This past July, I returned to Alaska to lead my semi-annual humpback whale photography tour with Tony Wu. I have been photographing in Alaska for over 15 years and specifically humpback whales in Southeast Alaska for 11 years. When I first started, I never imagined that I would witness such a calamitous decline in their population, but that is exactly what I observed this summer. One of the research papers that I have reviewed clearly showed that the population increased from 2006 to 2014, but that the number of sightings has dropped since 2015. That also coincided with the “blob” of warm water off the West Coast during the same time period. How has this impacted the whales, let alone the plankton and small fish? All I can share is that I normally expect to see dozens of whales each day. This summer, I had to spend most of my time searching for any whale. Over 3 weeks, we eventually counted a total of 35 whales which was quite sobering. Still, I eventually had luck at finding some groups of humpbacks that were cooperatively bubble-net feeding for my guests. This image was from the morning of one of my scouting missions when Tony & I had set out in the fast skiff to locate the bubble-netters north of Kupreanof Island. We came across this adult that was repetitively breaching and were able to capture a few images of this exhilarating behavior. The overcast light might not have been the most dramatic, but I like this image because of the angle of the whale with the small island in the background.
Please forgive my online absence over the past 5 months. I have been traveling extensively and only recently been home long enough to begin photo editing. Sitting in the dark at my computer is not my favorite activity, but I am excited to begin sharing my new images from my adventures to Indonesia, Southeast Alaska, Washington, and Tonga. Hopefully, they are worth the wait.
This past June, my younger daughter and I traveled to Indonesia to visit Bali and Komodo. Our primary purpose was to go on a live-aboard scuba diving trip in Komodo National Park. Since we were already there, I intended to spend at least one day dedicated to photographing the famous dragons. I had arranged to hire a private guide with a speed boat and we departed early our first morning to visit Komodo Island and Rinca Island. Upon arriving first at Komodo, my guide explained to the ranger what I was hoping to do with my “dragon pole”. He pondered the implications of what I was asking of him and then decided to take me to the largest lizard in the immediate area, a living dinosaur. Needless to say, I would not advise anyone to attempt what I was trying to do over that first 30 minutes and it ended up being photographically unproductive. Getting a wide-angle close-up image was going to be much harder than I had anticipated.
Next, we visited Rinca Island where I hoped to photograph more dragons. When we arrived, it was in the heat of the afternoon and several were laying around in the shade of the park’s buildings. It was not what I considered to be the most authentic natural history setting. Our guide soon located her father who also just happened to be the head park ranger. He took us on a short hike searching for dragons and we eventually came across this one working on its sun tan. I assembled my “dragon pole” and began to photograph it. I had zero desire to disturb it, but eventually realized that it was not going anywhere and grew comfortable getting my camera super close. I used my iPhone to wirelessly compose and control my Sony A7R2 camera while waiting for it to “do something”. Suddenly, the late afternoon sunlight shined below the clouds on the horizon and this dragon stuck out its long tongue to “smell” my camera.
Today, I was supposed to be flying to Australia for the first time to visit Lord Howe Island. Unfortunately, I broke my left little toe last Friday and can barely walk. So, instead I now find myself at home for a few extra weeks with plenty of neglected work to get caught up on.
One of my humpback whale images from Alaska is published in the current issue of Ranger Rick. My image is the smaller inset in the bottom right. I was delighted to see that my friend and photography tour partner Tony Wu‘s underwater image was the main double page spread. Congrats, Tony! It is admirable that in this current age of everyone being a photographer and the competitive nature of the business that the two of us have worked together so effectively for almost a decade. I look forward to our next 10 years of adventures and friendship.
I recently returned home to the island of Kauai after spending the last month visiting family and friends on “the mainland”. While vacationing with my wife’s family on the East Coast, I spent a few days photographing sharks from Rhode Island. It was a fantastic experience and I might even go so far as to claim that it was my favorite shark trip that I have ever done. Brian was a fantastic host and guide, and though the boat ride left me a little green in the gills each day, I would highly encourage any aspiring shark photographer to book a trip with Pelagic Expeditions.
I had hoped to photograph a mako shark during my 3 days on the water, but only saw one a few fleeting times. Dang, it was fast and my photos unremarkable. Fortunately, there were a lot of curious blue sharks that stayed around the boat and provided me with plenty of photo opportunities. This is one of my favorite images of a blue shark passing incredibly close to my dome port. I need to point out that I was not in a cage, but simply floating on the surface while having the hull of the boat against my back for safety. There were usually 2 or 3 blue sharks swimming around, so it was easy to keep track of them, but by my last dive there were at least a half dozen sharks taking turns at bumping into my camera. I spent about 30 minutes in the water solo before deciding that I had enough of sharks bumping into me.
Last July, I lead two back-to-back expeditions in Southeast Alaska in search of humpback whales bubble net feeding. I co-lead these trips with my good friend and regular partner Tony Wu. I have been photographing the whales doing this exciting and dramatic behavior since 2007. Man, it really was a decade ago that I purchased my little C-Dory and set off for Alaska without a clue. After my initial struggles, I became very good at finding and photographing the whales while they are bubble feeding. Still, it is never easy to do. I often have to spend several days searching for them by covering hundreds of miles of shoreline combined with the nearly constant bad weather, but when I find them it is incredible! I am looking forward to returning to Alaska with Tony in July 2018. Who wants to join us?
Last August, I visited Svalbard for the second time to photograph Arctic wildlife, especially polar bears. I was invited by my close friends to be the photography guide on their expedition. It was a fantastic opportunity and I got to make a number of new friends, but dang is Svalbard a long way from Kauai. The highlight of our trip was definitely the days we spent motoring around at 82°N searching for polar bears in the pack ice. Did I mention that it was cold? Like really cold, but not winter cold. I wonder how my body body is going to keep up with my ambitions now that I live in Hawaii? Anyway, we experienced some truly wonderful encounters with over a dozen bears. This is one of my favorite images as this polar bear jumped from one ice flow to another.
I photographed this scarlet macaw in flight while visiting Costa Rica for the second time last March. I have not shared any of these images until now due to a lot of things that happened around this time that lead to my family making our decision to move to Kauai. Out of thousands of mediocre to useless images that I shot, this one clearly stood out and is my personal favorite. I visited the Lookout Inn on the remote Osa Peninsula specifically to spend 3 days photographing scarlet macaws. These flying macaws were one of the most difficult subjects that I have ever photographed, mostly due to the intense heat and humidity. Each day, I spent from sunrise to sunset sitting on the deck attached to my room on top of the lodge waiting. This was the best vantage for being at treetop level for when the macaws would suddenly fly past and land on the top branches. I spent hours each day using my room as a blind while sweating to death. When I heard their distant call, I would grab my camera sitting next to me and spring into action. The whole moment only lasted a few seconds during which I tracked the birds with my long lens while furiously firing away.
If anyone has flown on Alaska Airlines this month, you might have seen my polar bear mother and cub image and read my tips for creating better photos in the current issue of Alaska Beyond. The article features several of the Northwest’s top photographers offering advice about photography, so I was honored to be included. I have heard from a several people who have already read it, but I think that no one was more surprised and pleased than my parents when they saw it on their flight to Florida last week. You can read more about this photo here, in case you missed it.
Last week, I returned from my annual pilgrimage to Maui to photograph humpback whales. I spent 10 days chartering a boat with my good friends Robin & Stuart Westmorland and our buddy Ken Howard. We have been photographing whales together for over a decade from Hawaii to California up to Canada and Alaska. We call ourselves the F***ing Whale Crew. Anyone who has ever spent time around whales can probably appreciate how often we curse them for being uncooperative and unpredictable, thus the name of our small fellowship. Anyway, the wind and the whales were working against us most of this trip, however, we were rewarded with this impressive breach close to the boat on our last day. My buddy Patrick Kelley flew over from Kauai to join us that morning. It was his very first visit to Maui. He had basically been on Maui for about 2 hours before joining us to go out for our final day. After departing the Kihei boat ramp, we encountered a group of whales within 20 minutes. I have been fooled enough times over the years by whales who suddenly breach without my camera being ready, so I advised everyone to get their cameras out. I am pretty fast when I need to be, so my camera was out in a flash, but I am pretty sure that I heard Patrick’s lens click onto his camera body about 1/2 second before this whale suddenly flung itself out of the water. Talk about beginner’s luck. You are welcome PK! Once we calmed down from hooting and hollering at what we had just experienced, we realized how fortunate that we all were able to photograph this breathtaking moment.
During my November visit to Costa Rica, I began my trip with several days of birding in the San Gerardo de Dota. While my main goal was to photograph a resplendant quetzal, I also spent time photographing hummingbirds by the lodge’s feeders. There were often dozens of hummingbirds darting back and forth, sometimes sharing the feeders, but other times heatedly pursuing each other over some imperceptible slight. This is one of my favorite photos of a green violetear hummingbird ruffling its tail feathers. I especially love the detail and iridescent colors in the feathers.