BY LEAH BERNHARDT – Kemit-Amon Lewis is a self-taught photographer whose job as the Coral Conservation Manager at The Nature Conservancy USVI has him spending a lot of time underwater. He was born and raised on St. Croix, spending summers snorkeling at Dorsche Beach and participating in the SCUBA club at Central High. He has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Marine Science from Savannah State University. We had a chat with Kemit about his up coming show.
What first drew you to the ocean enough to start diving?
It began when I was very young. My dad would take a few of my cousins and I to the beach (usually Dorsche) every day during summer breaks. That quickly grew into snorkeling adventures and sparked an interest in marine science.
What made you want to capture it?
Wanting to capture marine organisms/habitats is two-fold. One, I love photography and enjoy being underwater, so the two together makes sense. Two, I’ve used some of my photos/video for marine science education and outreach and I hope that through that I can continue to engage Virgin Islanders in an effort help to conserve these organisms and habitats.
When did you start capturing?
Photography has been a hobby of mine for as long as I can remember.
Is there any education involved with photography and marine sciences?
YES! This is one of the reasons I started taking underwater photographs and video.
What kind of camera do you use?
Above land I shoot with a Pentax K10. Below water I shoot with a Canon SD PowerShot.
What time of day is best for different situations? What’s your favorite?
One of my favorite dives so far started before dawn. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia was pretty cool too. I’ve also recently added to the list sunset in the Bahamas with about 20 or so Caribbean Reef Sharks swimming around me. Generally though, different marine organisms are active during the day versus at night. Dusk and dawn dives provide for that opportunity to observe the transition. I also saw some really cool shades of blue on that dawn dive.
Most interesting/scariest thing you’ve seen?
Bahamas, sunset, sharks. It was a short dive but it is my favorite so far.
Any particular lens or flash, or anything you use to make your work what it is?
Simple guy here – nothing special.
Favorite thing to capture?
SEA TURTLE and SHARKS! They don’t mix well so I try not to capture both at the same time.
Is it just underwater organisms, or is it the ocean in general?
Both. While it’s fun to capture organisms, I’ve also captured a few water images as a reminder that Earth is made up of so much of it and for the many organisms that depend on water (including us), it is vital that it stays clean.
Do you venture on land at all with you camera?
I have, but still prefer nature photographs.
Favorite spots around the island?
Back in the day, Cane Bay was Central High School’s SCUBA Club’s spot. I still love diving Cane Bay because you can see just about everything from sea horses, coral reefs that aren’t too depressing (although live coral coverage has reduced since high school 1996 – 2000), sea turtles, a number of fishes including sharks, stingrays, moray eels, etc. I also like the Frederiksted Pier, the wrecks, and of course any of TNC’s Coral Nurseries.
Have you traveled to other oceans and taken pictures? What’s the difference?
I have photographs from a number of places in the Caribbean, Florida, Greece, California, Australia, and the Bahamas. There are differences in coral species diversity. Some places, like Greece, have just a few corals while others, like Australia, have many different species. Live coral cover and abundance and diversity of marine life or organisms also differ by location.
Do you have a favorite?
I love the Caribbean, but there are definitely things that we need to do to improve the conditions of our waters/reefs/fishes.
What does St. Croix/Caribbean waters have to offer that others don’t? What doesn’t it offer?
St. Croix is advertised as the diver’s perfect destination. Rightfully so, you can dive a wall, a pier, and wrecks all on St. Croix. Even better, you can do them all from shore and all in one day if you’d like.
Is there a difference between the animals/plants/anything in the other US Virgin Islands?
There are a few differences. The biggest difference (challenge) has to do with the location of St. Croix in comparison to other islands. Because of its isolation, recruitment of new organisms (coral, fishes, invertebrates) is more of a challenge as compared to the northern USVI, which shares the bank with Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands.
When were these photos taken?
It’s mixed; some are recent and others were taken two to three years ago.
Describe a typical day on the job. Does your job allow you to photograph?
Some days are “fun” office days. Others are spent underwater and I ALWAYS have my camera with me. As Coral Conservation Manager at The Nature Conservancy, I manage coral nurseries on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Essentially, we survey reefs for broken elkhorn and staghorn coral colonies after storm events. If left unattended, those fragments would die. We collect them, take them to one of our nurseries, and grow them on cinderblocks. Those corals can then be used to restore degraded reefs throughout the USVI. Over the past two years, we have created 3,000 coral colonies from 300 fragments that would have died in the USVI alone. Just one part of my job. There are a number of additional coral conservation initiatives with which I am involved.
What part of underwater life are you most passionate about, and why?
Endangered Species (Acroporid corals and sea turtles). If you look through history, you’ll find that most, if not all, of the extinct species in the world met their demise as a result of human impacts. Moreover, most, if not all, of the endangered species in the world are in threat of extinction as a result of human impacts. Over-fishing, destructive practices, degradation and removal of important habitats are just a few of the impacts that have all lead to population declines and fishery collapses. On a positive note, we have already begun to positively impact some of these species – at least on the local population level. The recovery of the leatherback sea turtles on Sandy Point is a good example. Through positive human intervention, population levels continue to increase on that once very rarely used sea turtle nesting beach.
Do you think the public should be more aware of under water life, especially on St. Croix? If so, then what should the public think or do?
Absolutely. We depend on healthy waters and organisms for a number of different reasons, including livelihoods for many. Additionally, marine life has traditionally been and is still a big part of the local culture and has spiritual value. •