Rapanui x OPY: Max Holba

The Ocean Photographer of the Year (OPY) is a celebration of our beautiful blue planet, as well as a platform to highlight the many plights it is facing. We’ve collaborated with OPY to connect two distinct artforms, photography and illustration, all while raising money for the ocean. Our in-house illustrators have picked a selection of some of this year’s world-class photography to graphically interpret. Their mission: to turn each photograph into a wearable piece of art, without losing the essence of the original image.

Sharks and Divers

The third in this series features a photograph by Max Holba, an Austrian ocean photographer based in Indonesia. His image of silhouetted divers, whale sharks and fishing boats was Highly Commended in the Human Connection: People & Planet Ocean category. It tells a complex story of the relationship between humans and nature.

We spoke to both the photographer and the illustrator to find out about the story behind the image and the process of turning it into a design to be worn.

Meet the photographer & their chosen charity

Born and raised in land-locked Austria, Max Holba started SCUBA diving at the age of 10. About a decade (and many dives) later his passion became a profession. He became a diving instructor and subsequently a dive resort manager & owner, as well as a professional underwater photographer.

The photo that Max captured tells a complex story of the relationship between people and the ocean.

Credit: Max Holba

Highly Commended in the Human Connection: People & Planet Ocean category.

Cebu, Philippines



Can you describe the moments leading up to taking this shot?

I was in the Philippines with my girlfriend and it was my birthday. We wanted to do something special, so we opted to go for the Whale Shark tour in Oslob - despite it being very controversial.

We are both experienced divers and the location is an easily accessible shore dive. We swam out for a short while and soon noticed huge shadows above our heads. Looking up we saw several whale sharks surrounded by local fishing-turned-tour-boats. Next, chaos ensued, manic kicking and shouting - I still believe to this very day that I could hear the hysterical screams of all the people, even while being underwater!

Seeing these huge animals gently gliding by above your head is unforgettable, however the amount of people made me sad. I wanted to capture the beauty and madness in one image so I turned off my strobes, pointed my camera upwards and was rewarded with this interesting silhouette shot of the whole experience.

What do you love about this photo?

I hope my photograph shines light on an activity of great controversy: While the Oslob Whale Shark tours enable the local communities to have a steady income and present them with an alternative to killing the animals for their meat and fins, the ever increasing amount of people that get too close to the animals, potentially touching and harming them, is a worrying development.

Sadly, poaching still happens, despite Whale Sharks being legally protected in the Philippines since 1998. David Doubilet noted in an 2018 National Geographic interview that “the scene at Oslob is chaotic, and the controversy is real, but the sharks are alive and not lying dead, fins removed, in cold storage somewhere in Asia.”

I think my photo tells this story quite well.

You’ve chosen proceeds from this t-shirt to go to Thresher Shark Indonesia (TSI). Why did you choose this charity?

I have been living and working in the remote region of Alor, Indonesia, for several years now and TSI being based here, I wanted to give something back to a place I deeply care about. The locals of Alor are incredibly kind and welcoming. Many of them depend on the ocean and what it provides as their livelihoods - at times, this will also be catching sharks. Simply disallowing and punishing local communities for catching sharks however is not a long term solution, after all people need to make a living.

TSI has a very promising approach: They present shark fishers with alternatives, such as farming or catching different species of fish in a sustainable manner, and furthermore offer continuous support. TSI also runs projects in elementary schools in Alor, hopefully inspiring the next generation of conservationists and ocean advocates.

TSI’s work is important in my opinion and I am hoping to give them a bit of support with the Rapanui x OPY project.

What keeps you coming back to the ocean environment to take photographs?

It’s quite simple: I just love the ocean! Which is a bit funny as I was born and raised in landlocked Austria, however I started to scuba dive quite young when I was only 10 years old.

From a young age my parents would bring me to countries with direct ocean access, introducing me to its wonders and I simply fell in love with, and developed a deep care for the ocean. Ultimately I became a dive instructor and dive resort manager and owner, and with my photography I am now able to share this life long passion with others while also raising awareness for ocean protection.

From photo to illustration

We spoke with the design team who turned Max’s photo into an illustration made to be worn.

“The first thing we were drawn to were the silhouettes, which are kind of mysterious. It’s hard to tell what’s going on with the boats and marine life. Whilst people and animals should be able to live side by side, over-tourism can be a threat to wildlife. We wanted this design to reflect the delicate balance of humans and nature, so we decided the marine life would be swimming in circles. We thought it kind of looks like an eye too, which wasn’t deliberate, but perhaps speaks to the need to observe and appreciate the intricate interplay between humans and nature.”

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