July 19, 2021 By Stephen Frink; photos and captions by Michael Aw
Silky shark at sunset (Jardines de la Reina, Cuba): Silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) often congregate at the edge of the continental dropoff at Jardines de la Reina, Cuba. Since 2013 I have photographed these silkies every February, either in the morning or in the afternoon. In 2017, however, I persuaded the crew to conduct this dive at sunset. I conceptualized this picture, and since then many other photographers have successfully captured a similar image.
Shooter Michael Aw
When I interview the photographers for our Shooter series, I’ve come to expect a certain uniformity of inspiration. Those of a certain age frequently became enthused about scuba diving through the old black-and-white episodes of Sea Hunt. Somewhat younger people may have watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau as a vicarious portal to ocean adventure. Michael Aw’s story was the first I’d heard from any photographer of a childhood without any experience or fantasy related to the sea.
While growing up in Singapore, Aw was on a path of single-minded dedication to school and ultimately earning a college degree. He was 12 years old before he went to an aquarium and didn’t see a beach until three years later. The ocean survival training of his mandatory military service at age 17 was the first time he put his face below the surface. His early life gave few clues that he would one day become one of the most influential print journalists in destination diving and ocean conservation.
With a degree in economics from Bristol University in England, Aw embarked on a marketing career. For the next 15 years he worked for a few mainstream ad agencies and was deployed to their offices in Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and San Francisco. This corporate chapter of his life allowed him to earn a good living but with unending work.
On the ragged edge of being burned out, he turned to scuba diving as a hobby to have something different in his life. He discovered that with Singapore as a gateway, he could leave work Thursday evening, travel somewhere in Asia with good diving and be back home Sunday night. He eventually added a Nikonos III and Nikonos V to his travel kit and began taking his first, and predictably underwhelming, underwater photographs.
Infected by the scuba and underwater photography bug, he experienced the transformational moment in his career when staying in Bunaken on North Sulawesi, Indonesia, for eight months while on sabbatical from work. He refined his underwater photography into a marketable skill and produced enough quality images for a book. While most photographers work long and hard to develop a body of work that will carry a book, Aw used his experience in publishing during his ad agency days to forge a business plan for him to self-publish the book and do his own marketing.
It was the right product at the right time, and his efforts made the book a hit. He sold enough copies to local businesses and the Indonesian government to attain a broad reach. The book served as a calling card to other destinations that might want to similarly showcase their underwater attractions. Since Aw released Beneath Bunaken: A Pictorial Almanac in 1993, he has been the principal author or a major contributor for 43 other books.
Once the book’s story of the beauty beneath the sea was readily available, dive shops on the island proliferated. In 1993 two full-time dive resorts were in operation, which increased to 10 in 1995, 15 in 1999 and 25 by the mid-2000s. The growth isn’t directly related to any single publication, but Aw sold a few hundred books to SilkAir, which soon began operating a direct flight from Singapore after recognizing the region’s scuba tourism potential. Easy air access contributed to Bunaken’s success as a dive destination.
The publishers of Ocean Realm magazine bought a few hundred copies of the Bunaken book and sold them at the annual Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) trade show. This success led to several destination collaborations and Aw’s first foray into dive magazines. As an Asian photographer, he had found it difficult to be accepted by dive magazines in Europe and Asia in the early 1990s, but this U.S. publisher gave him his first big break.
Aw also used his marketing skills and background to produce successful dive-related events. In 1999 he conceived a project where he and five other photographers would document a day in the life of the coral reefs in the Maldives by spending 24 hours underwater using semiclosed rebreathers. This experience led to the book 24 Hours Beneath a Rainbow Sea, Maldives: The Pictorial Almanac and a companion television documentary for National Geographic. The project’s success opened the door for the 2003 publication of Richest Reefs: Indonesia.
While books were the currency of his career, generating the images for the books also created a lucrative stock photography business. Getty Images represented him, and in his heyday he was earning $80,000 per year from repurposing his photography. This additional outlet was essentially a sideline business to producing books and writing for Scuba Diver and Diver in the U.K., Germany-based Tauchen and other magazines.
The same year as his Maldives project, Aw began a string of publishing ventures from Singapore. Asian Geographic was the first, conceived as like National Geographic with an exclusively Asian influence. For someone so immersed in the underwater world, however, there weren’t enough opportunities in a general interest magazine to tell stories about diving. So in 2001 he bought an existing dive magazine, Scuba Diver Australasia. While both magazines are still successful publications in their respective niches, Aw is no longer involved in their production.
Instead, in 2007 he created Ocean Geographic, the magazine he continues to publish. A quarterly coffee-table publication, the nonprofit magazine features ocean conservation and environmental articles. It is also a vehicle to launch expeditions, including a large one every five years with as many as 50 participants and typically to an exotic region such as Antarctica.
As for what’s next, Aw says he has pictures in his mind to execute over the next decade — images in which he sees a personal challenge and a story to tell. He’d like to consider passing on Ocean Geographic to a new publishing team and concentrate more time on deep-ocean exploration via submersible.
He’d also like to devote more time to his passion: shark conservation. After a meeting with Peter Benchley on the 25th anniversary of Jaws and subsequent support and inspiration from Stan Waterman, David Doubilet and Sylvia Earle, Aw has been a longtime advocate for banning shark-fin soup in Singapore. These efforts will remain one of his lifelong commitments, and he hopes to raise awareness of the folly of shark-finning and the overexploitation of our marine resources.