Yeah, I mean, that’s what makes for great sea stories. I’ve been really fortunate during my career, and I think that’s because I’m typically well prepared. We all have to take chances in this career, and we take calculated risks. I think sometimes it’s more dangerous just to drive home from work on the freeway than it is to go for a dive off the coast of California. With that said, I’ve been through some pretty horrific storms at sea. I had the great pleasure of sitting through Tropical Storm Allison 140+ miles off the coast of Texas in 30-foot seas and 60-mile-an-hour winds and you just take a bunch of Dramamine and Tylenol PM and hope you can just get your way through it.

I had a solo dive in a submersible once and I was nearly 1800 feet. The Submersible had floatation blocks bolted to the exterior of the setup which allows it to float neutrally in the water column. Unfortunately those foam blocks had been breaking down during one of our expeditions and absorbing water and when I got down to 1800 feet, the sub was virtually smack on the bottom. It was really heavy. We’ve got emergency procedures that we can employ to get ourselves off the bottom and to the surface, but that would have meant dropping a 300-pound weight off the bottom of the sub and doing an uncontrolled rapid-ascent, like a rocket, to the surface. That was kind of scary for me, being stuck at that depth. What if the weight didn’t release? What was it going to be like to rocket to the surface with the ship above? That was one of those moments in my life like, ‘Oh my god, this is a bad place to get stuck. I’m not going to be easily retrieved and it’d probably have to be the Navy or someone to come get me if the emergency system failed.’

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Kip Evans in the DeepWorker submarine, Monterey Canyon (Photo courtesy of Kip Evans)

So we carry these 60-cubic feet air tanks (like scuba tanks) on the back of the sub and they’re filled with like 3,000 pounds of air. But, what happens to that air is that it gets incredibly compressed at depth, so what you really have is like 5- or 600 pounds of air. That air can be released and goes underneath the sub like a bubble; it’s like having a floatation device. So, I was able to put enough air under the sub — I literally drained the tanks — and stepping on the accelerator, which brings the sub up vertically in the water column, I was able to get the sub moving off the bottom. It literally took me 45 minutes to go like 25 feet from the bottom, but I knew that as I got higher and higher up in the water that the air would keep expanding (as you go up, there’s less downward pressure). Then, just being on the surface was a really scary situation too, because remember the sub wants to sink. I had just extinguished all of my ballast air, and I got worried that I would get up there and not be able to stay up on the surface, but anyway, I made it.

That’s terrifying. How long were you on the seafloor before you were able to lift off?

There’s a of funny part of the story, because, typically we have four hours to do a dive. You might wait two weeks in order for your turn to come up to use the submersible and there are only like two sub dives a day. When my turn came up, they were starting to get worried about these foam blocks — and this is the bad explorer in me — but I kind of talked them into it and said you, it’ll be fine. When I got down there and realized how heavy it was, I didn’t want to just call up immediately and say, ‘Hey, I need to come back up,’ because I’d lose my whole dive. That had happened off the coast of Anacapa, California when my sub broke down and I lost my dive and my turn. I actually stayed down there for two hours, bouncing on the bottom snowplowing, if you will —

Knowing that you might not come back up?

Knowing that I had to deal with this situation in a couple hours, but that time was so incredibly valuable for me. I literally just imagined pushing a sled on a sandy bottom, just a floored accelerator. Then reality hit that I had to come back up.

It was one of those dicey times, but I’ve been left for an hour by myself off the coast of Samoa. Somehow, I went in one direction to shoot some pictures of some sharks and the boat went the other direction and didn’t follow my bubbles and I ended up by myself for over an hour while they were trying to find me.

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“I’ve also been circled by a shark at ten o’clock at night a hundred miles off Louisiana.”

(Photo: Caribbean reef shark)

So you’ve been preparing to live under the sea all along.

It’s a lot easier, yeah! Some of these dives that I’ve done before, like I did a 6-hour submersible dive off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. You get really hot, to the point where I’ve almost passed out coming back to the ship because it’s like 130 degrees, your out of water, the ice blocks you had at the back of your neck have melted, and everything else. When you’re in the habitat it’s a lot cooler and they have the air conditioning going — it did break down once — but it’s so much easier and you’re not in a rush, you have the gift of time.

How would you describe the wonder of the folks who were guests at Mission 31 — the VIPs, the Hollywood celebrities? What was it like having them visit? It must have been funny to see their reactions.

It was kind of a double-edged sword for me because when we had those people visiting everyday, it meant that I was inside, not able to go out and shoot. I was responsible for documenting their visit, and I loved seeing the reactions, it was great having visitors everyday, and there were some wonderful visits by some very inspirational people.

But there was the part of the day when I was glad they were all gone. You have this incredible habitat down there but all of a sudden at 10 o’clock in the morning you’d hear all the boats show up and all the noise, and all the divers show up. It kind of gets to the point where you don’t want to be disturbed down there, you want to kind of have your day…In the afternoons at about 4 o’clock after all the crazy media stuff was done and I got images out the door for people that needed stuff for stories that night, I would go out for a nice long four- or five-hour dive and a lot of times Fabien would join me and we would go do shoots and explore the reefs. A lot of times though, I’d just go out by myself and that was the best. Hands down, what I’m going to remember 20 years from now are those dives when I could just go out and spend three hours working on one photo of a group of fish hanging out under the habitat, or spending two hours shooting Fabien in the most perfect position jumping off the habitat and floating towards the sea bottom. The night dives — oh my god, the night dives — were the best! A lot of the things you don’t see during the day come out. We had a loggerhead turtle visit, I got bumped by a barracuda, tarpon; it was like Jurassic Park.

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Video by Kip Evans, courtesy of Mission 31

One of the shining moments was on the very last night that I was in the habitat. A shark showed up and we started seeing this commotion outside. I was trying to film the shark coming next to the habitat preying on these fish. All of a sudden we see a flash of gold and all these scales raining down just above our heads. That’s where you hear all the narration in the video, saying “Yeah, yeah, I got it!” So we immediately reviewed the video and it had captured the goliath grouper, which we affectionately named Sylvia (after Dr. Sylvia Earle), essentially attacking the barracuda and taking a big bite. I think it was more territorial than a feeding attempt. That was so cool, it was great to be able to document that.

What, in your mind, are the most imperative issues facing the world’s oceans?

I’d say overfishing is a huge problem, I think we are just absolutely destroying a lot of this planet but not doing a better job of protecting reef where a lot of these fish unfortunately reside. When I go and dive a lot of these places around the world, I can really see the difference. I think global warming is something we’re going to start seeing huge consequences in. When you consider that 50% of coral reefs are dying, dead or in really bad condition. Global warming is going to have a huge impact on coral reefs’ ability to survive. Ocean acidification is something that a lot of scientists are worried about right now, and I worry about the plastics in the ocean. The amount of trash and plastic in certain places is overwhelming. It’s not gonna go away anytime soon.

Do you have any novel ideas for solutions to any of these problems?

Yeah, I do. In terms of overfishing, I think one of the best solutions — let me just back up and say it’s very complicated. There are countries that have more resources to turn to, and then there are countries that really rely on fishing as a source of sustenance, or income. It’s unrealistic to say that you’re going to go to a small south Pacific nation, for example, and say, ‘You guys really need to stop fishing,’ because where are they gonna turn? What’s the alternative? But what I’ve been incredibly impressed with is in areas that I’ve found that have a great balance between setting up protected areas and having fishing zones, and also establishing an eco-tourism model around that, like Cabo Pulmo. So, I think my recommendation is that where there’s an opportunity to develop non-extractive business models, it’s a lot more sustainable and quite frankly it can be a lot more profitable for fishermen to turn into ecotourism operators, especially when they’re sitting on a goldmine of wildlife. It’s like losing your principle from your bank account; you’re better off drawing from the interest. I love those examples. We did a small film on the whale sharks off Holbox Island off Mexico. They used to fish these whale sharks, and their populations were in bad shape, and now they have this really incredibly, viable business operation bringing tourists out to see the whales. The fishermen are now bringing tourists out at 80 or 90 bucks a pop, not fish at 2 or 3.

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Above: A video from Kip Evans off Isla Holbox, Mexico, where the whale sharks have returned after generations of overhunting

There are consumer solutions, like putting pressure on companies that manufacture plastics that require thousands of years to degrade and putting pressure on those companies so that those plastics don’t end up in the ocean. Better recycling, trash for plastics programs, and I think a lot of the responsibility lies on the doorstep of businesses that are producing products that are unfortunately ending up in the ocean, so they need to be part of the solution too and it’s up to consumers to put the pressure on them. It’s a longterm educational project.

I’m a strong proponent of marine protected areas and I think they’re absolutely viable and critical to the health of our planet and we just have to have these national park places all over the oceans where wildlife can be protected. It’s not just the fish, it’s the sharks, and it’s everything. We need areas that have complete ecosystems, otherwise we’ll have an eventual collapse. Our own health depends on it.

A very small percentage of the population ever goes underwater, so it’s hard for them to understand. As a documentary photographer, it’s my responsibility to bring those places to light so people can see what’s getting destroyed and what’s looking great.

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A Pacific octopus lies along Cordell Bank off Northern California (Photo: Kip Evans)

How do you hope to inspire kids, young people — or anybody — to follow their passions? How can people on the whole do more to get more Kips in the water?

You know, I think it really starts with their parents. If you have a parent that loves the ocean like my father did, it really helps, because if your parents aren’t interested to taking you to the beach, the ocean, or to snorkel and dive, you have to wait until you’re old enough to do those things on your own. I think as a parent, you have a responsibility to introduce your children to everything you can possibly introduce them to. If it sticks and your kids like it, get them involved in swimming, water polo, or anything that builds their confidence to go out and experience the ocean as they get older. There are people out there that like it but then they kind of go home, back to suburbia, back to their lives. How do you get them to take the next step when they live 100 miles from the coast?

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Above: A lingcod perches above a kaleidoscopic reef at Cordell Bank off the California coast, another one of Mission Blue’s Hope Spots and one of only 13 National Marine Sanctuaries in the United States.

You’ve had a great many awe-inspiring moments in the ocean. Anything that you’ll truly never forget?

I did a solo dive in one of the deep water submersibles and I was placed on the side of the Monterey Canyon about 10 miles off the coast of Monterey Bay. I was 1,100 feet down and I was supposed to be looking for krill — there were a lot of whales working the canyon too. So they put me in to document one of these krill swarms because no one knew how large they were or what they might look like down into the canyon. A half-hour into the dive, I completely lost communication with the ship. Then we used what’s called a through-water water communication system where they drop a transceiver into the water and we can communicate through the water column. So, anyway, I’m sitting down there and no one’s responding. We’re trained to stay on the bottom in one place. After an hour, we do a slow controlled ascent to the surface and hopefully the ship will know you’re coming back up. I sat down there for like 45 minutes and it was dark, other than having my lights on. After a half-hour I started seeing what I thought were some krill. I ended up turning all the sub’s external light off — if you can imagine being at 1,100 feet in this dark, deep canyon all by myself. All of a sudden, all these green flashing lights started blinking around me, a slow blink. What happened was the krill had been keeping away because of the lights. After about 15 minutes, I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of these blinking green lights all around me. It was one of the most spectacular light shows I’ve experienced in all my life. It was actually kind of funny that it happened on the Fourth of July.

There were your fireworks.

Yeah, my own little Fourth of July light show in the Monterey Canyon with a private seat. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that’s hard to relate and describe to people, but for me, a special moment.

What are your favorite ocean books?

The Endurance, the story of the Essex, which inspired Moby Dick, and Adrift, about a guy (Steven Callahan) that was solo-sailing from Europe and flipped his sailboat. He ended up in his life raft and he was out at sea for months.

Do you have any ocean gadgets you’d like to recommend?

I have my own little kits for things I bring with me, but one of my very favorite things to have with me is a quickdraw, essentially a carabiner with a strap down to another so I can drop my equipment if I need to do something with my hands. I love Light and Motion lights — I strap those to my hand and that’s the coolest gadget. I’ll have them on my boat, too. That’s the ultimate explorer flashlight, if you will.

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All photos courtesy of Kip Evans. Follow him on Twitter at @KipEvansPhoto and check out his website here.

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