Lifelong Ohana

E hele me ka pu’olo
​A Hawaiian proverb meaning, “Make every person, place or condition better than before, always.”

‘Pipeline Poetry
Only the best can take on the infamous Pipeline of North Shore Oahu, where the full force of the ocean’s power meets a hidden layer of jagged reef. Yet surfing pro, Kalani Chapman somehow managed to make the ride look effortless as he soared along the waves.

Everywhere my partner Cristina and I went in Hawai’i, we were given the same advice; “Whatever you do, do not go to the end of the road on the West side of Oahu.”

So naturally, that became our destination. As a photographer and storyteller, almost always, the gold lies at the end of forbidden locations.

​With the rental car packed full of expensive camera gear and a National Geographic deadline looming overhead, the two of us set out to photograph one of the last major holdouts of Hawaiian culture. We expected the due and deserved suspicion, wariness, and even hostility that so many people had warned us about. What we had not anticipated was the generosity, warmth, and unrivalled hospitality from what would become our lifelong ohana.

‘Below the Storm‘​
Cristina Mittermeier plunges deep beneath a monster wave, looking completely in her element. No matter the weather, there is sanctuary to be found beneath the surface of our great ocean

Where the tourists dare not go …

Mornings on the western shores of Oahu begin before the sun’s light crests the horizon, with surfers gathering on the shores. By the time they hit the water and head to the takeoff zone, the rest of the island begins to stir. Coffee is poured, music blares and cars brave the one poorly patched road to deliver locals to their various jobs and kids to school. The makeshift tent communities clamour to life, and roosters can be heard crowing down the beach where Cristina and I sat in the shade with Brian Keaulana — a celebrity-status surfer, stuntman, and member of one of the most respected families in Hawai’i.

Mākaha is where surfboard shapers continue to pass on the tradition of their craft, stubbornly standing against the mass production of factories spitting boards out every minute. Wayfinders are learning to read the stars as their ancestors once did, and surfing is much more than a lifestyle or sport. It’s in your blood. Much of the community is made up of Polynesian descendants and highly respected watermen and women whose ties to the land and sea-run deeper than words could ever describe.

With Brian’s help, Cristina and I were lucky to meet some of the heroes on the island. We spent time with Brian’s daughter Ha’a Keaulana, a surfing prodigy and granddaughter of the legendary Buffalo Keaulana. Her daily surfing regimen included carrying a 50-pound boulder underwater while her fellow surfers clung to her waist in a train. We also met the traditional tattoo artist Sulu’ape Keone Nunes who taught us the meaning behind each design and how Hawaiians proudly wear their stories on their skin.

The more we uncovered about the community’s history, the more we understood why it was guarded with such ferocity against outsiders.

‘Rock Runner’
Surfer Ha’a Keaulana, daughter of Brian Keaulana and granddaughter of legendary Buffalo Keaulana, trains by sprinting across the seafloor for a full minute with a 50-pound boulder in tow. 

By the time Hawaii was officially annexed in 1898, only 40,000 Hawaiians remained, their communities decimated largely by diseases and bloody conflicts. Over the past century, they kept the fragile ties to their ancestors and lands carefully guarded, passing them onto each new generation. The Mākaha communities in particular have weathered their fair share of rough times. Addiction, violence, and homelessness continue to tear many families apart. Still, at the heart of the story is a people deeply tied to the ebb and flow of the sea. They may seem guarded, but only because what they have is very much worth protecting.

When Cristina and I left the island many weeks later, we returned home teary-eyed and promised our new family we would return someday.  ​Just last week, we finally had the chance to fulfill that promise.

As Cristina and I drove over the bridge and approached the famous beach, it was as if we were crossing back in time. The coastline was still teeming with local surfers and beachgoers, music carrying down the golden shores. I had just been saying to Cristina how amazing it was that, in the past, the locals seemed to know when we were around, and they always protected a parking spot for us. As the words were coming out of my mouth, Moki, a dear friend of ours and local resident, walked out onto the road and pointed at his baby stroller guarding a space for our car. Here we were, ten years later, and they were still saving a spot for us. We could barely get out of our car as we were greeted with Alohas, hugs, laughs and endless smiles, all under the familiar lifeguard station of 47B. 

You will never find more caring and compassionate people in all the Pacific. To have the courage and strength of heart to remain generous even through hardship, to ensure everyone has a parking spot and shady place to sit — that is the aloha spirit.


Icy Landscapes

‘Ice Waterfall’
To me, this image encapsulates the confluence of art, storytelling, and conservation and has found a place in homes worldwide. The dark clouds, ice falls, and the vast Nordaustlandet ice cap tell the story of a vanishing Arctic. Ice Waterfall continues to champion polar regions and has been used by notable figures like Al Gore. It played a pivotal role as the gatefold opening spread in National Geographic’s “Cool It” Issue in 2015 and graced the cover of Pearl Jam’s “Gigaton” album. Whether viewed on a small screen or displayed as a 60-by-90-inch art print in a gallery, the photograph remains undiminished—a timeless piece with an urgent call to action.

A land of ice is a realm of constant transformation, with new patterns and structures emerging through the clash of natural forces. During one of my earlier expeditions to the remote shores of the last continent, I observed a particularly delicate ice arch and diligently adjusted my camera. After finally settling on a composition, framing the delicate arch between two towering spires of ice, a rumble echoed across the water. Within seconds, the entire structure gave way and plunged into the sea, crackling like thunder and generating a cascade of waves. One of the most spectacular displays of nature’s artistry, carved by tumultuous seas, long winters, and raging winds, vanished before my eyes.

For those of you who have been sharing in my journey, you are probably already aware of (and likely share) my deep fascination with our planet’s polar regions. My love for the icy landscapes of the far north and south took root at the age of four when my family moved to Baffin Island. That was when I first began to see the world through the ever-changing lens of ice.

Despite our remoteness, I felt intimately connected to the vast, untamed world surrounding me.

Ours was one of the few non-Inuit households in our community, and those formative years were spent navigating a frozen realm. Guided by the elders, I learned to track animals through the snow, avoid treacherous ice, and endure extreme cold—skills that would ultimately lead to my role as a National Geographic photographer. My life’s trajectory has been irreversibly shaped by ice and the warmth of Inuit culture, which is why places like the Arctic and Antarctic regions will always be a favourite subject of mine.

When photographing ice, the creative possibilities are limitless. Light bends, refracts, and scatters through frozen crystals in surprising ways, crafting intricate patterns and textures. You could be photographing the same iceberg from the same vantage point, yet every click of the shutter yields a different image. These ever-shifting conditions present their challenges; an overcast sky, for example, can obscure details, turning a looming iceberg into a featureless mass against a dull horizon. Nonetheless, I’ve always found a peculiar sense of freedom within the environmental constraints of our planet’s icy kingdoms. They urge us to explore creative paths we might never have traversed otherwise, resulting in more compelling images and often a better story behind the frame.

A land of ice is a realm of constant transformation, with new patterns and structures emerging through the clash of natural forces. During one of my earlier expeditions to the remote shores of the last continent, I observed a particularly delicate ice arch and diligently adjusted my camera. After finally settling on a composition, framing the delicate arch between two towering spires of ice, a rumble echoed across the water. Within seconds, the entire structure gave way and plunged into the sea, crackling like thunder and generating a cascade of waves. One of the most spectacular displays of nature’s artistry, carved by tumultuous seas, long winters, and raging winds, vanished before my eyes.

‘The Last Stand’
I hurried to capture the delicate arch before it plunged into the sea below. The beauty of Antarctica is as fragile as it is captivating.

I learned early in life that, even in the heart of a polar winter, there’s a hidden reservoir of life beneath the snow and the icy seas. Animals like seals, polar bears, and certain species of seabirds have not only adapted to the capricious and unforgiving nature of the frozen world; they rely on its ebb and flow for raising their young, hunting for food, and finding mates. Somewhere in their evolutionary journey, the harshest aspects of their habitat became the source of their survival and resilience. Sadly, this is also what renders their polar ecosystems so fragile. With diminishing ice in the Arctic and Antarctic seas, the future of some of Earth’s most iconic animals becomes increasingly uncertain.

Over the decades, I have witnessed the Arctic, my childhood home and the first place where I truly belonged, evolve before my eyes.

Despite the growing pressures of a warming world, I still feel we can change our course and protect our fellow wildlife – especially with the support of readers like you who share my love for the natural world.

We are in this together, and we will solve this together.

With gratitude and hope for a better future,

Delta Rising

What is a human being? Who are we, and why are we here? Those are just some of the basic questions I have wrestled with my whole life.

When I first flew over the Colorado River Delta in a two-seater plane, thousands of miles from where I grew up in Canada’s far north, I had no idea what to expect. I honestly believed that looking down from 10,000 feet, it would look like these little fingers coming out of the river. When I actually set eyes on it, I saw it was five miles of sheer beauty, a landscape on a scale so vast and wide that at first I didn’t know how to photograph it.

The task before me was to find a way to make beautiful and different images of a scene that almost literally took the breath away while conveying the message of life and renewal.

When I turned nine, my parents trusted me to operate a snowmobile alone, and I ventured out on what was the beginning of a lifetime of exploration. To be cut loose at that age allowed me the opportunity to connect intimately with wild animals and their vast habitats. I slowly began to understand the weave of this great fabric of life, and it was illuminating – I fell in love.

My pilot Rodrigo and I started honing in at different altitudes, anywhere from 200 feet to 1,000 feet, and everywhere. The lower we flew, the more it felt like we were flying through this three-dimensional canvas of poetry and art. To see these patterns was to be reminded of the tree of life, a quilted mosaic of silt and sediment — veins, capillaries, and branches woven intricately together, the lungs of the Earth.

I was momentarily lost trying to figure out a way to turn these patterns of life into photographic moments that could live on people’s walls.

It is beautiful, but this is a terrible beauty. For the story of the Colorado River since the 1950s has been a story of how an overburdened river no longer reaches the sea. It is a journey that starts high in the Rocky Mountains and winds through seven US states, over 1,500 miles of alpine forests, red rock canyons and desert floodplains to northwest Mexico, where it once emptied into the Sea of Cortez.

It is a journey that starts high in the Rocky Mountains and winds through seven US states, over 1,500 miles of alpine forests, red rock canyons, and desert floodplains to northwest Mexico, where it empties into the Sea of Cortez.

The region is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years, but that is only part of the story. The Colorado River is also a story of how human population and heavy industry have denuded, drained, and decayed one of the natural world’s great waterways.

And yet, now, today, depending on when the drought finally ends, there is hope.

Water began flowing here once again just a few years ago, the result of an unprecedented binational restoration effort involving conservation groups, the US and Mexican governments, and Mexicali Valley communities. Those efforts have provided new hope for the future.

With gratitude,

Golden Bond

Simplicity in nature is often the most beautiful simplicity of all. What is simple always interests me. Every year, during the annual salmon run, brown bears emerge from the mists in the glacial peaks that ring southwestern Alaska’s wild coastline and riverine valleys. They’re there for one of the most spectacular, eye-filling — and ecologically vital — wildlife migrations in all of nature: the annual salmon run, in which 30 million salmon fight their way upstream to their natal streams. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, unforgettable in its own way.

The sockeye come first, then the pink salmon followed by coho, then the chum, and finally, the chinook. The migration encompasses five months in all, from late May through the middle of October, and it’s prime feeding time for bears. This is the time of year when bears have to store fat and nutritional value for the long, cold winter months ahead. In the fall, hyperphagia kicks in and these bears eat practically non-stop, gorging on hundreds of thousands of calories daily.

The migration encompasses five months in all, from late May through the middle of October, and it’s prime feeding time for bears. This is the time of year when bears have to store fat and nutritional value for the long, cold winter months ahead. In the fall, hyperphagia kicks in and these bears eat practically non-stop, gorging on hundreds of thousands of calories daily.

Every bear has its own favorite feeding ground – and habits. Alpha males can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds (680 kg), so it’s no surprise that they’re the first ones to grab the prime fishing spots along the river.

Their sheer bulk and muscle mass allow them to wade into the middle of the rushing stream and just stand there, braced against the current as they gorge themselves on whatever fish happens to come their way.

Younger bears are quick and agile and often retreat into tall stands of grass.

Next, come the younger males and females, known as subordinates. They’re not always wise, but they’re smart: They know enough to keep out of the way of the larger, more aggressive males. And then there are the mothers and cubs. During the seasonal salmon runs, mother bears must be alert, attentive, and focused at every minute to provide for their family while keeping them safe.

This is a sight that always gladdens my heart. These mothers are wise beyond words. They have to be, because they have the added responsibility of looking not only after themselves but their cubs as well.

Young cubs especially, are virtually defenseless and rely on their mothers for everything. Bringing her cubs to the river’s edge is perhaps the riskiest palace of all for a mother and her cubs.

Mother bears face many challenges, but perhaps the most imposing of these is infanticide. Nature is not always pretty, and infanticide — in which male bears kill cubs, sometimes even their own — is a fact of life in the wild. No one really knows why, though there are theories based on scientific research and observation over the years, everything from reducing competition for scarce food resources to sexual selection to cubs as a source of food.

None of that matters to a mother bear, of course. What matters is that male bears, especially the large, dominant alpha males, will kill cubs, given the chance, and the mother’s responsibility is to do what she can to protect her young.

This little cub was still drinking its mother’s milk. At only five to six months old, it had already started acquiring a taste for grass, which is also rich in protein.

One early evening in late August, at the midpoint of the salmon run, I was standing on a serene, pristine stretch of riverbank when I sensed some movement above me. I heard a slight rustling, as if something big were moving around. I could hear salmon splashing in the river nearby; otherwise, the scene was quiet and eerily gentle. A handful of larger bears were fishing upstream, focused on grabbing an easy meal.

And then, suddenly, I sense it — something in the underbrush just above me, about eight feet away.

It was a mother and her cub. They poked their heads out of the bush; the cub could have been no more than eight months old. I slowed my breathing and avoided direct eye contact. I embraced a body position and body language of humility, almost as if I was apologizing for being on the river.

I didn’t have my telephoto lens with me, just my wide-angle zoom.

Ears up, eyes alert, the mother stepped out of the brush into the open. She didn’t give me even so much as a glance; to her, it was as if I wasn’t even there. Her attention was transfixed on this one large male feeding on fish just upstream, in his favorite fishing spot. He seemed oblivious to her presence — mine, too — but that didn’t stop her from looking, listening … learning.

The ocean waters I work to protect provide a vital home for the salmon that return to their natal streams in the never-ending cycle of life.

Everything slows down in moments like that. You calm your nerves, steady your hands as much as you can, and move very, very slowly and gently. I always teach my field assistants to move around the bears as if they are doing Tai Chi … even when they are in a rush to move or change a lens; Tai Chi. Every motion needs to be smooth, slow and studied.

I gently and very calmly raised the camera to my eye, desperate not to break the spell, and managed two quick captures and never for a second thought that I had captured the perfection of the moment. As it happened, one of those two captures has become one of the most pleasing images I have ever taken. I love it.

There is nothing like being in a situation where an animal like this accepts you into its presence and dictates the rules. She knew I was there. Her cub knew I was there. They knew I was not a threat. The real threat was the big male up the river. I just happened to be there, in one of those chance intersections of luck, timing, and happenstance, to capture this moment just as the last light of day was fading behind the mountains.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,

Dawn Patrol

‘Dawn Patrol’
We had spent weeks looking for orcas, but it was worth every minute once we found them.

There are few things more humbling in this world than to witness a 12,000-pound dolphin explode out of the water.

There are moments so exquisite that it is near impossible not to become immersed in them. You appreciate these moments, because you never quite know when they might happen.

On this occasion, we had spent weeks following orcas in Norway, and we were coming up short more often than not.

The days were dark. The sun rarely, if ever, climbed above the horizon, and that was on a good day. We would see a pink glow in the evening — and by evening, I mean high noon.

The rest of the time, it was dark. It was cold. It was moody. And when we would see the black fin of an orca against the dark sky, slicing through the water, the conditions were almost always rough.

Then, one morning, as we were following a pod of orcas, something wonderful happened.

The group was away from us, in the distance. At first, it seemed as if nothing was happening. We could see there were a few big males in the group, but aside from that everything appeared to be quiet.

Orcas found in Norway are not like orcas found in British Columbian waters. BC orcas are aerobatic; they breach all the time. Orcas of Norway are rarely, if ever, seen leaping out of the water.

And yet, without warning, something suddenly triggered them. They were still distant, but it was clear that something was happening — had happened. Something that excited them. They were in a feeding frenzy. We came alive, our senses suddenly alert and active, as if flicked on by a switch. We accelerated the boat, careful to keep the same distance between our boat and the pod. We were pacing along at about 20 knots because we were trying to match the speed of this unrivalled athletic spectacle. Things were coming together. The conditions were calm — for once — and the water was cooperating. We kept our cameras steady. Then this one huge male started to porpoise with furious speed and power. It seemed as if explosions of water were streaming off his body with each leap.

Norweigan orcas are far less likely to breach the surface than those in British Columbia, but they are often seen spyhopping.

The light is almost always low in these kinds of situations. You have to make a tricky calculation, and do it quickly. You want a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze a snapshot in time, otherwise the action will be blurred. Luckily, on this occasion, there was just enough light. The sky had turned pink, with hints of orange against a pink hue, with towering mountains forming a natural backdrop on the horizon.

And this enormous male orca — 12,000 pounds, 25 feet long, with a six-foot-tall dorsal fin and pectoral fins the size of a car hood — was porpoising along with such force that it was hard to put the camera to my eye without losing sight of the whole image.

With single-lens reflex cameras, it was always hard to tell I was getting the shot or not. I was shooting at ten frames a second, which means that ten times every second I was blind because the mirror has to lift, the shutter has to rise, and the image is exposed. Essentially, I had no clue if I had captured the shot or not.

It was one of those occasions when, after it is over — a split second that passes by in the blink of an eye — I was able to sit down quietly in the back of the boat, safe in the knowledge that I likely did get the shot.

In the past, I would have worried that this shot was not going to be sharp, with all this low, moody light and such an explosion of speed.

Somehow my friend Goran, who was driving the boat that day, had paced us perfectly. Everything came together. Sitting in the back of the boat, I held up my camera so I could see the back, with the picture on my LCD screen, and I immediately saw that the whole package was there. It was beautiful. The water splashing off the eye of the orca, running down its body — the light, the mood, the color . . . perfect.

At the time, I thought there was no way I would be able to zoom in on the eye of the orca. There was no way it would be sharp. And yet, when I tapped that button, I saw that the eye was sharp. The whole image was sharp. I scrolled down and up, up and down, just waiting for that mistake that told me I had failed somehow. It never came.

These are the gifts of nature that transform the beauty of the natural world into your camera. You realize, in that moment of clarity and epiphany, that you have captured this perfect little bottle of light and time that will live on forever.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,

Gathering of Unicorns

‘Unicorns of the sea’ is an appropriate epithet for the narwhals of Canada’s Arctic – not only do their enormous, spiraled tusks bear a resemblance to that of the mythical equines, but they are about as difficult to capture on film, especially so underwater. Sensitive and shy, narwhals will retreat the moment they detect a stranger’s presence in their home. Even the softest crunch of footsteps on the ice above or the gentlest ripple of a fin tip in the water will send them scurrying into the depths. For years, organizations like National Geographic and the BBC had sent photographers and filmmakers to document them, but most, myself included, would return home with little more than recollections of missed or distant encounters. After many trips and half a decade of trying, I finally found success.

In 2006, Jed Weingarten and I had been living on Nunavut’s sea ice for two and half months, desperately trying everything within our power to capture images of narwhals below the surface for a feature story in National Geographic Magazine. We had swum out into the open ocean multiple times, dropped remote cameras into the depths from the ice edge, and begun to lose hope when at last, we spotted a pod in the distance one calm, beautiful, glassy evening.

Quickly launching our small kayak, we paddled about three miles off the ice edge into the vast Arctic nothingness, the midnight sun just skimming along the horizon behind us. We slowed as we drew close to the pod, both holding our breath in awe as eight-, nine-, and ten-foot-long ivory tusks rose into the air before glancing off one another in a secret ritual performed by the dozens of males hidden below the surface. It is a behavior we have very little understanding of, although most believe it to be either a playful interaction or some pre-courtship formality. Either way, I pointed out a pair that looked particularly engrossed in one another, and we resumed our slow, cautious advance.

The duelling males were so utterly engrossed in one another that they didn’t even notice the strange pair of newcomers floating ever closer.

With an underwater camera housing secured, I lowered my torso into the water and peered through the viewfinder, Jed drawing slow circles with his paddle until I was within just two feet of this incredible display. He steadied us in the water, and I began to shoot what I already knew was one of the great encounters of my life. It is difficult to describe the overwhelming feeling I experienced when the far narwhal’s eight-foot-long ivory tooth reached around his partner and began to brush against my Neoprene-clad head.

To my knowledge, I am the only human ever to have been included in this mysterious performance, even if only mistakenly. There was nothing I could do except to keep shooting pictures.

Sadly, nothing lasts forever. The whale with its back to me suddenly dropped a few inches in the water, and I became exposed to his partner, who echolocated me with a single click. In a flash, they untangled themselves and disappeared from view into the inky darkness below. Jed cheered as I pulled my head from the water and lay breathless on the kayak, slowly recovering from the adrenaline rushing through my veins.

The memory remains very close to my heart – one of my deathbed experiences, or so I call them. As guilty as I felt for disturbing the narwhals, an image captured during the encounter ended up as the opening spread in our National Geographic article, helping to connect millions of people around the world to a precious species in dire need of conservation efforts. 

With gratitude,

Polar Wisdom

There are no guarantees in the world of assignment photography. Even a world-class publication like National Geographic can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars sending a team of carefully selected photographers to the farthest reaches of the planet, only to have them return empty-handed months later. It is certainly not for lack of passion, skill, or effort when this happens, as it often does. Sometimes, the moment you are chasing simply doesn’t appear.

I fail ninety-eight percent of the time when it comes to my wildlife photography, but I was fortunate never to have failed an assignment while shooting for the magazine. There were a number of times I came close – this is the story of one such occasion.

It was the summer of 2007. The National Geographic ship that runs weekly and bi-weekly tours around Svalbard, Norway, lowered my assistant, Shaun Powell, and me into a small Zodiac that sat heavy in the Arctic water. We had jammed it with as many supplies as we possibly could: two thousand pounds of camping and camera equipment, three drums of fuel, and rations from the ship’s kitchen, including a bottle of cheap scotch and half a carrot cake. Confident nothing more would fit, we hit the throttle – the bow of the boat rose into the air, and we were off.

A self-portrait of Shaun and I moving camp by the light of the midnight sun to accommodate for the tide – Arctic living at its finest.

I remember feeling like a hero as passengers on the top deck waved to us. Shaun and I waved enthusiastically back, right up until we collided with the small iceberg they had, in retrospect, clearly been trying to warn us of. Our egos took more damage than the Zodiac, thankfully, and we sheepishly resumed waving after getting back underway. For two months, we cruised the ice-filled ocean, pausing to take refuge in our tents only when neither of us could keep our eyes open any longer. The sky stays bright for a full twenty-four hours in the land of the midnight sun – we often worked all night and slept all day.

The first one, two, or three photographs you see when you flip to a featured article in National Geographic are what I call home-run images – big, beautiful, double-page spreads capable of transporting the reader through time and space. We had not hit any home runs on this trip, much less captured anything that would be usable by the magazine. Wildlife encounters were fleeting at best, and my memory cards slowly filled with generic images of guillemots, kittiwakes, icebergs, distant walruses, and an occasional bearded seal.

With our time running out, I was desperate to capture anything even resembling an iconic, powerful moment when one suddenly presented itself.

Despite our poor luck with local wildlife, there was no shortage of spectacular scenics to connect a global audience with the effects of climate change on the most fragile ecosystem on Earth.

Shaun and I rounded a corner in the Zodiac to discover perhaps the largest bear either of us had ever seen – a thick, healthy, stoic-looking male whose face bore the crisscrossed scars of challenges to his right to breed. He stared at us from behind the half-eaten carcass of a large, adult bearded seal, satiated and sluggish after consuming what we estimated to be at least a hundred and fifty pounds of fresh meat. I held my breath, raised my camera, and motioned for Shaun to nudge us closer to shore, but every time we approached, the bear would become obstructed by some outcrop of rock or pile of snow. He sat there patiently, never moving an inch, but after trying again and again, it became clear the distance between us was too great – only by leaving the security of the Zodiac and standing on land would I be able to get the shot I envisioned.

I am very proud never to have harmed a polar bear in self-defense, despite several thousand experiences with them during my forty years living and working in the Arctic.

Planning to give him control over the encounter, I mounted my camera on a tripod and began taking pictures. I moved slowly and cautiously, allowing him to see, smell, and hear me. I let him grow familiar with the shutter’s click as I worked. His appetite was astonishing – with nowhere left to put the seal meat, every other mouthful he forced down was vomited up moments later. He seemed determined to extract every calorie possible from what might have been his first full meal in weeks.

Other than watching me closely as he tore strips from the carcass, our encounter had been peaceful, and he had behaved exactly as most bears do, in my experience: calmly and naturally. Few things in life are more rewarding than leaving animals the way I found them, and I already had what I needed, so I said goodbye under my breath and slowly backed my way towards the boat.

National Geographic ultimately chose this photo, taken from the Zodiac, to include alongside the story.

Shaun and I celebrated as we zipped back to camp in the Zodiac, harsh Arctic wind stinging our smiling faces. Good fortune had stepped in when we needed it most, and my uncertainty traded places with confidence that I had images National Geographic would find fit to print at last. The scotch we had packed with us was cheap, but later that night, as we toasted our success back at camp, it tasted better than any I had sipped before.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,

Suspended Grace

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, slowly counting to four in my head. After a brief pause, I counted out another eight and let my breath escape in a steady, controlled manner, consciously attempting to counteract the adrenaline pumping through my body and slow my racing pulse. Waiting thirty feet below me in the crystal blue waters of Dominica was an encounter I had been dreaming of for years. The excitement made it difficult to concentrate, but I needed to take full control of my respiration if I was to endure the extended free dive ahead. I continued breathing in slow, uninterrupted cycles for another two minutes until the calm I had been conjuring washed over me at last.

Confident my heart was beating slow enough, I inhaled one final time, packing my lungs with as much air as possible, spat out my snorkel, and began my descent, camera held in outstretched arms like a sword guiding me into the depths.

My career as a conservationist storyteller has helped me understand that people are more likely to care about the ocean if they first fall in love with the charismatic megafauna that call it home.

I arrived at the fifty-foot mark and slowly began an approach, doing my best to ignore the involuntary contractions of my diaphragm as my lungs begged me to rid them of CO₂ and take a breath. I took a photo, quickly reviewed it, then shifted my position in the water to try again. And again. And again. Once more, and everything started to come together – the ribbon-like squid tentacles, the sun-dappled ocean surface, the calf in the background, and her eye, closely watching this stranger to her world for signs of annoyance. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any species on the planet but only turn it off one half at a time while they sleep. She was fully aware of her surroundings but remained motionless, totally accepting my presence. It was the greatest gift she could have given me.

I grew more and more excited as this dream shot unfolded before my eyes, which increased my heart rate and triggered more aggressive diaphragm contractions in my chest. I was out of time.

Not wanting to startle them, I initiated a controlled ascent to the surface with minimal kicking. Despite feeling as though it had lasted forever, the entire encounter was over in less than ninety seconds.

Sowing the seeds for that relationship is my contribution, and I knew that giving them a glimpse into the soul of a proud matriarch would open their hearts to this mysterious world. My lungs burned as I reached the top of her head, but I continued down another twenty feet to get below her eye where I could photograph up towards the surface and capture her young calf in the background.

After my solo dive, Cristina and I revisited the sleeping whales together and captured an image for scale. It will be another decade before this mother whale and her calf part ways.

Cristina greeted me at the surface when I returned. She had been preparing to attempt a similar shot, but after taking a moment to recover, I asked if she would instead model for me to create a sense of scale. She agreed, and we cycled through a series of slow breaths together before heading back down. We made several dives over the next hour, throughout which the mother sperm whale, who had been named ‘Soursop’ by the crew of our vessel, remained perfectly still. It was as if she knew her cooperation would help our effort to protect her species and her home.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,