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In 2004, longtime whale photographer Bryant Austin was struggling with whether to continue following his passion for photographing whales.
But a chance encounter with a humpback mother and calf in the South Pacific led him to a “eureka” moment.
Austin says the mother and calf displayed such sentient awareness of him that he realized he needed an entirely new approach to capturing their images.
He now spends hours on each photo trip floating motionless without breathing gear so that the whales get to know him and approach him on their terms.
That enables him to take hundreds of up-close pictures of them for life-size composite images that can be seen in his new book, “Beautiful Whale.”
I compose and produce high-resolution, life-size photographs of whales. My desire is to provide viewers with an indelible impression of what a whale really looks like and to give whales a platform to evoke unexplored thought and emotion in ways yet to be pursued. In particular, I wish to reach audiences who may have had no reason to be moved by whales or their plight.
For many years, I’ve explored ways as an artist to help whales become more influential in our world. I want to broaden and deepen our perceptions of them, alter our behaviors that degrade their environment, and ultimately change public policies throughout the world that result in their destruction.
As I began preparing to write this book, I looked back for the first time on many of the events that led me to this work. In all of my experiences with whales, there was one pivotal moment that inspired me.
It was the fall of 2004, and I was floating motionless on snorkel, observing a humpback whale mother and her calf in the South Pacific. For several weeks I had observed many mother and calf pairs resting together. But on this day the five-week-old calf left his mother and swam up to me. He gracefully glided to within five feet of me, arched his body, and effortlessly veered away at the last moment.
I felt some concern that his fluke, the most lethal part of a whale’s body, might come into contact with the camera, so I lowered it to my side. When I cast my gaze upward, I found myself staring straight at the belly button of a two-ton humpback whale calf.
For the first time, I could see the true colors, fine details, and subtle tones of the humpback whale; all of the elements that make them real. I never would have dared to swim this close to a whale. I wouldn’t even have imagined the prospect of photographing a whale that approached me within five feet on his own terms.
As the calf’s belly button moved away, his fluke came toward me. I remember seeing his skin and musculature move and flex over his frame as he prepared to power down his fluke one more time. The newborn maneuvered his five-foot-wide fluke precisely by my mask less than a foot away. As my mind raced uncontrollably, forming new thoughts and ideas, another event was about to unfold—one that would forever seal my bond with whales and the way in which I work with them. It began with a firm but gentle tap on my shoulder.
It was too solid of a tap to be human, and as I turned to look, I was suddenly eye to eye with the calf’s mother. She had extended the tip of her two-ton, fifteen-foot-long pectoral fin and positioned it in such a way to gently touch my shoulder. I ended up between her and her calf, which is not recommended. She could have easily broken my back, and I found myself physically shaken by her massive size, which made her delicate restraint all the more meaningful.
My entire field of view was enveloped by her body. Her eye was fully illuminated by the late afternoon sunlight coming over my shoulder. Taking her in as she slowly glided by, I saw for the first time the calm, mindful expression of a whale’s eye looking into my own eyes.
In that moment, she was completely transformed and was no longer a whale; that word suddenly became meaningless. In this overwhelming sensation of unfamiliarity, I saw clearly what had been missing in the thirty-five years of whale photography: intimate moments such as these documented at full scale and on the whales’ terms. Moments that reveal the calm, mindful gaze of a whale.
To this day, I am at a loss for words to explain the series of events that those two whales initiated. The first whale encouraged me to lower my camera, while the second made physical contact, allowing me to see with my own eyes exactly what had been missing. Had the camera been held to my eye, the inspiration would have been lost, and the photos in this book would not exist.
At the time of this event, I was painfully naive about what it would take to compose photographs that re-created the sensations I felt with these two whales. The mistakes I would make were many, as were the financial and emotional costs I would incur. I started a nonprofit organization and began sharing the idea with potential funders of creating, printing, and exhibiting life-size portraits of whales, which sounded absurd to many. I felt that if I could bring this vision out of my head and onto photographic paper, I would be making an important contribution. Whether it was right or wrong, the inspiration was powerful and clear, and it led me to quit my job and sell my car and home to fund 124 days in the field.
As this work evolved, I experienced many sleepless nights between field seasons. The photographs could not be reproduced to scale because I was still too far away from the subject. The most difficult realization was that ten feet was too far away to capture all of the fine detail and subtle changes in tone that I wanted in my work. Most important, it was too far away to effectively capture the whale’s iris and pupil.
Swimming up to a whale to make these photographs was out of the question. My goal has always been to find whales curious enough to initiate a close inspection of me. It is much safer to remain motionless and allow the whale to move past. This way I am more predictable, allowing the whale to make finely tuned adjustments of its body in relationship to my own. Better yet, the whale may very well initiate a second or third inspection as a result of my respectful and predictable behavior.
But the inspections I experienced in the beginning were not close enough.
The closer I can be to whales, the more “real” they become. At ten feet away, their bodies fill my entire field of view, and they become almost overwhelming. Pioneering whale biologist Dr. Roger Payne refers to this as the “ten-foot barrier,” where it simply feels too uncomfortable—and at times terrifying—to be within this intimate space. When these moments occur, I simply have to surrender, remain motionless, and allow the whales to move around me, and they do so with great precision. Even if their eyes are forty or more feet away from their flukes, if I don’t move, they will keep their tails out of my way with astounding accuracy.
These are massive animals that can reach lengths in excess of ninety feet and weigh up to two hundred tons. They can easily bring me intentional harm if they wish or accidentally injure me by simply neglecting their body’s orientation in physical space relative to mine. But they are not neglectful. Even at ten days of age, a young 1,500-pound calf will swim within less than three feet of me for a close inspection, exercising great care not to accidentally hurt me. Their level of awareness at such a young age is something I’ve never experienced from any other species.
During these close encounters, I am completely motionless, floating flat, at or near the ocean’s surface, using only a snorkel. My eye strains through the viewfinder as I turn over complete trust to the whales. Slowly and intently they cruise by me. At times, their massive pectoral fins, weighing as much as two tons, pass just beneath my body. As they gently idle past my field of view, I carefully compose a series of photographs along their bodies in five-foot-wide sections that are later merged into full-body composite images.
Humans and whales have shared the same planet for approximately two hundred thousand years. Yet despite our lengthy and at times tenuous cohabitation, fewer than one millionth of one percent of the human population will ever experience contact with whales in such an intimate and transformative way—in their natural habitats and on their terms. Our estrangement with nature will lead to the demise of many whale species—“out of sight, out of mind,” as the saying goes.
Each year, more than three hundred thousand whales, dolphins, and porpoises (collectively known as “cetaceans”) are conservatively estimated to die entangled in commercial fishing gear we use to catch the fish we consume. More than ninety thousand cargo ships traverse our oceans, bringing us cheap goods and fuel from overseas and returning with our scrap and waste for other countries to process. Vessel collisions with whales are poorly monitored; typically, we’re only made aware of these events when whales wash ashore, dead from blunt force trauma or even decapitated, or when they are draped across the bulbous bow of a ship as it comes into port. Although quite loud on the surface, these massive ships are surprisingly quiet underwater when approaching head-on. In my home state of California, five blue whales were mortally wounded by container ships in 2007 alone, making the United States a global leader in blue whale mortality.
Humans also significantly impact the health and safety of cetaceans, and the healthy marine habitats on which they depend, through marine debris, particularly single-use disposable plastic goods. Shopping bags, coffee cup lids, and more often end up in the ocean, where it takes five hundred to one thousand years to break down into tiny pieces that act as a sponge, concentrating existing toxins in the ocean. These pieces never go away and only become smaller. They are eventually consumed by fish, and enter the food chain leading to us and whales. Even through the food we eat, our fate is inextricably tied to that of whales.
Even turning on a light switch that receives its electricity from a coal-fired power plant sends mercury into the atmosphere that eventually ends up in the ocean and into the fish we and whales eat. Some species are so heavily loaded with mercury that if they wash up dead onshore, they would need to be treated as toxic waste. The same greenhouse gases that warm our planet also lower the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic. This increase in acidity impacts some of the smallest creatures in the oceans that are responsible for producing most of the oxygen on our planet, and which form the base of the marine food web.
Although a horrific and unnecessary practice, commercial whaling represents less than one percent of whale mortality but receives most of the media coverage of issues impacting cetaceans. More cetaceans are dying every year than at any other time in history, even more than at the very height of whaling. Who is responsible for killing so many of these reigning sovereigns of the seas? Sadly and unmistakably, we are all culpable—our unsustainable, consumer-based lifestyle has proven to be incompatible with the welfare and safety of cetaceans and healthy marine ecosystems.
There is, however, a beacon of hope—each one of us can make simple yet significant lifestyle choices that collectively have the power to improve ocean health and secure the future of whales. Effective actions can be as simple as turning off lights when you’re not in the room, refusing single-use plastic bags and bringing your own cloth tote to the grocery store, buying locally produced and grown goods, and avoiding the consumption of sea life. All these things can be done without having to donate to any organization or writing to your political leaders. Each of us can take simple and easy steps to improve the future of whales, if we feel inspired to do so. But what will inspire us?
To see how effective this body of work could be, I chose to debut my collection of life-size photographs in countries that continue to hunt whales. I wanted to find what I thought would be the most challenging audiences in the world. If I could create work compelling enough to move viewers and the media alike within these countries, I felt that there might be hope in addressing the far more serious global-scale issues affecting us and whales. To date, the exhibits in these countries—Japan and Norway—have received more positive and dramatic responses from the public and from the media than in any non-whaling country in which I have shown my work. These experiences have restored my hope that with enough time and care, long-term meaningful change is possible simply by making whales visible.
In this journey I found my home, a place where I am whole. It is floating next to an inquisitive whale, whose calm, mindful eye looks into my own eyes an arm’s reach away. When I’m not “home,” I spend all of my waking hours working to return to this elusive place. For, with a camera in hand, it becomes the nexus point from which change is possible.
Whale biologist Libby Eyre was with me in the water and witnessed the mother whale touch my shoulder. After I returned to the boat to process what had happened, I looked back out over the water to see Libby leading a family from Greece to observe the same mother and calf. Suddenly the calf approached her group and swam in between Libby and one of the young girls next to her. Time slowed down as I observed the calf roll underneath Libby and then gently lift her out of the water on his belly. She was on her hands and knees looking down at his throat grooves. As I scrambled for my fins and mask, going through the checklist in my mind of what could go wrong, the young whale placed his pectoral fin on her back, then gently rolled and put her back in the water. That evening, all Libby could remember were the numerous and well-defined throat grooves on the underside of the whale’s body. This inspired her to give him the name Corduroy.
I’ve never seen Corduroy since that first encounter, and if I were to run into him tomorrow, he would be eight years old and weigh more than forty tons. The fluke ID I composed on our first meeting stays with me as a laminated photograph to take into the field, with the hope that I can one day match this photo up with him and see him as an adult.
Excerpted from the book BEAUTIFUL WHALES by Bryant Austin. Copyright © 2013 by Bryant Austin. Reprinted with permission of Abrams Books.