Essays / s /

Superbloom 2017

You've probably heard about the rains that finally came to California this winter and by all accounts put a major dent in the long drought. Well that's good news, because when lots of rain hits after a long drought, the long dormant flower seeds in the soil finally get a shot. They call it the "super bloom", and this year's was fantastic. A couple of weeks ago I made a run up to Carrizo Plains National Monument, about 3 hours north of LA to check it out. I put a few photos here to save you a trip. There's also a short aerial video at the end. You can click on the photos to stop & start the slideshow.

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. 

 

CAT CAMO

In a previous post I wrote about all of the big cats I recently spent time with in Kenya. Since it was the dry season and a lot of the cats were easier to find out in the open, I got to see just how well camouflaged the cats are. It's important not only for their safety, but for their success as hunters. Their color patterns, movement, and choice of territory all help to keep them pretty inconspicuous even while walking or hanging out in the open. Being up a bit higher in a safari vehicle, we had a little advantage in spotting them (that and great experienced guides), but closer to the ground they are very hard to see especially while sleeping or stalking prey. Here's a little sample:

Leopard in a river bed.
Ready to attack
Leopard hiding in the bushes.
Playing Where's Waldo - can you see the cheetah?
Blending right in
Incognito
Lion color match
Lion taking cover in the grass

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

Catsapalooza

Well, I'm back. Fresh off the bus from Africa. This time I visited Kenya & Tanzania. If you watch any of the nature documentary channels like Discovery or Nat Geo, you may have seen that there is an abundance of big cats living in these countries. I say "abundance" which I should qualify; most of the cat populations are well below what they used to be and are constantly threatened by poaching and illegal hunting. But in spite of these ongoing problems, these are still great places to see them. There were several days in Kenya when we saw lions, leopards and cheetahs on just the morning drive. We saw them hunting, eating, sleeping, playing, hiding.... well you get the idea. I think we had some great sightings, but my friend & great photographer Andy Biggs says you really know you have something when you see all 3 together... I'm not holding my breath. Here's a sample of what I saw:

A leopard tracking prey.
The muscularity of this lion was amazing.
The chase is on.
Dinner time
Leopard portrait
A cheetah's lazy afternoon
Always carefully watching even while drinking
Three of us, four of them... what do you think?