Will Benson fishing

Ellenbogen gets an unexpectedly close portrait of a white shark in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Photo © Keith Ellenbogen

Conservation Photography

Stories from the Blue: Keith Ellenbogen

Keith Ellenbogen sitting on the side of a boat in scuba gear
Photo courtesy of Keith Ellenbogen

Look at Keith Ellenbogen’s photographs and it’s clear that environmental conservation drives his art. A renowned underwater photographer, Keith’s images have been displayed everywhere from the New England Aquarium to the lobby of the United Nations. In 2018, Keith received a Hollings Ocean Awareness Award from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, which took him to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to photograph marine life underwater. This is his Story from the Blue.

One August day in 2018, I was out with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary team, looking for marine animals to photograph. The coastal waters off Massachusetts are turbid with limited visibility, and that makes identifying and photographing large animals extremely challenging. On a good day—and it was a good day—the visibility in New England is only about 20 feet. I could see the light dancing through the emerald green sea as I approached what I thought was a basking shark.

As I approached the shark, I realized this was not a basking shark but rather an enormous white shark, swimming straight towards me. I’m fortunate I have a lot of experience filming other sharks in the wild, and know how to stay calm. I kept my heartbeat slow and steady and the camera stable. As the shark passed me, it made strong and direct eye contact. I could hardly believe its enormous size. We later identified the shark as Large Marge, a white shark who has been tagged by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. We estimated her size at about 17 feet long, six feet wide, and 3,000 pounds. This encounter is evidence that white sharks aren’t man-eaters—though people still shouldn’t try to swim with them—but rather beautiful apex predators that are part of a healthy ocean ecosystem. That to me is what Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is all about. There’s such an extreme diversity of animals here. Schools of mackerel and sand lance are the food for larger iconic animals—sharks, dolphins, seabirds, and whales.

I’d like to change the public’s perception of where wild is.”

My project focuses on using the artistry of wildlife photography to communicate complex environmental and scientific issues, and to inspire people about the sanctuary. When I get up close and personal with a lot of marine life, I’m struck by their beauty and diversity. They’re all unique in their own way—the way they move, the way they behave, their coloration. I’m always inspired.

I grew up in Boston, and people always say “Wow, you’re going to the Mediterranean” or “Wow, you’re going to Africa.” But what they don’t often realize is that some of the most extraordinary animals are right here off our coast, just 25 miles from Boston. I’d like to change the public’s perception of where wild is.