I realized something, a while back. I have a bunch of photographs on this website – but most of them (my ‘older’ ones, at least) have never had their story told.
So, from time to time, I’m going to revisit some of my favorite images, and share a little about them.
I made this photograph at 4:45 pm, on July 17th of 2011.
At 4:46, things went crazy. Something tells me that this young, arctic fox pup knew what was about to go down.
Lets back up.
In 2011, we spent 4 (all too short) days of shooting on St. George Island, in Alaska's Pribilof Islands. This group of 4 volcanic islands sit only 500 miles from the coast of Siberia, and are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. St. George sits roughly 40 miles north east of the St. George & Pribilof Canyons - an undersea shelf where the water depth goes from just 500 feet, to roughly 11,000 feet deep. The island is only 35 square miles, and home to less than 100 people (mostly Alaskan Aleut), but also a staggering number of bird species. 240, to be precise.
For such a small area, there is a tremendous amount of variety, for visiting birders.
It doesn't end with birds though. Every summer, the largest gathering of marine mammals in the world occurs in the Pribilof Islands - including over 1,000,000 northern fur seals. Roughly 2,000,000 sea birds nest on the coastal cliff walls.
We spent this particular, rainy, afternoon with a really cute litter of arctic blue foxes. There were (at least) 6 of them, and one very attentive mother. In the nearly 3 hours we spent in their presence, the mother made several hunting trips to the rocky cliffs, bringing back a dead sea bird (usually a puffin, or a kittiwake) on each occasion. When we first started that afternoon, we were not sure how close they would allow us. So we kept our distance, over 50 yards from the nearest pup. Over the next 45 minutes or so, we slowly zigzagged a closer approach to the den. We made plenty of non-aggressive noise, always fearing that 'this step' was too close, always wondering if the next step would be the one that sent them scurrying for the safety of their home under ground.
The time passed quickly. Rain fell softly, but steadily, on our rain shells. My camera and lens rain coat doing its job for the most part, although I kept a few super absorbent towels in my pocket - just to clean up the excess. This wasn't like stalking wildlife. No camouflage, no staying low to the ground, no hand signals. I have been extremely fortunate with some of my wild life experiences. Not just the photography, but the proximity of my experience. 18 inches from an 800 pound brown bear on the Katmai Coast (yep, that was a bit 'check your shorts' inducing...), 15 feet from a bull moose in the fall rut season in Powerline Pass, 2 feet from an incredible bald eagle (while nearly 250 more were less than a stones through in any direction) in Homer, 10 feet from twin moose calfs (with the mother eating lazily just beyond) in our side yard, 8 feet from a black bear while hiking down the Harding Ice Field Trail, numerous sea otters and stellar sea lions just mere inches away while shooting from small skiffs in the Prince William Sound, a humpback whale that rocked our boat as he surfaced a few feet away while in the Kenai Fjords. Many of these experiences were only possible because we made our presence known early and frequently. We did our best to show that we were 'only there to watch', not to disturb, and definitely not to to harm. We let the wild life dictate the proximity and the length of the experience. We respect that their lives are so much more stress-induced than our own.
And then there was this little guy. As we slowly made our way closer to the den, he came out to greet us. Initially we thought that he was sent by his siblings to chase us off. But then he laid down, yawned, took a quick nap, rolled onto his back and played with some vegetation. He let his guard down, and let us into his young life.
It was a wonderful gift. This was one of the final looks he gave us. Moments later, a pair of Federal biologists pulled up next to our car, on the road, about 50 yards away from our position. They beckoned us over. In my mind, I thought that they were going to ask us to give the fox more space, that we had gotten too close, that we were going to be scolded.
In truth, they had just came from the next bay over. Two orca (killer whales) were hunting along the coast line, driving hundreds (possibly thousands) of fleeing northern fur seals towards the bay at our backs. They recommended that we move, now, to catch the epic showdown. We quickly stowed some of our gear and ran the 100-150 yards to the sea cliffs. 100 feet down, the Bering Sea crashed mightily against the volcanic shoreline. I set up on the very edge of the field, fighting the vertigo that swept over me every time I looked straight down to the wave soaked boulders below. I could see two porpoising shapes in the middle of the next bay, headed this way. In front of them was a herd of madly dashing fur seals. Each one was in the middle of the swim of their lives, trying to put distance between themselves and one of the fastest, and fiercest ocean predators. My tripod was set, a big lens was on, my settings set (and rechecked several times... because I'm anal like that). Puffins were returning to the sea cliffs, landing on small, rocky ledges just a few feet from my position. So, while I waited, I fired off several images of these comical-looking birds. I turned to get something from my camera bag. The mother of the young fox pups was standing there, her front paws atop my camera bag - a beautiful field of lupine directly behind her. Birds swooped and called out warnings. Behind me, wave after wave crashed against our remote cliff. All around me, 'life' was happening. Hundreds of fur seals were swimming for their lives, a mother fox was on another hunt for an unwary sea bird, and here I was - in the middle of it.
Within 15 minutes I had been 8 feet from a brave arctic fox pup, just a few feet from dozens of puffins, murres, and auklets. I had witnessed two hunting orca, and the mad dash of a fur seal colony trying to outrun them. A mother arctic fox had stood atop my camera bag, and I had run through a pristine field of lupine...
For the first time in my life, I didn't know which way to point my camera. I stood there. Stunned.
And ultimately, incredibly thankful for the opportunity.