The island of Taumako is another one of the incredibly remote islands that I was fortunate to visit during my 2019 Secrets of Melanesia expedition. Located in the remote eastern part of the Solomon Islands, it is the largest of the Duff Islands and home to a population of less than 500 Polynesian people. In order to come ashore, we had to navigate through a treacherous reef with large breaking waves. Once on shore, the local people welcomed us with their traditional singing and dancing. Some of the unique features of their society include ancient Polynesian seafaring techniques and building the artificial island of Tahua. This islet is situated opposite of the main village and home to roughly 100 people. Towards the end of our visit, I knew that I had to fly my drone in order to create an aerial image of this amazing landscape. I was only able to do one short flight, but the clouds parted right as I took off. This allowed the late afternoon golden light to perfectly spotlight the island.
I would like to introduce you to Stella. She lives on remote Vanikoro Island in the Santa Cruz Island group which is part of Temotu Province in the Solomon Islands. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to visit her and her isolated community during my 2019 Secrets of Melanesia expedition. Her village welcomed us with traditional singing and they were eager to share their culture. After their children, their most prized possession was a sailing canoe that they built using traditional techniques and use to navigate between islands. The village children were adorable and loved climbing on it. They were also enthralled with all of us visitors. I am 6 foot tall and must have looked curious to them, especially with all my camera gear dangling around my neck. Stella and her friends enjoyed playing on the sailing canoe and she kept posing for me. This is one of my favorite images from my entire trip, especially with her beautiful eyes staring right into my lens. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting her family and think of them often. I take comfort knowing that their lives have most likely been unchanged since my visit.
One of my dear friends and photography idols is Tony Wu. He is a pleasant individual who is sometimes fun to be around. We have done a number of trips together over the past decade, most of which he works hard to forget. Anyway, years ago I saw some of his brilliant images of the red snapper spawning aggregation in Palau which inspired my own desire to photograph schools of fish having sex during my 2019 visit. The spawning only takes place a few days each month in the early morning hours the few days before the full moon. I planned my trip to coincide with these dates. Because the diving was going to happen before sunrise, I knew that it was going to be quite dark underwater. I was going to need my bulky underwater strobes and get as close as possible to the action. As I dove into the dark water and descended to the bottom, there were probably 8000 fish balled up together. I knew my air supply was going to get used up fast based on the depth I was diving to and my need to swim as fast as possible whenever they rocketed back to the surface to spawn. Needless to say, I did not have a very long dive, but was fortunate to come away with this fantastic image of an inspiring wildlife spectacle.
For many years, one of my dreams was to snorkel with the stingless golden jellyfish in Palau‘s famous Jellyfish Lake. In December 2019, I was able to experience this unbelievable underwater photography destination during my visit to this tiny island nation. Jellyfish Lake is connected to the ocean through fissures and tunnels in the limestone, but the jellyfish have been isolated for so long that they have lost their stinging tentacles compared to their ocean cousins. Millions of jellies migrate around the lake each day chasing the sunlight so that the symbiotic algae that live in their tissues can produce nutrition to sustain them.
Most tourists only visit the lake for an hour during a day-long boating tour. I knew this would be an inadequate amount of time for me to create an image that I would be proud of. In order to optimize my photographic opportunities, my buddy and I camped for 4 nights on a tiny island that was only 2 miles from the lake so that we could kayak back and forth at our leisure. I spent up to 4 hours at a time blissfully swimming among the jellies and learned where they liked to congregate at certain times of day based on the position of the sun. One of their favorite hangout spots was in the late afternoon as some trees on the side of the cliff began to cast long shadows into the water. They treated the shade like a fence by bunching up against the darker water on the sunny side. I also found the shade created a mysterious background to my photos as they all clumped together. This is one of my favorite images. I especially like how their bells are backlit and the closest ones are pulsating in the same direction.
In December 2019, I went on an adventure to another one of the destinations that I had a life-long desire to visit. The Republic of Palau is an isolated island nation located in the South Pacific north of New Guinea and to the east of the Philippines. During World War II, the United States captured Palau from Japan after the costly Battle of Peleliu in 1944. Today, it is renowned for its stunning scenery, epic scuba diving, and lakes filled with stingless jellyfish. I was fortunate to be able to spend several weeks photographing all of these amazing subjects. At the top of my list was an aerial photo of the famous Ngerukewid which is a series of uninhabited limestone islands surrounded by coral reefs and sandy shallows. This is one of my favorite images from my trip. I love how the tiny tropical islands look like a jumble of puzzle pieces poking above the the surface of the brilliant turquoise and blue ocean.
One of my favorite subjects to photograph underwater are clown anemonefish. I can spend an entire dive photographing them as they dart about in a comical, yet exasperated state. I encountered this red and black anemonefish while visiting Marovo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands in 2019. While trying to create an image like this, I am dealing with multiple issues that my non-underwater photography friends are probably unaware of. I have to be aware of my surroundings, pay attention to the amount of air left in my tank, control my buoyancy, adjust my cumbersome camera equipment, and then hope that some of my images are properly exposed and in focus. Every once in a while, I get lucky and capture a moment like this. I like how the fish was off center while staring directly at me. I think it is especially amusing that it had one eye looking up and the other eye was looking down.
During my Secrets of Melanesia voyage with Heritage Expeditions in 2019, I visited a series of incredibly remote islands from the Solomon Islands on down through Vanuatu. Ambrym was the last island that I visited before ending the expedition in Port Vila. It is known as the “black” island due to its twin volcanoes which cover much of the island in volcanic ash as well as being renowned for its mysterious “black magic”. This magic is showcased by the famous Rom Dance which is restricted to only the village men. The masked dance is a ritual that stretches back centuries and recounts the age-old tale of good versus evil. It is also believed to influence harvests and is a privilege to witness. In order to view the performance, all of us had to hike along the shoreline and then up hill to the ceremonial site. Once we arrived and settled down, the village men began their enthralling dance. The ground shook and the sound reverberated off of the trees as the men drummed their feet in unison. I was trying to figure out how to best photograph this mysterious spectacle and decided to use a slow shutter speed to record the motion while zoomed in with my telephoto lens. For a brief moment, rain began to pour down adding another secretive element to my image.
One of my favorite photographers is Art Wolfe. His photography greatly influenced my own style and motivated me to travel the world. I have been fortunate over the past 20 years to be able to photograph remote landscapes and endangered wildlife, but had always desired to expand my work to include exotic people. In 2017, I dabbled at photographing people during my first visit to Vanuatu. This initial foray only fueled my desire to expand my work in this direction. When I travelled to the Solomon Islands to scuba dive in 2019, I also joined Heritage Expeditions’ Secrets of Melanesia expedition. This was my second adventure with Heritage and it was as rewarding as my first trip with them to the Subantarctic. The voyage began in Honiara and ended in Port Vila, Vanuatu. Along the way, we visited incredibly remote islands and were enthusiastically welcomed by the local villagers. The kindness and generosity I experienced was indicative of all the good that can happen when people share their culture with a visitor. This young man on Nendo Island in Santa Cruz Province was dressed in a traditional costume that warriors wear to intimidate strangers. He definitely caught me off guard as we approached his village, but graciously posed for me when I asked if I could take his picture. I look forward to sharing more of my amazing images of the welcoming people that I met during this amazing trip.
Prior to my trip the Solomon Islands, I had researched satellite views of Marovo Lagoon and knew that I had to find a way to photograph the Mindeminde Islands with my drone. This beautiful location featured mangrove covered islands surrounded by interconnected reefs and shallow water. My first logistical challenge was that I needed a boat in order to visit the islands. They were located over an hour away from the dive lodge where I was based, but closer to the airstrip where I had landed. Eventually, some new guests were arriving by plane, so I took advantage of the opportunity to use the boat before they landed. My ideal photography conditions for an aerial image like this are when the sun is directly overhead and there aren’t any clouds casting dark shadows on the vibrant landscape. When I was finally ready to fly, there was one massive cloud causing me some trouble. Fortunately, after a few flights where I explored for compositions, the cloud dissipated and I was rewarded with this brilliant image.
In October 2019, I realized one of my life-long dreams and traveled to the Solomon Islands. I have been sitting on these images for over a year, but now want to start sharing them. The Solomon Islands are infamous for the fierce fighting that took place there between the US Marines and Japanese forces during World War II. They are also a series of idyllic tropical islands surrounded by coral reefs and home to a diverse people with exotic cultures. I began my trip by scuba diving for 10 days at a tiny resort located in Marovo Lagoon. I was the only guest for all but my last few days, though to be fair, they could only host a maximum of 4 guests. I was there long enough that I was able to learn the local reefs and planned my dives around the tidal currents. This image is from my favorite wall next to the village. I was enthralled with the top of the wall covered in soft corals with the mangroves hanging above. This location was at the end of my favorite dive, so I planned accordingly to spend a lot of time there. At less than 10 feet deep, I was able to suck my scuba tank empty as I worked the wall for photos. I loved photographing this spot so much that the dive guides renamed it “Jon’s Spot” in my honor. Sadly, I recently learned that the older American women who ran the resort recently passed away. Lisa was a good friend and she will be missed.