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White Island; how we approach risk

White Island; how we approach risk
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater lake, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater fumaroles, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.

It’s just over a year now since the eruption on White Island. At the time I chose not to upload images of the island, out of respect for those who died, and those who were injured. Stepping ashore on White Island (or Wharaaki, to give it its Maori name) inevitably involved a degree or risk. How much risk, and how aware were those stepping ashore as tourists (or tour guides) of the risks, are questions that cannot easily be answered. A more general question, and one very relevant to our current situation, is how much risk are we willing to accept. Scientists estimate there is about a 75% chance San Francisco will experience a major earthquake in the next 30 years. That doesn’t stop people moving there. In many ways the past year has revolved around our perception of risk; what, and how much, risk is acceptable in our lives. What has caused much heated debate is that, with the outbreak of a novel virus, this is no longer seen as a matter of individual choice; one person’s acceptable of risk can be viewed as placing others at risk, and so conflict has arisen in determining the balance between protecting all of society and regard for individual freedoms. Hopefully what may arise out of this is a better informed debate on risk, and how we manage it.

Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand
Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand

My personal take (excluding issues such as pandemics, where communal decisions are required) is that risk is a very much personal thing. The climber Alex Honnold takes risks that most of us would never do, but few would characterise his meticulous and methodical approach as stupid, he simply has a significantly higher acceptance of risk than we do. With mosts things, I try to assess the risks of any given action, and mitigate as much as possible, then decide whether the remaining – uncontrollable – risks are worth taking. Diving can be seen as being risky, and sometimes it is, but understanding of the risks, good planning and preparation controls much of the risk. Away from the extreme edges (e.g. deep, mixed gas diving) most diving accidents involve human error: carelessness, panic or sometimes stupidity. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from my stupidity in my younger years without, in most cases, serious consequences.

Risk assessment and risk management has been a core part of my work for much of my professional life, as a diving contractor, an environmental consultant and as a tour guide. When guiding tourists, advising clients or otherwise acting in a professional capacity the level of acceptable risk must always be far lower than they would be at a personal level. The bar must be set to the lowest possible, whilst explaining (as best as possible) exactly what the risk is. As always in the real world, whether this be visiting a volcano, supervising a diving operation, or planning logistics in a remote area, this is not a perfect science and the World is never completely risk free. So the aim must be to both reduce the level of risk to the absolute minimum, and also to inform the client (or employee) exactly what the known risks are. Structured risk assessments have become a required tool for identifying, quantifying and mitigating risk in many industries over the past three decades. There is no doubt they have real benefits, but they also introduce problems. There is a real danger that these become overly bureaucratic operations that distracts from real world assessment. At worst they can become a box-ticking excercise which leads to a false sense of security ‘I’ve addressed all the listed issues therefore everything must be safe’. I can think of more than one operation I have been involved in the past, where tunnel-visioned focus on ticking all the ‘risk’ boxes on a form has lead to very obvious, and sometimes catastrophic, risks being missed. Equally, overly presciptive rules can paralyse operations needlessly by prohibiting operating because a particular parameter is exceeded, when experience shows that the overall conditions are safe (an example of this can be setting a hard upper limit of wind speed for operating small boats, when in reality a number of factors, of which wind speed is only one, will determine sea conditions and whether the operation is safe). Whilst risk assessment documents and policies are essential in the modern world, they are never a substitute for experience. As individuals on the ground it can be very easy to accept the advice of those in higher authority that something is safe, but if they are remote from the situation – not observing conditions in real time – that is where experience can give the confidence to override those decisions. Whilst we all accept that, when operating in a professional and commercial environment, the acceptable risk must always be lower than acceptable on personal and private ventures, commercial considerations to continue can sometimes lead to unacceptable risks being taken, especially when snap decisions are taken pressure. Perhaps one of the best known such incidents being the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when commercial climbing expeditions lead a number of relatively inexperienced climbers to the summit. In all 8 climbers, from three expedition teams, died between 10-11 May. Many factors were involved, but the decision to ignore the 2pm agreed turn-around time is one that can, perhaps, be directly linked to commercial pressures. Commercial pressures should never infuence decisions of safety, but in reality they can be relentless. In the 2018-19 season there were 11 deaths on Everest, and many of us will have seen the images of climbers standing in line queuing to reach the summit. The delays at high altitude, causing some to run out of supplemental oxygen, were blamed as instrumental in some deaths. Sherpas also spoke of inexperienced client climbers not knowing how to fit crampons.

Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England
Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England

Lack of experience can be a problem on both sides. In 1993, in Lyme Bay, Southwest England, four schoolchildren died in a sea kayaking trip. The trip was lead by two inexperienced and minimally qualified instructors. The group got into difficulties very early in the trip. The schoolchildren appeared to lack the canoeing experience necessary for such a trip. The instructors carried no radios or flares and had, it appeared, little understanding of weather conditions at sea, in particular offshore winds. The resulting court case lead to the jailing of the owner of the activity centre but also the establishment of the UK’s Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which regulates commercial caving, climbing, trekking and water-sports activities in the UK. A similar situation occurred in 1971, when five schoolchildren and one of their group leaders died of exposure on a winter trekking trip in the Cairngorm Mountains. This lead to requirement of a Mountain leadership Certificate being required for leaders of educational trips. It is an unfortunate reality that it often takes a tragedy to occur for proper regulation of activities to occur.

White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand
White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand, late November 2019

Returning to the topic of White island, I took the top photograph in early 2017. In it you can see a tour helicopter completing a pass close to the crater fumaroles, from which the steam cloud was rising. If you look very closely you may be able to make out some tiny figures of people standing at the edge of the crater. When I visited the crater, it was filled with a moderately sized lake. The lake is actually a relatively recent and highly dynamic development. It first formed (as far as we know) in the year 2000, as volcanic activity was abating. Since then its level has risen and fallen dramatically. In 2005 it almost overtopped the rim before falling 25 metres during the following year. It disappeared completely in 2012 after further volcanic activity, reappearing the following year. In 2016, eruptions excavated 13-15 metres of the lake basin. A new lake began to form in late 2017.

Despite having visited the island a number of times over the years, it was not until November 2019 that I was able to walk to the crater lake. Although the surroundings were like visions of hell – steaming sulphurous fumaroles belching noxious gases and hot air laden with gritty, acrid smoke that seared the lungs – the lake itself appeared quite placid. As we stood at it’s edge it appeared almost tempting to dip one’s toe. At over 60 degrees C and with the pH close to that of battery acid, that would have been very unwise indeed. Two weeks later the lake exploded, with tragic results. White Island erupted because the magma (molten rock) is relatively close to the surface. This supra-heats water trapped in pores just beneath the surface, creating a delicately balanced, highly pressurised system. A minor disturbance can upset this balance – with explosive results. This is known as a phreatic eruption – superheated water rises at supersonic speed, expanding up to 1,700 times as it changes to steam. When White Island erupted in 2019 this steam, sulphur dioxide and ash sent up a plume over three kilometres high, with temperatures in the plume over 700 degrees C. Scientists warn that these types of eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict, even when sites are as well monitored as White Island, and that the warning time from observed changes may be only minutes. White Island is one of New Zealand’s most active volcanos; it was particularly active between 1976 and 2000 when many eruptions occurred, some larger than the fatal eruption of December 2019.

Hindsight is of course a wonderful thing. In 2012, vulcanologist Professor Eric Klemetti wrote an article for Wired magazine. In it he wrote:

I was in New Zealand in 2009 and considered taking the White Island tour. However, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that these tours, although offering warning to tourists of the potential dangers, are potentially the perfect cocktail for a Galeras-like tragedy.

He continued: By making the visits to the White Island crater seem routine, it can lull the tour operators and tourists into a false sense of security, much like what happened with Stanley Williams and the other volcanologists who visited the crater of Galeras in January 1993.but if even a small phreatic (steam-driven) explosion were to happen when a group was in the crater, the consequences could be catastrophic. Will it take a half dozen deaths at White Island to change the culture, or is that merely the cost of being adventurous? It is hard to say.

It’s easy to be wise after the event, and for all activities that involve hard to define risk, we rely on advice of experts in that field. The fact that tragic events happened does not mean that the experts got it wrong, it may be that it really was a hugely unlucky event that could not be predicted, and I am not remotely qualified to express an opinon on that. There are also a number of prosecutions ongoing by Worksafe, New Zealand’s health and safety organisation, so for that reason also, comment would be unwise. It is however, worth noting that a similar phreatic eruption occurred on White Island in April 2016. This was powerful enough to eject the entire crater lake’s water and underlying sediment many metres deep, along with considerable amounts of ash. The event happened at around 9.30 in the evening, so no-one was on the Island.

I guess it’s highly unlikely I will ever set foot on the island again and maybe no-one else, other than a few scientists, in my lifetime. But the ramifications of White Island are likely to extend far beyond the island itself. Tours of thermal vents are popular in many parts of New Zealand, and other areas of the World. This tragic event will most certainly influence the way they are approached, and maybe lead to more careful scrutiny of the risks and how they are managed. There is always a danger also of an overreaction, the pendulum never swings to the centre, as the saying goes. It has to be hoped that New Zealand, with its long history in successfuly managing adventurous outdoor activities will find the right balance.

Video footage of the crater lake here.

Selected sources.

Maralal to Marsabit and the Great Green Wall of Africa

A truck carrying food aid to Marsabit and Turkana, 1980s, breaks down. www.colinmunrophotography.com

I spent quite a bit of time in Kenya in the early 1980s. I first travelled there in 1979; my first time outside of Europe. I instantly fell in love with the country, and still feel the same way. This is Northern Kenya, circa 1986, Samburu District, near Maralal. I had spent a couple of days in Maralal, and it was time to move on. Drought, and conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia, was causing famine in parts Northern Kenya at the time, and food aid was being distributed by truck. This was also one of the simplest ways to get around. Battered, dusty L-series Mercedes trucks laden to breaking point with gunny sacks gathering outside the police station, while sleek, shiny Landcruisers sporting United Nations logos would occasionally arrive with important looking officials. Finding one truck that was heading west and leaving shortly, I climbed on top, joining a bunch of locals already there. We sat on the sacks of mealie maize flour as the truck bounced and swayed over the deeply rutted and washboarded latertite soil. Like most of the trucks carrying food aid, ours wash ancient; the product of years of jury-rigged repairs that somehow kept it running, sharply contrasting with the brand new, air conditioned Land Cruisers transporting UN staff and Government officials. To no-one’s great surprise, it broke down and shuddered to a stop after about 50 miles.

A truck carrying food aid to Marsabit and Turkana, 1980s, breaks down. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Our broken down truck transporting food aid and people, near Maralal, Samburu district, Northern Kenya.

With the unflappable patience that so many rural kenyans display, my travel companions settled back on the hessian sacks to wait, while our driver tinkered under the truck’s bonnet and I climbed down to take some photographs. Losai region is described as semi desert, and it was fiercely hot and dry. Nothing moved amongst the scrub and termite mounts that stretched to the horizon. I don’t remember much about my travelling companions, but I do remember there was a young couple with two small children, maybe 6 or 7 years ol, sitting next to me. They were calm and silent, but I had noticed they had not eaten or drunk anything since we had left. Fresh fruit and vegetables were pretty hard to come by then, but I had a small bag of passionfruit that I had bought some days earlier, in the top of my rucksack. I dug two out, cut them in half with my pocket knife, and offered them to the kids. They were extremely shy, and looked to their parents for guidance as to what they should do. Their father smiled and indicated they should accept. This was clearly the first time they had ever eaten passionfruit. I can still remember the wide-eyed look of amazement and pleasure as they bit into tangy pulp. After a couple of hours the engine of our truck coughed and spluttered back to life, and we continued on our way. A few years prior to this I was involved in the salvage of a much larger (and disastrous) food aid delivery to East Africa, but that can wait for another blog.

Drought and famine has blighted Northern Kenya, and all of the Sahel*, for half a century. They first came to the attention of the wider, western public in the early-1980s, when BBC newsreel images and Michael Buerk’s powerful narrative from Korem, Ethiopia, was shown around the World. These shocking images gave birth to Live Aid benefit concerts at Wembley and JFK stadiums a year later. Whilst famine is not new to this part of the World, they do appear to have increased both in frequency and in costs to human live since the 1970s. The factors behind this are complex, and the relative importance of each is still a subject of debate. Warming of the Indian Ocean due to climate change has been implicated in reduced seasonal rains (although it seems this can also have the opposite effect and create severe flooding at times). Deforestation is also believed to be a major factor; Kenya is estimated to have lost around 40% of its forests since independence in 1963. Collecting wood for charcoal has been a means of survival for poor families, but the combined effects of unsustainable charcoal production and overgrazing which further denueds the land and prevents recovery of logged areas, has contributed to catastrophic famines.

Isiolo, Kenya. 1980s. two girls carry sacks of charcoal to sell. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Young Samburu girls carrying sacks of charcoal on their heads, Isiolo, Northern Kenya. Over 85% of kenyans rely on charcoal as their main source of fuel, between 1980 and 2000, as the country’s population grew, charcoal production increased by 200%. This creates problems of increasing desertification, particularly in the semi-arid lands of the North (within which Isiolo lies). By removing the trees that act as natural carbon dioxide sinks and increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere charcoal burning exacerbates the problems of global warming that are likely to lead to greater desertification in parts of Africa. However, for many kenyans there is little alternative.

Things are far from all bad however. For one thing, understanding of the problems is far greater now, and there are multiple initiatives to mitigate and reverse these environmental problems. Building walls has a very negative image at the moment, whether it be Trump’s attempts to build a border wall between the USA and Mexico, or Israel’s wall surround the Palestinian West Bank, but there’s one wall we should all applaud. The Great Green Wall. This is a project to build a wall of trees, nearly 5000 miles in length, across the Sahel. From Senegal on the west, to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, this massive project was conceived in 2007. Driven by the African Union, this concept has now evolved into a more complex programme of land restoration and ecosystem management. Planting trees is one thing, getting planted trees to survive in semi-arid land is another. results so far have been mixed, some areas doing better than others. Other initiatives, such as restricting cattle grazing and allowing natural grasslands to return have had significant success in some Sahelian countries (e.g. Niger). So no one single initiative will solve the problem and reverse the trend of drought and land degradation, but the hope is that multiple smart solutions just might.

  • The Sahel is defined as the semi-arid band spanning the African continent, with the Sahara to the north and savanna grasslands (the Sudanian savanna) to the south. It runs from Senegal and Mauritania to the west, across to Ethiopia, Somalia and Northern Kenya to the east. It includes many countries in between as well as areas of countries to the north and south.

New Year on Dartmoor

New Year on Dartmoor

For most of us, our travel plans for 2020 pretty much all crashed and burned. With varying degrees of restrictions and lockdowns, even travel within one country became tricky to plan. At the start of 2020, my work schedule for the coming December and early January had me working in the western Indian Ocean. Alas covid-19 changed all that and, like so many others, my year was very different to that planned. Planning a short winter holiday break with my son Calum, and hoping to combine this with some good photographic opportunities, we planned to head up to northwest Scotland and fit in a few days walking and camping. Alas stricter travel restrictions imposed on the UK in December meant that plan was no longer possible. So instead we looked locally and decided that a couple of days camping on the moors of Dartmoor, Devon, would be the best option.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A friend dropped us off in the middle of the National Park around 11.30 in the morning, New Year’s Eve, and would pick us up again mid-afternoon two days later. Our packs were pretty large as, apart from camping and camera equipment, we carried three days food supplies, and once the temperature slips below zero we can both eat a lot!  The route two our chosen campsite, at the top of a waterfall, took us around five hours to hike, including the rather chilly fording of a river.  The slipperiness of the rocks underfoot, combined with the numbing effect on our feet and the sheer weight of our packs – threatening to topple us sideways with every stumble – made for a highly entertaining crossing, but not one we were keen to repeat.

Calum makes it across the river

Hiking over steep, boggy ground covered in thigh-high tussock grass, topped off with a layer of snow was an interesting experience, and we both lost count of the number of times one foot would disappear into a deep, cold pool, sending us sprawling sideways.

Stomping through snow covered bog became hard work. Photo by Calum Munro

The sun had already set and the temperature was dropping sharply when we arrived.  Despite numb fingers our tent went up in record time and we were cooking beef curry over the camping stove 30 minutes later. I was grateful I’d brought butane/propane mix gas cylinders rather than the standard (and cheaper) butane camping gas. (Butane is fine in summer, but has a boiling point of -1 degree Celcius (30 deg F). This matters, as it is of course the gas, not the liquid that burns. The gas is liquid under pressure (in the cylinder) but needs to boil and become a gas when it is released in order for it to produce a flame. Propane, by contrast, has a boiling point of -42 degrees Celcius (-44 deg F) so no worries there about it turning to a gas. Propane has the disadvantage that the vapour pressure – the pressure it exerts against the cylinder walls – is considerably greater and so stronger cylinders are required. As few of us require to cook at -42 degrees C a compromise is a butane/propane mix. Okay, probably too much chemistry already!)

As the day progressed the weather deteriorated

Having arrived at 4.30pm, by 6pm we had both consumed a mountain of rice and curry and were already in our sleeping bags. I had been given a bottle of Mackinlay’s Shackleton whisky (inspired by the 25 cases of Mackinlays that Ernest Shackleton had taken with him on the Nimrod Expedition to Antarctica in 1907, three cases of which were rediscovered – frozen in the ice – in 2007) and a small amount of this has stowed away in my rucksack. So it only seemed fitting to toast in the New Year with a swig or two.

Curry simmering nicely next to my frozen boots

New Year’s morning arrived cold and grey. Low cloud blanketed the sky and the sun was little more than a faint glow in the southern sky.

New Year’s morning

I eventually crawled out of my sleeping bag when the desire for coffee and breakfast became greater than the desire to remain in my sleeping bag. Pulling on my boots, not the easiest of tasks as they were frozen stiff with large amounts of ice adhering to them, I forced myself out of the tent and made my way down to the river to fill our kettle. The previous day’s snow had turned to ice in many places, so this a process of skidding and sliding down the bank, being careful not to end up in the river.

Breakfast, New Year’s Day

Calum’s boots were considerably worse than mine. Having absorbed a considerable amount of water during the yesterday’s hike, they were now both saturated and frozen solid as rock, so they had to be gradually thawed and dried as much as possible. This put paid to any idea of hiking anywhere that day had we felt inclined to do so. Too many decades of carrying heavy packs and diving cylinders has reduced the intervertebral discs of my spine from thick spongy cushions to something more akin to sheets of rice paper, so I for one was quite content to spend the day relaxing in the proximity of the tent and leave our packs off for 24 hours.

The sun was barely a glow in the southern sky on New Year’s day.

During the afternoon I went back down to the river with my camera, and spent some time balancing on the rocks just beneath the waterfall. Continually splashing water had created the most wonderful patterns of icicle curtains fringing the rocks, but as the water was too deep to stand in and the mid-river boulders were coated in a thin sheen of ice, every photograph was a careful cost-benefit analysis of how much I wanted the picture against what were the chances both I and the camera would end up in the river.

Icicles hung from the boulders scattered across the river

Days are short at the beginning of January, and so cooking dinner began at around 3pm. Hot soup, followed by chicken curry and then sticky toffee pudding left us just enough time to wash up and clear away our cooking utensils before the sun set. Five thirty pm and the sky was dark. However, despite the cloud cover, an almost full moon reflecting off the snow-covered land produced an eerie glow – sufficient to see quite some distance across the moor. By six pm were were in our sleeping bags, ready for sleep. The following morning we would pack up and begin our hike back .

When you’re all packed up, leave no signs other than melted snow.

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Becoming a ‘professional’ diver: a light-hearted look.

Becoming a ‘professional’ diver: a light-hearted look.
A Royl Engineer Diver using a rock drill, Marchwood Diver Training centre, 1979. www.colinmunrophotography.com
Using a rock drill underwater against a vertical face was back-breaking work.

In these times of volunteer projects to conserve reefs around the World, the boundaries between ‘professional’ and recreational divers has become somewhat blurred. The use of tools underwater, be it Broco cutting gear, bolt guns or high pressure water lances, is one measure of being a ‘proper’ diver rather than a ‘Scuby-doo’, at least on a psychological level.  Maybe for this reason, as much as any other, the use of underwater tools was a fundamental part of my army diver training many decades ago.  At first both tools and tasks were kept very simple lest we do too much damage, either to ourselves or to the lump of metal or concrete we were tasked to modify. As virtually all of our diving was conducted in zero visibility, the risk – of either unintended amputation of body parts or trashing some vital structural component – was not inconsiderable.  My first encounter with underwater tools is a good example of this.  It happened right at the very beginning of my diving career; following my application to train as a Royal Engineers Diver. I was required to undergo several days ‘aptitude test’ to assess whether I was suitable material to join this elite group, before the army wasted significant amounts of money on training me.  This took place in Kiel, North Germany, along the Baltic coast.  In January.  In summer the Baltic coast is beautiful, in the depths of winter, not so much. In Glaswegian parlance, the phrase ‘Jeez it’s Baltic oot there’, can be taken as a warning to put on your warmest coat before venturing outside.

After a 300 kilometre drive huddled in the open back of a Land Rover, we arrived at the British Army diving facility in Kiel, shook the ice off our uniforms and headed to the warmth of the barracks. The following morning, we were introduced to our diving equipment.

The diving suits we were given were (for the non-divers reading this) of the type known as drysuits. Unlike wetsuits these have enclosed boots and tight seals at the wrist and neck to (in theory) exclude water.  Under these we wore old fashioned woollen vest and long johns, and what was essentially a thin corduroy onesie.  Combined, they had thermal insulating properties of a wet tea towel.  The drysuits themselves were rather different to modern diving dry suits, where one enters through a zip across the shoulders or diagonal length of the body.  With these there was no zip, and one entered through the neck of the suit.  The process resembled birth in reverse, and was something of an art, requiring an assistant, dexterity, brute strength and – above all – timing! Once inside, a thick aluminium collar was placed inside the neck of the suit (so resting painfully on your collar bones) and a latex neck seal placed on top.  This join was then sealed by a brass ring firmly clamping all three together: there was now no unaided escape.  The diving suits were made by Avon Rubber Company, from the same material as car tyre inner tubes.  Presumably as a joke they termed them ‘dry suits’ for in reality they had more holes than Emmentaler cheese and leaked like sieves, as we were about to find out.  Thus, attired, we plodded on down to the wooden, snow-covered jetty, pushing a small cart containing our lead weight-belts, diving cylinders, full-face diving regulator and lead diving boots.  At the end of the jetty a jolly corporal, wearing what looked to me like an extremely warm fur lined parka, instructed me on how to put the equipment on.  Once lead boots, weight belt, twin diving cylinders and ancillary equipment were on I warmed up considerably; largely because the equipment weighted around 60 kilos, and I was expending a not-insignificant amount of energy on simply remaining upright. My mask was then firmly clamped on to my face, the ‘spider’ of rubber retaining straps pulled tight to ensure no leaks, and my air turned on.  My first underwater tools were then ceremoniously presented to me.  They consisted of a large lump hammer and a cold chisel. My allotted task was to cut through the links of some old mooring chain I would find at the bottom of the metal ladder that descended from the jetty to the murky water below.  Through the slowly fogging mask I looked at the thin layer of ice covering the sea below the jetty and began to wonder if this was such a good idea after all. To make the task a little more interesting, the clear Perspex of my full-face mask was completely taped over with black insulating tape, rendering me completely encased and in total darkness. I was then guided across the snow covered jetty to the edge of the metal ladder at the end of the wooden jetty, and I proceeded – gingerly – to climb down the slippery metal rungs to the freezing water below.  As I descended beneath the surface I felt the chill of icy water slowly trickling into the suit, down my chest and back.  In a few minutes I had reached the soft mud seabed and by feel located the length of chain. Each link was about eight inches long, composed of metal about two inches thick. By touch I tried to determine which end of the chisel was which.  One end felt marginally less blunt than the other, so I placed it carefully against the metal of the nearest link and I proceeded to pound the other end with all my might for the next twenty-five minutes or so.  Occasionally I would stop for a few seconds to catch my breath and to check with my fingers how deep a gouge I had dug into the link.  This was always bitterly disappointing as the chisel – virtually flat at either end – was making not the slightest dent in the chain.  After about twenty-five minutes I felt a sharp tug on my lifeline. I responded and was signalled to ascend.  No chain was damaged during this exercise, but that was not the point.  The point was firstly to check that I would not suffer a panic attack in the zero visibility of the blacked out mask, and possibly more importantly I was dumb enough to undertake completely pointless, physically exhausting tasks when told to, and to continue until told to stop.  The latter at least, I passed with flying colours.

Fast forward several months and I was at Marchwood Diver Training Centre, near Southampton, England. My diver training had begun in earnest. Although the totally pointless, physically exhausting tasks continued unabated (in fact they increased in severity and duration) I was finally introduced to ‘proper’ power tools.  These included pneumatic rock drills.  These are essentially the same ‘road-breaker’s’ one sees workmen using to break up the tarmac at roadworks. Powered off a trailer low pressure generator, they are connected to the generator by long, thick rubber hoses.  In order to give us something solid to work on, a large concrete block had been lowered onto the black primordial ooze that constitutes the seabed at Marchwood Docks. This was a cube, each side a little over a metre long, resembling a giant sugar cube sitting on the mud. Or at least I imagined it as such, for once again, the visibility underwater was non-existent; you could literally press the luminous face of your watch against your mask and still see nothing.  Divers were deployed on this task in pairs. Connected to the surface by individual rope lifelines, each diver descended on opposite sides of the cube, following the hose of the rock drill that had been lowered to the seabed close to the cube. Now operating a pneumatic road breaker drill underwater is not an easy task.  For one thing, the pressure differential between the compressed air (powering the drill) and the surrounding water lessens as one descends.  This made the drills temperamental underwater. They tended to stop frequently; the drill bit then had to be banged hard against the side of the concrete cube to restart it.  Once started the heavy drill had to be supported and pressed hard against the vertical side of the cube, all the time pulses of compressed air expelled from the drill were hammering your head and shoulders. This meant adopting semi-crouching position, cradling the drill and leaning forward pushing as hard as possible.  Again lead boots were worn, otherwise the diver would simply be ‘blown away’ by the air pressure from the drill.  Now the obvious, much easier way to conduct this operation was to climb on top of the cube and operate the drill downwards, in a similar fashion to navvies at work on roads.  But that was a risky manoeuvre.  To climb up required putting your hands on top of the cube and heaving until you could slide your belly and then one knee on to the upper surface.  The problem was, you could hear the thunderous hammering of your fellow diver’s drill very near you, and you assumed he was working away on the opposite side of the cube. But there was also the possibility that he had had reached exactly the same conclusion as you, and was already standing on top of the cube, drilling downwards.   In the total darkness, the possibility of having a rock drill remove all your fingers, or modify the shape of your cranium, was very real and singularly unappealing. An alternative strategy was called for.  We developed what I like to think of as the ‘ten pin bowling strategy’.  Picking up my drill and cradling it in my arms, I would step backwards, counting my steps. One, two, three, four … at ten steps I would halt. Breathing deeply, I would relax, then summoning all my energy, start to run.  I say run, this was underwater, in lead boots, through soft mud, carrying a heavy drill, in pitch darkness, so it probably more resembled waddling through treacle. Six, seven, eight, nine… and then leap!  If you timed it right your leading boot would land atop the concrete cube. In one mighty bound you were there.  Secure on the desired location where your task became much easier.  And if that spot was already occupied?  This is where the ten pin analogy applies, for if your compatriot was already occupying that space you would smack into him without warning in the darkness, like an invisible bowling ball, sending him crashing to the mud below.  And this became our routine.  Ten or fifteen minutes of bone jarring drilling, then suddenly an apparent sledge hammer from nowhere would send you flying of the top of the block and leave you face down in the mud below, where you either accepted your demotion and worked the vertical face, or gathered your wits and breath, and plotted revenge. 

Whether our instructors were aware this was happening I really don’t know.  If they had I doubt they would have cared that much.  The point of most of the training was not to refine your technique with the equipment at hand, nor to reshape our concrete or steel media for any particular purpose.  The function of almost all tasks was to learn rudimentary skills and endurance, to work with, but compete against your fellow trainees … and still more endurance.  So viewed from that perspective, our creative adaptation fitted perfectly. Our instructors would probably have approved.

Marine biologist Colin Munro using an underwater pneumatic drill to create piton holes for an underwater monitoring station, following the Sea Empress oil spill. www.marine-bio-images.com www.colinmunrophotography.com
Myself using a pneumatic rock drill to create piton holes (creating underwater monitoring stations) in Milford Haven (1996) following the Sea Empress oil spill. Photo by Sue Burton.

As it transpired, many years passed before I used pneumatic rock drills in earnest underwater. I had long since left the army and was now a working marine biologist. The drills has shrunk in size somewhat , but the task remained as energy-demanding and strength sapping as ever, though I assumed at the time, with rather more purpose to them. We were creating a series of underwater monitoring stations following a major oil spill. As is often the way however, the funding for subsequent monitoring never materialised, so maybe no more purpose after all.

Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

I’ve spent many an hour of the deck of fishing boats, hauling and emptying nets, sorting fish and filling fish boxes. I’ve always been amazed at how, as soon as we start hauling the net, seabirds appear from nowhere across an empty sea.  One of the joys of spending time at sea in the higher latitudes of the South Pacific, is watching albatross track across the ocean.  On a couple of occasions, I have gone out in small boats specifically to watch albatross. Off the Kaikoura, on New Zealand’s South Island, large numbers of albatross congregate

wandering albatross squabbling over food. © Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Wandering Albatross squabbling

Albatross are pretty much unmistakeable.  Huge seabirds that appear to soar effortlessly at sea, hardly moving so much as a wingtip. They belong to the family Diomedeidae, and like their relatives the petrels and shearwaters, they have distinctive tube-shaped nasal passages, which scientists believe help them find food at sea through a keen sense of smell.  Albatross are phenomenal travellers.  Individual birds will circumnavigate the earth, travelling as much as 500 miles in a day and often flying at a steady 50 miles an hour.  Once they are fledged, they remain at sea without ever touching land again for the next five or six years.  They are found in the North and South Pacific, and in the South Atlantic, but not the North Atlantic. Quite why they don’t occur in the North Atlantic is still a subject of debate amongst scientists. We know they used to occur there from fossil records. Short-tailed albatross, which are now confined to the North Pacific, bred as recently as are 400,000 years ago in Bermuda.  The current evidence suggests that a combination of factors may have been responsible.  The closing of the Central American Seaway, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific between North and South America, approximately 2.5 million years ago, and a period of global warming and interglacial sea level rise of several metres (some scientists suggest as much as 20 metres rise in Bermuda).  The closure of the seaway effectively isolated the North Atlantic populations from others of the same species in the North Pacific, rendering smaller populations more vulnerable to extinction. It is also thought that sea level rise probably destroyed many nesting grounds.  At this point you may be thinking ‘They fly vast distances, why didn’t they simply spread north from the South Atlantic?’  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  While they appear to fly effortlessly, albatross need wind to generate lift and to steer.  The sailors among you will be familiar with the doldrums, areas of ocean where only light winds or no wind at all occurs, and sailboats can be stuck for many days.  The doldrums, more properly known as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), forms a band that encircles the earth, extending roughly 5 degrees either side of the equator.  Here the north-easterly and south-easterly trade winds collide, resulting in still, slowly rising air that leaves the sails of trans-Atlantic yachts gently flapping. In you are a bird designed to soar on the wind, this is no use at all.  Albatross cannot sustain flight by flapping their enormous wings for long.  At roughly 10 degrees of latitude wide, the doldrums form a band around 600 nautical miles wide. This is too far for albatross to travel without the aid of wind, and so those born in the southern hemisphere will normally remain in the southern hemisphere all their lives.  Occasionally one does cross, perhaps during storm winds.  They are then trapped in the northern hemisphere.  The Bass rock, a small rocky remnant of ancient volcanos, off the east coast of Scotland, supports the largest colony of northern gannets in the World, but in May 1967 an unusual visitor nicknamed ‘Albert’ arrived. Albert was a black-browed albatross, a species that belongs in the southern hemisphere, more at home surfing the roaring 40s between New Zealand and Chile.  It’s thought that Albert was blown off course during a storm in 1967, and was then marooned in the northern hemisphere.  In subsequent years Albert was seen further north in the Shetland Isles, and in 2004 a black-browed albatross, believe to be Albert, took up residence among another gannet colony on the remote rocky outcrop of Sula Sgier.   In recent years black-browed albatross continue to occasionally turn up around the British coast.  In February 2019 one was spotted off Cornwall, while in July 2020 one was seen resting on cliffs amongst a gannet colony in Yorkshire.

Salvins albatross taking off from the sea. © Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Salvins albatross taking off from the sea.

This is still a very rare occurrence. The majority of albatross spend years at sea, traversing tens of thousands of miles, then successfully navigate back to the same colony. Wandering albatross, in particular, are famed for the vast distances they cover and their navigation abilities. Because raising chicks is such a long and demanding process for albatross, in most species the adults will breed only every second year, the intervening time being known as their sabbatical year.  One study published in Nature (Weimerskirch Et al., 2015) found that some birds breeding in the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands (remote Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Island groups) will circumnavigate Antarctica twice or even three times, covering up to 120,000 kilometres during this sabbatical year, before returning to these remote specks of land in the Southern and Indian Oceans.  The short answer is we really don’t know how albatross navigate so precisely. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields has been suggested, but other studies have shown that disrupting these fields (by attaching tiny magnets to birds’ heads) make no difference to their ability to navigate. Using their sense of smell to detect traces of gases or compounds is another possibility.  Albatross are tubenoses, they have distinctive tubular nostrils believed to help funnel smells as an aid to foraging. Studies have shown that wandering albatross are able to detect and follow faint food smells from at least 20 kilometres away. The olfactory bulbs, the part of the forebrain that processes information on smell, makes up around 37% of the brain space of albatross, so this sense is obviously hugely important in their interpretation of the world around them. Where smells are faint and patchy, albatross will fly upwind in zigzag patterns, presumably working out where the odours are strongest. Recent research is providing growing evidence that ocean-going seabirds may rely not on magnetic patterns but olfactory, or smell cues, and may be producing brain, odour maps of the oceans, possibly similar to our nautical charts of ocean currents, to successfully navigate across thousands of miles of empty ocean and return home.

Gabrielle A. Nevitt, Marcel Losekoot, Henri Weimerskirch. Evidence for olfactory search in wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2008, 105 (12) 4576-4581; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0709047105

Anna Gagliardo, Joël Bried, Paolo Lambardi, Paolo Luschi, Martin Wikelski, Francesco Bonadonna. Oceanic navigation in Cory’s shearwaters: evidence for a crucial role of olfactory cues for homing after displacement. Journal of Experimental Biology 2013 216: 2798-2805; doi: 10.1242/jeb.085738

J. Mardon, A. P. Nesterova, J. Traugott, S. M. Saunders, F. Bonadonna. Insight of scent: experimental evidence of olfactory capabilities in the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans). Journal of Experimental Biology 2010 213: 558-563; doi: 10.1242/jeb.032979

Reynolds Andrew M., Cecere Jacopo G., Paiva Vitor H., Ramos Jaime A. and Focardi Stefano 2015Pelagic seabird flight patterns are consistent with a reliance on olfactory maps for oceanic navigation. Proc. R. Soc. B.28220150468 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0468

Weimerskirch H, Delord K, Guitteaud A, Phillips RA, Pinet P. Extreme variation in migration strategies between and within wandering albatross populations during their sabbatical year, and their fitness consequences. Sci Rep. 2015;5:8853. Published 2015 Mar 9. doi:10.1038/srep08853

Travel Photography Tips: Tip Number 1

Travel Photography Tips: Tip Number 1

A series of Travel Photography Tips that will help you improve your photography for free. This is numero uno!

Note. I generally do not post the same material in my blog and my website. However, as this is the first of a series of article on photography tips and improving your travel photography, I am sharing it here and on my website www.colinmunrophotography.com. Future artciles will feature on my website.

One of the things you learn over the years as a photographer, is that how-to guides, magazine articles and manufacturers advertising don’t always tell you everything you need to know about photography. Don’t get me wrong. These are often excellent sources of information and you will learn a huge amount by reading them, but a camera manufacturer is not going to tell you that you don’t need the latest camera (or that their competitors also work well). Similarly, many magazines are primarily dependent on advertising, so promoting the latest camera models is going to be a large part of their content. My intention is that this will be a series of unbiased articles to learn help you learn travel photography.

Tip 1. Talk to people

Travel photography tips. Always try to establish a relationship with your subject. A mayna mother and dauther sell hand made bead necklaces and bracelets near the catholic cathedral, La Antigua, Guatemala. Colin Munro Photography
AA Mayna mother and dauther sell hand made bead necklaces and bracelets in La Antigua, Guatemala. I chatted to this lady for about 10 minutes (impressive as my Spanish is almost non-existent!) before taking this photograph. Many vendors tout in the nearby square, but this lady was more shy, and stayed back in the shadows. Her daughter was super shy, but her mum wanted her in the picture as well, so after a little persuading she joined her. Ethnic Mayans make up around 50% of Guatemala’s population. I left with some great photos and a couple of rather nice bracelets.

I work quite a lot in the travel industry, so I often guide tour groups and see a great many more groups as I go. I have to say quite clearly, one of my pet hates is seeing tourists, or photographers, taking photographs of local people without asking, or even communicating with them at all. To me it is the ultimate in dehumanising and objectifying people, and it is hugely disrespectful. When we travel within different cultures it is, in my view, essential that we show respect and try to engage whenever possible. This is a win-win scenario, because most times people will be pleased by this, and your experience will be enriched. You will learn more, you may see more and you will probably end up with much better photographs.

Photographs are not simply…

Here’s a picture of a foreign lady I took when I was in Nicaragua. She looked kinda interesting so I snapped a picture‘.

They mean so much more if you can make a connection. Photography is often described as painting with light; and it adds so much more if you can paint a story, make an emotional connection.

This is Maria; she travels to the square every afternoon to sell woven hats to tourists. The hats are made by her mother and aunt; each one takes about two hours to make..’.

You can see, the first is disconnected, remote; the second is personal, it contains a small vignette of someone’s life. A life probably very different from your own. Of course the second costs more. It takes time, and a degree of courage to talk to a stranger. Who knows, they may reject you, they may try to scam you, they may refuse to let you take their picture, then what? Maybe you’re left silently cursing that you hadn’t simply taken the snap without asking, but in a World with millions more pictures then there are people on this planet, what would be the value of that disconnected snap? A few years ago, travelling in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia, I walked around our camp in the evening. As I walked towards a clearing with a viewpoint I came upon a kogi couple. Kogis are one of the four ethnic tribes surviving in the mountains of Colombia. They are small, mostly around five foot, incredibly handsome people with long jet black and chiselled aristocratic features. They are almost always dressed entirely in white, in simple cotton and wool tunics. I had seen quite a few kogi while we had been walking, they had been polite but distant. This couple had a classic pose; the woman sitting on a rock, gazing in silence out across the foothills way below us as the sun edged towards the horizon, the man standing by her side, a rifle casually slung across his shoulder. I walked towards them, smiled and, gesturing to communicate, asked if I could take a photograph. The man shook his head, so I smiled, waved and walked away. Of course I could have taken the photograph before they saw me, then apologised, but I would always have known that was how I got the photograph.

Travel Photography Tips.  A local fisherman throws his cast net to catch small fish at low tide. Phuket, Thailand. Colin Munro Photography
Tariq, a local fisherman casts his net at low tide. He is trying to catch small fish that gather in the shallows. Some fishermen will use these as bait for larger fish, but Tariq’s catch will help feed his family. There is an art to throwing a weighted cast net. Tariq makes it look easy, but that’s the skill of the fisherman. Tariq was initially a little nervous, and probably rather suspicious, of this farang (foreigner) wading out a couple of hundred metres to talk to him, but after he realised I was genuinely interested in learning how he fished, he took great pleasure in showing me his catch and explaining, though signs and gestures, how he cooked them.

So this is not a recipe for 100% success. It will not work every time. But when it does work the photographs will be far more valuable. One of the problems with this approach is the tendency of people to pose for the camera. Rather than asking then not to, which sometimes offends and sometimes results in stiff looking ‘natural’ poses, I find the best way is go along with it, take the posed shots, and keep talking. Often they will relax and forget about the camera, allowing you to take the images you want.

Buy the damn souvenirs!

Travel Photography Tips. An old lady laughs as she weaves pandanus leaves. Suau Island, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography
An old lady laughs as she weaves pandanus leaves when we share a joke, Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.

I know many photographers are reluctant to pay for photographs. They sometimes feel it contributes towards ‘commodifying things’ or somehow ‘ripping off’ tourists. I have a different take on this. very often the thing we want to take back most from an exotic trip are those special images. Those unique images of local engaged in their normal activities, so different from those back home. And that is why we pay thousands of dollars (euros, pounds, renminbi) to airlines, coach companies, hotels and tour guides, to get us there; and yet we resent parting with cash to the most essential, and often poorest, link in that chain, the photographic subject. I have a different take. They have something I want, therefore I am happy to trade. While I don’t actively encourage directly parting with cash for photographs – simply because in some places it can be ill-judged and have you surrounded by children or youths wanting their photograph taken – I do always aim to trade where possible. So where that person is selling souvenirs I will buy the hat, the leather bracelet, maybe the T shirt; we’ve all got family or friends we can offload them on if we don’t personally have space in our lives for it. For one thing, by buying one of their products you have already broken the ice, you’ve established a relationship – albeit brief – with that person. Crucially, you are not a tourist looking down on the attractions (for their perspective) you are now on an equal level. If you ask for a photograph at this point they are far more likely to be receptive, and you’ve contributed to the local economy, right at grassroots level where your dollar, peso or baht will have the biggest impact.

One to One Photography Tuition

I’ve been running one to one photography tuition for quite a few years now. Currently I’m running online one to one tuition Worldwide. Many people find it is the easiest and the faster way for them to learn photography skills. Instruction starts from your current level of understanding. It progresses at the optimal speed for you to learn, and it’s flexible. Sessions can be arranged when you are free. By targeting exactly what you want to learn, and teaching at the correct pace for you, it can also be the most cost effective way to learn. Online photography tuition gives you freedom to learn from your own home, anywhere in the World.

This article is also published on my main website here

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Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

The Cordillera Paine is a cluster of mountain ranges on the edge of the South Patagonia Ice Cap. A small extension of the Andes way down in the far south of Chile. Bounded to the west by Grey glacier, Lago (lake) Nordenskjol to the south and Lagos Dickenson and Paine to the north, the cordillera lies almost completely with the Torres del Paine National Park, 1,800 square kilometres of breathtaking wilderness. The centrepeice of the park are three immense granite towers that dominate the landscape, Los Cuernos del Paine. The name literally translates as the blue horns: cuernos the Spanish for horns and Paine (pronounced pie-nay) meaning blue in the language of the indigenous Tehuelche peoples. The Tehuelche (also known as Aónikenk) is a collective name for the indigenous peoples inhabiting Patagonia prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The few remaining are now mostly found close to the southern Argentina-Chile borders.

Cuernos Del Paine, Torres del Paine, buy Fine Art Prints. Colin Munro Photography
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The first of my art prints for sale.

The three towers, torre sud, torres central and torre norte, have drawn many climbers over the years. In the austral summer of 1962-63, an Italian team and a British raced to be the first to climb the central tower. The seven man British team, lead by Barry Paige, had already been climbing there for several weeks when the Italian team arrived . The Italian team included the great alpinist Armando Aste, while while the British team was a mix of experience and then rising stars. A race to reach the top first ensued; a race won by the brits, in part through Don Whillans idea to erect a temporary hut high on the mountain, sheltering them from the ferocious wind. The tower was first summited by Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, then both still in their 20s, and famously barely on speaking terms at the beginning of the climb, after a fall-out on an earlier expedition.

The classic route to the top of torre central is known as the Bonington-Whillans Route. Armando Aste went on to complete the first climb of the South Tower (Torre Sur) shortly after.

Torres del Paine mountain peaks among dark, brooding clouds. Patagonia, Chile. Fine Art Print by Colin Munro Photography
Torres del Paine mountain peaks amongst ominous clouds

The Cordillera Paine is itself merely a spur of the Andes, the longest continental mountain range on Earth (the, underwater, mid-Atlantic ridge is longer). The Paine Massif that dominates the skyline within the park is formed from a huge laccolith (a subterranean sheet or dome of magma) which cooled to form granite. The ‘horns’ are composed of older, country rock metamorphosed by the heat from the underlying laccolith. In geological terms they are known as ‘roof pendants’. The highest peak, Cerro Paine Grande, is now believed to be 2,884 metres high, following an expedition in 2011 (Expedición Paine Grande Reloaded) by Camilo Rada Giacaman, Maria Paz Ibarra Letelier and Sebastián Irarrázabal, where the height was measured by GPS.

An iconic photo of a guanaco standing silhouetted against a backdrop of the Torres del paine mountains. Fine Art print of a guanaco. Colin Munro Photography
Guanaco, Lama guanicoe, Torres del Paine National Park

It is not simply climbers that are attracted to Torres del Paine. It is estimated that over 250,000 people visit the national park each year (this year of course being an exception). There are numerous day hikes along with the famous multi-day ‘W’ and ‘O’ route treks, and 120ok respectively. The park is also fantastic for wildlife. Andean condors, flightless Darwin’s rheas, and guanacos, the wild relatives of llamas, are frequently seen. Present, but harder to spot, are pichi (or pigmy armadillos), mara (large rodents belonging to the cavy family) pumas, South American grey fox and the endangered south andean deer. The plant life of the Torres del Paine region is normally divided into four distinct zones: Patagonian Steppe; Pre-Andean shrubland; Deciduous Magellanic forest and Andean Desert. Patagonian steppe lands are mostly covered in low shrubs and grasslands, Deciduous Magellanic forest are mostly dominated by lenga beech (Nothofagus pumilio).

Fine Art Prints individually produced to your specifications

I have recently started producing fine art prints of a selection of my photographs. These are currently available as acrylic facemount prints and giclee fine art prints. These are only available from me, through my websites. You will not find them mass produced or in high street stores. These include the top photograph of Cuernos del Paine. In the near future the image of Torres del Paine and the guanaco photograph directly above are also likely to become available. These photographs are individually printed to order, using carefully selected professional photography printers, on a range of archival quality art papers. The printing processes uses some of the best pigment inks available, ensuring maximum fidelity of colour, durability and longevity. If you are interested in purchasing a print of one of these photographs, check out the fine art prints section on my www.colinmunrophotography.com website here. Alternatively, you can order the print directly below. Selecting the paper and mount, and clicking ‘add to back’ will take you to the ordering and checkout process on my website.

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Buy Art Prints of my Photographs

Buy Art Prints of my Photographs

You can now buy art prints of my photographs direct from me through my website

I’ve been conducting something of a revamp of my www.colinmunrophotography.com website recently. It’s still a work in progress, but one thing I’m really pleased about is I have now added the ability to purchase some of my favourite photographs as fine art prints direct from my website.

Cuernos Del Paine, Torres del Paine, buy Art Prints. Colin Munro Photography
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The first of my art prints for sale.

The first of these prints, Cuernos del Paine (the blue horns) peaks, in the Cordillera Paine range, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, is now live here. The name Cuernos del Paine is derived from the Spanish for horns (Cuernos) and the indigenous Tehuelche or Aonikenk language for blue (Paine). The three ‘horns’ dominate the landscape in much of the National Park. They are granite pillars, often shrouded in cloud and dusted with snow as in this photograph. The South Tower was first climbed by the great Italian alpinist Armando Aste in 1963. In the same year English climbers Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans completed the first ascent of the central ‘horn’. I took this photograph during an expedition trip in March, 2018. It’s one of my favourite photographs from Chile. If you want to skip there rest you can find out about selecting and buying a print of this photograph here.

Each print is individually produced to your specifications

These are individually printed, using carefully selected professional photography printers, on a range of archival quality art papers. The printing processes uses some of the best pigment inks available, ensuring maximum fidelity of colour, durability and longevity. Because of this I did not want this to simply be an automatic click and purchase process. I want to be sure I am providing exactly the print you want. Each print will be unique, created and delivered to your specifications. So this process begins with a discussion. The page provides information about the image, and about the printing choices, in terms of papers, sizes and aspect ratios. If you are interested in purchasing a print of the photograph, the first step is to contact me (using the contact form on the page) and we can fine tune the print to exactly your specifications. Find out more about this print here.

Fine art print of orca at sunset

Fine art print of a male orca silhouetted at sunset.  Colin Munro Photography
Male Orca at sunset, New Zealand South Island, East of Stewart Island.

I’ve just added a new art print, a male orca (or killer whale) silhouetted at sunset, to my selection. You can buy this print from my website using the link above. You can also read about how I took this photograph, and the decision-making process in creating this look, in another of my blogs here.

All my art prints, and information about my photography tuition and workshops can be found on my main website: www.colinmunrophotography.com

Dusky Dolphins of New Zealand

Dusky Dolphins of New Zealand
A dusky dolphin performs a back-flip. kaikoura, New Zealand. 
© Colin Munro Photography
A dusky dolphin performs a back-flip beside our boat.

Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) are possibly the most playful, and certainly one of the most – if not the most – acrobatic of all dolphin species. An encounter with a pod of duskies is an experience that stays with you for a long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to see dusky dolphins on a number of occasions, always around New Zealand, although they are widely distributed in cooler, coastal waters in the southern hemisphere. Kaikoura Peninsula, in the south-eastern corner of South Island, is famous for the large numbers of cetaceans that are found there, including pods of dusky dolphins, and it is here that I have had the best interactions with duskies. Many dolphin species will interact with boats, with groups changing direction to bow-ride for a few minutes. When it happens, no matter how many times you may have witnessed dolphins bow-riding, it’s still an uplifting experience when it happens. But duskies are something else! They don’t simply bow-ride; when they decide to play with a passing vessel, it’s like the the acrobats from Circus Soleil have teamed up with a bunch of olympic gymnasts to put on a show for you. It is impossible to watch and not be convinced that they are performing simply for the pleasure of showing off and letting you know just how good they are. While travelling at speed a dolphin will fly 3 metres high, performing a back-flip, to tail-slap hard on the water’s surface. I’ve watched three dolphins leap high in the air, describing a perfect arc, each dolphin precisely following the path of the one less than a body’s length in front.

Dusky dolphins leaping, Kaikoura.
© Colin Munro photography
Synchronised leaps of dusky dolphins

There is also a tangible sense of competition between them. Groups of young male dolphins, five or six abreast, will suddenly sprint 50 metres, clearly racing one another.

dusky dolphins racing through the water, Kaikoura, New Zealand
Dusky dolphins race alongside our boat

Like many other species of cetacean, including sperm whales, dusky dolphins are attracted to Kaikoura because of the rich feeding in in deep water nearby. Kaikoura Canyon, a 60 kilometre long underwater trench, comes to with 1000 metres of the shore, but plunges steeply to up to 1.2 kilometres in places. Recent studies have shown that Kaikoura Canyon holds some of the greatest concentrations of biomass of deepwater species of anywhere in the World (De Leo, et al., 2010) with biomass concentrations up to 100 times greater than similar deepwater habitats. Within deeper waters, a phenomenon known as the DSL, or Deep Scattering layer occurs. This refers to the effect on the echo sounders used on ships to detect the depth of the seabed. A layer occurs mid-water that reflects the acoustic signal of these sounders. This reflection, or scattering, is caused by the gas-filled swim bladders of millions of fish, mostly types of lanternfish, the most abundant fish in the mesopelagic zone (the oceans between around 200-1000m depth, sometimes called the twilight zone). The layer also contains creatures such as squid and crustaceans, but they have no swim bladders, so do not contribute to the bounce of acoustic signals. This layer is where the dusky dolphins are feeding. This dense aggregation of fish, squid and mid-water crustaceans attracts predators, including the dolphins. This living layer is not static however, it undergoes a vertical migration of hundreds of metres every day, rising towards the surface at night, then descending back into the depths as the sun rises. Dusky dolphins feed in this layer at night. They are believed capable of diving to below 150 metres, but prefer to feed when the layer rises to within 130 metres of the surface (Benoit-Bird et al. 2004).

Books, Prints, Downloads and Mailing lists

If you enjoyed this article maybe consider subscribing to my blog. I will hopefully complete a book on ocean life in the coming months, you can learn more about it and follow its progress by subscribing to my mailing list here. The dolphin pictures shown here are available as fine art prints. These are available as stretched canvas, canvas wraps, flat canvas, dye-infused aluminium prints and acrylic on alumimium in a range of sizes and crops. They can be ordered directly from my website colinmunroimages.com. Default printing is my Bay Photos professional fine art printers in California. For orders from the UK, contact me directly and these can be supplied by Loxley professional printers in the UK. It can also be downloaded as a digital file, for private or commercial use, in a range of file sizes.

References

Benoit-Bird, Kelly & Würsig, Bernd & Mfadden, Cynthia. 2004. Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) foraging in two different habitats: Active acoustic detection of dolphins and their prey. Marine Mammal Science. 20. 215 – 231. 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2004.tb01152.x.

De Leo Fabio C., Smith Craig R., Rowden Ashley A., Bowden David A. and Clark Malcolm R., 2010. Submarine canyons: hotspots of benthic biomass and productivity in the deep sea. Proc. R. Soc. B.2772783–2792

Blue Shark

Blue Shark

An account of photographing blue sharks off Cornwall, Southwest Britain, a few years back, and a link to buying blue shark fine art prints of these amazing hunters of of the oceans at colinmunroimages.com.

On a clear July morning I stumbled out of my bunk (I was living on a boat at the time) at 5.30am, forced out my the insistent buzzing of my phone alarm. One hour, and one strong coffee later, I squeezed my dive bag into the back of Ritchie’s car and we were off. We had over a hundred miles to cover, and a boat to catch.

Blue shark swimming through clear blue water. Cornwall. © Colin Munro Images
A Blue shark, Prionace glauca, swims leisurely through clear blue water off Cornwall, UK.

Charles Hood runs the best, and most successful, blue shark snorkelling operation in the UK. His boat, a large rigid-hulled inflatable (RIB) operates out of Penzance, almost at southwesternmost extremity of the British mainland, so that’s where we were headed. The boat is a fast open boat, perfect for getting us 10 miles offshore quickly, but small and devoid of any shelter from the elements. So we changed in to wetsuits on the quayside, packed our camera gear in dry bags carefully padded with towels and sweatshirts for the bouncy ride out, and we were off.

Blue shark fine art prints. buy fine art prints of a blue shark. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunroimages.com
Blue shark, Prionace glauca. A female blue shark swimming close to the surface off Southwest Cornwall, UK. Blue sharks are easily recognisable by their slender form, long pectoral fins and vivid blue colour. Like many shark species they are counter-coloured, blue on their backs and white below. Blue sharks are found off Southwest Britain between July and October. For reasons that are still not fully understood it is most females that are seen in British waters. Female blue sharks can be recognised by the absence of of claspers on their belly; sexually mature female blues will often have prominent scars of their head, neck and back. These are mating scars causing by bites from the male blue shark during mating. Blue sharks are found in all major oceans, in temperate and tropical waters.

Each year blue sharks arrive off the coast of Southwest Britain, normally sometime in mid-June and remaining until mid-October. Blues are true oceanic sharks; they inhabit deep water, only infrequently venturing on to shallower, continental shelf waters. They are found in tropical and temperate oceans around the globe. However, in the tropics they tend to stay in deeper, cooler water but are often observed in surface waters in temperate seas. They feed on fast moving prey such as squid and schooling fish. Much of their feeding appears to be done in deeper waters. We know this partly from studies looking at gut contents, identifying the hard tissue remains of the prey species, and knowing where those prey species live, and partly from small data loggers, recording depth profiles, that are attached to sharks and then recovered at a later date. Below 100 metres, it seems they predate mostly on squid, in particular those belonging to the Histioteuthidae family, more commonly known as cock-eyed squid. Cock-eyed squid are bizzare creatures that inhabit the twilight zone of the oceans, so-called because their left eye is around twice the size of their right. Observations with deep water remotely operated vehichles (ROVs) have shown that they swim with the left eye facing upwards, and the right facing down. It’s believe the the huge left eye is used to pick up the faint sunlight coming from far above; the smaller right eye, staring into the depths, serves a quite different purpose. It picks up bioluminecent glows and flashes from prey (or predators below). But blue sharks are not fussy eaters. Studies off the coast of Brazil have found they eat large numbers of oilfish (a deepwater member of the mackerel family) but will also sometimes grab seabirds such as shearwaters. Those off Southern Brazil were found to be mostly scavenging on dead baleen whales. But I have digressed somewhat from our trip. Some ten nautical miles out Charles stopped the RIB and allowed us to drift. Sure we were a fair way from shore, and in pretty deep water, but still well within continental shelf depths, probably 50-70 metres, as we drifted. The 100 depth contour was still over 20 miles distant. So what tempted the blues, normally oceanic species, this close inshore? As we drifted Charles began to prepare the chum bag that hopefully would draw nearby sharks to our boat. A small hessian sack was filled with chunks of mackerel and mackerel guts, including some caught angling off the stern of his RIB. Tied just off the side of the RIB, a slick of fish oil drifted away down current. This is the clue to why blue sharks arrive in coastal waters of southern and western Britain. Mackerel also arrive around British coasts during the summer months, often found in huge shoals numbering thousands of fish. Like their deeper water relatives, the oilfish, mackerel are an oily fish, so a high energy food source for any predator fast enough to catch them. And the blue shark is just that; generally a sedate swimmer it can move with lighting bursts of speed.

Once our bag of chum was positioned, and final checks on cameras completed, all we then had to do was wait. Charles dug out his fishing rod and started supplementing our chum supply with a few extra mackerel. And we waited. There was no wind, and just a slight, rolling swell on the sea. The sun was hot and the sky a clear blue, so it was not extactly a hardship. The sun climbed to its zenith, then slowly fell westward as morning gave way to afternoon. We were woken from our torpor when, around 2pm, a group of three sunfish drifted close. Sunfish are odd-looking disc shaped fish. They feed on There was a flurry of activity as we grabbed cameras and donned fins, but they were skittish and disappeared in seconds. We settled back in to watching and waiting. At around 3.30pm Charles announced that we should start heading back to shore at 4pm. The minutes ticked by; 4pm arrived and still no blues. Charles apologised but, as we were well aware, there is never any guarantee with wildlife. He announced we would give it another 20 minutes. At 4.15 the first blue arrived. Rather than leap in immediately, we gave it time to settle and get used to the boat. A couple of minutes later a second arrived. Charles had been very clear on the safety aspect, wearing gloves, no shiny jewellery. The necessity for this was made abundantly clear when one of the sharks managed to grab to chum bag. Its razor sharp teeth ripped through it like paper, and bits of mackerel guts spilled out into the water. The bag was quickly quisked out of the sea and we gave it a minute for the cloud to disperse. Once Charles was confident the sharks were no longer likely to disappear immediatly, we, one by one, slowly slide over the side of the boat and in to the water.

Richie fires off a couple of snaps as a blue passes beneath him.

Once in the water I dipped my head to check all around me, then slowing finned away from the RIB. Once around 8 metres away I stoppped finning, and started checking around. I could clearly see my three companions at this stage, floating 5-10 metres away from me. Every so often a shark would cruise in, swimming below or between us, to to check out us or the RIB. The water was clear, visibility a good 15-20 metres, but the sun was now low in the sky. When the sun is overhead, and light hits the waters’ surface more or less perpendicular, then much of that light penetrates the surface; but late afternoon, when the sun is low and its rays hit the water at a shallow angle then most of that light bounces off the surface and it becomes markedly darker just below than above. My photographic problems were two-fold. The reduced light levels made focussing a little trickier, and when a blue shark came fast out of the expanse of blue water, the camera would struggle to pick up contrast and focus quickly. I fiddled with the settings, pre-focussed using my colleagues as targets, fired off test shots and again readjusted my settings. All the time keeping looking around me. A RIB, with its large surface area above the water, will drift with wind and tide, but a swimmer, around 90% below the water’s surface, will drift with the tide alone. So as I floated I was aware that the distance between was growing. This was not a concern; conditions were perfect and I knew Charles would be fully aware of our positions. On the contrary, it gave me space around me. As I drifted I also became aware that one of the sharks had become interested in me, and was moving with me, not steadily but zig-zagging. It would pass close, then swim off , to turn and pass close again.

A blue shark checks me out during our dive off Cornwall. © Colin Munro Images
A curious blue checks me out; maybe checking its reflection in my camera dome port?

This was not in a threatening or aggressive manner, but rather one of curiosity. A couple of times it would swim straight towards me, only to stop maybe 18 inches in front of me. Whether it was seeing reflections in the large glass dome port of my camera housing I am not sure. Whatever the reason it provided me with more perfect photo oportunities than I could have hoped for. Thirty minutes passed in what seemed like three, and Charles was recalling us to the RIB. We may have had to wait, but performace at the end far exceeded our expectations.

Fine Art Prints

I have made two of my images from this trip available as fine art prints and wall art. These are available to be purchased in a wide range of media and sizes directly from my Colin Munro Images website. Media available include traditional giclée prints, stretched and flat mounted canvas, metal prints (dye directly infused on sheet aluminium) and acrylic, from 8 inches up to 48 inches across. My prints are produced by Bay Photo Labs in Santa Cruz, California. I choose bay Photo Labs for the excellence of their quality, with over 40 years providing printing services to professional photographers, their constant innovation, combining the latest technology and innovation with the finest traditional techniques, and their committment to the highest environmental standards using green technology. You can buy my prints directly here at www.colinmunroimages.com.

How can I buy fine art photographs if I am not in North America?

I also use excellent printers in the UK, and Bangkok, Thailand. If you are in Europe or Asia, please email me with the photo code, the print style and the size, and I will arrange for it to be delivered from either UK or Bangkok. If you are elsewhere in the World, and would really like to buy one of my images as a fine art print, drop me an email and we’ll see what I can work out. (My www.colinmunrophotography.com site showcases my fine art photographic prints printed in the UK. You can also buy prints directly).

I am slowly moving my marine biology orientated blogs to my other blog site: www.marine-bio-images.com/blog. I may eventually remove them from this site. This article can now be found here.