Essays / s /

Under Komodo

I'm finally getting through my underwater pix from my December trip to Indonesia. While I had a great experience with the Komodo dragons on the beach, (see last post) most of my time on this trip was spent exploring the reefs in and around Komodo National Park. It's a bit of a voyage from Bali to get there - about a day and a half at sea before diving. It was worth the wait. For me it was especially good since it was my first time in the water in 2 years. (another story for another time) December is technically considered off-season around Komodo, but there was still plenty going on. Of course, the other side of being there off-season is that you often have the dive sites to yourselves! And it's even better when there are only 4 other divers with you. Having dived in Indonesia quite a bit over the years, I was familiar with a lot of the life I saw, but there's always new and amazing stuff to find. The reefs were healthy and fishy, but with a noticeably small number of sharks around. Always sad to see the depletion of sharks when diving, especially in the waters of a national park. There was tons of other life just about everywhere, but one of the highlights of this trip had little to do with fish or coral and had lots to do with diving next to a volcano. Sangeang Island is an active volcano north of Komodo, off the coast of Sumbawa, which had it's last major eruption just 3 years ago. One of the dive sites there is appropriately named "Hot Rocks", with active gas vents bubbling out of the sand & reefs. The "ring of fire" has some pretty cool stuff. Enjoy the photos. I included a little video clip of the gas vents as well.

 

Just Another Day At The Beach

Just another day at the beach... with Komodo dragons. I've done shoots with a lot of apex predators: white sharks, big cats, grizzlies... but this was different. The dragons are unpredictable and maybe a little crazy. They changed direction and more importantly, intent as quickly as anything I've seen before... which is a dicey thing when your plan is to get as close as possible without dying. Notice I didn't say as close as possible without getting hurt. That's because if they bite you, you can be pretty certain you'll die. They have what is thought to be the most toxic bite in the world. They feed on resident deer and buffalo on a few islands in Komodo National Park - biting them and then following them for days or weeks as they slowly die from the toxins in the bite's saliva. I naively thought that sort of time frame would help me by giving me time to get to a real hospital if things went sideways. Singapore was at least 6 or 7 hours away under the best circumstances. I was assured by my guide Foued that I would be dead within a few hours. "Andy, deer and buffalo weigh 4-8 times what you do, you would hardly have time to say goodbye." Ahem.

I told him about the kind of photos I was after while were scuba diving our way across the Komodo region. He mentioned a beach where they scavenge for meat and rest in the sun. Most of these type of photos come from folks with GoPros and such on the end of a long stick. We discussed alternative because of the large camera setup I had, and well... swimming with them isn't really an option is it? It was decided that I would hang over the side of the dinghy and hold my camera in the water while he brought the dragons to me. He used a long two pronged stick with raw meat on the end to bring them close, and also used it to push them away when I was in danger. ( I included a shot of this so you can see what I'm talking about ) I usually don't condone baited wildlife situations, but these dragons were used to the boats and approached us as soon as they saw us - apparently used to people getting close or using meat to get them to come close. It was a difficult shoot. Not just coordinating the actions of the boat, Foued, and the stick with my shooting, but for me to get away quickly when they went for the camera or me as I was sprawled over the side. They get pretty excited when they smell meat. Really unpredictable, agile, and surprisingly fast, even in the water. A few tried to climb in the boat. My hands were holding the camera and they were often inches away. All of the close water shots were taken as I was squirming my way back into the boat. Foued was great, and had a lot of experience with this and his calmness was reassuring. Needless to say, I am still here and got a couple of shots I like. I actually wouldn't mind another go at it now that I know the drill, but it's a long drive from here. Here's a look:

(click on any photo to stop or start the slideshow)

 

Out & About In Alaska

Before the bear tracking part of the Alaska trip, I spent a few days exploring the glaciers and trails near Seward. I wanted to get a little landscape work in, as well as get my hiking legs under me for chasing bears the following week. I hadn't really thought much about the glaciers beforehand other than as a photo op. I ended up learning a ton about climate change and ice formations. As I'm sure everyone has heard, the glaciers are receding at a pretty brisk pace. I had heard that too, but it's pretty startling to see what's happening in person. The most dramatic example was probably at Exit Glacier where the park service has installed signs marking where the glacier foot has been located over the last 100 years or so. When you start your hike in what appears to be old grown forest with 40-50 ft trees, and see a marker for "1917" you can't help but get the idea. The final marker is where the foot was in 2005, and from what I was told it was still a tall glacial cliff at that time. You can see in one of these photos what it looks like now.

I also hiked on Godwin Glacier, dropped in by helicopter, which was a great adventure, and spent a good part of a day on Tonsina Trail through rainy forests, grabbing handfuls of wild blueberries along the way, ending at a foggy Tonsina Point with salmon running and bald eagles tending to their young. All great experiences in spite of some dicey weather. Like I said in the last post, I only scratched the surface of Alaska. It would take dozens of trips to get to all of the places I'd like to see. These photos are all from around Seward except one sunrise image from a great morning in Lake Clark. A big shout out to Sage Asher - my amazing guide for this part of the trip - dragging a cranky old photographer around the trails for a few days in spectacular fashion.

( you can click on the photos to start and stop the slideshow )

 

Da Real Bears

Well, I finally made it. After years of wanting to get to Alaska, I finally got there. I was there for two weeks and hardly scratched any reasonable idea of the surface of the place. But it was beautiful and exciting... and beautiful. I'm a sucker for mountains, and surprise surprise, they have a bunch of em. I'm already looking into going back to see more. I could go on, and may at a later date, but I should probably focus on grizzly bears. I spent about a week in Lake Clark National Park, where there's a healthy population of grizzlies. My time was spent along the shore, where the bears are pretty habituated to humans, so the danger level was a little more reasonable. By reasonable, I mean since the bears are used to seeing people often and there's a pretty good salmon supply in the area, they are less interested in either attacking out of fear, or making a meal of us. That said, I practiced smart bear etiquette and did what I could to keep a bit of distance, even when they had a different idea. They are curious, and sometimes came within feet of us. We saw about 3 or 4 families (moms and cubs) and a few young individuals who seemed to be residents of the area. The guides were pretty familiar with most of them. Most of the time they were looking for salmon in the creeks or foraging in the marshes. The weather wasn't great, but the coast provided lots of different environments to shoot in, from the beach to the marshes and fields. Overall a great experience - can't wait to see more. Thanks to Chas Glatzer for his expertise up there !

 

Shark Week

A few shark highlights from the last few years. Nothing to be afraid of.

 

Other Stuff Part II

Of course one of the great things about traveling is meeting local folks. I've met some great people along the way, but not as much as I'd like, since my main focus has been wildlife or diving. When you visit Kenya and Tanzania, it's pretty easy to meet a lot of Masai since they're are often sharing their homelands with protected wildlife areas, and many are employed by local safari camps. In northern Namibia, I met nomadic Himba tribes out in the desert, and one of my safari guides spoke one of the "click" languages. In remote parts of Asia you meet so many great and different people, from traditional fishermen in rural Myanmar, to native tribespeople in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Here's a sample from a few places:

 

WORLD OCEANS DAY

Having been in a few of the world's oceans, I put a few images together in honor of World Oceans Day. Enjoy.

Other Stuff

When you mention Africa, what comes to mind for most folks is the "big five"- elephants, buffalo, lions, leopards & rhinos. And when you go on safari, those are in fact usually the main attractions. But when I'm between trips (most of the time!) and going through my photos, I'm always struck by how much other stuff I've photographed. Yes, on slow days you find yourself "settling" for getting images of birds or antelope, but a lot of times I'm seeking out the "other stuff" after filling up a memory card with cats or elephants. There's plenty of stuff to pick from. From bugs and lizards, to crocs and warthogs. You also learn a lot by checking them out. And you often you end up up finding one of the big five by watching the behavior of stuff that is afraid of them... which is most everything else. Here are some images I picked of some "other stuff" from the last few years. ( you can click on the images to pause or advance, or swipe if you're on a mobile device)

 

Earth Day

DEATH VALLEY

It had been a couple of years since I'd been up to Death Valley. It's one of my favorite places, and I have no excuse for not going there more often since I live relatively close. It's a really interesting place to check out. You can be standing on the lowest, hottest place in North America while looking at snow capped mountains. This was a special time time to go, during what is being called the "superbloom". Because we're finally getting some water this year from El Niño, the desert flowers are having an epic blooming season. Long dormant seeds are finally getting their chance, and it's a great sight. When I was there, there were thousands of yellow desert sunflowers blooming on the hillsides. Pretty great to see fields of blooming flowers in the driest place on earth. Of course epic fields of flowers also mean epic crowds of flower lovers, leaving no place to stay for miles around. But that's a story for another time. Here are some of the highlights:

 

World Wildlife Day

In honor of World Wildlife Day. Enjoy.

CALIFORNIA COASTING

I recently made a quick photo trip up the coast of California - making it up to Monterey to have a little dinner with famed photographer and trip leader Andy Biggs, and the legendary Rob Thesman. They had been shooting in the area for a few days and told me that they'd been having a hell of a time getting the kind of shots they were hoping for because the weather was too damn nice. (These are the kind of problems only photographers would care about) This was unexpected during winter in the middle of a big El Niño year. The weather was in fact gorgeous, without a cloud in the sky for days on end. We'd always like to have a little something happening in the sky to add more interesting elements, not to mention that it helps diffuse the otherwise harsh light. I was concerned I was going to have the same issue as I had planned on shooting my way back down to LA over the next few days. Well the next day started out cloudless as I had feared, but by sunset in Big Sur the clouds started rolling in. Over the rest of the week, basing myself in Cambria and moving north and south, I had fog banks and clouds every morning and evening. Luck of the draw I guess. I need to get up there again soon to spend more time looking around. It was tough to pick just a few locations, and I left too many behind. Here's a few images from the trip:

Ribbons Foundation

Hey folks, I know we all see dozens of these fund raising sites all of the time, but I would really appreciate it if you could take a minute to donate to this one. I met some folks in Kenya a few months ago who could really use some help. This is for HIV infected women in a very small community who need potentially life saving screenings for cervical cancer. I'm trying to raise $6000.00 for the clinic treating them. There's more info at the link, but if you have any questions feel free to email me directly. Thanks ! Andy

https://www.gofundme.com/ribbonsfoundation

THE ANNUAL REPORT

Time to take a little look back over my year's travels and share a little more. The big difference this year is that I didn't get underwater. It may be the first year in a decade that this has happened, I haven't checked. I had some medical issues that kept me out of the water, but hopefully I'll get a chance to see if my wetsuit still fits in 2016.

Myanmar

My first stop this year was Myanmar. I wanted to get there before western tourism started to change the country beyond recognition. I think I made it in time, but change is happening fast. The first sign of trouble was that Coca-Cola had just gone on sale a couple of weeks before I got there. People I spoke with were thrilled about it, even though most hadn't tried it yet. Sounded like the beginning of the end to me. But like most places I go, I wanted to get out to see and meet people who haven't been too effected by modern civilization, which is a bit difficult in Myanmar. The government, in spite of now being more "open", wouldn't allow me to travel too far into areas they considered sensitive. Usually that meant that they were cracking down on local ethic groups and they don't want people knowing about it. Pretty disturbing. That said, I did go to some great if not a touch touristy areas where I met some terrific people. I visited Yangon, Bagan & Inle Lake. A lot of Yangon is still old world enough to get a feel for how it might have been before the modern age came knocking. I only spent a couple of days there, but it was pretty lively with great street food and curious people. Bagan is very old town in the middle of Myanmar, with something close to 2500 ancient temples. When I say ancient, we're talking from the 9th -13th centuries. Old. Inle Lake may have been my favorite stop. I fell in love with the fishermen there, with their old "leg on oar" rowing technique. I followed them around for a couple of days taking shots from a canoe. I have some pix of Myanmar in the slide show just below.

( A note about the new slide shows: just watch them go automatically, or click to stop & start!)

 

 India 

 India was the next stop on this same trip - a mix of some tourist hot spots ( Taj Mahal) and tiger safaris. New Delhi was a mixture of complete chaos and great food. I was only there a short time so some of the chaos was self-induced, but the "Old Delhi" part of town was taxi filled traffic jams, thousands of people, and open air markets. It was loud, hot, dusty, and fun. The Taj Mahal was amazing to see. I was lucky enough to go there at night, and then again before the big crowds showed up in the morning. I really enjoyed tracking tigers in two of India's national parks, Rathambhore & Bandhavgarh. Great sightings in both parks and plenty of other life to photograph when the tigers didn't show up. Take a look: 

 

Africa

In October I spent a couple of weeks in Tanzania & Kenya. I went back to Tanzania to continue a project of photographing the unique acacia trees there at the Ngorongoro Crater. I had a good time being the only visitor at the Thompson Crater Camp. Having the whole place to myself was pretty cool and has never happened to me before. I spent a few days in the crater then to the Mara and Amboseli in Kenya, where I got my fill of big cats, elephants and great scenery. The Olare Orok Conservancy adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Park never fails to deliver great encounters with the big cats. Amazing. A couple of mornings we hung out with lions, leopards and cheetahs all on the same drive. It was my first time in Amboseli, which is right next to Mt. Kilimanjaro along the border with Tanzania and famous for it's elephants. A great place that I hope to return to some time. 

 

All In The Family

One of the highlights of my last visit to Kenya and Tanzania was seeing all of the families with new offspring. There were recent births across the board: cats, elephants, monkeys. From lion prides with 17 members to single mom cheetahs & leopards. It's always great to see that there are more generations of endangered species on the way. It's also a lot of fun to watch the young ones play and learn. So here's a little family time for the holidays.

Mother and child
Leopard named "Fig" and her young cub come down from their favorite tree.
A baby elephant taking cover under mom.
Elephant family on the way home
Cheetah cubs hanging with mom
Family time
Baboons on a hike
These lions take turns on watch so they all get a drink
Cuddling with mom

Elephants On Parade

I was struck by the difference in climate and terrain after just a short plane ride from one camp to the next while in Kenya. I started with several days in Olare Orok Conservancy, which is adjacent to Maasai Mara National Park. This is a great private conservancy with lots of big cats, antelope, giraffes, birds and... did I mention big cats? (See previous post) This is probably the Kenya most familiar to people - famous for it's beautiful savannahs and gentle hills, and of course the great migration.

From there I flew to Amboseli, near the Tanzanian border and under the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. While only fifty minutes away by bush plane, Amboseli was nearly desert, with flat dry plains and a few large spring-fed swamps. I was also there right before the rainy season and they've been having a drought, so it was particularly dry. That said, the name Abmoseli is derivative of a Maasai name meaning "place of dust". And while there are still big cats in the area, the main attraction here is the elephants. You might not expect elephants in an place as dry as this, but those swamps are a big magnet for all of the animals in the area. In fact, that's why going in the dry season can be a good idea for photographers, because wildlife is concentrated around wherever the water is. Every day the elephants trek miles from their home in the nearby forests to the swamps to cool off, hydrate, and feed on the swamp grass. Then, they turn around and head back. So in the mornings and afternoons they can be seen in groups making their way across the plains, and in between you can find them feeding in the marshes. After a few days, you start to recognize certain families or individuals. It was a great experience. Here's some images from my time in Amboseli:

Headed back home
Baby elephant out for a stroll.
Enjoying the afternoon with egrets
Sunset in front of Mt. Kilimanjaro
The afternoon parade
Morning hike to the water
Baby under mother's care
Elephant mirage
Up close & personal

World Lion Day

Maybe it's good to take a break from all the news about poaching and hunting for a minute. In honor of World Lion Day, I posted a few of my favorite lion photos.

Cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana
Early morning, Olare Orok Conservancy, Kenya.
River crossing, Botswana
Listening, Okavango Delta, Botswana

NO SPORT IN THIS SPORT

I just wanted to mention a few things about the lion killed in Zimbabwe that is getting a lot of attention for those who may be unfamiliar with Africa or safaris. It looks like it might still be up in the air as to who killed it, so I will reserve comment about the dentist from Minnesota. First of all, the lion was collared and tracked in a national park. It was a very well known lion amongst park employees, rangers and visitors. A park favorite in fact, having lived in the area for it's entire 13 yrs. Most lions in African parks, and a lot of places elsewhere are habituated to safari vehicles, and used to seeing people. Especially this one - it was one of the most photographed and sought after in the park. I have seen photos and heard about this particular lion, and I have never been to Hwange National Park. No matter what you might have heard about hunting lions, there is absolutely no sport in killing one. It's mythology. They are most often found just resting in the shade, slowly walking or possibly feeding. "Hunting" them would be like driving up near a mailbox and firing at it. I have been on safaris where lions are within touching distance if I was crazy enough. So anyone under the misconception of this being a hunt or some sort of sport, please understand that is far from the case. The other thing is that whoever killed the lion couldn't have done so without the assistance of a local guide who without question knew this particular lion (it was famous, and had a tracking collar) and knew they were in a protected area. In fact, from what I have read, they baited this lion to get him away from park boundaries to shoot it. That's right, they lured possibly the best known lion in all of Zimbabwe out of the park with bait so they could kill it. Geniuses. So, I think this guide and his employers/trip organizers may be more to blame than the person who did the actual shooting. And while I'm glad this is getting attention, given the depleted population of lions and other endangered animals, this goes on every day in Africa and elsewhere and you never hear about it, because the cat or rhino or elephant isn't a park mascot. So please know, this is not a one time thing, nor are the consequences confined to this one lion. When a male lion dies, another male will typically take over the pride, and this most often involves killing the offspring of the dead male if they are still young. So when this lion was killed, more than likely so were his cubs.

Post Script: The dentist from Minnesota has in fact now admitted to being the hunter. He also said he worked with local people to actually get the lion. He claims he didn't know it was a well known lion, not that that matters much either way. I am willing to take him at his word, and as I mentioned above the local team that took his money and felt an obligation to get this guy what he came for, have much more to answer for than this dentist. They are poachers. It's a much bigger issue than this guy, or the woman who pops up online often posing with her kills, or putting the dentist's phone number online. I am glad it's getting attention, even under these horrible circumstances.

NOT JUST TIGERS

One of the great things about any wildlife trip is that even if you're out to find one thing (in the case of India it was tigers) you always see tons of other interesting life to photograph. There's always time to kill when you can't find your main target, so a decent amount of time is spent with other animals. Having not been to India before, I read a little bit about what other wildlife to look for, but mostly I got to know more about the tigers. Well, here's what I know now: the place is loaded with peacocks. They're everywhere - scattering from the roads as you pass by. It was mating season, so they were on full display. Being a sucker for shiny objects, I was thrilled to see them all of the time. There are a couple of species of deer, sambar and spotted deer, which are the main food supply for the tigers. There are extremely shy sloth bears which are unique to India, leopards, (chased a couple, but no pix) wild boar, jakals, hyenas and lots of exotic birds. Who knew? Well, I would have... if I had read little more.
Peacock on display
A herd of sambar deer frightened by a nearby tiger. India
Egret
Sloth bear - very shy.
Spotted deer
Parakeet on a perch