Passion to Preserve

Surfer-photographer-oceanographer Grant Otto is living his dream with the wind in his hair and the surf at his feet

Written by Joe Willey  |  Photography by Pamela Aquilani

The ocean can seem endless. Its look, its smell, and its ceaseless rhythms are a delight to many. To some, the sea is like a second skin. They are as comfortable on swelling waves and under the shadowy depths as others are in their backyards. Grant Otto, a surfer, photographer and oceanographer, is at home at sea and driven to help others experience this beauty from his unique perspective.

Otto began competitive swimming when he was young, and he has no memory of a time when he was not in the water. When he remembers a family photo of his parents throwing him into a pool just as he was learning to swim, he smiles. Often, his parents took him and his younger brother outside, encouraging them to explore nature. Perhaps that was the beginning of his love of water and the environment. His passion for surfing came later. 

Surfing may be the ultimate conjunction of swimming and nature. But it wasn’t until he was in the Outer Banks during high school that Otto took a surf lesson. He engaged immediately. On a surfboard, all his interests connected. Primarily, he surfs close to his home in Lewes. However, he has several favorite spots on the Delaware coastline and often surfs in Ocean City and Assateague Island. And like an unstoppable deep-ocean current, surfing pulled him to develop an interest and growing talent in photography.

To Otto, photography is a natural extension of surfing. He started by photographing his friends on their surfboards and then having his friends photograph him. It was a pragmatic beginning. He wanted to see his form and what he needed to improve. But he realized that surfing had given him a unique knowledge of the ocean and the shoreline, and he began taking photos to capture the beauty he was seeing. The photos give others the experience of being there. His photography does not often feature people but captures the quiet experience of being alone. You can almost hear the surf, wind or stillness in Otto’s work. It is the perspective of a lone surfer and someone drawn to the ocean.

His curiosity about the ocean and the atmosphere has influenced his future career too. He is completing his graduate work in oceanography at the University of Delaware, where his advisor, Dr. Arthur Trembanis, has helped direct his focus. Otto is passionate about coastal management. His thesis project involves systematic mapping to understand erosion in high resolution. “With our technology, we can visualize things that only a diver would see on the scale that a bird sees from the sky,” he says with a note of fascination in his voice.

Otto’s perspective is refreshing. He not only understands the natural resources of the ocean and atmosphere but is also working to preserve and protect them — all while he takes advantage of the enjoyment they bring. His ebullient attitude and passion for the sea will make people watch the rolling surf from a different viewpoint. And in changing their perspective, he is helping them enjoy it too. CS

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