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Photographer’s passion for animal welfare sees him scoop international award

Saving Seals film wins Grand Prix at International Tourism Film Festival. JEAN TRESFON

Saving Seals film wins Grand Prix at International Tourism Film Festival. JEAN TRESFON

Published May 21, 2022

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Cape Town - To the delight of sea lovers, wildlife photographer and conservation hero Steve Benjamin recently received the Grand Prix Award for his efforts in raising awareness through his short film, Saving Seals.

At the International Tourism Film Festival Africa, the short film was awarded the Grand Prix prize in the Documentary and Television category and gold in the Environment and Ecology thematic category for its depiction of the “breakthrough work” that involves techniques that safely tranquilise distressed seals in order for them to be disentangled from life-threatening nooses that they encounter in the ocean.

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The competition, which aims to merge tourism films and documentaries from all over the world with activities focused on tourism audiovisual production, saw 315 entries from 55 countries, leaving Cape Town’s very own to take the prize home.

With a passion for animal welfare that began when he began volunteering at the aquarium at the age of 14, Benjamin said that the project was inspired by his desire to show people the effects of human action.

“I wanted to showcase the dedication put into the disentangle itself without sedation just by cutting the plastic off. So, over the course of the next year, I visited the aquarium multiple times, and we went underwater, under the jetties, to get close to the seals. At times, I would only get a couple of shots underwater because sometimes the seals were actually feeding offshore.

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“Nevertheless, every chance I got, I wanted to document their story, and I think it was an important story to tell because it needs to show the dedication that goes into animal welfare and the impact,” said Benjamin.

Saving Seals film wins Grand Prix at International Tourism Film Festival. STEVE BENJAMIN

The short film showcases the stories of Claire Taylor and Vincent Calder of the Two Oceans Aquarium, who developed a method to approach unsuspecting seals from below the jetties. As this method has proven successful with specialised equipment and techniques being developed, Calder and Taylor’s efforts were recognised and have been incorporated into the Marine Wildlife Management Programme at the V&A Waterfront. With this method, it was all captured through Benjamin's viewfinder.

Saving Seals film wins Grand Prix at International Tourism Film Festival. STEVE BENJAMIN

“What I would describe as a monumental moment would be when we were at Duiker Island in Hout Bay snorkelling with the seals, and one came with a massive piece of netting wrapped around his body, and this is always something that's horrible to see.

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“I happened to have a camera, and it was this very strong representation of the plastic problem that seal faces all the time. So I managed to film the seal, and then I put my camera down, and we managed to catch it, which was very hard to do. About three or four of us pulled it onto the boat and tried to cut off the plastic netting, and we released it, so that was a very strong moment, because it really showed a problem with seal's face," said Benjamin.

Saving Seals film wins Grand Prix at International Tourism Film Festival. STEVE BENJAMIN

With the film aiming to send an impactful message, the conservation and sustainability manager at Two Oceans Aquarium, Helen Lockhart, mentioned that the film needs to be able to showcase the raw truth about what is happening on the shores so that individuals can make a difference in the world and have courage, persistence, compassion, and “thinking outside the box” qualities.

“We were very pleased that Steve was able to make this film about the life-saving work which is being done here by the Aquarium team in the V&A Waterfront. And we were thrilled that he won an award for the film and that the work received this recognition. Films such as this can spread a powerful message far and wide.

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“We hope that people watching the film will realise that every action they take on land has an impact on the ocean and the animals that live there. We encourage everyone to cut anything which could potentially form a life-threatening noose, to consider the packaging around the goods they are about to purchase and choose more environmentally-responsible alternatives, dispose of their waste responsibly and recycle where they can. We also need to be constantly innovative and looking for better ways to do things that are healthy for the ocean and for us,” said Lockhart.

In hopes of leaving a mark, Benjamin added that he hopes the film could teach people something about the different ways that are underwater and why it is important to keep the environment clean.

“Seals invite you into an underwater world that is really foreign to us, and when I enter the ocean, it feels like I’m leaving the rules of humanity on land, and it feels like I’m entering a place that is 100% different. It’s hard to breathe. You are not at the top of the food chain.

“Its wild elements are its wild waves and currents, and entering the ocean is a difficult thing to do. It feels like entering outer space, and seals cross the boundary of land and water, and they are so engaged in the water that they just look at you out of curiosity and they invite you under the water. That is so unique, hence keeping it clean is so important,” said Benjamin.

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