Nature, specifically the ocean, has long been the undercurrent of photographer and sailor John Kelsey’s life. It’s the balm that has kept him balanced; the place he feels most at home. It’s what has brought him full circle from a childhood in Comox through international travels while working for world-famous photographers—first Annie Leibovitz, then Mark Seliger—to working aboard Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s 68-foot research vessel, SV Achiever, from his base on Vancouver Island today.
The water was always a part of his life: sailing as a kid; trips to the Gulf Islands; learning to scuba dive in his teens. But the ocean was always a side project, downtime, a vacation.
He began photography young—his grandmother and father, who each had early digital cameras, allowed him to play with theirs. When he began playing competitive hockey in high school, life was intense; he craved time alone to express himself creatively, discovering solace in photography with nature as his subject.
He shares a vivid (and very telling) memory of himself as a teenager, spending hours in the bush solo, in complete stillness, trying to get the shot of a singular frog. The contrast to the frenetic energy and constant interactions of high-school hockey is stark.
Inspired by two lawyer parents, Kelsey began studying political science and economics at McGill University. He joined the photography club, became president, and was soon one of the university’s go-to photographers for events, the newspaper, and the website.
During a year of travel, he began considering photography as a career and set his sights on the Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, California. This prestigious school (now closed) was renowned for its extensive connections in the photography world. He was accepted and, during his time at Brooks, often made the sea his subject, using his scuba diving experience to advance his underwater photography skills.
From California, he moved to New York, where he bought his first sailboat and lived on it on the Hudson River, even in the coldest of winters. He credits the sailboat for keeping him steady amid the plane rides, long hours, and insufficient sleep involved when working for celebrity photographers.
In his late 20s, suffering burnout, he found it harder and harder to ignore the draw of home. “This coast is where my heart is,” he says. It was a boat, the Shambhala, that sealed his decision. While still living in New York, he purchased the vessel in Vancouver, gave his notice, and headed west. Soon afterward, he met his partner, Meesh Coles, a private chef and nutritionist.
The pull of the water drew the pair towards a shared life on the Island. Kelsey became assistant to SeaLegacy co-founder Paul Nicklen, whom many see as the epitome of ocean-focused conservation photographers. This position allowed Kelsey to further his interest in environmental media and community engagement, but he realized he wanted to take a more boots-on-the-ground approach to conservation, beyond solely photography. He also wanted to gain more boat-specific skills towards a captaincy certification.
Most of all, he was determined to protect the coastlines he grew up on. This led him to Raincoast and the Achiever, where an old colleague was the program manager. Kelsey became one of the ship’s two mates.
Speaking about what he has learned on the Achiever—from bird surveys to cetacean research—Kelsey lights up. It’s this draw to the intricacies of life that seems to keep him striving toward new horizons. He has found an alternative way into the world of natural science research; his passion and curiosity are palpable.
Driven by his desire to increase the number of people enthusiastic about protecting the British Columbia coast and its non-human inhabitants, he had the Shambhala commercially certified this year. (He also acquired enough hours for his captaincy.)
The goal is to use his boat as a tool for further education and community engagement, while continuing his work with Raincoast. Ideas informed by his conservation mission—small-scale charters, photography workshops, film work, or research support—are percolating.
Adult John Kelsey is just as, if not more, enamoured with the natural world as the boy who patiently waited, camera in hand, for a passing frog.