Advocate for the Seas

If you know Guy Harvey, it’s probably through his art. But he’s also a scientist, a philanthropist – and someone who wants to get people interested in the stories of the ocean.

By: 

Erik Petersen

Published date: 

Jul. 1, 2016

In 1986, a scientist from Jamaica walked into the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show with some fish paintings. Art was something he did for fun. By trade, he was a fisheries biologist.

He was also a man who loved the ocean, and a skilled fisherman. It was at fishing tournaments that he’d come to meet several people from Fort Lauderdale, including Scott Boyd, then the owner of Bill Boyd’s Tackle Shop, the Andrews Avenue business his father had opened in 1943. Scott and others told the scientist the art he created as a hobby was the sort of thing people would buy. And as it happened, they knew where some of those people might be.

   Which is how, 30 years ago this fall, Guy Harvey turned up at Bahia Mar wondering if any boat show attendees might like to buy his vivid, detailed paintings of fish and marine scenes. He also brought one other thing – some T-shirts that had been printed up by a company on Oakland Park Boulevard. Thirty years later, he can still remember that first T-shirt image – a blue marlin and a dolphin, smaller on the front of the shirt and big across the back. They printed 144.

   “I sold them in the first day,” Harvey says, “and I thought, ‘We’re on to something here.’”
Yeah, you could say that.

   Anybody who has shopped, fished or walked around Fort Lauderdale with their eyes open in the ensuing 30 years has likely noticed what it was that Guy Harvey was on to. From those few pieces of art and that one T-shirt, Harvey has built a brand and a multimillion-dollar business that includes clothing, books, documentaries and an ocean of other products. And of course, there’s the product that started it all, those Guy Harvey shirts. The Guy Harvey operation produces all sorts of shirts now, from work-appropriate polos to water-resistant fishing shirts. But around Fort Lauderdale and the wider Guy Harvey universe, the most iconic product is probably still that straightforward T-shirt – pocket with signature on the front, marine scene on the back. 

CanvasGuySail.jpg

   As his wealth has grown, Harvey – who has a Ph.D. in fisheries biology – has also ploughed money into research, education and conservation efforts. There’s the Guy Harvey Institute at Nova Southeastern University’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, as well as the Guy Harvey Foundation, which is involved in both research and education.

For Harvey these seemingly disparate threads – art and research, merchandise and education – all lead back to the same place. He wants to document what’s happening in our oceans, and he wants to get people educated and engaged on what they can do about it.

   He’s also not shy about what it takes to make that happen. Before people get engaged, they need to know what they’re getting engaged about. Before conservation comes research. And research doesn’t come cheap.

   “I always say it takes cash to care,” Harvey says. “Without the data, you’re not really able to make the right decision going forward.

   “Once you’ve achieved education, you can take the next step forward and explain why you need conservation.”

Marlin for a Muse
→ Guy Harvey grew up in Jamaica, on the family cattle farm. His father was a former British Army officer. His mother, he says, was a great artist, as were several people on the other side of his family. One cousin, Charles Harvey, was made a quadriplegic diving into water at 17, but later became an accomplished artist after teaching himself to use his still-functioning left hand.

   Growing up in Jamaica, Harvey also developed an early appreciation for the ocean and its residents. Every artist needs a muse, and Harvey discovered his early on. From the age of 10, he dreamed of catching a marlin. At 17, he bagged his first one. Years later, a marlin would appear on the first-ever Guy Harvey T-shirt. The fish has never stopped fascinating him. Eventually he wanted to see what they’re like in normal times, not thrashing around on a fishing line. (Harvey’s a staunch believer in catch-and-release fishing, and his many trophy marlins and other fish are actually replicas of fish he’s caught and let go. But still, observing a fish that’s been caught doesn’t really give you an idea of how it is on its own.)
Guy Harvey UW Tiger2.jpg

So he started hanging out with them on a more casual basis. “I spent 20 years of my life diving with these animals,” he says. “These aren’t animals that you can go to see in an aquarium.”

    He also enjoys diving with other fish – one particular favorite is grouper. Thanks to overfishing and other issues, grouper are in serious peril. They’re also one of the more fun fish in the sea. Grouper have charisma.

   “You just can’t help but get involved with them because they’re such cool animals,” Harvey says. A Nassau Grouper that’s at all conditioned to humans will swim right up to you and play, almost like a dog would.

   You’ll sometimes hear scientists chafe at the wider world’s desire to anthropomorphize and cartoonize wild animals, but Harvey says that can be useful. Films such as Finding Nemo and its recent sequel, Finding Dory, help give fish something they’ve struggled to have -  a cuddly factor Harvey reckons they need if more people are going to care about saving them.

   “Turtles have become ‘cuddly,’” he says. “Fish are not cuddly.

   “That’s why I keep going back to grouper. They have personality.”

Of course, Harvey doesn’t just want people to find fish “cute.” Once he’s hooked people with the cute factor, he wants to reel them in with science. And this is one case where he doesn’t believe in catch-and-release.

   As with everything else, for Harvey it’s all about telling the story. He remains a working scientist – in his field, he’s Dr. Harvey – who’s up on all the current research. But when he goes out with the team from Nova Southeastern’s Guy Harvey Research Institute, his job is different. The research is done by the professors and researchers who work full time at the institute. Harvey’s job is to go out into the field and document what they’re doing. Tell their story. “No amount of time in the field is ever wasted,” he says. “You’re always seeing something new.”
 

Guy Harvey GuySting.jpg

→ Guy Harvey may live in the Caymans, but his empire is based in Broward. Although not in a corner of Broward that looks particularly Guy Harvey-ish. To get to Guy Harvey HQ, you exit off State Road 84 into one of the unremarkable business parks lining that stretch of road in Davie. The only water nearby is a sad little retention pond – or, as optimistic west Broward residents sometimes say, a lake. The closest saltwater fish you’re likely to find out here will be at the lunchtime smorgasbord at Ikea.

   And yet, turn a corner and there it is - a building bearing the distinct signature, “Guy Harvey,” in that familiar stylized longhand that looks like salt water running down. Step inside and you’re in a kind of Guy Harvey factory store. However many products you thought Guy Harvey sold, this place will lead you to believe you underestimated.

   There are – and this is by no means a comprehensive list - Guy Harvey giclee prints, Guy Harvey aluminum art, Guy Harvey towels, Guy Harvey cups, Guy Harvey tote bags, Guy Harvey license plates, Guy Harvey beer cozies, Guy Harvey lithographs, Guy Harvey wrapping paper, Guy Harvey notebooks, Guy Harvey picture books, Guy Harvey plates, Guy Harvey tile art, Guy Harvey clocks, Guy Harvey cutting boards and against the front wall, a Guy Harvey cornhole game.

   The shop might be a great pilgrimage point for Guy Harvey fans wanting to stock up on just about anything, but it’s not the main point to this complex. Behind it sits the vast warehouse of merchandise, as well as the offices full of people who keep the Guy Harvey universe ticking. If you want to get an idea of how big it’s all become, just take a look at the Davie operation. “A couple things have allowed this to happen,” Harvey says. “One is that I’ve been in business 30 years.”

   But for Harvey, it’s not about getting bigger just for the sake of getting bigger. Building the brand means having the ability to do all of those things he cares about. It’s in the second half of that 30-year span that he’s also had the financial ability to really start ploughing serious money into research and conservation. He can do that, he believes, because the people who buy Guy Harvey merchandise also care about the issues Guy Harvey champions. “The fan base has really embraced what we do,” he says.

   That entire Guy Harvey experience – 30 years of products on the market, plus the increased work in conservation and education – has led to an interesting phenomenon. In the Davie shop, a member of the Guy Harvey team points to a long-sleeve T-shirt that’s a big seller. Done in several colors, it doesn’t offer any colorful fish or ocean scene. In big letters across the top, it reads “GUY HARVEY.” Below that it reads “Grand Cayman.”

   Any number of surveys and studies will tell you how people interact with brands – how they want to own things that reflect who they are and what they care about. In 1986, Guy Harvey wondered if people would buy his art. Now, the Guy Harvey name – the Guy Harvey brand – is enough in itself to sell merchandise. For Harvey, this is great. It’s not an ego trip for him; it means that, beyond just wanting to have marine art, people are buying into the entire concept. “Guy Harvey” means something.

   And so he keeps trying to get the name and the message out there. In recent years, Guy Harvey artwork has got to some pretty peculiar places. For example, there’s the hull of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Escape. The entire front of the massive cruise ship  is covered in a Guy Harvey mural. He was recently in Orlando for the opening of SeaWorld’s new Mako roller coaster, for which he contributed a large mako shark mural. (“No, I’m not going to go on it, let’s make that clear,” he says of the coaster. “My kids can go on it.”)

Guy Harvey Australia September 2006.jpg

   Harvey is at a point where he considers legacy, but not where he considers slowing down. He has two grown children – Jessica, 25, and Alex, 23. Both are following their father in different ways. Alex studied business and is currently working in London, but plans to join his father’s business in October. Jessica works as a researcher for the Cayman Islands’ Department of Environment. “There is a succession in place,” Guy Harvey says.

   But he’s not ready for that succession just yet. There’s still too much left to do. He’d love to, say, go to the Indian Ocean. “But,” he says, “we’ve got our hands full here.”

Recently he was on Cayman television, passionately advocating for stricter commercial fishing regulations. There are new television projects, new research, new products.

   “My job is to keep the production of new art coming,” he says. “The library is now substantial.

   “I’ve just got to keep going for another 10 years, at least.”

    And of course, there are so many marlin he hasn’t met yet.