Thursday, 29 September 2011

I love Rhino's

A Black Rhino kicking up dust on his way to the waterhole during the dry season.

Recently, the world (and I) celebrated World Rhino Day. The stats are not looking great for these beautiful creatures, with a new incident of poaching nearly every day. Something needs to be done, and there are many good people working toward the common goal of Saving the Rhino. One of the easiest ways to help as a South African is to get your hands on a MySchool/ MyPlanet card. You can then choose the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Rhino Fund as your beneficiary, and every time you swipe at participating stores (most notably, Woolworths), a portion of your spending is donated, at no cost to you. This is completely free, and can be ordered from and clicking on the 'get a card link'.Another trustworthy charity, and further information can be found at

Reflection of a Black Rhino at sunset

On World Rhino Day, Getaway, along with Rhino Africa and others, organized an awareness protest outside of Parliament in Cape Town. Along with a couple of friends, I popped down to do a bit of shouting and listening to various speakers and to partake in my first South African Protest...  The turnout was pretty good, with many from the 'younger generation' which I think is very positive for the future of conservation in South Africa.

Outside Parliament in Cape Town

Here are a few pictures from my more memorable Rhino sightings. I really hope that I have many more years ahead of photographing these giants, they are beautiful.

Cooling off in the waterhole at night.

Black Rhino at last light

This was a very amusing sighting of a White Rhino 'having his way' with a termite mound.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Birds, Birds, Everywhere...

Black Guillemots on Ice

One thing that is immediately evident when I look through my Arctic photo's is that birds played a large role in filling up my hard drive space- I have more bird images than i have ever before taken in a trip, or in all my trips combined. There is of course a logical explanation for this coming from me- a non birder - the bird life there is incredible!! Sure, it may not have a long species list, or even a short one- but what the Arctic waters lack in variety, they certainly make up for in sheer volume.

The Akademik Ioffe

Glacier and sea

Each year millions ( and yes I do mean actual millions, not the colloquial term used to describe 'alot') of birds gather in the Arctic Waters to breed, and to feed their chicks on the rich abundance of food that brings the cold ocean to life. The birds gather in huge colonies on cliffs, sometimes covering every inch of available 'shelf space' as it were. The higher the cliff, the safer the chicks will be from the Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears which patrol the shores. There are hardly any words to describe the sound one hears when nearing a breeding colony. The calls echo off the cliffs, and multiply as each bird adds its voice to the chorus. The sky sometimes appears hazy, as the birds in their thousands take off, flying out to sea and their hunting grounds, before returning, crop full, to feed the youngsters. Sometimes on their return there is no space on their ledge to land, and this leads to an outbreak of calls as they either shove their way into a gap, or have to stop their approach.

Little Auk at Colony

Brunnichs Guillemots lining the cliffs

Brunnichs Guillemots at Alkefjellet

Atlantic Puffin near Smeerenburg

From the first evening when I stepped aboard the Akademik Ioffe, I was confronted with birders. There were two groups on board the ship, and as I ran up and down the stairs, exploring every nook and cranny, I met them. They are easy to spot- they're the ones with a pair of Swarovski Binoculars around their necks, and a spotting scope and tripod permanently hanging over their shoulder. When out on deck, they are always there- gazing off into the distance, calling out names as they spot. One of the leaders of the Rockjumper Birding group, Mark, found out quite quickly that I was super keen to see a puffin. The next two days, every time I stood on deck, the air was punctuated with 'puffin'... 'Laura.... PUFFIN'. Sometimes I was a bit slow to react, but I certainly saw my puffin- thanks Mark!

I was part of a group of photographers on the ship, run by Oryx Photography. Our guide was a talented photographer by the name of Elliott Neep- he was excellent to have around! We had worked out very soon that when in a place where the sun never sets, it is best not to sleep, or at the least, sleep when there's definitely nothing better to do. Having done the trip before, Elliott told us that the best light is around 2am. Sometimes at 2am we were sailing through open ocean, but the fourth night, we were moving slowly through a fjord, and everything just fell into place.

Skimming on Glass

Duck on a pond or Northern Fulmar?

Skimming Fulmar

Slip- Streaming the ship in the fjords

Touching the water

The ship provides coffee on tap- and chocolates and an open bar which uses an honestly policy. We had sat in the bar chatting until around 11pm, when we decided to go and have another look on deck. It was magic- the air was crisp, the water was like glass, and the mountains on all sides were ice capped, the odd piece of ice floating past, and birds all around us. One of the larger birds is called a Northern Fulmar, and is part of the tube nose family, similar in a way to an Albatross. These birds were slip- streaming the ship, sometimes flying so close to us that we could have touched them. Quite often one would turn and get a huge fright as a bird materialised, larger than your field of view, a metre or so from your face! The four of us stood on deck until 4am that morning, photographing as the birds flew all around the boat, the odd whale surfaced in the distance, and school of seals swam at the bow. We only went to bed when all the memory cards we had brought were full, and our arms were dead from hand holding long lenses for hours!

Arctic Tern and Iceberg

Kittiwakes on Ice

The last day provided yet another fantastic birding opportunity when we got stuck by drift ice. We searched for a way around it, but finding none had to make our way through it instead. The 10 miles of ice took us 7 hours to break through! It was very exciting, pushing our way through the ice, and was exciting for the birds too... When the ship pushes through ice, it uses a water system to generate thrust and push the ice away as much as possible. This means that the water in churned up on all sides, and small fish are pushed toward the surface. It was a feast for the birds, and they spend the whole day flying around us, fighting over scraps and fishing over the ice.

The bow surrounded by ice!

We saw virtually all the bird species we could on that trip- my highlight naturally being the Atlantic Puffin and the Little Auks, as well as the Snow Bunting- the only singing bird in Svalbard. What a trip!

Common Eider Drake take-off attempt

Arctic Tern fishing

Gulls and Iceberg  in Mist

Black Legged Kittiwake in environment

Northern Fulmar and Ice

Friday, 9 September 2011

My first Bear, Little Auks and a walk on Smeerenburg

Arctic Tern fishing

This extract is taken from my diary and was written while drinking hot coffee in the bar, glowing with excitement while sailing through the High Arctic.

‘It's sometimes hard to believe where I am, sitting here in the bar, warming myself up after a day spent photographing the beautiful and wild Arctic. A few minutes ago, I was sitting on my ass, face red, having just fallen down in the Zodiac, as the swells buffeted us against our ship, the Akademik Ioffe. We had just been photographing Little Auks at a large nesting colony on the cliffs in the bay. They are real little characters: fat, with beautiful curved eyes, set in a dark brown head, with white eyelids. Real characters. The climb to them was up some steep cliffs, and over many a large boulder. In fact it is quite a surprise that we all escaped unharmed, except for Elliott, our photographic guide, who hurt his wrist. I had been photographing perched on a boulder, foot wedged between two for stability, and only open ocean below me. I do get vertigo, but here I seemed fine, completely distracted by the plethora of life around me.

Little Auk Flutter

Giving me 'the eye'

The Little Auks have very small wings- in fact they are just big enough to fly. The reason that they weren’t graced with easy flight is that they were instead graced with an amazing swimming ability. They dive to great depths in search of fish, and they do so with a delicate ease and great agility. When they come in to land on the cliffs where they breed, the same cannot be said. A landing is more like a bounce, but they are hardy birds, and they don’t seem to take it too badly. One may wonder why they breed in such precarious positions? The reason is that if it’s hard to get to, there is less chance of a fox or Polar Bear raiding the nest. It also means that us humans have to put in a lot more effort to take a good photo!

A bear on the beach...

This morning, day two of our trip, we saw Nanuk- our first Polar Bear. We had just landed to go for a walk, and the first group had walked for about 5 minutes and was watching a seal when they realized a bear was in turn watching them. We heard the call over the radio, having just piled off our zodiac, and immediately began looking for him while the leaders fussed around, getting us to put our recently discarded lifejackets back on.  We were then shepherded onto the boats, for the bear’s safety and ours, as there is no use in our foolishness causing the death of a beautiful bear. I was on the boat in a second, after snapping off two very quick and very poor quality shots. My first Polar Bear ever!!!

Watching a boat full of tasty humans

Smelling us?

We then took to the sea, and watched him pacing it toward the spot where we had been not 15 minutes prior. He was beautiful, a cream- coloured coat with black eyes and black pads on his ever so huge paws. We spent over an hour with him! During that time I filled a memory card, and we got stuck on a small sandbank and had to get out and push ourselves off it. Not all of use, obviously, but enough that it raised the intent interest of the bear. The people on the other boats said that while we were stuck the bear kept his eyes on us, wondering if he was about to get an easy meal! It was incredible- what a special animal to see, what a special memory. It was also our first clear day, and the fjord was beautiful: snow capped mountains, a glacier and our bear.

Glacier on the opposite side of the bay

‘Our bear’ then swam across the small fjord and climbed the opposite bank, chased a couple of reindeer, before wandering off over the cliffs, leaving us smiling and me shaking with excitement…’

During summer, bears lose up to a kilogram of body weight a day.

Bears will even eat seaweed during the long summer months

Shake- off!

Atlantic Puffin- one of my favourite birds!

This bear was fat and healthy having obviously fed recently.
 The area where we had stopped that day is called Smeerenburg and it is home to an old whaling station. The bay used to be full of whales, and its difficult to imagine what it may have looked like, all those whales before the whalers stuffed them in the blubber ovens. It is said that looking out over the water, one would have seen hundreds of the beautiful creatures, frolicking and feeding. When I looked out I saw none- a sad testament to what humans can do to the planet.
I can honestly say that that day is likely the most excited I have felt in my whole life. We had seen a bear- the whole reason for this trip- and the one animal I had never dared dream I would see for many a year. Thinking back on it now, I still smile, and get a shiver of excitement. I can so clearly remember him, and how I felt watching the apex predator of the Arctic, and the largest predator on land as he took a stroll through Smeerenberg.

Bear tracks and zodiac after we re- landed at Smeerenburg

Walking tour of the old whaling station

With my dad in the beautiful Arctic- the trip of a lifetime!

Remains of an old blubber oven on Smeerenberg, AmsterdamOya

Lifting anchor after a very special day on the Akademik Ioffe