During my recent week in the San Juan Islands, I came across this adorable sea otter. Doug Perrine and I spent an entire day cruising all over the Straits of Juan de Fuca trying to locate wildlife. In the process, we underestimated how much fuel we needed to motor all the way from Friday Harbor to way beyond Victoria. Fortunately, the weather was amazing and the seas dead calm. By the time we refueled and got back on the tail (pun fully intended) of the transient orcas, it was getting to be late afternoon. We eventually located a small pod near Race Rocks, but they were very inconsiderate by not only doing nothing photographable, but they also kept swimming further away from where we started. Being photographers in pursuit of wildlife in epic light, we of course stayed with these whales even though that meant that we were going to have to motor a long way back to San Juan Island in the dark. After several frustrating hours and just as the light was starting to get good, they lead us around a corner and right to this otter resting on her back. I had never seen an otter this close to Seattle, and was immediately more motivated to photograph her than the orcas. From my experience with otters in Alaska and California, I knew that it is hard to photograph them with puffy, dry faces like this. She also was not fazed at all while we scrambled for our longer lenses while trying to maintain our boat’s position in the current. We were quite frantic trying to get this shot as the light dipped towards the horizon, but we worked together with this cooperative subject and came away with some very nice images. I am especially pleased with this cute yawn as she brought both of her paws up to scratch her face.
One of my sea otter images is on the cover of the February 2013 issue of Ranger Rick Jr! I created this image while visiting Moss Landing in California in 2008 with my friend Phil Colla. We had a great time together photographing the sea otters at sunset several days in a row. Unlike Alaska sea otters, the Moss Landing otters are used to seeing people and are easily photographed from a boat with a local guide. If you’ve never been, I encourage you to go. Bring your kids since the otters are so cute, unless of course a male gets ahold of a female and tries to mate with her. Ouch! Let’s just say that I would not want to be a female sea otter. I created this image with my Canon 50D and 400mm f4 DO IS lens and processed the image using whatever version of Aperture and Photoshop was available at that time.
While visiting the Columbia Glacier last month, I spent a lot of time photographing sea otters, or should I say, trying to photograph sea otters. They are very shy creatures, and difficult to approach. I had a Canon 500mm f4 IS lens with me, but that lens is way too heavy to hand-hold while motoring around in my inflatable all day. Fortunately, I also had my trusted Canon 400mm f4 DO IS lens, which is much lighter. When combined with my Canon 7D and 1.4X tele-converter, this set up becomes the equivalent of a 900mm lens. I prefer marine mammal images that are photographed from as close to the water as possible. This yields a much better sense of location plus a softer background than images that are taken from higher up on larger boats. This mother and pup kept an eye on me the entire time, which gave me the eye contact that I prefer when photographing wildlife. Keep in mind that I was piloting my inflatable with my other hand while also trying to compose this picture. This image is a single-exposure which required minimal processing using Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS5.
In case you missed it, please check out my sea otter article from this trip that were recently published in the UK’s Daily Mail.
I have spent a lot of time photographing sea otters in Alaska and California. Most of the time they are quite skittish, if not outright impossible to photograph. However, they can be adorable when they allow me to get close enough to take their picture. One of the unique things about the sea otters of Prince William Sound is that they frequently haul out to rest on the icebergs calved off of the tidewater glaciers. I had never seen this behavior before, so I was excited to have the opportunity to photograph them resting on the ice during my visit to the Columbia Glacier. Even while using my big lens, I still need to get pretty close to create an image. Most of the time they see me coming in my inflatable from 1/4 mile away and dive. I was getting sick of sea otters after many days of this type of frustration. Fortunately, my effort finally paid off when I photographed this large male who was more concerned about his nap than my inflatable with 3 photographers approaching him. When he finally sat up to take a look at us, not only did he look straight into my lens, but I also like how he placed his paws on the ice. I created this image by hand-holding my Canon 7D and 400mm f4 DO IS lens while also carefully navigating my 12′ inflatable through the ice. This image is a single-exposure which was slightly cropped and required minimal processing using Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS5.
I am pleased to announce that my article about using my own boat to photograph Southeast Alaska is in the May issue of Popular Photography! The opening double page image is of a humpback whale swimming along with its mouth open after bubble-feeding. My article features 10 landscape & wildlife images from my last 3 summers in Alaska. I look forward to working with Popular Photography again in the near future.
Coincidentally, it is almost summer, which means it is time for me to photograph Alaska. My summer plans include using my boat for several weeks in May-June to visit Icy Bay on the south side of Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Russell Fjord in the Tongass National Forest. Later in the summer, I will photograph humpback whales, and in August I am shipping it to Whittier where I will base it on Prince William Sound for the next few years. Wish me luck!
Most photographers do not appreciate how difficult it is to photograph sea otters in Southeast Alaska. Plenty of people, myself included, have photographed the approachable sea otters in California, but the “wild” ones in Alaska see you coming from a mile away and want nothing to do with you. This is probably a good thing, since sea otters were previously hunted for their fur almost to the point of extinction. I have watched rafts of hundreds of sea otters in Glacier Bay National Park, near Cape Spencer, and in Frederick Sound, but none of them have allowed me to get close enough for a decent picture, even with a long lens. After being frustrated so often by their elusive nature, I was surprised to find this cooperative mother & baby during my brief visit to Torch Bay last June while returning from my amazing Lituya Bay visit. It was pouring rain, but fortunately I was able to set up my 500mm lens & tripod underneath the rain canopy on the back deck of my 22′ C-Dory while my friend Dominik Modlinksi manned the helm. The mother repeatedly dove to the bottom to catch some food. When she returned to the surface, it was all she could do to grab a bite of her catch before her little one voraciously snatched it away from her. (It was kinda like me trying to eat ice cream around my daughters.) After stealing mom’s food, the baby would climb on top of her for comfort & bonding. It was a beautiful wildlife experience in a unique setting and I am happy that I came away with a few images.
After spending 5 days in Lituya Bay, we headed back towards Cape Spencer and Elfin Cove in very calm sea conditions, but heavy overcast clouds. My cruising guidebook said that there were a lot of sea otters in Torch Bay, so since we were passing by we stopped to have a look. Normally, sea otters in Alaska disappear when they see you coming from 1/4 mile away. (This is probably a genetic trait of some kind from the few sea otters that survived the fur trade!) We found some super friendly/mentally challenged sea otters that let us follow them around for a few hours. I usually hand hold my 400mm f4 DO IS lens on the boat, but I had let another photographer borrow it. Instead, I had his 500mm f4 IS lens. This lens is not meant to be hand held for 3 hours. Dominik was kind enough to pilot the boat while I set up my tripod and gimble head on the back deck. I was also fortunate that my boat has an enclosed canvas back deck because it was raining while I was trying to shoot. This is one of my favorite images. The momma kept diving down to forage and when she returned to the surface she had to eat pretty fast before her baby came over and demanded its share. Kids are all the same, aren’t they?
Last year, I put some effort into photographing sea otters in several different locations. I am proud of the few images that I created of Alaskan otters, especially since they are so allusive. I photographed a lot of behaviors, but the images that were missing were cute close-ups of their dry, puffy faces. I had heard that photographing sea otters was much easier at Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing, CA than in Alaska, so I decided to give it a try. For 3 days in late October, I photographed them with my friend Phil Colla and my previous photo workshop client Nick Gorevic. This close-up of an adorable sea otter’s face is my favorite image from the entire shoot. The face is dry and puffy with some eye contact with the camera. The low angle sunset light brings out the golden color of the otter’s blond face. I like the hands being clasped together. Sea otters hold their hands out of the water in this position when they are on their backs because they do not have as much fur around their paws to keep them warm as they do on the rest of their body. This images was created with my Canon 50D digital SLR, 400mm f4 DO IS lens, and 1.4X tele-extender at f5.6 and 1/320 second.
My new friend Ken Howard was with me in Alaska last August photographing humpback whales, when I got an ominous text message on my satellite phone telling me to call home asap. Within a few minutes I was talking to my grief stricken wife about our house catching fire. Thankfully, she and my daughters were out shopping when it happened. I was only 2 days into a 10 day trip, but needless to say I cut it short and came home. Ken and I hit it off, so we started making plans for a trip to photograph sea otters in Monterey, CA. He introduced me to Phil Colla who we invited to join us. Unfortunately, one of Ken’s dear friends passed away right before our trip, so he had to back out at the last minute. Phil and I still went ahead with the trip and had a great time. In spite of our previous bad luck, Ken is coming up to Seattle next week so that we can try and have a successful trip. We are going to Vancouver Island to dive with the Steller sea lions near Hornby Island. I hope that the weather will cooperate and give us a little bit of a break.
In late October, I flew down to California and chartered a boat with Phil to photograph sea otters for 3 days. After the first day, I realized that the images I was after were during the last 45 minutes of golden light. Rafts of up to 50 otters were grouped together and quite easy to approach. Getting one to look at us at the correct angle was a challenge, but they were still much easier to photograph than any otter I have ever seen in Alaska. This portrait is one of my favorite images from the shoot. I like the dry puffy face, cute hand position, golden low angle light, and otter’s reflection on the surface of the water. I created this image with my new Canon 50D digital SLR, 400mm f4 DO IS lens, 1.4X tele-extender at f5.6 and 1/250 second.
I got rained on almost continuously for 15 days in July while waiting for a favorable weather window to make the dangerous run from Elfin Cove up the outer coast of Glacier Bay National Park to Lituya Bay. I never got the chance. The reality of motoring around in the North Pacific in 15’+ seas just did not interest me. While passing away the time, I got to spend a few days in one of my favorite locations, Taylor Bay near Cape Spencer. It is an area of unimaginable beauty and pure wilderness. Rugged sea stacks on the coast meet glaciers that come down to the sea surrounded by 12,000′ mountains. Unfortunately, the weather made it impossible to shoot any spectacular landscape scenes, but I did spend a few days photographing the most uninhibited sea otter that I have ever encountered. Usually, sea otters will not let me get within 100 yards of them before they dive down to escape. I have no idea how they were almost exterminated when they used to be hunted. They are just so incredibly shy. This male let me follow him around in the pouring rain in my inflatable. He would swim from one side of the bay to the other all the while diving down and eating everything that he could catch. Sea otters need to eat something like 25% of their body weight every day. Often, he would be visible in the shallow water directly underneath my boat, so I could watch him forage and anticipate where he was going to come back up to the surface to photograph him. This is my favorite image. He captured 2 crabs and brought them back to the surface to eat. I caught this comical expression with his mouth open while eating. This image was created using my Canon 5D, 400mm f4 DO IS lens at f4 and 1/500 second.