Favorite Photos of 2015

2015 was a year characterised by the phrase "Something Old, Something New." I devoted a lot of time to the large cetaceans that I love so much, but I also went to new places, saw new things, and ventured outside my comfort zone.

Let me start with familiar territory. Whales.

This photo of a humpback whale calf (Megaptera novaeangliae) breaching has to be my absolute favourite image for the year:

humpback whale calf breaching
Humpback whale calf breaching (License image)

Conditions weren't ideal, and it's not a technically perfect photo, but hey, how many times do you get to photograph a breach from under a whale?

I took this photo during my 14th season in Tonga. The amount of time I've spent in the water with humpback whales...watching, learning, taking notes, thinking through observations and connecting dots across seasons...is what enabled me to see this moment developing and get to the right place at the right time. I needed luck of course, but this wasn't a fluke, so to speak. I've been waiting many years for this image to happen.

Next is this lovely blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), one that's taking a slow cruise down to forage for food.

blue whale
Sleek, beautiful blue whale (License image)

Blues and other long, hydrodynamic rorquals are generally difficult to approach because they're fast, and they usually seem to have better things to do than hang out with humans. Smart animals.

On to sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus):

sperm whale courtship
Mature male sperm whale courting a family of females (License image)

Depicted here is a mature bull sperm whale, not a particularly large one, in the 15-17m range I'd say. In the background are adult females, a family of them that the bull had approached and tried to solicit (in the Joey Tribbiani "Hey. How you doing?" sense).

I'm not sure if anyone else has managed to photograph or video this courting behaviour before, but one of the reasons this image (and experience) sticks in my mind is that I was able to call/ forecast the action play-by-play, and predict the exact moment to enter the water in order to see the action.

And just in case you're curious...the girls shut him down. Poor fellow.

Next up...a mommy Bryde's whale (Balaenoptera edeni) with her adorable baby.

Bryde's whale female and calf
Bryde's whale female and calf (License image)

This photo gives me warm, mushy feelings inside, especially when I recall how cute the little one was in real life. I was surprised that the female allowed the baby to explore and indulge its curiosity. In previous encounters with Bryde's females and calves, the behaviour was quite different.

And to round-out the whale species for this year, here is a southern right whale (Eubalaena australis):

southern right whale
Southern right whale close-up! (License image)

If the perspective appears strange, it is. The visibility was so poor that I had to be literally right next to this 15m +/-, 50-tonne +/- hulk of a marine mammal in order to photograph it. 2015 marked the first time I've spent time with this species. They're lovely, fascinating animals, and I hope I have more opportunities to observe and study them in the future.

I didn't do too many dives in 2015, 18 or so in total. Given the relatively little time I devoted to accumulating nitrogen bubbles, I'm really happy that I managed to photograph the spawning sequence of Napoleon wrasses (Cheilinus undulatus). Following is one photo from a sequence of five images, depicting the smaller female in front of the male, both releasing gametes into the water.

napoleon wrasse spawning
Fish porn: Napoleon wrasses getting it on (License image)

It's taken me a number of years to figure out the wrasses' behavioural pattern and spawning cues, so I'm kinda' chuffed about these pictures (For non-Brits, "chuffed" means "stoked" in UK-speak; for Brits, why can't ya'll just use normal English?).

I have to toss in the following image as well. I know, it's not a spectacular, jaw-dropping subject, but I'm big on the beauty of simplicity. Jellyfish are relatively simple organisms. The ones in Palau's Jellyfish Lake are photographed hundreds of times per day. Many of the photos look alike; many emphasise swimmers/ people in the water.

This is my attempt to focus your attention on the elegance and grace of the jellyfish, where I think attention belongs.

jellyfish lake
Mastigias papua etpisoni, a study in the art of nature (License image)

I never thought I would find any pleasure in schlepping around a tripod to take photos of scenery, but 2015 was the year that I gave landscape photography a try. It'll never be my thing, so to speak, but thanks to extensive email- and Skype-based tuition from my friend Jon, I managed to come up the learning curve quickly, with the following photo from Iceland being my favourite. To me, it conveys the boundless possibility that comes with the arrival of each new day:

Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland
Kirkjufellsfoss, Iceland at sunrise (License image)

2015 also marked the year I crossed 80º North for the first time. Brrrr. It was worth the effort for many reasons, but particularly because of the polar bears and walruses.

polar bear female and cub
Wee wittle baby polar bear peeking out from underneath mommy (License image)
walruses on ice
Walruses on the rocks (License image)
young walrus underwater
Inquisitive young walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) (License image)

Spending time in the Arctic was an education. One of the most important things I learned was that walruses smell bad. Major BO. And the farts. Let's not go there. Just trust me.

And to round out the year's images, somehow or another, I ended up taking a lot of bird photos. I went to Iceland specifically to see puffins, but otherwise, I'm not sure how I ended up with so many avian images. Sneaky birds.

A few of my favourites include this puffin (more puffin pix), a.k.a. dumpling with feathers:

puffin in iceland
Plump, fluffy puffin (Fratercula arctica) in pink light (License image)

The photo below, of an African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) that's sort of sleeping, sort of keeping one eye open, makes me smile every time I look at it. The cute knob is turned up to 11.

It's sad that they're endangered though. At the beginning of the 1900s, there were something like 1.5 million+ of these birds, down from around 4 million at the beginning of the 1800s.

And now? Maybe 50,000 +/-.

Simple mathematics suggests that we have been 99% effective in wiping these lovely, innocuous birds off the face of the planet. I guess we excel at certain things.

sleepy African penguin
Endangered African penguin keeping an eye on me (License image)

And finally, here's a hoopoe bird (Upupa epops ceylonensis) getting ready to eat a centipede.

hoopoe bird eating centipede
Hoopoe bird making a meal of a centipede (License image)

My reason for liking this photo, besides the fact that the word hoopoe is fun to say (pronounced hoo-poo), is that shortly before I took it, a centipede bit me.

I had just put my hand on a wood door to close it, when I felt three strikes in rapid succession. There was searing pain that I can only describe as being like concentrated strikes of lightning, followed by pounding and throbbing, followed by more searing pain. For some reason, a centipede had crawled up a door and lain in wait to ambush me.

I went to my friend Phil for help, who just laughed and called me, and I quote, "a wuss." With friends like Phil...

This hoopoe, who was far more compassionate and evolved a soul than Phil, obviously felt my pain and decided to administer justice.

I have many, many, many more photos I could share, but in order to contribute this post to Jim Goldstein's annual Best Photos project, I'm supposed to whittle to 5 or 10 images. I've failed once again. I hope that Jim will cut me the same slack he did for my 2014 list. Irrespective, looking through the list of links when they're published would be a great way to begin your photographic year.

Before wrapping-up, I'd just like to underscore that while I'm the guy holding the camera, creating images is a team effort. There were, as always, many people who were instrumental to my being able to take these photos and more—those who travelled with, endured, and babysat me; the owners and fantastic captains/ crews of the boats I spent time on; the proprieters of the many places I stayed; and the companies who supported me with gear (especially Zillion, NauticamF-Stop). Please accept my sincere gratitude for your help!

That'll do it for this first post of 2016.

It's going to be a busy year again. I'm out the door soon, pretty much away through October.

Have fun, take great photos, and make the most of every day.

Update 6 January: Jim's list is up. Click here.