In Sri Lanka last month to shoot the elusive Blue Whales off Trinco, award-winning photographer Amos Nachoum shares his passion for the wilds with Renuka Sadanandan.
It is an image that Amos Nachoum can’t forget. An image that this tough-as-boots adventurer who has been up close with some of the most dangerous predators on earth, acknowledges still moves him beyond words.
It happened when the Israeli-born photographer was on a National
Geographic expedition in Norway in 1997-98, diving in icy waters to photograph the orcas. Hampered by the heavy gear he had to carry, Amos was frustrated- he was getting too few good shots. To compound matters, it was winter and they had precious few daylight hours, a very limited window of opportunity.
“A good photographer needs to see the picture in his own mind before taking it,” he explains, relating how he then spent long hours between dives huddled in his bed visualising the images he wanted to shoot. And then came the moment. “One day we saw the orca coming in, we jumped into the water, myself and the videographer. A pod of orca moved past us and one came towards me. She had something in her mouth.”
He began shooting automatically, and it was only minutes later when he got out of the water and gulped a breath of fresh air, that it clicked. What he had seen was actually a mother orca carrying her dead calf in her mouth.
It is the only picture of its kind in the world, Amos says – and for him, the most tender moment that he has ever been witness to in the wilderness, of profound mother love. “Orcas are mammas, just like ‘Blues’,” he explains. “Later when I started researching this I found out that they will carry their dead, a young female for even a week before she lets go. A more experienced female will let go after a day.”
Amos Nachoum has seen the world like few people have and after thirty years of exploring the frozen splendours of the high Arctic, Africa, Galapagos islands, Papua New Guinea, Argentina, climbing mountains, diving underwater with great white sharks and polar bears and numerous other adventures, he still counts it a rare privilege to be privy to such moments.
He has led the National Geographic’s Red Sea, Great White Shark and Killer Whale photo expeditions, his images of the wild and of big animals have appeared in most leading publications -Time, Life, National Geographic, the New York Times, Le Figaro and other magazines and journals around the world and won noteworthy awards including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 but the man himself is still hungry for more.
Making his fourth visit to Sri Lanka, Amos who spent ten days at Chaaya Blu in Trincomalee and long hours out at sea with their Nature Trails Team and the head of the John Keells’ eco-team Chitral Jayatileke, a nature photographer himself, affirms that indeed the Blues are here and also the Sperm whales, though there is just a short space of time to see them (from February to early April) off the East coast. “The difference is that compared to 1982 when I first visited, there is pollution to the ocean. But the sea, if you go out about 15 km is superb. The waters are warm, beautiful, calm.”
His own adventure travel company Big Animals Expeditions specializes in taking small groups of just four to six people to the farthest reaches of the globe. In Trinco there is potential, he says, cautioning though that it should not go the way of Mirissa, now swamped by tourists and fishing boats all desperate to get a sighting of the whales at any cost. The aim should be to show them the richness of the ocean and he feels the way forward would be for the government and the private sector to join hands to monitor and sustain the industry.
When he initially began leading underwater diving expeditions, the destruction of the reefs he was witness to made him call a halt. Conservation is uppermost in his mind when he says that the ocean needs to be sustained for it to continue to provide.
You can’t chastise the fishermen and small-time operators for wanting to cash in, he reasons. Philosophically he adds, “Everybody, wherever in the world wants to have pride and to provide for their families and they will do anything for that, they will kill the ocean for that and we can’t hold them responsible. The only ones who can be held responsible are the ones that know, not the ones that don’t know.”
What he envisions is a different model of tourism for this still unspoilt destination. “Trinco could be your Tiffany,” he says emphatically, expanding that it should be positioned as the crown jewel of the lot.
This will need support, educating the local community on whale behaviour and also building the infrastructure – proper vessels, the 4 stroke engines that are quieter, also trained personnel who have water skills and a basic understanding of marine biology, he urges.
That most tourists want to get the maximum is well known. “They offer another five bucks to the boatman to get the best shot. You have to learn not to accept this – the private sector must pay the people well enough for them to rise above this. I saw fishermen taking boats just over the whale. The whale will go away because it is very sensitive to noise.”
He is more than willing to come back even twice a year, he says to work with local marine biologists and researchers to educate the people of this amazing treasure on their doorstep. What he would like to see is the creation of a trust, a non-profit organisation which will lobby support for the ‘Blues of Sri Lanka’- which he terms the most elusive species today in the world. “A trust can raise money in order to tag the Blues. Satellite tagging is hugely expensive- 3,000 dollars a tag.
But put a few tags and track them when they go from Trinco to Mirissa and to the Maldives or Somalia or who knows where. Then you will be able to tell clearly about this particular population which is untouched and unknown and get attention from the world’s scholars,” he says, citing the example of the Blues that migrate from the Arctic along the west coast of America to the Sea of Cortez and back. “The US did a lot of research with radio tracking; they figured out exactly how the whales migrated and they established the pattern. Because the No. 1 cause of whale deaths was shipping accidents, they were able to get the shipping route changed,” he says, adding, “You can do the same thing here.”
Whales apart, his fascination extends to other big animals, but he steers clear of picking a personal favourite. “Each animal is so fascinating, I couldn’t choose between them. I can choose among my pictures,” he twinkles, “but the animal I can’t because they are created by something bigger than I am, than all of us. It is a gift.”
That conviction is what led Amos who began his career as a war photographer in Israel to turn to wildlife. Too much misery, he says bluntly, pausing to touch briefly on the recent deaths of two young war photographers – and a lack of creativity in the work that left him searching for more. Propelled by a desire to go into film and television, he landed in New York in the late 70s, and looking to study at New York University, found himself before a panel – none other than Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.
Only 30 were picked, Amos among them but the cost was too high. So he worked as a taxi driver at night and in the day at a dive shop in Manhattan, drawing on his previous experience in Israel. Four months later they were running a trip to Cuba and he went as an instructor, returning with the realization that he could do this so much better. So began the adventure tours, initially to the familiar territory of the Red Sea.
“I showed them underwater and did my photography. I came back and wrote stories for American magazines. People gravitated to my photography and to the adventure.” He never studied photography, he confesses, but instead the paintings of the Great Masters, to see how they used light.
Underwater photography is different, he concedes. “It is chaotic, a lot of things going on. There is no light, the photographer needs to bring the light – either artificial light or know how to read ambient light and choose the proper lens in order to isolate part of this amazing environment. It’s the opposite of painting. And that’s what I took as a challenge.”
With his study of underwater photography came another realisation, one that would take him on a different trail. Big animals, it struck him were portrayed very negatively, very unkindly, in his view. “I decided to take it upon myself to look for the big animals, the ocean giants and photograph them in a way that would be complimentary because my experience with them had been positive.”
Big animals are not in one place, he says, explaining that their behaviour – migration, feeding, predation etc, keeps them on the move. “So I started looking at different animals and preparing trips to places that were hotspots at a particular time.” What began with three expeditions a year is now in the region of 12, he says and he feels that by limiting his groups he can offer them rare moments to experience the wonders of the wild in a manner that does not damage or destroy.
Amos carries some hefty equipment around but his words to anyone seeking advice is that it’s all about understanding. The equipment however advanced and sophisticated, is just a tool to do the job, he says, recalling that his first shots were with a bellow camera that his father used in World War 2. “It’s what you have between your two eyes. And your heart and soul. It’s about the person understanding the animals, respecting the animals, to be able to understand the light and composition.”
That his work had taken him to the brink is obvious but Amos is not one who believes in risk. His own mantra is that “the enemy of all fear and danger is knowledge.” If you know what you’re going to look for and always leave room for surprises, know that those animals are bigger and faster than we are and that retreat is not a defeat, it is a time to regroup and return again, then there is no risk involved. “Risk is only when we behave arrogantly towards each other and towards nature. This is the stem of all conflict and disaster when we ignore the basic rule of life,” he says.
There’s a whistle-stop visit to Singapore to address a diving convention on the art of making pictures vs. taking pictures on his way home and then there are far horizons beckoning – diving with the Humboldt squid in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, with the leopard seals in Antarctica (the only predator left there), to Canada with the salmon sharks and to Ladakh to see the snow leopard –so much yet to discover.
He still lives in a rented apartment in San Francisco, a city where he can indulge his lesser passions for skiing, horse riding and motorcycling. And when the wanderlust kicks in, he’s happy to give in. “This kind of life, I cherish it, I hold it in reverence-it gives me a chance to do only what I want to do,” he says. And for the man who thinks of the world as his backyard, “Every place I go to it feels like home.”