A tiny seahorse adrift in the Indian Ocean at Ningaloo (photo: Sara Barbieri)
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
“A 6 metre whale shark has passed by and swam through this frame. A second later my eyes have to focus on something much closer and much smaller this time, because now there is a 3cm seahorse drifting by… impavid, its tail curled up and unusually not wrapped around something. The Ocean and all of its big and tiny inhabitants. That’s what I’ll never cease to love.” Sara Barbieri
A deep love of all things marine — and tiny seahorses
When I first met Sara Barbieri she said something I was not expecting…
We were snorkelling near a whale shark with a group I was leading on our 8 day Ningaloo wildlife tour. Nearby Sara surfaced out of the Indian Ocean exclaiming excitedly that she’d just seen and photographed a tiny seahorse.
My first thought was: How did she find time to take photos of a seahorse? Her job was to make videos of tourists and whale sharks during snorkel swims — a demanding activity leaving little time for other activities.
As I got to know Sara — through her photos and words — I began to understand how and why she found the time to do so much in the water. Her deep love of all things marine is her purpose for living.
To her whale sharks are incredible but so is everything in the ocean.
Why was this tiny seahorse “impavid” ?
Sara’s photo of the seahorse appeared on her Instagram feed with the description you see at the head of this story. What struck me was her use of the word “impavid” — in a life of writing I’d never seen it.
Maybe it was drawn from her native Italian tongue? So I looked it up: in Italian “impavida” means fearless or courageous (the male version is impavido). Sara simply converted it to English to describe her impression of a tiny seahorse swimming fearlessly beside a whale shark, undaunted by the limitless vastness of the Indian Ocean.
NOTE: “impavid” is also a rarely used word in English
La impavida : the fearless one
Sara is a tall, gentle, unassuming woman with a big smile and wisps of dreams and adventures in her eyes. But behind an almost bashful persona lies a woman capable of fearless underwater feats — like the tiny seahorse!
I once watched her follow a whale shark down into the Indian Ocean until both she and the whale shark disappeared into the black depths beneath me. She was “freediving”, relying only on the air in her lungs. Plus she was carrying a huge underwater camera.
I’d never seen anything like it.
She emerged minutes later about 100 metres away to tell us that the shark was rising again and to join her. I don’t know how long she’d been underwater with that whale shark — or anything else living in the depths — but it was well over 3 minutes. Enough time for you or me to drown….
In another Instagram post Sara explains how she knows when a whale shark is about to dive — they simply stop propelling themselves with their powerful tail…and let their body fall: “And there they are, effortlessly descending into other depths. Out of our reach,” she says, then adds a casual afterthought, “I like to follow them down a little, until I can no longer see even the last one of their spots.”
If that’s not fearless, what is?
Globetrotter born in an Italian seaside village
Sara was raised in the small Mediterranean coastal town of Rapallo, notched into the coastline near the “knee” at the top of the “boot” of Italy, about 30 klms east of Genoa. She says: “I had plenty of connection, and love, for the sea from an early age.”
But her sense of adventure took her away from Rapallo on a global mission of discovery.
“I was passionate about tasting all kinds of experiences and absorbing every adventure,” she says.
Whilst in the Caribbean this led her to learn to dive, an experience that changed her life.
“The first time I went for a dive in Belize, I knew I would become an instructor and continue my journey sharing this incredible newly discovered passion of mine.”
Sara’s childhood love for the sea morphed into a desire to be under it
“The feeling of being completely submerged in water, looking around at the incredible ecosystems we are still very lucky to be able to see….,” she says, alluding to the threats the oceans face, “… it is a place I call home. I would never be able to disconnect from it.”
Following her dream, she became a proficient scuba diver and instructor, but did not stop there.
“Because being in the ocean became such a huge presence in my life, I learned to freedive as well,” she explains, “Freediving gives you that immediate freedom that scuba diving won’t.”
I wonder if she knew she was destined to spend countless hours in the ocean with the world’s largest and tiniest fish: the whale sharks and seahorses of Ningaloo? And that nearly every night she would produce a small movie about what she’d seen that day in the Indian Ocean that would be given to tour participants the next day…(see one of Sara’s videos at the bottom of this story)
At Ningaloo Sara “stepped into a place like no other”
In 2013 Sara came to Australia because: “I have always been an eager traveller and wildlife lover and Australia looked to me an incredible [and] vast place to visit with a myriad of different panoramas and wildlife species to discover.”
Two years later she arrived in Ningaloo: “Little did I know I stepped into a place like no other. It was quite a beautiful experience finding this place totally on my own… I have not heard of it ever before, no friends or family or anyone I knew [had] ever been there.”
In Ningaloo, Sara began working as an underwater photographer in both still images and videography. She had discovered her true passion.
Ningaloo : a place worth fighting to protect!
So what keeps this global wanderer in Ningaloo?
“What I love the most is its lack of human developments,” she says, “[Ningaloo is] a safe place for a lot of wildlife to continue living without major disruption caused by humans.”
“In addition, I love its huge variety of ecosystems… there is a season for everything.”
But there is a warning in her words: “Sadly, we know it won’t last forever, but we all very much hope so and fight for its protection.”
As part of Sara’s fight to protect Ningaloo she worked as a camera assistant with the crew that filmed the ABC’s “Ningaloo Nyinggulu”, a powerful 3 part TV documentary written and produced by renowned Australian novelist and conservationist, Tim Winton.
An Italian videographer captured by Ningaloo’s magic
Typical of Sara, she downplays her work in the documentary….yet she appears on page one of the credits.
That’s because she played a significant role not only in the videography for the series but also in preparing for a dangerous subterranean sequence under the ancient Cape Range that runs parallel to Ningaloo reef.
You can see the sequence in the first episode of Ningaloo Nyinggulu where the crew filmed a Blind Gudgeon, a tiny, super rare fish that was a major reason for the creation of the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area.
What you don’t see is Sara, who rigged up the filming gear because she was “slim and could navigate through the tiny spaces”. … ie. twisting around convoluted deep water underground fissures with heavy camera gear. Even Tim Winton appears fearful in this sequence.
Through Sara’s eyes – a tiny seahorse and the magic of Ningaloo
So what drove Sara to take up what must surely be one of the most difficult professions: an underwater videographer.
“Being able to transmit emotions and sensitiveness via a story that we tell through videos is highly rewarding to me,” she says, “Filming wildlife out in the open, in an environment that is certainly not controlled — being part of a documentary camera crew — gives me a very special feeling and thrill because nothing is set, we become masters of resilience and patience.”
You can watch one of Sara’s magnificent videos here. In this one there’s a cameo performance by a tiny seahorse — keep a close watch!
If you join our tour at Ningaloo you will get a free video, just like this, as part of your tour.
Join our Ningaloo wildlife and citizen science tour
Join us at Ningaloo in April, June or late August and you might meet Sara. No promises, she’s a busy woman. But I can guarantee that you’ll fall in love with Ningaloo
Behind this story…Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks Ningaloo
This story and most of the photographs have been made possible with the support of our partners at Ningaloo: Exmouth Dive and Whalesharks Ningaloo.
Sara works for this incredible local company which supplies boats, snorkelling gear, dive and land support, tour vehicles and much more to our groups while we are in Ningaloo. If you can’t make it to Ningaloo with Echidna Walkabout, or you want expert diving support while your at Exmouth, please look up Exmouth Dive.
Like Echidna Walkabout, Exmouth Dive is a member of Australian Wildlife Journeys
Protecting Exmouth Gulf – Ningaloo’s cradle
Ningaloo and Exmouth Gulf are under constant threat from large scale industrial developments. Protect Ningaloo has been very effective at stopping some of these but there are still major threats to Exmouth Gulf which is Ningaloo’s cradle.
You can help by donating to PROTECT NINGALOO
Read more of our stories about Ningaloo here
Photos and videos in this story may not be used or published without the express permission of the owner. You can contact them via Echidna Walkabout. The article may be shared in its entirety.