Prana ambassador Amy Ippoliti sidles up to a 1,500-pound manta ray in hopes of inspiring conservation efforts. Photo by Taro Smith

Prana ambassador Amy Ippoliti sidles up to a 1,500-pound manta ray in hopes of inspiring conservation efforts. Photo by Taro Smith

Sidling up to 1,500-pound wild marine animals would give most people heart palpitations—especially when they look like they could swallow you whole and not even notice. But when yogi and Prana ambassador Amy Ippoliti slipped into the warm Caribbean water this past summer to join a train of giant manta rays, she felt something different: awe.

Ippoliti's underwater rendezvous was a chance to showcase the interspecies connection between man and animal, something she hopes will help people understand that these giant animals are worth preserving and protecting—which is becoming tougher than ever due to overfishing. Manta rays are harvested globally in unsustainable numbers by organized fishing programs; fishermen are after their gill rakers (the rays use these to gather food), which are in high demand in China for their medicinal properties despite the fact that there is no proof they can cure anything at all.

Manta rays

Manta rays are facing overfishing; their gill rakers are being used for medicinal purposes in Asia. Photo by Taro Smith

Says photographer Taro Smith, the man behind the shot above, activists tend to gravitate to one of two ends of the spectrum: those waiting patiently for financial viability and those who use action such as shock journalism to initiate change. In fact, it was during a stint documenting the gruesome practice of shark finning—wherein a fisherman hacks off a shark's fin, then throws the shark back into the water, where it will later die—that the team first realized the need for a new approach to photojournalism and began talking with renown underwater photographer Shawn Heinrichs about how they could incorporate art with new approaches to conservation. "Where do artists and yogis use their tools to make a difference?" Smith asks. "We're trying to use art to do that."

Smith and Heinrichs recruited fellow "eco avenger" Ippoliti to be the face of the project, an idea inspired by a fashion shoot the duo worked on with Kristian Schmidt where models posed in close proximity to whale sharks. They saw firsthand the response garnered by the first shoot and decided to showcase Ippoliti’s talents with an equally impressive animal. "It was a natural fit to get yogis involved; they're always down for a good cause," laughs Smith. Ippoliti spent the next eight months training in a pool in Boulder, Colorado, swimming and doing breathing exercises while the photographers did test shots. Then, after five days floating around the Caribbean, the animals—and the picture-perfect moment—arrived.

"This is my favorite shot," says Smith of the photo, a still of Ippoliti peacefully engaged in an underwater yoga pose beside the manta ray. "There are others that might be more technically perfect, but that one captures this giant looping magnificent creature that most people are kind of afraid of."

Smith and Ippoliti hope that the picture draws people into the conservation efforts using curiosity instead of shock-and-awe tactics. Ippoliti suggests sticking to the following to help protect these marine giants:

• Avoid eating fish when possible and use the app Seafood Watch to ensure you're being served the most sustainable species when you are eating out or shopping for fish.

• Read pet-food labels to make sure fish ingredients are from sustainable species, and never flush commercial, non-biodegradable cat litter down the toilet.

• Boycott restaurants with shark-fin soup on the menu.

• Buy organic produce to avoid the pesticides on regular plant products, which can run into rivers and oceans.

• Carry a reusable water bottle and try to avoid purchasing food in plastic containers.

• Pick up litter on the sand and in the water when you're at the beach

• Consider supporting organizations like WildAid, Manta Ray of Hope, Shark Savers, or the Oceanic Preservation Society.

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