Dec 12, 2013

What I learnt from a Turtle Tour: Part 1 “Half a loaf is better than none”.

Watching turtles haul themselves onto the beaches of their birth to lay eggs in the dead of night, then heave themselves, exhausted, back towards the sea is a wildlife experiential mega tick. For me it was right up there with trekking with gorillas and means that diving with sharks (sans cage) and tracking tigers each move up a notch. But man was I disappointed!

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens at 18mm. ISO 400. f/5.6 @ 1 sec. Flash bounced of dunes and depowered to 1/8th

Don’t get me wrong the turtles (leatherback and loggerhead), the seeing (at night from about 8pm till 11.30pm), the laying (about 80-120 spherical eggs, each a little larger than a golf ball), the effort (120m each way) and the odds (2-3 hatchings in every 1000 surviving to adulthood) is truly humbling. But man was I disappointed!

My biggest disappointment was with myself. I was reminded of something I knew already, but I was somehow not able to apply my own advice: “Sometimes it is okay not to take pictures”. I always tell my students that sometimes things don’t work out, conditions are too far gone and you have just got to enjoy the experience and be anything other than a photographer. Easier said than done!

The conditions, photographically speaking were terrible: overcast, no moon, wind, flash was only occasionally allowed and nowhere near the head (more detail on this in Part 2) and red torches only. Also, I was with another group of four and I detest front row camera competitiveness (this is why I have seldom, and have no aspiration to derive income from political photojournalism). Furthermore, having my photographic roots in the safari industry, I also fiercely hold to ethical and respectful treatment in every situation and in all wildlife encounters. I also expect others to.

Canon Eos 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens at 18mm. ISO 400. f/2.8 @70secs. 3sec light paint with hand held torch.

So what was the problem? I’ll give you the photographic answer first: Long exposures, tripod, de-powered fill flash and deep breaths. The problem is trying to get all red torches (and the rest!) turned off and everyone’s flashes to pause and everyone out the shot, or to stop moving about, or standing in the way or… you get the picture (pun intended). Setting up a shot in generous darkness is tricky, finicky to say the least and obviously takes a while. People don’t have the patience to wait when they feel they’re there to watch (which they are). The more I fussed the harder it became and the angrier I got. And this meant simply that I forgot to enjoy myself, I forgot to revel in the experience, the sights, the smells the sounds the privilege. I was fixated on what photographs I was missing. I should have just put my camera away and been a grateful observer. Because I didn’t, I didn’t get the pictures and I also didn’t get the experience. As the Shona in Zimbabwe sometimes say, “half a loaf is better than none”. 

The solution? Go turtle watching twice. Once with a group. Leave your camera at home and just soak it in. It’s a privilege. Second time round go on your own, or perhaps with a likeminded professional photo buddy. You can then be photographers, do the work you love to do, get the results you want and in so doing compliment and swell the experience you’ve already had.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens. ISO 800. f/11 @ 81 secs. Light painted with handheld torch.

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