Earlier this week we had a chat with our resident wildlife expert and hearter of all things nature, Elissa Sursara — and wow, was it fantastic and informative.
Read on to learn all about Elissa, who lives in Australia, and make sure you follow her on We Heart It — she’s got one of the coolest accounts going that’s updated regularly with gorgeous wildlife images, videos and GIFs.
Hi Elissa! Thanks so much for chatting with us. We’d love to start by hearing all about your job. What is a typical day like in the life of Elissa Sursara?
My job is all kinds of fun, but it’s also hard work. It can be really rewarding and incredibly draining all at the same time, but I love what I do because it makes such a positive impact. My day always looks different. If I’m undertaking a study, I’ll wake up on site and prepare my equipment for the day – that might be diving gear to study and photograph marine life, or comfortable hiking clothes to study land mammals in their natural habitats. If I’m writing an article or a National Geographic blog, I’ll stay in front of my computer for hours, pouring over my notes and pictures. If I’m advocating, I might be at a school or at a university to talk to students about their environment and conservation. I get to spend a lot of time with animals and the people who love them, so it’s never a dull moment!
So many kids grow up dreaming of working with animals, but you actually did it! How did you turn that dream into a reality? What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you faced along the way?
I knew I had to work hard if I wanted to see my dream of working with animals come true. I stayed focused in school and seized every opportunity I could, like volunteering at animal shelters and attending lectures outside school. I studied biology, and when I graduated, I decided to use my skills to help promote conservation. It’s so important to protect what we love – and more importantly, the resources we need! I donated my time to different organizations, like Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and soon I was traveling the world to study wildlife, protest animal cruelty and talk with young people about the natural world.
Working with animals seems like a very rewarding and fun job — what are some of the hardest parts of that job?
Being confronted by animal cruelty can be extremely difficult. I’ve seen dead tigers, poached elephants, harpooned whales and other wildlife that has died as a result of needless human impact. As an animal lover, it’s hard to see the creatures I adore in states of pain and suffering. As a scientist, it’s more difficult to know their deaths could have been prevented.
How did you decide to use We Heart It to spread awareness about wildlife? What kinds of images do you typically look for when putting together collections?
We Heart It use what’s beautiful and interesting to visually stimulate others, and that’s how I use WHI too, to promote wildlife and conservation. Tigers are beautiful creatures, and in sharing their pictures, I’m able to create a dialogue with people from all demographics about the tigers’ plight, and what steps we can take together to make their lives better. When putting together a collection, I look for pictures that showcase the natural beauty of wildlife and habitats – like the sunset over an Antarctic iceberg, or a wolf cub exploring his wild surroundings – and share them with my followers.
I imagine that working around animals you have to be in pretty functional clothing — yet you Heart lots of style images! What are some functional, yet stylish items in your closet you would recommend for someone who has a similarly active job?
First and foremost, I like to be comfortable. My style is dressed down and layered: I like a lot of jeans, comfortable shirts, Vans or TOMS, and cardigans. It’s easy to dress functionally, stylishly, and compassionately. As a vegetarian, I don’t wear fur or leather.
Autumn is my favourite time of year to get dressed because I can wear layers and jeans and shop for jumpers. I have a few staple pieces that translate well from work to fun, like, my Wrangler denim jeans, Stella McCartney leopard print canvas flats and a black cardigan from Mink Pink. It’s casual, well-presented and perfect for me.
You recently were bitten by shark — OMG! — and, more importantly, are you okay?! Can you tell us the story of what happened?
I was bitten by a large shark in North Queensland, Australia, during some down time in the ocean. I hadn’t obeyed the basic rules of water safety and was swimming in the open sea without a look-out. I ended up a fair distance from my peers. I saw a flash of deep gray beside me, and suddenly, I felt a pressure on my ribs and torso. The shark, probably a great white or large tiger shark, let me go. I recovered well and still actively promote the conservation of our very important shark species. I was in it’s habitat and I hold no resentment toward this very special animal.
When things like the shark bite happen — scary, potentially life-threatening — how do you gain the courage to get back in the water?
I think it’s okay to be cautious about life, but not so much that you stop yourself from living it. I love being in the ocean. I love swimming. I love diving. And most of all, I love diving with sharks. I think it’s the things that scare us that show us our true potential, because when we tackle those fears and leave our comfort zone, we’re expanding our footprint on life. I want to do the things I love, no matter what happens while I’m doing them.
We have to know — do you have any pets, and if so, what are their names?
I have a rescued St. Bernard named Charlie. He’s my best friend! I rescued him from an owner who was surrendering him to a shelter. Shelter cats and dogs are often forgotten by people looking for a pet, and sadly, millions of those shelter animals are euthanized. I think it’s important to adopt animals – never buy from a pet store!
How can users use a platform like We Heart It to spread awareness about wildlife conversation and fair treatment of animals?
I think it’s important to find meaning and inspiration in everything we do, whether it’s photography, writing, design or science. We Heart It is a great way to use our creative skills and the things we like to promote important causes and philosophies, like compassionate clothing, kindness, protecting our incredible habitats and to talk about endangered species, and even our family pets and the things we love about them. Posting interesting pictures of wildlife encourages others to take an interest in those animals, and when we’re interested in something, it becomes part of us. People protect what they love.
Do you have any favorite photo techniques when taking your own pictures?
I like to photograph animals in the wild, unawares, and doing the incredible things we can only hope to be lucky enough to see for ourselves, like breaching whales and peeking leopards on the prowl at dusk. I’ve always liked to photography candidly. I like portraits and choreographed work, but I love to capture what’s real and raw. It’s more beautiful.
If our users could only visit one place you’ve visited, where would you recommend?
I’d like to say Antarctica, but it’s one of those incredibly untouched and isolated habitats, so rare and pristine, that I’d almost prefer it if no one were to ever visit it ever again. Africa is wild for seeing animals in their natural habitats. It’s stunning and vast and populated, but hauntingly tainted by poaching and extinction. I think people would benefit from visiting a place like it.
We’ve noticed you have several animal tattoos Hearted. Do you have any animal tattoos yourself, and if not, what would be your first choice?
I don’t have any animal tattoos, but I’m a big fan of tattoo art and can’t help but stop and admire some of the amazing portraits of wolves and bears that have been sketched, tattooed and posted.
You’ve Hearted many images of healthy, fresh food in addition to animals and nature. How important is eating healthy to your lifestyle, and what are some of the weirdest things you’ve eaten while traveling for your job?
I love fresh food, like strawberries, pineapple pieces, basil, spinach, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, aubergine, watermelon, pumpkin, cacao and all those tasty super foods we can find locally, ethically and healthily. Of course, I love pizza as much as the next person (who doesn’t love pizza? And fries!), but I know it’s important to fuel my body with what it needs before giving myself the things I crave. It’s important to eat well, especially if you lead an active lifestyle, so that you can rely on your own natural energy to stay fit and alert (instead of relying on energy supplements and coffee.) I don’t think I’ve eaten anything too weird on my travels… I had some raw vegan crab cakes that were prepared by former cannibals in Fiji. Not many people can say that!
If you had time to take on a “second” career, what would you pick and why?
I always wanted to be a Queen. I think that would be a great second career. Queen of Australia, or Antarctica, or something…do you think it’s possible? I think it might be possible.
What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you while working with an animal?
I was taking ID photographs of leopards at a rehabilitation center in Namibia went I felt a wet sensation on my socks. A young leopard was marking his territory, I suppose. I could hear some laughing behind me as some of the senior researchers chuckled at my expense!
What is the biggest misconception people have about wildlife, and what can We Heart It users do to help dispel that myth?
I think the biggest misconception about wildlife is that our wildlife isn’t suffering, or that there’s nothing we can do about it. Sometimes we’re led to believe those things, particularly by paper and oil companies who profit from deforestation. We’re in a sixth mass extinction and our most iconic species (elephants, lions, tigers, whales and giraffe) are all dangerously close to the end of their time. But we can solve this problem, together, by doing things within our reach! Whether it’s talking about these issues with our friends, creating petitions and posters, buying compassionate products or donating our time or money to organizations working toward real-life change, like Sea Shepherd, World Animal Protection, WWF, Earth Hour, IFAW, PETA, Wildlife Warriors and Panthera.
WHI users can also help by sharing pictures of wildlife they love, tagging friends and organizations, and sharing this important message on their social networks!
You’re obviously very passionate about wildlife and have used We Heart It to spread that passion. How can users with other passions — books, cooking, biking, etc. — use We Heart It to spread awareness about their passion or hobby?
Get active about the things you love – no matter what it is! Create a blog, write a book, take pictures, heart those pictures, tell your friends, make shirts… scream and yell about your passions until you have everyone’s attention, and then show them why it’s so special to you. Before you know it, you’ll have inspired others to take interest in your work and in your philosophies, and you’ll be another step closer to turning your important dreams into even better realities!
Now it’s your turn to tell us, Hearters — what are your hobbies and passions, and how do you use We Heart It to share them with others? Tell us in the comments section below!