Ocean Lover, Tree Hugger
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Ellen Cuylaerts: A Legend in the making

Today, marks International Women’s Day.  A day to celebrate the accomplishments of women and to empower others. On Women’s Day I think it is important that we take time to support one another and acknowledge those who each day are doing their part to make a positive impact in the world, support those who are lifting others up, support those who are working hard to improve the lives of others and their communities, support those who use their voices to speak up about issues that matter to them and embrace their calling and passion to make a positive difference in the world.  They are every day heroes and legends.  We rise by lifting others up and there is so much power in unity.  There is so much beauty in supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of those who inspire and empower us.  I am so proud to see so many of the strong women in my life, from my sister to friends and my personal heroes, all who I admire for working so hard to achieve their goals, using their voice to bring attention to issues that matter to them most, and contributing to making a positive impact in the lives of others and their community.  I admire their bravery, persistence, and compassion.  They are all legends and have incredibly beautiful souls.  It is such a privilege to know them and to be inspired by them.  I am so proud of their accomplishments and know that they will continue to do great things.

In honor of International Women’s Day, I would like to celebrate one of my personal heroes.  It is not everyday you are lucky enough to not only meet, but have the privilege of being friends with one of your heroes.  It truly is an honor to know Ellen Cuylaerts.  Ellen is a wildlife photographer, conservationist, explorer, and an inspiring soul.  She is a legend.  I am so proud of her accomplishments and her efforts to raise awareness about environmental issues.  She is a luminary, with an incredibly humble heart full of kindness, compassion, and so much positive light and energy.  I am so thankful to her for inspiring, encouraging and supporting me in my journey of following my dreams.  It is  a true privilege to know one of your personal heroes and to be blessed with their friendship.  I know Ellen will continue to accomplish great things.  Her efforts towards conservation spans from Grand Cayman, a place she calls home, to all around the globe.  Here in the Cayman Islands, she documents local wildlife, marine life and coral reefs through her photography capturing the purest beauty of our islands.  Ellen gives talks at local schools raising awareness about sharks, coral reefs and conservation.  She is dedicated to encouraging the youth and our community to unite in efforts to preserve the natural beauty of our islands.  I am sure Ellen has inspired so many people and has made a difference in the lives of others.  I admire how she uses her love for art and photography and merges that with raising awareness for the betterment of the environment and wildlife.

Q&A with Ellen Cuylaerts

1. What inspired you to become a world explorer?

It’s hard to define the moment that sparkle of exploring was ignited. Mostly my dad lit that fire in me. He used to work in Africa before the age of internet and easy global communication. Every time he came home after weeks of traveling I could not wait for the moment he opened his suitcase, eager to see, feel and smell colours and senses of a different continent. He brought home statues and fabrics of little monetary and to me it was like gold. My dad taught me if you can dream it you can do it and when I had the chance to visit a friend in India, all by myself, I asked my parents for a short term loan to buy an open ticket, took my first flight (I was 18), was sick the first day and never looked back. I was hooked. People, impressions, sounds, smells….. Only when I’m immersed, when I give into my wanderlust I’m fully in the here and now.

2. What drives your dedication for raising awareness about conservation?

Beauty in nature: from a drop of pure water, the web of a spider, the magnificence of a top predator, the vulnerability of new life, seasons….nature is all around us and is what brings us in awe, what gives us a sense of place and to me it is what can give me an instant smile even when caught up in the daily life’s issues.

As humans we have the plight to look after those without a voice, those who’s lives our industrial world has impacted the most: wildlife and their habitat on land and in the oceans. By taking care of nature we’re taking care of ourselves too, of the air we breathe and the water we need. So in short it’s essential to preserve and conserve. It’s a basic need.

3. What is the biggest environmental issue(s) you feel the world is dealing with right now?

Plastic pollution and ignorance!

Ignorance by governments, companies and individuals. I guess it will always be easier to do nothing, to not stand up and speak out. But the need to act is very poignant now. There is no time to lose.

I believe that the more people raise awareness in a positive open dialogue, the more logic and ratio will win from greed. So in the end companies and governments leading the way into the fight against plastic pollution will be rewarded by the public making conscious choices as more and more individuals do.

4. What environmental impacts have you seen on your travels around the world?

The decay of life in the oceans is very noticeable all around the world, starting here at home in Grand Cayman. Encounters that were very common years ago are getting scarce now.

Because most of my travels are to Arctic regions the change in ice formation and lack of ice in certain years that I witness first hand is heartbreaking since many animals depend on ice for feeding or breeding. Polar bears spend summers in walking hibernation (meaning they hardly eat and preserve energy by less activity) waiting for the ice to form so they can hunt on the ice for seals, waiting by breathing holes. But the ice starts melting earlier each year and forms later, hence the fasting season of a polar bear is being prolonged by months during the last decades. This ‘evolution’ goes too fast for the animals to adapt through evolution, through new biological coping mechanisms. Not being able to feed and gain reserves to get through summer has consequences for the health and reproduction of those animals, one of the more obvious is that polar bear moms protect themselves by getting less cubs. For an animal who’s numbers already declining that is bad news and this is just one example.

5. What is it like working with United Nations and being asked to give a speech last year for World Ocean’s Day?

Delivering a speech in the United Nations General Assembly in front of head of states was definitely one of the highlights of my professional life. To have people at the United Nations believing in me and getting the recognition of peers was very rewarding and supports me in pushing through even though life in conservation can be pretty hard and lonely at times.

The speech was the prelude to announcing the winners of the yearly World Oceans Day Image Competition and as a photographer I could voice the importance of the oceans and what they mean to us and how capturing their beauty can help to get people wanting to protect them.

I believe that people making a living of the oceans (could be in working in a resort, in the dive industry, underwater photography/filmmaking, magazines and so on) owe it to be the best ocean ambassadors. We should all pay it forward.

6. Who is a personal hero of yours?

Sylvia Earle for sure and Jane Goodall!

Their relentless efforts to spread awareness, every day in every thing they do, inspires me!

7. What advice would you give to someone trying to make a difference in their community?

Any effort big or small is a win. My advice is to not give up and to not preach:  be positive, be open, be kind and be genuine.

Make the changes you want to see and start with yourself.

For example try to refuse straws and plastic cups/bottles and think about it before you have it in your hands. Investing in a refillable bottle you can take with you every day makes you quickly a pretty good tracker of water fountains;-). You would be surprised how much you save too and it makes you feel good, you’re making a difference and setting an example.

8. What do you love most about wildlife photography?

Wildlife is pure and genuine. Animals act on instinct and when you observe them and study their behavior, you might get better at reading them. Wildlife never disappoints. I am a giving trusting people’s person but that comes with joy and sadly also pain. I need the time in nature and the time behind my lens to reenergize myself. Getting a good shot is a lot of work, preparation, knowledge, inspiration and concentration but the reward when everything comes together is huge. I’m grateful for the moments I have in nature, they keep me sane and my way of giving back is with my work.

Photo Credit: Ellen Cuylaerts

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