Aron Sanchez never really liked the beach while growing up.
It's a paradox, of course, for a guy who has amassed 119,000 followers on Instagram as a result of clocking long hours on the shores of San Mateo County.
"As a kid, I always had a real interest in nature," he explains, right as his feet hit the sand near Pillar Point Harbor. "But the beach in San Diego is a sort of crowded, congested area, which wasn't for me."
On a Tuesday morning, Sanchez arrived along the boatyards of Princeton-by-the-Sea in a weathered hooded sweatshirt, looking like one of the many blue-collar crew members who work the docks in the near distance. Beneath the lingering marine layer, his hood is drawn tight over his head and never comes down for the rest of the morning, even after the sun eventually breaks through. It's a low-key look that pays testimony to this backstory that he lays out, which implies that the Southern California notions of going to the beach—getting a tan, playing volleyball and such—just weren't his speed. In this regard, it doesn't take long to realize that Sanchez is more naturally suited to the Bay Area coast, where the NorCal beaches provide a place for him to explore in solitude... and, more importantly, discover what might be living beneath barnacle-encrusted rocks.
As a lover of low-tide exploration, Sanchez has managed to curate one of the more engrossing Instagram accounts to come out of the Bay Area in recent years. For the past decade, he has scoured the water line to find and photograph all manner of seaside curiosities: fluorescent sea slugs, amazingly amorphous octopi, a purple-tinged otter skull, twitchy jellyfish, a starfish devouring a moss-covered mollusk. His account—aptly named @Waterbod— is an engrossing chronicle of the myriad aquatic creatures which inhabit the San Mateo County coastline, and which, as Sanchez contends, have been rapidly disappearing in recent years.
The virality of penis fish
It should probably be said much sooner than later that Sanchez's Instagram account may first land with a lot of people as... well... kinda gross.
Many (or rather—most) of the creatures he captures on camera are slimy, lacking vertebrae and often resembling parts of the human body that either aren't suited for closeups or are just extremely evocative of sexual organs. (Though, to be fair on this latter point, that's inevitably going to happen when you're photographing things like penis fish and sea anemones).
His account features a lot of dead things, too: skulls, carcasses, rotted remains. Recently, he posted videos depicting the discarded afterbirth of harbor seals, which he discovered drifting amid the low tide... and were soon eaten by seagulls.
So whereas Instagram is inclined to give us glossy, picturesque renderings of nature, Waterbod, by contrast, delivers it in raw Darwinian fashion.
And while that may seem out-of-sync with operating on a social media platform which thrives on a tidal wave of food porn, sophomoric wisdom and choreographed narcissism, Sanchez has managed to swim against that tide and still accomplish what every influencer strives for: his account stands out in your feed.
Yes, apparently posting an image of a decomposing monkey-faced eel carcass will do that.
Sanchez was never trying to be good at social media. Or, for that matter, even interested in using it.
"I was a little reluctant," he says, "I was never on Facebook, or had MySpace, I just avoided a lot of the social media stuff."
Instead, his social media following grew organically alongside his hobby of photographing (and eventually video recording) aquatic organisms.
"What drew me into doing this was my own exploration," Sanchez explains. "This really did begin as a sort of rambling survey... .no one gave me a special map to do it."
With an education in music composition, Sanchez was working as an audio engineer when he began looking for a place to post his photography with the hope of making a little extra income. Instagram was new at the time and seemed well-suited to fill that role. Before long, it was enabling him to not only sell prints, but to soon get hired as a guide for wildlife productions and science-oriented companies on the West Coast.
Of course, Waterbod is ultimately more art project than scientific document (though it can certainly work in that regard, as well). With no formal background or education in science, Sanchez employs common field guides and internet research to identify his discoveries. When posting, he uses minimalist captions with each image or video, simply listing the Latin name of each species and the general region in which he found it (plus, the occasional lighthearted reference to things like Simpsons episodes and Ween songs).
"A lot of what I'm interested in doing falls more under a fine art category," Sanchez explains. "A lot of wildlife information is very didactic, and I have nothing against that, but I'm interested in a different kind of approach."
In this regard, Waterbod keeps the emphasis on the visual content, and creates a more impressionistic experience in the process.
"The way I came to care about these things had more to do with sensation," he says. "English isn't my first language, and as a child, I'd see David Attenborough talking about something and I was drawn in by the form and the movement. And that made me want to go a little further. My hope is that I might draw someone in with the detail of this particular thing... this texture, this movement... and that will appeal to them on a level that might spark their interest."
Show me the mollusk
After making the nearly half-mile walk around Pillar Point Harbor, Sanchez arrives to Mavericks Beach just as he had timed it—to coincide with the low tide. Hemmed in by the world famous big wave surf break to the west and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve just a mile north, the sea floor at Mavericks reveals itself as a rocky seascape wonderland that is pockmarked with a multitude of tide pools, kelp beds and narrow waterways.
Upon arriving to the shoreline, Sanchez looks around, grins and before he inspects a single tide pool, remarks: "This is the point where people typically say—‘So where's the octopus?'"
For all of Sanchez's hopes of sparking a deeper interest in his followers, he is still keenly aware that many of them are missing the point. (Most often, this surfaces in the form of the re-occurring question: "Where did you find that exactly?" ... as if he could convey the location of a specific tide pool at a particular beach AND that same creature would still be there.)
This connection (or lack thereof) has an increasing urgency with Sanchez, who has encountered a pressing need to spread conservation awareness.
"The marine life that I've been observing over the last 10 years is declining at a shocking pace," he says. "So it's becoming unavoidable to me to make a statement about what is happening."
Take, for example, the sunflower star ("it's a sea star that has 20 to 22 arms and gets to be the size of a large dinner plate"). When Sanchez first began Waterbod, he would frequently find them all around Pillar Point and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. But after an outbreak of sea star wasting disease, Sanchez hasn't seen one in close to 8 years (or even seen one catalogued on science apps that track overall chronicling of different species), and he deems them "locally extinct."
Sadly, the sunflower stars are just one example of many, and Sanchez points to a variety of factors for what he calls "a multi-pronged issue" that has given Waterbod a renewed focus. What started out as a hobby... that grew into an art project... which evolved into a source of income, now has an even greater purpose.
"I hope that people can take something away from what I do that might lead them to think a little more about what is happening, particularly locally," he says. "You know, everyone wants to save the Great Barrier Reef, and while they should, there is incredible biodiversity everywhere, including right where we are."
The Six Fifty is a new local blog covering food, arts and ideas on the Peninsula.