Interview: Michael Patrick O’Neill, Photographer and Author

Posted by David Diley, Director, September 23, 2015

Born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, Michael, 49, is an award-winning photographer and author specializing in marine wildlife and environmental issues. He lives in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, and for the last 23 years has traveled extensively worldwide photographing diverse aquatic animals, habitats and man's impact on them.

Interview: Michael Patrick O’Neill, Photographer and Author

About Michael

Michael has written and photographed seven non-fiction marine life books designed to encourage school children to read, write and become involved in science and conservation.

When not making photographs or writing, he is on the lecture circuit promoting a greater appreciation for the natural world, especially the oceans and their inhabitants. He has presented to over 400,000 kids in more than 400 schools in the US in the last 13 years.

His images have appeared in hundreds of publications worldwide including BBC Wildlife, National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, The Washington Post and The New York Times, among many others, and have won the most prestigious competitions, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Pictures of the Year (POYi).

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How did you get into Photography as a profession?

It started back in 1992 when I first began diving. The following year, in 1993, while on vacation in Roatan, I rented a Nikonos and had a blast. Soon thereafter, I bought my own and began shooting every weekend – religiously, fanatically. I never ever thought I would get into it like I did. In 1995, I was published in Ocean Realm, THE magazine at the time for underwater photography, and also started contributing with Sport Diver Magazine (USA). Both were a huge boost and encouragement. I was soon a regular contributor and started finally doing it full time in 2001, eventually writing and photographing seven books and going on the lecture series speaking about marine conservation and photography to more than 400,000 people in 22 states. The opportunity to share my work and message with the general public and to inspire (especially kids) and encourage conservation is extremely rewarding.


Did your passion for conservation come about as a byproduct of your job as a photographer or was it a motivating factor for you getting into photography in the first place?

I think I followed the same path as most conservation-minded photographers: I was first interested solely in making beautiful pictures – pretty coral, pretty fish, etc. Then, after being around the block several times, I started to notice widespread environmental degradation and wanted to make sure that along with the pretty images, I was also making the important ones, namely how careless and greedy human activity was trashing the marine environments – and others – in warp speed. And obviously making sure people saw them – not to get them down, but to encourage them to make a difference. Because if we don’t act, no one will. When I’m photographing I always keep in the mind the following saying “There are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I repeat this phrase mentally whenever I see what people do for a quick buck – at the total expense of everything else.

Let’s talk about Shark Reef, how many times have you been there now, how did you first hear about it and what were your first impressions after your first dives there?

I’ve been there three times (2005, 2007 and 2010) and I’m due for a new visit 😉 I heard about it from the dive press. First impressions: When I saw all those sharks, I thought I had bitten more than I could chew. I felt overwhelmed and not up to the task (of photographing them).


What do you think makes Shark Reef so special?

The whole story of making something spectacular out of nothing. It’s an example of how a small group of like-minded people can make a positive, permanent change. Individually, we can’t save the world, but we can save our own little worlds. Mike Neumann and his team did exactly that in Pacific Harbour. Think Global Act Local. Simple but powerful.

Is there one particular stand out moment from Shark Reef which is your favourite and if so, tell us a bit about it

My first dives there in August 2005 when I received permission to sit immediately to the right of Rusi and watch him feed Grandma, the most massive bull shark and lean back and watch that enormous fish swim inches from me. Someone behind me (maybe Andrew?) was filming this specific dive and after the shark glided over me I turned around and my eyes are the size of dinner plates. It’s pretty funny.


How do you think Shark Reef and the sharks you encounter there, differ from other places around the world where you have photographed sharks, if at all?

At the end of the day, most boil down to the same thing: chum and sharks. But beyond that, everything is up in the air and can be completely different, for example on a reef, in blue water, etc. The varieties of sharks present can make it very relaxing or high voltage. As can the operator. There is a right way to do it and a wrong way. And we’ve all seen examples of both recently without mentioning any names. I think there is a shark dive for everyone, depending on taste, personalities and experience.

You spent time with David whilst he was in Fiji, how did you feel about being involved in Of Shark and Man and what do you think of the film now you’ve seen it?

I’m happy to contribute and I admire and congratulate David for having the balls to pursue his dreams. I did it and can relate – the ups and downs, challenges, doubts – from outside and within. Regarding the movie, it’s an incredible undertaking. Lots of people in this field are a lot of talk and what I like about David is that he walks the walk and talks the talk. He got it done. It has an excellent message and I wholeheartedly support it.

To a lot of people, the life of a travelling professional shark photographer sounds like a dream job, what’s the reality like?

It can be a dream job (if you really like this kind of stuff), but it’s certainly not for everyone. The overwhelming majority of people out there are not doing it as a job, regardless of the BS they spew about being a “pro”. Because at the end of the day their photos are generating little, if any, income. To make a living photographing wildlife is incredibly hard. In all honesty, in its purest form (just taking pictures and trying to sell them), it’s a lousy business whose time has passed because of the advent / proliferation today of digital, high quality cameras, and the sheer number of people taking/copying the same images. The supply is a million times larger than the demand.  I’m fortunate that it has worked out for me – so far – and I never lose sight of that. But people only want to see the finished product – the photo – they don’t see the preparation nor what comes after. I’ve had to work unbelievably hard to package my images into products that have an appeal to a large audience that actually want to buy goods / services that contain wildlife imagery.

What advice would you give to someone dreaming of a career as a professional wildlife Photographer?

Treat it like a business and not a hobby. Very simple. Extremely hard. Try it and see how far you go.


If you could go back and have one experience from your life (as a photographer) what would you choose and why?

I’ve been blessed with many life-changing encounters: photographing a 16ft. Green Anaconda underwater in Brazil at dusk, by myself; encountering four leatherback sea turtles in one day offshore Jupiter, FL; photographing a colony of the highly endangered Aussie Sea Lion in Hopkins Island, and the list goes on and on. But do you know what? I like to remember them but what really gets me going is knowing that the future still holds fantastic photo opportunities and encounters. The unknown is exciting. My job is to be out there. And if I’m out there, ready and prepared, things will eventually happen. And when they do, it’s beautiful. It’s never exactly how you imagined, but just as fascinating.


Posted by David Diley, Director