It’s a pretty intimidating title: most venomous fish in the world.

But it would take more than that to faze Joel Sartore.

“Just yesterday, we were shooting a spitting cobra at the zoo in Wichita. I still have the venom on my lens,” the photographer chuckled Wednesday after being introduced to one of the stonefish at the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks.

Equally unfazed by Sartore, who was there to take its picture, the fish stared back, expressionless, as the camera zoomed in closer to its tank.

“He’s just amazing,” Sartore remarked.

The stonefish — whose venom can kill an adult in less than an hour — was one of around a dozen species at the Jenks aquarium photographed by Sartore, a National Geographic photographer in the middle of an ambitious project.

Started in 2005, the goal of Sartore’s Photo Ark is to document every animal species living in zoos and wildlife sanctuaries worldwide.

The project has brought him to Oklahoma before, including the Tulsa Zoo, but Wednesday was his first visit to the Oklahoma Aquarium.

A Ponca City native based in Lincoln, Nebraska, Sartore has visited facilities in 40 countries, he said, and so far, he has shot nearly 10,000 species for Photo Ark. That includes 1,277 fish, a total to which he added a few more Wednesday.

Aquarium animals to be documented in Photo Ark include an electric eel, duckbill catfish, black crappie, bat ray, Ecuadorean white shrimp, imperial urchin and blue crawfish. The stonefish was from the aquarium’s Extreme Fishes gallery.

Sartore said nobody knows for sure how many animal species currently are in human care around the globe. Some estimates say 12,000, but it could be 15,000 or more, he said.

Although he won’t get to all of them, “if I can do this for 25 years, it should give us a good cross-section of what the world’s biodiversity looked like at this time in history before we threw half of it away,” he said.

Sartore’s hope is that by creating a photo record of each animal’s existence, it will motivate people to better protect them.

Sartore has photographed sharks and other well-known sea creatures but gets just as excited about the lower-profile ones — small fish, sponges, mussels.

In the photos he takes, “they become as big as elephants,” he said.

The more attention he can bring to them, the better.

“Some will never have their voice heard before they go extinct,” Sartore said.

Sartore, who spoke at a Tulsa Town Hall event in 2017, is shooting other animals on his current trip, which includes a stop Thursday at a wildlife refuge in Medicine Park, he said.

John Money, aquarium deputy director, assisted with the shoot Wednesday.

“We all know Photo Ark, we’ve all looked at and been amazed by the images and to be able to contribute is really neat,” Money said. “We’re happy to be able to add a few more fish to Joel’s list.”

Sartore said his first visit to the Oklahoma Aquarium left him impressed.

“I’ve been to 400 zoos and aquariums, and they have 20 species here that I don’t have yet,” he said. “That’s a big deal. It says a lot. They have a really good, interesting collection.”

National Geographic is the Photo Ark sponsor and will serve as the official home and archive for all images captured. Learn more at

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Tim Stanley


Twitter: @timstanleyTW

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