AN AMATEUR wildlife photographer and Southern Cross University research candidate, who took out a prestigious international award, has helped reinvigorate the profile of Victoria's state marine emblem.
Richard Wylie's image, 'Weedy Seadragon in the Light', was recently named the winner of the 2012 National Geographic-La Mer Oceans Photo Contest, scooping the $A27,000 prize pool and edging out professional wildlife photographers.
Through his PhD research at SCU, Richard is investigating the use of photography to stimulate school students' interest in marine life identification.
He has been doing wildlife photography for just a year and a half.
"I didn't think I would be in the running," said the 41-year-old marine biologist after learning about the win.
His winning photograph evokes a tropical environment, capturing the dazzling colours of an incubating male weedy seadragon in an azure ocean - yet it was taken at Flinders Pier on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula.
The weedy seadragon is the Victorian marine faunal emblem.
"The conditions were right: 20 metres visibility, an absolutely crystal clear day and no wind. It was spectacular underneath the water. Normally it's not like that," Richard said.
The CSIRO now want him to produce more photographs of the weedy seadragons for posters being distributed nationally.
"Also, by winning such a prestigious competition scientists at Museum Victoria are excited by the opportunity for international exposure of such a beautiful and important Australian marine animal," said Richard.
Weedy seadragons (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus) are unique to the temperate and sub-temperate waters of southern Australia (from Newcastle in NSW to Tasmania through to Geraldton in Western Australia), with their range centred around Victoria.
Every year in spring, male and female seadragons perform a beautiful dance which culminates in the female passing fertilised eggs to the male who then incubates them until hatching two months later. Seadragons are listed as near threatened by the world's main authority on the conservation status of species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and are at risk from habitat destruction and pollution.
As a marine biologist Richard has worked throughout the Pacific and southeast Asia in aquaculture and marine conservation. Then, five years ago two hip replacements changed the direction of his life.
"Doctors think because I had cerebral malaria when I worked in the Solomon Islands for the UN and because of all the diving I've done over the years it caused the top of my hips to die.
"But the good thing about it was I looked around and decided to do education," Richard said.
He currently lectures at Monash and RMIT universities while doing his PhD at SCU entitled 'Marine and Coastal Education in Australia and Pacific Island Countries and Territories: A Scoping Study in Schools'.
"I'm investigating how photography can be used as a tool for education and conservation. My experience as a teacher, marine biologist and wildlife photographer has shown me how useful giving a camera to my school and university students can be in focusing their attention on marine life identification - which in turn develops their own observation skills and knowledge about the marine environment independently of my instruction.
"I'm also interested in the emotive and connective aspect of the photo itself and whether that actually changes people's perception enough to act to protect the world's marine ecosystems."
As part of his PhD, Richard is also researching curriculum for marine science in primary and secondary schools. He was teaching a marine education program to a group of disaffected youth at a secondary school in Victoria who had disengaged from education.
"I never used the word science with them. I would just say we're going to go for a snorkel."
Richard worked in conjunction with Museum Victoria to develop a fish identification project using the data the students collected.
"They became really good at fish identification and got to understand processes like habitat monitoring."
Richard said was inspired by the dramatic changes in the teenagers, with many going on to study senior biology as a result of the snorkelling project.
"I'm not expecting them to pursue a career in science or marine science, but I am hopeful they will have a much greater understanding and appreciation of what happens in the marine environment."
Richard and his wife are now looking forward to enjoying his prize: a $A27,000 all expenses paid 12-day trip to Alaska on a National Geographic photography expedition in September next year.
He is keen to photograph the whales, bears, bald eagles, seals and otters that inhabit the Inside Passage, a series of islands that stretch from Alaska in the US, through British Columbia in Canada, to Washington state in the US.
"I am heading there a little earlier to do underwater photography of beluga whales in Churchill, Canada. Every summer beluga whales come into fresher water to moult by rubbing their skins on the pebbles.
"It will be a fantastic experience and if I'm lucky the photos may even win another award."