Looking Back on 2009

Last year around this time, I penned a brief retrospective on a few highlights from 2008. One year doesn't make a tradition, but before I head to the Izu Peninsula to take a year-end break (read: chill out and pig out), here's a list of personal milestones and memorable moments from the past 12 months that stand out in my mind:

Favourite Photo: I've been fortunate and have had an absolutely amazing year photographically, so it's tough to pick just one image. Some images I've taken have required months or even years of obsessing over junk fine-tuning equipment to develop just the right technique. A few examples include: King Kong crab; glowing nudibranch; more nudibranch images; yet another nudibranch; anemone shrimp photos; cuttlefish images; plus many more that I haven't posted.

Then there are the photos of cute things: blennies; little filefish with pink lips; pineconefish; lumpsucker; young friends...

Entertaining things: Free Willy; fish that looks like a floating turd; whale poo; sea lion playing with filefish...

and much more.

But I guess my favourite image this year has to be this photograph of a female sperm whale with a piece of giant squid in its mouth:

sperm whale with giant squid

I took this image in Ogasawara, Japan, with fellow underwater photographers/ videographers Douglas Seifert, Eric Cheng and Julia Sumerling.

It's not every day you get to witness, much less photograph, something like this (In fact, this photo and the other photos/ video we took might be the first visual documentation).

The little whale in the photo is a calf, and it's possible that the adult female was teaching the baby to dive and hunt for squid.

On that same trip, we found giant squid parts too, notably a 3.5-metre segment from a feeding arm, which Douglas was kind enough to measure (it was far too smelly for anyone else to want to touch).

Most Memorable Dive: Bigfin reef squid mating. En masse squid mating is something I've wanted to see for a while. I've known about the annual aggregation and mass mating/ spawning of bigfin reef squid in Izu, Japan for some time...but it wasn't until this year that I was able to get to the right place at the right time with the right equipment. Finally having a chance to witness this event up-close was simply awesome...though I haven't been able to eat calamari since.

Most Memorable Critter Encounter: Lizardfish eating pufferfish. Take a look at the photos, and it'll be obvious why this encounter was memorable.

Most Meaningful Project: Continuation of my calf count in Tonga. As of today, I have 30 confirmed calf IDs for the 2009 humpback whale season in Vava'u. There are still a few more IDs pending, with images and/ or video contributed by other people. I've been on the road so much that I haven't had time to look through the materials I've received. To confirm a new calf, I need to look through thousands of images in order to be as certain as possible that I'm not double-counting.

(To the people who've sent me photos with pending IDs...thank you, and sorry for the delay!)

To complement the visual documentation and verbal descriptions of calf IDs, I've incorporated GPS coordinates this year, in order to establish a visual reference for where calf sightings are taking place. I'm making use of Google Maps to share this information with anyone who's interested.

Favourite New Photo Gear: Without question, my Canon 5D Mark II cameras. Besides the excellent image quality from this camera, the 1080p video capability has opened up an entirely new way for me to document and tell stories. On my recent trip to the Eastern Fields, for example, I spent more time shooting video than taking photos. Of course, I have a lot to learn, but this camera has changed my approach to photojournalism and story-telling forever.

Here's a short sample clip from the Eastern Fields. It's unedited, ungraded, un-manipulated, un-everything (just a quick-and-dirty conversion to FLV format)...in large part because my laptop can't handle working with 1080p footage (which, of course, means more hardware and software purchases on the horizon)...but take a look, and you'll see how promising DSLR video is.

Favourite New Gadget: My Drobo units. If you don't know what a Drobo is, I highly recommend taking a look at the site. In short, Drobo units provide you with a layer of protection for your data by automatically creating redundancy...it's like RAID 5 for dummies (hence, perfect for me). The Drobo system is plug-and-play technology, so you don't need to be an IT wizard.

Most Useful Online Service: Dropbox. I signed up for Dropbox some time ago, but only recently started taking advantage of the online backup (free up to 2GB) and file-sharing capabilities. Dropbox is even more useful if you have an iPhone. The Dropbox iPhone app makes it easy to access/ update/ use files while you're on-the-go.

And if you're really ambitious, you can combine Dropbox and 1Password (my favourite software selection from last year), along with their respective iPhone apps, to ensure that you have access to all your passwords on every computer you use, plus on your iPhone.

Favourite Food Experience: Dinner at Kushihana (串花) in Nishi-azabu, as much for the evening's entertainment as for the excellent food and drink (actually, drinks...many drinks...and many more after that).

Favourite Movie: Star Trek. Yes, I'm a sci-fi geek. But even my non-sci-fi-friends liked this movie.

Favourite Book: I read a lot this year, thanks in large part to being able to carry around eBooks on my iPhone (it's impossible to lug physical books around these days). My favourite book was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The writing is beautiful, characters rich, and story heart-wrenching.

Happiest and Saddest Moment: The happiest moments throughout the year were all the occasions I had to meet terrific people from around the world...far too many people to name...but here are a few examples of the fun and games: Khun Pachara of Hotwave Wetsuits; Andy, who had the misfortune good fortune of diving with me in Lembeh; the terrific guys and gals at Kasawari Lembeh Resort; the DEEP Indonesia team; Atsumaru-san; my friends in Tonga; Julia (and yes, I suppose even Douglas); Phil...and many, many, many more. Thank you all for making 2009 an incredible year!!!

On the flip side, perhaps the most difficult moment of the past 12 months was receiving the news of my dear friend Ongo's passing. As a child, I'd never even heard of The Kingdom of Tonga and yet, due in no small part to Ongo's friendship and tutelage, I've spent a significant portion of my life there, have lots of friends in Vava'u, and look forward to going back each year. Thank you Ongo. I miss you.