Listening to Laura Howard talk about her and husband’s adventures will leave you breathless: diving with great white sharks; photographing killer whales; night diving with hundreds of sharks off a remote Pacific island; not to mention raising a family and working pharmaceutical jobs.
“We like to say we sell drugs to support our diving habit,” Laura Howard told me recently.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Laura and Rich Howard are devoted to their son and daughter and serious about their jobs. Rich is a senior sales representative who works with dermatologists. Laura is an integrated care manager and works with epilepsy centers in North Florida. However, their zest for diving, and photographing the ocean’s beauty is contagious.
Visitors to The Florida Aquarium are familiar with the Howards’ work. Their Ocean of Images Photography donated the dynamic pictures on display at the Coral Reef and Waves of Wonder exhibits.
Ocean of Images is their side-line business that sells underwater photographs and licenses videos to advertisers and magazines. But the Howards donate many of their images to conservation institutions such as The Florida Aquarium.
They’ve been married 27 years and make a good team on, off and below the water. Both are extremely knowledgeable about marine life and diving. She is gregarious and funny; he is reserved, albeit with a dry wit.
“Rich says he likes to dive because it’s the only time, it’s quiet,” she said.
He lets Laura take center stage at presentations, such as The Aquarium’s Evening Tides session, where they talked about diving with great white sharks. But Rich offers astute observations and quick quips.
Though both are skilled photographers, Laura said, “Rich is the true artist. He actually can capture the expression of fish.”
They both already were interested in marine life when the Ohio transplants met during their college years. He was certified as a diver at 13; she at 18. She was intent on becoming a dolphin trainer and went to the University of California, Santa Barbara. She fulfilled her dream, working with dolphins at Kings Island in Cincinnati.
She loved the dolphins, but other aspects of the job weren’t so delightful.
“I no longer eat fish,” she said. “That is what happens when you spend so much time with raw fish. It was always in my hair and under my fingernails.”
Rich, who graduated from Denison University in Granville, Ohio, taught scuba diving for a while but got into pharmaceutical sales to support the family and also to allow them to take dive trips around the world. Laura eventually got into medical sales with another firm.
Work brought them to the Tampa area in 2006, where they raised their children of whom they are understandably proud. Zachary, an Eagle Scout who has volunteered at The Florida Aquarium, is studying marine biology at Florida International University. Daughter Rachael is a freshman at The University of Florida, studying biochemistry. Zachary and Rachael are accomplished divers who have accompanied the Howards on many of their adventures.
From early in their diving careers, the Howards were fascinated by underwater photography:
“Rich taught himself. He would use the Nikonos 5, the early slide film camera, and later moved to digital. We ended up with a large stock of photographs and people would see them and say we should sell them.”
They found advertising and marketing firms wanted their photographs. The Howards never sought to make it into a full-time business, not wanting their diving decisions to be driven by a profit motive.
What they found most rewarding was collaborating with public aquariums, even if the Howards usually donated their work.
“They work so hard for marine conservation,” Laura said. “It is really gratifying to work with them.”
They have a particularly strong partnership with The Florida Aquarium.
Laura fondly recalled working with the late Thom Stork, the former Aquarium CEO, on a project to update the pediatric section at Tampa General Hospital.
“Thom talked to us about doing something for those children. We put 36 underwater images on canvas prints and had them throughout the children’s ward. It really brightened the place up.”
Not only do the Howards donate photographs for exhibits, but they also take pictures of individual creatures periodically. Comparing the photographs help biologists detect any physical changes that may need attention.
The Howards may dive in the Florida Keys a few times a year, but they focus on traveling to unique dive sites around the world.
“We typically do two trips a year,” Laura said. “All our family knows at Christmas time we are gone.”
Last Christmas they went to a small island off Tahiti, where they swam with hundreds of sharks.
Laura said: “It was a night dive in about 40 feet of water. There were gray reef, blacktip, whitetip, black-finned, nurse and other species. It was just extraordinary, watching them naturally feed in their habitat. We saw the sharks work as a group in order to hunt.”
They got “bumped” a few times by the feeding sharks, which was discomforting, but the surrounding spectacle made it all worthwhile.
They wouldn’t have been so sanguine about a bump during their trip last summer to the Guadalupe Islands off Mexico, where they observed – from a cage - great white sharks feeding.
They gave a fascinating account of that expedition, which included Aquarium Senior biologist and shark expert Eric Hovland, at a recent Evening Tides talks at The Florida Aquarium.
The diving group observed numerous great whites, including the fabled Lucy, a scarred 19-foot female with a gapping mouth and mangled tail that sent the other sharks scurrying when she appeared.
They witnessed the massive sharks leaping out of the water, a stunning sight and, watched as the great whites “parallel swim,” where two sharks swim closely side-by-side, perhaps to hunt or perhaps to compare size.
Yet despite the great white’s fearsome reputations, divers on the trip also videotaped a sea lion that had been feeding on tuna continually attack a nearby great white shark. The Rambo sea lion even nipped the great white’s tail. The shark eventually swam off and the gutsy sea lion returned to feasting on the tuna.
Laura said such undignified retreats by great whites are not as rare as you might think.
Laura explained the great white depends on stealth to obtain a quick meal. “Once it knows it’s been seen, it doesn’t want to waste energy when it can get an easier meal.”
While the great white probably didn’t want to bother with an alarmed sea lion, the sharks are genuinely frightened of orcas, or killer whales.
Laura said great whites abandoned a South African beach after orcas went on a great white killing spree, eating the sharks’ livers. The liver wasn’t an appetizer. Great whites have huge livers that can weigh 500 pounds.
The Howards themselves had an unforgettable encounter with orcas off Mexico a few years ago, when they were called in from a dive by the boat captain who had seen what he thought were whales approaching. As the boat picked up speed, orcas began following the boat and leaping in its wake as if playful dolphins.
She videoed the remarkable sight, which has had more than 30 million hits on YouTube.
The Howards are modest about their accomplishments but were pleased the Mote Marine Institute invited them to dive the Solomon Islands as expedition photographers with the legendary marine biologist Eugenie Clark, who was studying the oceanic triggerfish. It was Clark’s last dive trip before dying a few years later at 95.
For all their remarkable travels and spectacular photographs, the couple has been low-key about promoting their work, being more focused on family and supporting conservation causes.
But they hope to create a brand for themselves with their new line of apparel and gift collection called, “FishAtude,” which with sell “marine-themed stuff with attitude.” This will include leggings, T-shirts and other apparel, as well as linens and other housewares, all featuring the Howards’ underwater images. The new online store will also sell photographs and fine art. A portion of the revenue will go to protecting marine life. The new online store goes live in mid-June and can be found at www.oceansofimages.com
While the couple hopes the venture is a success, they don’t plan for it to distract them from their explorations of an underwater world that never ceases to amaze them.
Laura can’t name a favorite sight because she, and her family have seen so many wonders.
“We’ve been underwater with several hundred feeding sharks. We have been next to great whites. We have watched shrimp and tiny fish gather at ‘cleaning stations,’ where they clean parasites off fish. We videoed manta rays eating plankton at night, where it looked like they were dancing in a ballet. In Indonesia, we saw seahorses the size of a grain of rice.
“We have been so very fortunate and blessed.”
And like The Florida Aquarium, they want others to be inspired by our Blue Planet’s blessings.
Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...