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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
The main focus of my last trip was to photograph tigers in two of India's national parks: Ranthambhore & Bandhavgarh. Easier said than done. Most of the wildlife I've tracked has been in Africa, and although there were a lot of similarities, there was one major difference - tigers seemed to be a bit harder to find than African cats. Out of the 14 game drives we did, we had 4 tiger sightings. Others saw more, some saw less. What we saw was terrific, but you tend to forget that these are really dangerous animals, and you get used to being near them. We were unfortunately reminded of that one day when we got word that one of the park rangers was killed close by by a large male tiger. It was a very sad day, and it made the news all over the country. Managing the wildlife and visitors in parks is a hot topic in many places, but this brought a lot of issues up for the Indian government.
I went to India in the summer season ( you may have heard of their recent heat wave). In summer the brush is less dense, so the tigers have fewer places to hide and the heat will often drive them out to cool off in the shrinking amount of watering holes. That's where we found them. In the morning as it got hot and in the late afternoon they would come out to drink and cool off. One family of a mother and her cubs in Bandhavgarh was a particular favorite - we saw them twice- once by a lake and another time finishing off a meal of spotted deer. It was a great and interesting trip with a couple of amazing encounters. Here are a few highlights:
Yes, I've been to a lot of places, and seen a lot of stuff. Buildings and architecture are great, but not a major thing for me. This was different. Seeing the Taj Mahal was really something. I wasn't prepared for what an impact it made on me. It's hard to explain - it may be that you see pictures and hear about it your whole life. It may actually be that it's just an incredible building. Probably both, I don't know. But I do know that seeing it in person was amazing. It's hard to try to find a way to photograph the thing in a way that maybe hasn't been done before, and that was my challenge - that and trying to stop saying to myself "You're at the Taj Mahal".
We went at night on a full moon ( no tripods allowed, and only 20 minutes or so to shoot from behind a barrier, which made life interesting ), and we went back the next morning at first light before the crowds came, which was great. Most people know the story of the Indian emperor building the Taj Mahal as a mausoleum for his wife in the mid 1600's. What I didn't know was that that emperor's son and successor put his father in prison in Agra Fort in his later years. The emperor's only request was that his prison cell face the Taj so he could see it every day. (about a mile and half away from Agra Fort) He stayed imprisoned there until he died. The other thing I didn't realize is the amount of detail there is on the building. There is a lot of fairly elaborate hand chiseled stone inlay in the marble entrances and on various walls. The amount of work that went into it is ridiculous. The inside is even more elaborate, but no photography is allowed there. It was an impressive place. Here are a few shots that I hope give you an idea of what it was like:
As much as I like taking photos of wildlife, in Myanmar more than most places I've been, the people really caught my attention. It was kind of amazing how happy everyone was in spite of all the government pressure they face. Yes, even with a more "open" government, there is still plenty of interference in their lives. These folks were really warm and fun, and really interested in America. That meant they were also (unfortunately) excited to get McDonald's and Coke, both of which had just shown up while I was there. It seemed that if it was from America, it was amazing. Oh a note, the stuff you see on the faces of the women and girls is called "thanaka". It's a paste made from ground bark that is used as a sunblock but is also seen as a way of beautification.
If you happen to be a Buddhist temple freak (and I don't know how that happens to a person), Bagan Myanmar is the only place you ever need to go. In an area of only about 16 square miles, Bagan has over 2200 temples that were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. From what I've read, there used to be about 10,000 of them, most of which which have turned to ruins. I'm not much of a temple person, but I do like history and old stuff, and Bagan is full of both. It used to be the capital of Myanmar back in the 9th through 13th centuries until repeated Mongol invasions pretty much cleared the place out. For several hundred years after that locals considered it haunted and never went back. Now it's a pretty big tourist destination. As has happened a lot in Myanmar, the government forcibly moved all of the residents of Bagan a few miles away in 1998 to form "New Bagan", leaving "Old Bagan" as mostly just the temples. Take a look:
I have a lot of posts ahead of me here after returning from India and Myanmar. Two extraordinary countries, and two extraordinarily different countries. I was only in Myanmar for short time, with a couple of days each in a few places that interested me. Actually other places interested me more, but even though things have opened up there in the last few years, the government still decides where it's permissible to go. In other words, they don't want you to go where they're still doing horrible things. It made for some interesting discussions with my guides. One of the spots I made it to was Inle Lake - a beautiful lake located roughly in the middle of the country. I went there primarily to check out the fishermen who have some interesting methods of getting their work done. It's really interesting to see what happens when relatively isolated people pass down their idiosyncratic ways of working. These fishermen use very small hand made canoes, and need both hands free to work their nets, so they've learned to row with one of their legs wrapped around an oar. They row with one of their legs while unfurling their nets. Once the nets are down, they slap the water with bamboo poles to scare the fish into the nets, then row again to pick up the nets and grab their fish. They repeat this until the sun goes down or they have enough fish. These guys worked really hard for a very small return. There weren't a lot of fish, nor were they very big. They get a few cents per fish back in their villages. Here's a few photos of these fellas at work:
A series just for giraffes? Yep, you bet. Why did I decide to start my print sales with a special series on giraffes? A couple of years ago in Tanzania I had one of those wildlife encounters that sort of reaffirmed why I want to be a nature photographer. For two hours leading up to sunset on a beautiful grass plain, I was in the middle of a large journey of giraffes. Did you know that a large group of giraffes is called a "journey"? Well there ya go, you're welcome. Anyway, in this journey was a large contingent of adolescent males, and when there are adolescent males there is usually going to be fighting called "necking" - where they pair off and swing their necks and bodies at each other in a show of dominance. It can be very violent, and occasionally lethal but as they tired out they took on an almost balletic quality that was kind of beautiful. So, the short answer is that I chose these photos because of all of the encounters I've had, this one rates among the most memorable. There are 5 photos I chose for this series, all will be printed in limited editions of 50 at a discount of $100.00 per print. You can order here: print purchasing
I know, I know, it's completely unique to do a "year in review" post, right? Well, indulge me for a couple of minutes as I give this a try. This was a big travel year for me. I was fortunate enough to fit in an amazing trip to Africa, a week in Mexico, and a trip to Indonesia. Not too shabby.
On the way to Africa, I stopped for a a little time in Dubai, which always seems to me to be like a giant Rodeo Drive crossed with Las Vegas. A nutty and ostentatious place, with lots of over-the-top architecture to photograph.
The trip to Africa included my first visit to Namibia and I can't wait to get back there. I was there for 10 days, and it was hardly an introduction. I hit a few of the highlights: the dunes of Sossusvlei, rhino tracking in the Ongava Reserve, and the deserts of Kaokoland along the border with Angola. I think you could spend months in Namibia and still feel like you haven't started to get a handle on the place. It's beautiful, with amazing landscapes, wildlife, and people. Meeting the primitive Himba tribes in Kaokoland was definitely one of the more amazing experiences. After days of working on landscape photos, it was great to visit with these tribes. We found mostly groups of women and children living in the desert, while the men of the "villages" were out grazing their cattle for months at a time. Not an easy life, but they were really happy people.
The second part of the trip was to Olare Orok Conservancy in Kenya. It's a great private reserve adjacent to the Masai Mara. I was there once before, and it was just as amazing this time, with lots of big cats, big herds of impala, buffalo and wildebeest.
Here's a short aerial video I did while in Namibia & Kenya.
In August, I dived with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres in Mexico. This is a great little island not far from Cancun. It's a relatively quite resort island, which just happens to have one of the largest congregations of whale sharks in world showing up in the summer.
The last trip of the year was to Indonesia to dive in West Papua and Raja Ampat, combined with stops in Singapore and Bali. I love Singapore, another nutty place with crazy architecture and great food. The food may be my main reason for making sure I spend a couple of days there while on my way through Asia.
It was my third time diving in Raja Ampat, and there's a reason divers endure the long trip to get there. (once you get to either Jakarta or Bali, it's at least an extra day's worth of domestic flights on fairly questionable airlines to even more questionable airports.) But it's simply the best diving on the planet with the healthiest, most colorful, most plentiful reefs anywhere. The variety of life is astounding. And there are some of the fishiest dive sites I've ever been on - and I've seen some fish. Diving there is a real treat, and for a photographer - a great opportunity.
Earlier this year, I spent a few days diving with whale sharks in Mexico. ( you can see a post about that trip here: http://tinyurl.com/o4u48vy  ) Well, I was fortunate enough to dive with them again in Indonesia recently, but this was quite different. First of all, Mexico has regulations to prevent you from actually SCUBA diving with the sharks in order to protect them. You are restricted to snorkeling and free diving. It's still amazing, but if you're like me and your free diving skills limit you to about 4 seconds underwater, it can sometimes be frustrating. The whale sharks I dived with in Indonesia were in Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua. It's a bit famous in diving circles for the whale sharks that gather there.
In Indonesia there are no regulations on diving with the sharks, so it was great to get underwater and follow them wherever I wanted. The other cool thing about diving with them here is that the whale sharks hang around local fishing platforms called "bagans". They come up to the platforms to try to syphon small fish from the hanging fishing nets. The fishermen also help both the divers and the whale sharks by pouring pieces of fish into the waiting mouths of the sharks, which keeps them hanging around. I was told the fishermen think the whale sharks are good luck. The whale sharks will come up and bring their heads out of the water for the free snacks. They can hang there for quite awhile, then circle around and come back for more. It was a great couple of days we spent there, and quite a photo-op.
Sometimes it's the simple things that can keep you happy. I will admit right off that I like shiny objects and pretty colors. That puts these fish, called "golden sweepers" right up there at the top of my list. I look for them every time I find myself in the waters of Indonesia (well I don't just find myself there, I go there deliberately). During the day they're usually hanging out under corals or rocks, trying to stay safe and alive. But it's really the way they school and move that I like. They stay in pretty tight formations for protection and they often move really quickly in unison. When the schools are big enough like some pictured here it can be like little golden trains swooping through the reefs. These are few moments from my recent trip.
World traveler, raconteur, man about town, and dive buddy Bob Humberson has called on me to take the black & white challenge. As I understand it, I will post a B&W photo each day for 5 days. So... here goes. Day 5
I've been to Bali more than most other places I've visited. Sometimes only for a couple of days on the way to remote dive spots in Indonesia, sometimes for longer stays. I've been going there every couple of years for over two decades, and aside from the growth and changes you would expect anywhere, I always find something new and different. Not new like a new building or something, more like a new old thing that I missed before. For a relatively small island, there's a lot to experience. Ancient culture mixed with modern civilization and a lot of tourists. You can be in the middle of nowhere watching rice farmers working the paddies, and walk into a tiny store with the fastest wifi you've ever had. You can also be in the more urban areas and have to stop for a religious procession walking through the middle of heavy traffic. It's a weird mix, but always fascinating. I'd really like to stay a few weeks sometime to really get a handle on the place. I was there again recently and stayed a few extra days to visit a couple of new/old spots and look around. Here are a few photos from my most recent trip.
As far as tropical islands go, Mexico’s Isla Mujeres is a pretty sleepy one. The primary mode of transportation? Golf carts & bicycles. It has nice beaches and some good restaurants, but maybe because it’s small and close to bigger or more exciting places like Cancun or Cozumel, it seems to have avoided a lot of the craziness and big development those places are known for. The real action is in the water. In January it’s Atlantic sailfish, and in August it’s whale sharks. Different fish. Same water. Same sleepy island. In the winter months the sailfish show up to chase schools of sardines that come into the area. It’s high energy stuff, with sometimes dozens of sailfish attacking a bait ball. At one point, we counted 48 sailfish around us. They move fast, and it’s a workout to keep up with them. We were prepared to dive, but most of the action happens at the surface, so all we needed were snorkels. Same thing in August with the whale sharks. The whale sharks come in for big fish spawning events in the summer. The water gets thick with fish eggs and plankton, and the whale sharks come in to scoop them up. They’re slower moving than the sailfish, but the excitement of getting in the water with them is the same. Their size makes up for their lack of speed. It’s plenty of excitement. And besides, you can sleep back on the island.
I recently returned from Mexico where I spent some time swimming with the largest fish in the world. Well, I was swimming with some of the largest fish in the world. I mean as a species, the whale shark is considered the largest fish in the world. I don’t think the actual largest whale shark was in attendance, but the ones that were were pretty impressive. Normally whale sharks are kind of tough to find in spite of their size. I’ve been diving for 25 years and have never seen one. But off the coast of Cancun in the summer they congregate to feed on fish eggs and plankton, and it’s one of the largest whale shark turn-outs on the planet. There have been years when hundreds show up. This year on our best day we had around 70 or 80. That’s a lot. The smallest of them was maybe 15 feet long, with several easily measuring over 28 feet. They’re wide too. Did I mention that they’re big? Yeah, good. Because they are.