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Ningaloo Stories

World Heritage site provides inspiration for stunning exhibition celebrating the Ningaloo reef’s stunning underworld wonderland

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A whale shark, captured in all its vast, majestic beauty appears to hover over an azure, sun-dappled reef, while the unseen photographer, drifts silently above this giant of the sea. Playful humpback whales breaching the waves, their characters clear to see thanks to the artist’s deep connection to her subject.

These are just some of the extraordinary works of photographic and illustrative art that will greet visitors to Carnarvon Library and Art Gallery from March 25 to April 29, as Ningaloo Stories highlights the precious underwater eco-system of the Gascoyne region’s 200km fringing coral reef.

The joint exhibition, showcasing the work of artist Sadie James and photographer Jess Hadden evokes the uniquely beautiful, ever-changing seascape of the Ningaloo reef through Jess’s underwater photography and Sadie’s paintings and prints, drawn from many hours spent observing this special part of Western Australia.

The 200km, fringing coral reef drew Sadie from Wales in the UK nine years ago, and now she spends her time in Coral Bay and Exmouth, running two galleries, snorkeling every morning and watching the creatures who call the reef home.

“The process of snorkeling and observing creatures going about their lives enables me to attribute characters from the way they move or act, or the jobs they’re doing,” she says. “Life can get very noisy above water, and a lot of it is unnecessary and distracting. The natural world seems to get on with it, accepting without question that it is, what it is. There’s a lot to learn from that, particularly in what has been such a challenging time for the world.”

Sadie’s work encompasses detailed illustrations, film-making as well as painting and lino-cutting, a time-consuming technique which creates layers of colour and texture perfectly representing the complex natural patterns and light dappling of the Ningaloo region. An award-winning children’s book illustrator, many of her works tell stories of the deep sea creatures, a narrative that continues in the new exhibition too.

“After nine years, I say that I have ‘the reef in my eyes’ as you get to know it pretty well, but there are always those surprises which keeps it interesting,” she says.

As an underwater photographer, Jess Hadden shares Sadie’s affinity with the ocean, and deep respect for those creatures which call it home.

“Having started scuba diving at the age of 15, I was in absolute awe of the world that lies beneath the surface of the sea,” he says. “I began capturing underwater scenes and felt an obligation to share its vast beauty with the world in order to protect it.”

Moving to Coral Bay as a largely self-taught underwater photographer onboard a whale shark and manta ray snorkel interaction tours allowed Jess to hone and perfect his skills, remaining ‘absolutely inspired by the ocean every day, no matter what the conditions may be.’ He’s also added aerial photography to his skillset and some of the images he’s captured from high above really give a sense of scale and perspective to the pristine big blue below.

“I get the biggest thrill out of not knowing what I may encounter each day, and I’m still experiencing new and exciting marine life that I’ve never encountered before.”

Jess met Sadie in 2014 when he moved to Coral Bay, and the pair quickly became admirers of each other’s work.

“Sadie was already an established artist living in Coral Bay with her art gallery, The Bubble,” says Jess. “I had always been a huge fan of her work and admired her wild imagination which shows in her artwork which locals and visitors adore.”

For her part, Sadie recognised that although the techniques involved in depicting the same subject – the Ningaloo reef – may differ, the skills Jess displays in capturing one moment in time take an intuitive understanding of composition – as well as the presence of mind to press the shutter.

“That’s what sets Jess’s work apart,” she says. “I asked if he wanted to create a pop-up shop for a couple of months and he found a place, committing to a lease for a year three weeks before COVID hit,” she laughs.

After a tentative beginning, the pair have realised that their dual artistic approaches go very well together and they’re now looking forward to extending their profiles beyond the Exmouth and Coral Bay region – hence the exhibition in Carnarvon.

For Jess, the new exhibition is his first, and has involved a ‘big learning curve’ for the young photographer.

“I hope that the exhibition provides a statement for our region’s beauty, encouraging people to visit the area, inspire people to dive in and fall in love with the underwater world, just like I have – and that they too will want to conserve it.”

For her part, Sadie’s love affair with the ocean – and the Ningaloo reef’s special environment – continues unabated.

“I have asked myself why I try to capture something that will never match up to the moment, and in some ways, it’s true. There’s no contest. However, by reminding people that what we have here is so valuable, that’s the point.”


18 Egan Street, Carnarvon WA 6701

Monday: 10am to 5pm

Tuesday: 10am to 5pm

Wednesday: 10am to 5pm

Thursday: 10am to 7pm

Friday: CLOSED

Saturday: CLOSED

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