Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
Ben Hicks knows when sea turtles don’t mind him swimming beside them and he knows when they want him to go away.
An internationally known nature and surfing photographer — whose images of sea turtles have been in magazines published by prestigious organizations such as National Geographic and the World Wildlife Federation — Hicks has even earned the moniker “the turtle whisperer” from some here in South Florida.
“I spend more time with sea turtles than any other animal,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve gotten to understand their social behavior.”
For his support of sea turtle conservation and his efforts to bring attention to their struggle for survival, Hicks will be honored this month by the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, a nonprofit organization that supports the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton.
During the organization’s annual Sea Coast Toast fundraiser on Feb. 18, Hicks will be given the organization’s CRESTT — Conservation, Research, Education, Stewardship for Today and Tomorrow — Award.
“Ben has been a great supporter of Gumbo Limbo,” said Ross Appel, treasurer of the Friends of Gumbo Limbo’s board of directors and chair of this year’s Sea Coast Toast. “He’s used his photographs to raise awareness, which is exactly what we’re looking for.”
Hicks, 37, from Boca Raton, says he quickly recognized that his turtle images were more than just eye-catching photographs.
“From the get-go I realized how much of an impact I’ve made with these images,” he said.
While he’s making an impact on efforts to heighten awareness of turtle conservation efforts, Hicks says the sea turtles have also had an impact on him.
He is a fierce advocate for the marine creatures and has donated many hours to Gumbo Limbo, photographing turtle releases as well as other related events and volunteering to serve as the photographer for the Sea Coast Toast for years.
The Friends of Gumbo Limbo also raise money by selling prints of his photos at the center’s gift shop.
An informal ambassador for sea turtles, Hicks often has the chance to use his art as a medium to communicate the role people can play in protecting the sea creatures and the ecosystems where they thrive.
During a handful of art shows or at openings of exhibits — such as the one currently at the Highland Beach Public Library — Hicks has the chance to share his vision for conservation directly with visitors drawn by his images.
“Ben represents a younger generation, and he’s serving as a role model for that generation by raising environmental awareness,” Appel said.
Hicks’ introduction to the world of sea turtles began about a decade ago when a friend of his from Florida Atlantic University, where he graduated with a fine arts degree, invited him to document her work with a nonprofit beach-monitoring organization.
He photographed her checking nests on the beach, digging up eggs and helping hatchlings make it to the ocean.
“I realized I could use the images as a voice,” he said.
Soon Hicks was swimming over the shallow reefs off the South Florida coast, photographing young and adolescent turtles.
Remarkably, Hicks does not scuba dive, instead shooting all of his images while free diving.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve definitely learned many things about the turtles,” he said.
One of the most important lessons he’s learned is to respect these graceful animals and to take the photographs without disturbing them.
“If they’re not comfortable with me around, I just let them be,” he said.
For more information and to see Hicks’ work, visit www.Benjhicks.com.
If You Go
What: Eighth annual Sea Coast Toast, a dinner with live music, dancing and a fundraising auction to benefit the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center
When: 6-10 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: Boca Raton Country Club, 17751 Boca Club Blvd.
Cost: $125 for members of Friends of Gumbo Limbo, $150 nonmembers
Info: Visit www.gumbolimbo.org/seacoasttoast2017 or email SeaCoastToast@gumbolimbo.org