The Two Oceans Aquarium is blessed to be able to collaborate with passionate ocean-lovers from all walks of life. One such thalassophile is Steve Benjamin, renowned conservation photographer, filmmaker, underwater guide, and all-around good guy who inspires those around him to love the oceans with the same enthusiasm and adventurous spirit as his own.
Steve's underwater guiding expertise have exposed countless people to South Africa's diverse ocean wonders through his Cape Town-based company Animal Ocean, and with his work for international films from the likes of Netflix and National Geographic. But Steve also uses his skill and passion to create awareness in other ways - such as using his amazing photography skills to help the Two Oceans Aquarium to spread our conservation message.
Where does Steve Benjamin's love of the sea come from, and how did his more than 20-year history of being a true friend to the Aquarium start? Let's hear from the man himself:
I was about 12, in Bergvliet Primary School, which must have been standard 4, Russell Stevens [now the Two Oceans Aquarium Head of Education] was one of my teachers. Russell presented my class with a project, he said: “Give us a small report on your favourite species of fish.”
I chose the Cape kurper, and because my project was quite a good one, I was rewarded with the chance to be one of 10 classmates to volunteer at the holding tanks at the Two Oceans Aquarium, where they kept the fish before moving them onto display.
While Steve's introduction may have been a lot less formal than the chances young people have to work with us today, it is no less evident how impactful a connection with the ocean can be on a youth's life.
At the time they were still busy building the Aquarium and it wasn’t open to the public or anything. There wasn’t even water in the main displays. I don’t remember the date, but it was more than 20 years ago [the Two Oceans Aquarium opened in 1995]. I volunteered over weekends at the Aquarium for about four years after that - it wasn’t even called a volunteer programme then, we were just "helping out".
I was too young at the time to work front of house, like the microscope stuff, so I mostly helped behind the scenes and to catch fish on weekends, chop pilchard, clean nets and siphon tanks - which could take a whole day sometimes!
During high school I had to stop volunteering, and it wasn’t until I was in my third year of studies at UCT, where I studied zoology, that I connected with Guy and [current Two Oceans Aquarium Curator] Maryke Musson. Maryke was working for Esteban Marine, which was a kob farming company near Hermanus, and I went to volunteer with them.
Later I went on to study at Rhodes University, and then I went to work for Guy and Maryke right after my studies. Then Maryke became involved in the Two Oceans Aquarium and I sort of connected and reconnected with everyone there and I’ve stayed connected since then!
Steve's journey of falling in love with the ocean is shared by the people he met along the way - his teacher Russell Stevens is now the Two Oceans Aquarium Head of Education, and fellow volunteer (and later, boss) Maryke Musson went on to become the Two Oceans Aquarium Curator!
Without the influence of Russell Stevens I would have never gotten involved in the Aquarium and met all those amazing people. Pat Garrat, who was the curator at the time, was always such an inspirational father figure. He was always positive, and enthusiastic, and encouraging, and just all the wonderful things. I still know Pat very well and we surf together quite regularly at Muizenberg. He’s still massively passionate and full of energy, just the greatest human.
A lot of very good, very positive people that have influenced my life have come directly from the Two Oceans Aquarium.
I always do what I can to support the Aquarium in any way possible, because there’s just such great work going on there and through photos and film I find that I am able to contribute the most. I really enjoy having my artwork and images up in the Aquarium, and it’s great the that it has all been pulled together in such and amazing way.
Like any Aquarium volunteer, the most memorable moments aren't the day-to-day work, but rather the random stories and occurrences that stand out. We asked Steve if he had any particular memories from his days as a volunteer at the Aquarium that he wanted to share:
One of my embarrassing moments was when I was young and working at the Aquarium. I was siphoning one of the tanks in the downstairs gallery area where there are little concrete channels that stop any water from behind the scenes flowing under the doors into the main exhibit area..
One day a pipe fell over so that it leaned across this channel, and I was siphoning so exuberantly that I didn’t notice and I completely flooded the downstairs exhibit hall with tank water. I was so mortified, I didn’t know what to do. But yeah, the guys vacuumed it up and it ended up not being a problem, but that still just stands out to me so vividly.
We would like to thank Steve for his years of friendship - and for being a true ocean ambassador. We hope to see many more young people grow up with your level of enthusiasm and love for our natural world.
If you would like to experience Steve's work beyond the Two Oceans Aquarium, please get in touch with his company, Animal Ocean - the only place in Cape Town offering incredible, responsible snorkelling experience with Cape fur seals with their extensive experience and passion.