Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Venture Out! American Crocodile

One-day-old American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) photographed
in a custom field studio

 Why do I love Florida summers? Well, besides the rolling thunderstorms, violent swarms of mosquitoes, and suffocating humidity, it's also crocodile nesting season! Federally listed as an endangered species, their numbers are believed to be between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals. Their range encompasses the southern tip of Florida, primarily within the southern Everglades. In fact, the Everglades is the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-habitate. To get the rare chance to handle and interact with these reptiles isn't something I would pass up.

Wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa with a baby crocodile at Turkey Point

When hatchlings are out of the nest, it means mama crocs are on high alert and the normally casual swamp stomp can get a little hairy. Ever since I came down to the Keys, I've been salivating to accompany the crocodile research team at Turkey Point on one of their night missions to catch baby crocodiles. Finally late this July I got the much anticipated call from wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa that a nest had hatched and the hunt was on.

Baby crocodiles have to learn to fend for themselves as soon as they hatch from the egg.
On closer inspection you can see all the small bumps surrounding the crocodile's
mouth which act as active sensors to aid in feeling for passing fish. 

Normally, biologists go at night to catch the crocodiles because they're easier to see when using headlamps or spotlights. During the day their gray bodies and cryptic coloration help them blend into the surrounding vegetation making capture extremely difficult and time consuming. Once the crocodiles have been caught Mario brings them back to the lab to measure, weigh, identify, and mark each individual before releasing them back at the nest. Recapture will allow researchers to gain a better understanding of how these armored dragons survive in Florida's southernmost wilderness. Here's a short video of our airboat adventure late one night at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Keeping Good Company

I've been raised by many different people. Certainly not for any short-comings from my parents, but because as I grew upward and outward I needed foundational support in all directions. When I started branching out in the photographic community there was one person in particular that reached out to me as a mentor, spiritual advisor, and surrogate mother. As privileged as I felt, she spared no one the same courtesy. Even my Honduran student who spoke no English had the chance to meet her and still speaks of her radiance today. When I give workshops, or simply talk about photography, it is my goal to translate even a smidgen of the substance that she so generously gave her students. Nancy Rotenberg, a photographer, poet, writer, speaker, wife, friend, and teacher passed away Friday night and I can't find the words to explain how sad I am for everyone who didn't get to meet her. She was a selfless life-lover and lived deliberately. I always found it funny that Nancy spoke about the roots of inspiration by "keeping good company" with other artists, musicians, cooks, dancers, and even athletes when I knew that everyone listening thought that she was the best company you could ever keep.

We will miss you, Nancy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Magic Hour

A red mangrove 10 minutes before sunset

So if dawn is the blue hour, then the moments before and after dusk are what photographers call the magic hour. Within the last minutes before and after the sun drops below the horizon, the color palette shifts creating dramatic differences in tones and hues, completely altering the mood of the landscape. While out paddling with a good friend and photographer Paul Marcellini, I got a first hand look at how Florida Bay changes in a matter of minutes.  Now the hard part is just figuring out which one I like more.

The same red mangrove 10 minutes after sunset

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Power Struggle

"Power Struggle" - South Park Key in Florida Bay

In the still of a mauve morning, the full moon sets over the Bob Keys and a storm lingers in the west. During the blue hour of twilight, a dramatic tension fills the air as night reluctantly succumbs to the day. "Power Struggle," is the newest image to go into my Florida Bay portfolio and I can't wait to see it in a bigger format!

Frazier Springfield works a mangrove cluster at South Park

I made this image while a couple photographer friends were visiting for the weekend. Wanting a chance to shoot early morning light with mangroves and a setting full moon we boated out at 5:00 AM from Islamorada to get to our location. Since it was pitch black, finding the banks and cuts was a little difficult but we managed to make it to South Park Key at just the right time. I felt so lucky to have a full moon, lightning, morning light, and mangroves in the same image.

The predawn ambiance was spectacular and we treaded lightly through the flats spooking lemon sharks that trolled the shallow water. It was an easy place to feel overwhelmed since there are simply thousands of potential images but recently I've been trying to lock in on my spot and work it until it sings. It certainly paid off this time.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Paddlers leaving Green Turtle Hammock and into the storm

I've been outside a good bit and I've been fortunate enough to see some pretty spectacular displays from mother nature. Last night, however was the first time I've ever seen a moonbow without a waterfall. A few friends of mine and I went out paddling to watch the full moon rise over Islamorada but were promptly dumped on by a massive thunderstorm moving South through Florida Bay. Once the rain subsided it was well after the moon had risen and we docked the kayaks. Looking up at the storm in the distance my friend Leslie spotted a strange and faint arc in the sky. I quickly realized the moon was creating a rainbow and ran to get my camera. Apparently for this phenomenon to happen without a waterfall or spray of some kind, the moon must be low in the night sky (about 42 degrees or less) with rain falling on the opposite side of the horizon. This is extremely rare and I was so excited to see it with a group of friends to confirm that I wasn't crazy. It may not be a "keeper" photo, but if nothing else, it's just another reason why Florida Bay is so special.

A rare moonbow and lightning over Green Turtle Hammock on Florida Bay

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Trolllin' and Pollin' Everglades Style

The same places I've been visiting since I arrived here are still continuing to surprise me. There's no shortage of adventure and discovery in Everglades National Park, that's for sure. With my friend, coworker, and backcountry fishing guide Pete Frezza, we headed out before dawn to meet the sun as it rose over the Everglades. Launching his boat we battled swarms of mosquitoes fully understanding our blood was a necessary sacrifice for our plans that day.

Right off the bat, the calm water began rippling out from the banks as juvenile tarpon rolled violently on unsuspecting minnows. I had never seen anything like that in South Florida. The only time I watched fish rise this frequently was on the North Platte River in Wyoming, and those were 15'' trout. These were 30'' tarpon. By my third cast I had one on the fly and it sent itself rocketing into the blue morning sky. What a way to start the day!

Pete was nice enough to let me have the first casts, but promptly after I wanted to see how it was done by a pro. Watching a seasoned fisherman cast into the tight spots around mangroves is like watching an artist at work. His fly danced and line undulated in beautiful loops and fell silently on the water, presenting an unresistable morsel to the fish below.

And just when we thought it couldn't get any better than fishing on a Monday, a double rainbow appeared over the water. We stayed in this spot for the next two hours and found a few young snook which was encouraging to see since their numbers declined so abruptly after the 2010 freeze.

Despite the adrenaline-filled morning and intense satisfaction I felt, our day was far from over. A few days earlier we received word from Garl's Coastal Kayaking that they spotted a flamingo around one of the flats on Florida Bay. Historically, this wasn't an uncommon sight, as the main marina is called Flamingo from the vast numbers of pink birds that spent their summers here. Unfortunately, as a result of the plume trade, hurricanes, and continued hunting in Cuba, it's extremely rare to see these iconic birds in South Florida. While our expectations were low, our hopes soared, carrying us on a 10 mile boat ride without the use of a motor through pole and troll-only zones.

The bay was like glass and we could see redfish tailing in the flats as the tide drew out. Along the banks, dense mats of turtle grass floated on the surface, uprooted by storm surges and water currents, then elegantly arranged in lava-like tendrils of varying colors. Great white herons dotted the horizon waiting for unsuspecting toadfish and crabs to swim by. Just when it couldn't get any better, all of a sudden by the shoreline we spotted it; my very first wild flamingo. 

I've seen plenty of flamingos in zoos and postcards in all the stores down here, I've even drunk out of a plastic one, but never fully appreciated these birds until this moment. I couldn't believe how they dwarfed all the shorebirds and wading birds along the coast. Maybe because they're rare, maybe because we pulled 5 miles to get there, whatever the case I was overcome with this entitled feeling that I had been let into some special club. My camera was working, batteries at full charge, and an empty memory card, things were looking good. We approached slowly, but we couldn't quite get close enough for a candid image. Wary of people, the flamingo would promptly take off as soon as we got within 50 feet, extending its long awkward neck and using the flats as its runway. It seemed to take forever for the bird to get into the air.

After another hour, we saw the flamingo land near some other wading birds. Hoping that power in numbers would make this bird feel safer we headed towards them and were able to get a little closer. Just then, my polarizer fell off my lens and scared the bird away. I managed to get some frames off just before, but still, with such a rare sighting, the images I was making didn't match what I was feeling. Fortunately, the flamingo landed with a group of white herons. Seeing the image line up, Pete helped paddle us into a position to juxtapose the mangrove islands of Florida bay and this odd family of birds against the afternoon horizon.

Given the light and the physical circumstances, I couldn't have been happier. And just in time too, because looking behind us, a storm was brewing, forcing us off the flats to bring our 15 mile pole and paddle to an end. I'm still buzzing from the energy.