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.
Since I'm not always traveling to some far flung place to take photos of far flung things, I try to keep shooting here in LA. Often that means wandering around at night trying my hand at photographing some landmarks or working new techniques, or both. Cities are a lot more interesting to me at night. I like the movement and the artificial light is a nice change for me. It's also usually a bit calmer and a little easier to get around. Here's a few shots from some recent excursions around town.
While on my trip in Namibia, I visited the Ongava Game Reserve, near Etosha National Park. It's a place well known for rhinos. We were doing our usual game drives - one in the morning, one in the afternoon. On the first day, only an hour or so after I had arrived, we had some good white rhino sightings. I had seen rhinos before in other countries, but they were pretty far away and pretty skittish. These were close and seemed reasonably comfortable with our vehicle being nearby. The next afternoon we found more rhinos, except this group was a bit too far away for decent photos. But today was going to be different. My guide Abram decided we should follow them on foot - something I had hoped for, but hadn't mentioned to him yet. Abram carried a rifle in case of emergency, I carried 2 cameras and a couple of lenses. This was very cool. The difference from being in the safety of a vehicle is kind of startling and refreshing. The ability to get a different perspective for photos was great. Abram told me that the group would pretty much do whatever the youngest rhino would do. If she got spooked, they would all bolt with her. If she got agitated and charged us, the group would help out. So we were ummm.... careful... especially with one of them sporting a nearly 3 foot long horn. We tracked them for over an hour and a half, at times getting as close as a few feet. Eventually they went into some deep brush that was impossible for us to get through. We never seemed to be in any real immediate danger, although we had a few tense moments where we had to back up and act like we were leaving. Getting face to face with these rhinos was a nice change of pace and a great adventure.
In Namibia's Namib-Nakluft national park, there is a well known spot named Dead Vlei. I've seen or heard a few different translations of the name: "dead marsh", "dead plains", and my guide translated it as "empty sponge". But basically it means "dead place". Nature & travel photographers know it well. It's a popular place to photograph in Namibia, and images of it show up on lots of travel sites and in photo competitions. Dead Vlei is a fairly small pan in the dunes of Sossusvlei, dotted with dead camel thorn trees estimated to be about 900 years old. Yep, 900 yrs. I don't know how much of that time they've been dead, but they're pretty much baked into place, and ain't going anywhere. At one time the pan had water, but that's long gone, and the trees have turned black from the centuries of sun. A real petrified forest. I was lucky to have the whole place to myself for a couple of hours before sunset, as the weather had been changing so much during the day that everyone stayed away. Since it's been so well photographed, the trick is to find a new perspective on the place. I don't know that I've done that, but it was a pretty special place to visit and give it a try.
It's tempting to try to categorize different countries in Africa by the wildlife that might be found there. Of course that would be horribly misleading because obviously any country is much more than its wildlife, and the wildlife itself is much more diverse than any given label. So, I will tell you here and now that Kenya is all about big cats. Yes, I know you will see tons of other interesting animals there. Yes, the Kenyan people are lovely and fascinating and yes, if you go to Kenya for almost any other reason, you will not be disappointed. But... cats. Lions, leopards, cheetahs. All in the same place. Sometimes in the exact same place. The game drives in and around the Maasai Mara are primarily focused on seeing big cats, and its not unusual to see all three in the same day, occasionally on the same drive. So, Kenya = Big Cats. Yep, I'm comfortable with that. These photos were taken on my latest trip to Kenya this past April, where I saw a lot of stuff. But mostly big cats.
Looking back on my archive of photos from Africa, one type of image that seems to keep coming up is a shot of the starry skies around the camps where I happen to be staying. When possible I plan my African trips around a time when there will be a new moon so I can shoot at night with little or no interference from moonlight. But the skies are so clear, and you're usually so far from any light pollution, that the night sky is pretty amazing even with a bit of moonlight. When the weather cooperates, I've had views of the Milky Way in Africa that are all but impossible in southern California or most other places in the U.S. for that matter. You'll also notice that the "camps" in some of these photos amount to a bit more than a tent on the ground. Even though they are remote, some of them aren't necessarily all that rustic. It's always great to be out there at night - even close to camp - hearing lions roaring (hopefully in the distance) and other animals calling to each other. Night time can be the right time.
Ok, so the first thing you need to know about the Namibian desert is that it's huge. It goes up the entire coast of Namibia - longer than California by about 300 miles - and stretches inland up to 100 miles. It's not just big that way, it also has the tallest dunes in the world. So... it's huge. It's also old. It's considered the oldest desert in the world. I don't know how they figure that out, but who am I to argue? But, before I get all Wikipedia on you, what you really need to know it that it's absolutely amazing to be there. In Sossusvlei the sand is pink/red/orange, in the north it is golden. The shear volume of sand is mind boggling, and for a photographer it's the kind of place you can stay in for days and never run out of stuff to shoot. Here's a few images to give you an idea.
It's always good to visit with the locals, especially when the locals are as interesting as the Himba. The Himba are nomadic tribes found in northern Namibia. They set up semi-permanent settlements and then graze cattle on what little grass the desert provides. Where are the men you ask? They are out with the cattle for weeks or months at a time. They follow the rain and go as far away as needed to keep the cows fed. The women and children stay in the "village". I visited with a couple of groups who were living near the camp where I stayed along the Namibia/Angola border. A beauty tip if you want to be a fashionable Himba woman: use ochre on your skin and in your hair. The women put a fresh coat on their skin every morning and use the clay in their hair and jewelry. It's a cool look.
I knew I was going to Africa at the tail end of the rainy season. Previous trips had been mostly in the winter months and I wanted a different look to my photos. What I guess I didn't count on was the actual rain part. I mean I knew it would be raining at some point, but aside from bringing a poncho, it didn't really register what that meant. And while I always hoped for beautiful late afternoon sun to light up something for me to shoot, I more often got storms. Dramatic, lightning filled storms. A couple in Namibia and every day in Kenya. So that's what I would take photos of in the afternoons - big dramatic storms. "And if you can't be with the one you love...." I think it was Stephen Stills who taught me that.
Had a quick stop in Dubai the other night and took advantage of a seriously screwed up internal clock to stroll around and take some photos of the Burj Kalifa Tower. It really is quite tall. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I could use some sleep.
One of the cool things about going to all of these far off places is seeing and hearing what kind of music people are playing. Although I tend to shy away from prearranged visits to see indigenous people because they often seem too staged, this little village in the Solomon Islands took me by surprise. (and when I say village, I mean a very small island that was a village) They were playing PVC pipes with the soles of sandals. If you've ever seen Blue Man Group, it was a lot like that except for the sandal part. From what I was able to gather the PVC replaced bamboo some time ago, although the guys who were "playing bass" were blowing into bamboo pipes.
Take a look at this clip for a taste:
A more complete gallery from the trip is at this link:
I'm not a "birder". I don't walk around my backyard with binoculars and a field guide. I never put a lot of thought into them really. So the first time I went to Africa, they weren't particularly on my radar. Like most folks I thought Africa was all lions, elephants and giraffes. But since that first trip I've become a big fan of birds. At least African birds. On any given day, in any given location I've been to in Africa there are more bird species than I would see in a couple of years at home - and I've only scratched the surface. I put a few pix of them up here. Hmm, maybe it's time to buy a pair of binoculars.
For over a decade I've been taking panoramas from hotel rooms. Lots of hotels rooms. Every hotel room I've stayed in since 2003. I don't think I missed any of them. In the back of my mind I guess I thought it would make an interesting book at some point. I've been to a lot of places, and have stayed in all kinds of hotels and motels. The views ranged from parking lots and alleys, to amazing cityscapes and landscapes. I've never tried to hide the mundane or enhance the more interesting, I've just tried to get a technically decent panorama. Here are a few from the collection. Hopefully I'll put them together as a book sometime soon.
These photos are from one of my favorite underwater trips. A couple of years ago I went to Isla Mujeres Mexico, not far from Cancun. In the winter, sailfish congregate and feed off of schools of sardines. A lot of the action happens near the surface, so diving isn't even required to see what's happening. Being in shape helps though. Keeping up with schools of fish trying to stay alive is hard work. There were several times when we counted over 40 sailfish around us. That's a lot.
I think I've been to Isla de Guadalupe off the coast of Baja Mexico four times now, but this is the first time I tore myself away from the shark cages long enough for a shore excursion to see the fur & elephant seals that live along the coast of the islands. This is the reason white sharks hang out in this area for a few months every year. (aka "dinner")
This is more of an update than a good (old fashioned?) blog entry. Mostly just good awards news. My photo "Double Vision" placed as a finalist in the nature category in the World Open Of Photography. It didn't make it into the top three, but I was in pretty good company with some great photographers as a finalist, and was glad it was recognized among so many entries. Another of my images will be on display in January at the 22nd Los Angeles International Photography Art Exposition, photo l.a. "Tree Lines" is one of 20 finalists in the Emerging Focus International Photo Competition that will be on exhibit at the Expo. Earlier this fall I had 16 images come up with Honorable Mentions in The International Photography Awards (IPAs). So a nice ending to a good photo year! I've also been hard at work putting together hundreds of selections for stock and uploading them to Tandem Stills & Motion, where my work will be available for licensing at tandemstock.com.
I will put up a real honest to goodness blog post soon.