World Oceans Day: Let this hawker amaze you with his underwater images

PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

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Aaron Wong is a busy man. Since the last time we spoke to the mee hoon kueh seller, just as he opened another Jiak Song stall, his mini empire has expanded, so much so that he's thinking of changing things up.

"We currently have eight stalls, but as the country opens up and the dining landscape changes, I’m looking at downsizing a little and focusing on other areas of the island away from hawker centers and coffeeshops," says the 44-year-old MasterChef Singapore Season 1 finalist.

"I’m also looking at possibly starting another brand as well. Stay tuned!"

Even as hungry Singaporeans islandwide wolf down Aaron's delicious mee hoon kueh, many of us aren't aware that this self-confessed Ah Beng is, first and foremost, a professional photographer who is deeply passionate about our oceans.

When asked if he had to choose between being a hawker and being a photographer, he answers without missing a beat: "Photography, without a doubt! I am a very visual person, and I see the world around me in frames. It never turns off, so I’m always at it without even knowing it. It’s not a job, it’s my life and who I am."

Most recently, the avid diver had one of his underwater images chosen as the cover of the collector's edition of Asian Diver magazine's 30th anniversary issue.

To commemorate World Oceans Day (June 8, 2022), we turn our attention (and Aaron's) from the wok to the wide open seas with a gorgeous gallery of ocean life. We also speak to Aaron about revitalising the ocean, his most memorable shot, and his efforts to be a sustainable hawker.

Snell's window (captured here by Aaron in the Maldives) is a phenomenon arising from total internal refraction that makes the sky seem like a circle of light to submerged observers.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
"Explosion of Life", Seychelles.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

The theme for this year’s United Nations World Oceans Day is “Revitalisation: Collective Action for the Ocean”. As an avid diver, underwater photographer, and supporter of raising awareness of our oceans, does that theme resonate with you?

It definitely resonates. In fact, I honestly feel this is what we need right now.

It’s no secret the world’s attention was focused on something else for the last two years. But while we all feel the pandemic is the big issue, the real and constant issue is the decline of our oceans. And this problem will eventually touch every single one of us, no matter who you are, what you do, or where you live. So while it seems the issues in the vast ocean are someone else’s problems, it is in fact everyone’s problem, whether we like it or not.

So as we crawl out of this pandemic, I feel we should collectively take a fresh new look at the world around us with a renewed sense of urgency. And when I say the "world around us", we cannot not see the ocean. After all, Planet Earth is 71 per cent water.

Getting up close with an apex predator in Cuba. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
Shooting such creatures requires time and respect.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
"I nearly sh*t my wetsuit," admits Aaron.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

Bro, you’ve taken some seriously jaw-dropping ocean shots through the years, like the following. Share some cool stories leh!

There are too many to share!

But if I had to pick one, I’d say shooting those saltwater crocs in Cuba. You see, I’ve swum with countless large sharks in my career, and over the years, I’ve learnt to read them and I’m very comfortable being in the water [with them].

You can tell an awful lot about the behaviour of a predator by their body language. But a croc has almost none. This is a very primitive hunter that does not move, so you really have no idea what’s going on in that prehistoric brain. And when you deal with 4m of pure killing machine, it farts, you die!

To say I wasn’t nervous getting in alone with it is an understatement.

But like all animals, with time and a ton of respect for its space, I was able to calm myself and got within less than a foot from its jaws. To get so close in the wild with an apex predator that is effectively a living dinosaur is a magical experience I wouldn’t soon forget.

And yes I did nearly sh*t my wetsuit. Nearly.

Have you gone diving since the world opened up? How has it changed?

Have you gone diving since the world opened up? How has it changed?

Rangiroa, French Polynesia. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
An underwater pas de deux in Cozumel, Mexico.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
Do you heart the ocean, too? 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

Yes, I made a trip to Bali recently and did some diving.

I must say the reefs seem to be doing better after a two-year break from humans and all our nonsense. Just goes to show how nature can bounce back if only we give her a chance.

People always have the misconception that we need to "protect" nature. Well, the truth is, Mother Nature doesn’t need our protection. She had been doing just fine for millions of years until we showed up. We just need to respect her and give her the space.

It is my earnest hope that after this pandemic, we can do a better job and not make the same mistakes of the past. Just like the theme of this year's World Ocean Day says: revitalisation. Not just of the ocean itself, but in the way we treat her.

A gentle giant, the Whale Shark.
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Mexico. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

In light of World Environment Day (June 5) and World Oceans Day, do you think hawkers can be sustainable? And what measures have you yourself taken?

Of course we can, and we should! Everything from minimising food waste to using less plastic has always been the way to go.

While food waste in my stalls is almost next to none, I must admit I wish we could do more about the use of single-use plastic. As much as I want to, so far the only thing I can implement are Kraft paper bowls. There are still plastics which I hope we can phase out, but that proves almost impossible in a hawker setting because biodegradable ones are simply too costly for this level of business.

I do hope the government can support manufacturers of biodegradable products to make them more affordable for business like ours.

The technology is there. We just have to figure out a cheaper way to make it more mainstream.

Shiretoko, Japan. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater
Definitely not in hot water here. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Aaronwong.underwater

Celebrate World Oceans Day with this playlist

World Oceans Day: Have A Whale Of A Time With These Free Documentaries

How much do you really know about our oceans? We’ve curated a playlist of free documentaries on YouTube to help you dive into learning all about the role oceans play in sustaining life and how we can better safeguard our blue planet. Click on the image or link above to watch them all!

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.