Alicia Ward — better known as “Alicia Underwater” thanks to her wildly popular Instagram account — is on a mission: Show off the amazing aquatic wildlife of Hawaii in the most respectful way, not disturbing the environment and, in fact, making it a nicer place for all. Ward isn’t just a nature photographer or a travel photographer, she’s an adventurer and a conservationist, and she and her husband, Jim, have made a concerted effort to leave their backdrops better than when they arrived by cleaning up after themselves and those who came before them.
Not only does Ward take photos of nature, she also creates a fantasy behind her photos, snapping pics of friends and clients who want to transform themselves to become a part of the aquatic backdrop as mermaids and mermen. Her company, See Through Sea, features a “Mermaid Experience” — creating some of the most vivid, imaginative photos on the Internet.
This week, we spoke to Alicia about taking nature photography to a new level, using her skills to create images of what could be, and showing off the beauty of Hawaii while, through it all, making sure the land she loves so much will remain preserved throughout generations.
What’s your motivation for your photos?
I think as a kid, I always felt drawn to the ocean and to the wildlife within it. So I thought as a young child, that I just wanted to be a marine biologist. But my mom was a hobbyist photographer, and so right around the age of 15, I discovered free diving, and I had actually applied for a job as a deckhand on a boat. My first day, I met the photographer on board, and she was telling me how she worked seven days a week and she was looking for someone to hire, and I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do photography, and I’ve never done underwater photography, but I’d like to help you.” So she handed me her entire camera rig, and she told me when we pulled up to a snorkel spot, she said, “If you can free dive down 25 feet and take a picture of the school of fish below us, I’ll hire you. I’ll talk to the owner of the company, and instead of being a deckhand, you can be a photographer.”
So that’s how I really got thrown into it, because I started to work the very next day.
Yeah, but it was a great space for me to grow and learn and develop my own eye, because I had been thrown into it. I just had to start.
So you already loved the animals you were seeing. But the ocean is a wild place… are there any that make you nervous?
I’m not afraid of any animal in particular. I’d say that I’m a little more wary of animals like eels. One of my friends was bitten by an eel. It was probably about five years ago, but what’d happened was she caught an octopus, and eels will eat octopus, so she’s swimming above the reef with this octopus in her hand, and an eel came out and grabbed onto her arm, and her body went into toxic shock because of the bacteria in the eel’s mouth. She had to be airlifted to the hospital. That was a pretty scary experience, but other than that, as far as sharks and whatnot go, I don’t fear them.
I think that I have a healthy respect for them, but I’m not afraid of them.
Got you. What would you say are the friendliest of the animals that you encounter?
I think it’s tricky to anthropomorphize animals, because what may be curiosity could be misunderstood as friendliness. I’d say the easiest to view are probably dolphins, because they are curious animals. They’ll come up and they’ll investigate their surroundings, and who you are, and what you’re doing, and then they’ll go about their way.
Some of my favorite pictures that you have are the ones with mermaids. I have a thing for mermaids, myself. What inspired this series?
My best friend and I were browsing the Internet before it was what it is today, and there were a couple pictures here and there of a few gals out there in the world “mermaiding,” essentially. They were very talented and doing a lot of cool things with their work, but my friend and I noticed that the two of them that we had pulled up were both blonde-haired and had blue tails. My friend – she has jet black hair and porcelain skin – and so she and I were chatting one day about how it would be so fun to do something that was a little closer to the mythological side of it, where the sirens were dark and dangerous creatures, and much more moody — as opposed to a light, little mermaid scenario. So we got the idea to make a tail for my friend so that I could photograph her in it. There was a lot of trial and error involved, but we finally ended up making a tail that fit her, we put it in the water and took some photos.
Those photos went pretty viral back then. At least before “viral” was a thing.
It was really cool. I realized they were a niche for this, and an interest in it, and an appreciation for this kind of mythological art. I though it was kinda neat to combine a few different skills and arts into one and really come up with something unique. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of photography like this out there. That’s how that started out.
These women are going underwater and posing. That is amazing, because they look so glamorous, you know? And I’m sitting here thinking of how I am underwater, and it’s not beautiful.
It doesn’t feel beautiful…they can’t see anything ’cause it’s blurry underwater, and they’ve got salt water running up their sinuses, and they’re trying to pose and get arms and hair and feet and tail and everything just right, so it’s actually quite a difficult process, but the outcome is something that we look at it at the end, and we’re like, “Okay, that was sorta good. That was worth the torture.”
And how long does it take to get a shot?
Well, usually do sessions for about an hour, and I’ve worked for some of the best underwater models in the world, and I’ve worked with some “brand new to underwater anything” people as well. I’ll give it an hour and I always tell everybody, “If there’s just one photo that we like from this whole thing, then it was a success.” Often there’ll be more than one. A lot of times we get lucky and people take direction well, or all of the elements come together, and we’ll get a couple that we really like.
Other than the super cool mermaid pictures, I see pictures here where you are … And I guess this is your husband with you ’cause I read about See Through Sea, and you are, I guess, extracting debris from the ocean? Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Sure. You hear in national parks and just kind of around where people say, “You should leave a place better than when you found it.” That’s how we feel about the ocean too, and knowing that we have such a major battle right now with man-made pollution in the ocean right now. We do everything we can to try to aid that fight against it. The pieces that we pull out can be as small as a water bottle, or as large as a 600-pound net, and both of them, whether it’s small or massive, have a huge impact on our environment. Anytime we come upon debris in the ocean, we pick it up, we remove it. If it’s recyclable, we’ll take it to the local center here. If it’s not recyclable, like if it’s a net, there is a net processing and recycling facility here that is a part of our government system.
We’ll work with them, and we’ll bring it over, and then they take care of it from there. We just wanna leave the ocean a little bit better than when we found it.
How often do you guys go out and do things like this?
We get out on the water at least three to four times a week, if not more. On every trip, if there’s anything that we see, we’ll pull over, we’ll stop, we’ll pick it up. Some days, depending on the current, the winds, the swell, some days we’ll see nothing at all, and it’s awesome. There are other days where we’re stoping every five minutes to pick up something new, and it’s the strangest of things, too.
We pick up a lot of hamper baskets, like laundry baskets, and a lot of them usually have Japanese writing on them, so we know that they’ve traveled quite a distance. The other day, we picked up the bumper from a car, which was new. We find TV’s, nets, bottles, all kinds of oddities out there.
I’ve also read about you and your husband’s stories, individually, and they’re both quite the story of how you got to Hawaii and started See Through Sea, and how you acquired the passion for the water. How did you guys meet?
Okay. So let’s see. About eight years ago, my family, my mom, my dad, and my sister were moving from Hawaii to South Carolina, and they wanted me to come with them, but I had just quit my job as a barista and a waitress to pursue underwater photography full time. I knew that I couldn’t really follow that passion in South Carolina, so I was looking into the idea of maybe moving to the Caribbean so that I could be still close to my family, but also still pursuing this path that I had just decided for myself.
There was a magazine that I subscribe to called Islands Magazine which features different islands around the world. In one of the issues I was reading one day, there was an article about a man who was a photographer and a marine biologist in Grand Cayman, and reading through the article, I was like, “This is pretty much exactly what I want to do, and in the area that I’m considering doing it, so maybe I’ll just reach out to this guy and see if he thought that moving halfway around the world was a reasonable idea to pursue my dream.” I looked for a website for him online, but of course he didn’t have one, so I ended up finding him on Facebook. I sent him a friend request, and I was just typing up this letter of, “You don’t know me, but here’s why I added you,” because I don’t usually add people that I don’t know, when he accepted my friend request. The easiest way that I can relate it is to imagine when you’re calling someone and you expect to get their voicemail, so you have everything that you’re going to say all planned out, and then they pick up the phone, and you just forget everything that you’re going to say. I was really embarrassed, and I didn’t say anything to him. We didn’t speak to each other for six months or something like that.
One day, I had knocked my two front teeth out surfing, and I posted a picture of it on Facebook, and I was like, “If you see me not smiling lately, it’s because I have no teeth. I promise I’m getting it fixed.” It was actually right after that that Jim reached out to me, and he was like, “I don’t really know why we’re friends, you toothless person, but I really am glad that this connection was made however it was made, because I’ve always wanted to come up to Hawaii, and I appreciate your dolphin photos. I’m just saying that you’ve got someone who supports your work.” I wrote him back, and I told him how I had found him, and why I had added him and whatnot. We got to talking, and a month later, he had a ticket booked from Grand Cayman to Hawaii to come meet me, and it just fell into place after that.
Wow, that’s awesome. So now, you guys are able to work together. That’s really great. I’ve been scouring your site, as well, and I bumped into the Mermaid Experience, which is not just a photo shoot, or doesn’t have to be just a photo shoot. Can you tell me more about that, ’cause that actually looks really cool.
Thanks. Yeah, so we bring clients out here from all walks of life. Like I said, some of them run businesses where they do children’s parties. Some of them have just always wanted to be a mermaid, and some of them are professional models, and so people will come out here and work with us on these mermaid experiences. Essentially what we’ll do is we will meet them and go over the safety of free diving and then throughout the course of the week, we’ll take them to three different locations for three separate photo shoots, and we also incorporate video work into it as well. Then while we’re at these different places, we’ll also allow them to snorkel around and experience some of our favorite local sites.
They can do any number of things: We sometimes take them to lava tubes to do fresh water shoots, or we’ll take them to a shallow reef where we can get fish and see coral. Or every so often, we’ll go out to deeper water, and maybe we’ll get lucky and spinning dolphins will be nearby, or manta rays, or something of the sort, ’cause Kona has such an abundance of wildlife. It is really fun. We’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of pretty spectacular people from all over the world through these events. We’ve recently branched out to Tahiti as well.
That’s very cool. And I saw you can get a custom made tail. Do you make them?
Okay. I gotta know. So I know…I remember you said with your friend, the first friend that you shot, you said you had made her tail. How do you just know how to do this?
I didn’t. It was amazing. My poor friend…that very first tail, I couldn’t figure out how to do it at all, so I ended up sewing her into a bunch of neoprene, and sticking her with a pin so many times. Poor thing. I’m sure she still has little pin prick scars from it. What’s crazy is that the internet is such a wonderful thing. Going on YouTube, and then just going through a lot of trial and error, myself, has really led me to this new way of doing it.
What I do today is make silicone mermaid tails, and there are a few other tail makers out there as well, and we all have our unique style and design, and so it’s pretty cool. It’s like somebody buying your jewelry or your art, or whatnot. So yeah. Just there were a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and because silicone is not a cheap material, there were a lot of very expensive mistakes in the beginning, but now I’ve got it nailed down. Clients, if they wanna come out and have their own custom silicone mermaid tail ready for them, they just have to let me know a month in advance and I can have it here waiting for their arrival.
Awesome. And so the proceeds from that go for your efforts for See Through Sea?
Right. So they go into all the work that we do to remove trash and debris and to really make efforts towards protecting our local environment.
What has been your favorite photo so far?
Oh, that’s tough. Huh. My favorite photograph that I have taken…let’s see…I’d say that is really difficult. Okay, so there’s one that stands out in my head, and it’s not one that other people really notice or appreciate so much. It was just a really cool experience for me, so I’ll tell you about this one:
I was in the water with a pod of spinner dolphins, and the pod was on my left just passing in front of me, moving to the right, and I was free diving, but I was getting out about 15 feet. You don’t want to dive on the dolphins. You dive first, wait for them to approach and pass, and then resurface. You’re on a long breath hold in order to not disturb them. Anyway, as the pod was passing in front of me, there was one little juvenile dolphin, and through the lens, I can see him doing … They do this predictable wiggle before they jump, and so he did this little wiggle, and I said, “Oh he’s gonna jump,” and so I aimed my camera towards the surface of the water, which is about 15 feet above me, and the water was so calm that day, it was really glassy. This little dolphin jumped up out of the water and through what we call “Snell’s Window,” which is just an underwater photography term. It just means when you’re looking through the surface of the water to topside. Anyway, through Snell’s Window, you can see this little dolphin perfectly. He’s just tack sharp through the surface of the water, even though he’s above water and I’m underwater. It’s just … You see his little water trail where he goes to leap out, and it was just such a unique moment for me, because it was not a photo that I’d seen before. I just thought it was cool that we had a world reversal for a moment there.
Are there any plans for more above water photography or are you married to the sea?
We do above water photography on occasion. I think I prefer underwater because I like the challenge of it. We just completed a maternity shoot last week, and we’ll do long exposures and some fun stuff. We do keep them in the mix, I just like to focus on underwater photography and promote it a bit more.
What are your immediate goals for your photography? Or is it that some day, you just want to go full on into your See Through See efforts? Or will photography always be a thing?
Photography will always be a thing. I think it is an interesting balance that Jim and I try and keep, but the nice thing about it is that we love both the things that we do. We love photography, and we love getting on the ocean, and it’s pretty easy to combine the two of them. They just go hand in hand for us today, and so any time we’re out on the ocean, we’ll always be taking photos. The ocean is exactly where we wanna be taking pictures anyway, so I’d say our ultimate goal is to have See Through Sea grow a bit more way of educating people and taking them out to experience this space that we love, and also being able to photograph the wildlife that we see, participating in research that’s ongoing with our local wildlife, and then also getting a few pictures of our clients enjoying themselves as well. Those memories, they last forever, so it’s pretty cool having both hand in hand.
Some photos featuring Alicia, by her partner Jim Ward:
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We’re headed back for our fifth #SeeThroughSea + #FrenchPolynesia excursion! We’ve just announced the dates / rates on our website (link in bio) and are so excited to return to the space we think of as our second home. If you’d like to join us on this year’s tour, read up on what’s involved & sign up quickly as slots are already filling up! Photo by @_jimward_
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Some mornings I head to the sea just before dawn. Who or what I will encounter is anyone's guess, no two days on the water are ever the same; sometimes I love the mystery of not knowing what happens next. @seethroughsea 📷: @_jimward_ suit: @gypsea_swimwear fins : @dafinhi camera: @nikonusa #seethroughsea
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"And the ocean taught her how to drown in all the things bigger than herself. The ocean loved her and knew everything that made her. And every time she'd walk to the shore, she'd smile at the ocean because the waves told her story." – @rmdrk @seethroughsea @gypsea_swimwear
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It's not always easy, or glamorous, or pleasant smelling, but we do what we do because we love the ocean and everything that lives within it. We removed 700+lbs of net, line and debris from the sea yesterday; it won't be the last, but at least it's one less out there! @seethroughsea @_jimward_ @chadkcampbell @mantaraydivesofhawaii #seethroughsea #cleanoceans #marinedebris
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I’ve been working on the ocean in Hawai’i for 13 years. In that time I’ve encountered Bottlenose dolphins on approximately 40 occasions and they were always rather uninterested in my presence. They’d echolocate me from afar and then go about their way, never approaching within 10m. Jim and I have joked for years that Hawaiian Bottlenose are simply “too cool” for humans and I believed that to be 100% true, until this ⬆️ day happened. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀ @chelseakauai @_jimward_ and I watched in astonishment as a pod cooperatively hunted fish right in front of us. When they made a catch, they vocalized and appeared to celebrate the successful hunt. Then, they’d play with their food, bringing it up to us and dropping the fish, circling back around to collect it again. They’d dart and weave throughout our trio and one, in particular, appeared highly curious about us. He circled, swooped and spun around us while his companions searched for another fish to fill their bellies. Pictured here is that very dolphin. After having danced a circle around Chelsea, he rapidly approached me, swimming so close that I couldn’t keep him in frame. So, I simply let my camera fall to my side and took in the experience with my eyes. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I don’t expect to have another experience like this again but, my heart is content. It was markedly one of the best days of my life 💙 @seethroughsea #seethroughsea
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"Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it's unlikely that you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there's no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there's a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours." -Noam Chomsky | Every day should be considered "Earth Day". This is our planet, our home, it's the only one we have and it has offered us everything it can; care for it, appreciate it and contribute to its well being. Easy steps like reducing water use, employing reusable bags or recycling cans/plastic/glass are simple life adaptations that contribute to a greater good and every action counts. Never forget that, even one small drop can make a ripple in the water. #earthday 📷: @_jimward_ @seethroughsea Suit: @kokohbikini Fins: @penetratorfins #seethroughsea
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On Sundays I fondly reminisce about stingray sneak attacks 😉 A few people messaged me the other day when they noted in my insta story that I wear a clear mask. The general consensus was that it looks “unprofessional” in the freediving world but, let me tell you why I wear it : Simple enough, I find that a clear mask allows me to use my peripheral vision whereas a black lined mask does not. I used to wear a high quality black mask and though I loved the shade it offered my eyes, I didn’t like that it hindered my view of my surroundings. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In the Ocean, I want to have my wits about me at all times and being able to use my peripheral vision helps me avoid obstacles while filming / photographing a subject and also keeps me aware of animals that may approach me from the side. So, that is why you see me with a clear mask in all of my posts. It’s purely preferential & it works for me 😉 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Photo by : @_jimward_ @seethroughsea • Fins : @dafinhi • Suit : @gypsea_swimwear #seethroughsea #dafinohana #himanturafai #pinkwhipray