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Cetacean Portraits

Fenella Saunders

BEAUTIFUL WHALE. Bryant Austin. Foreword by Sylvia A. Earle. 123 pp. Abrams, 2013. $50.

The descriptors that immediately come to mind when one thinks of whales include “immense” and “humongous,” possibly “graceful,” even “majestic.” But “beautiful”? In their deep ocean home, whales may seem so distant and alien from human experience that their aesthetic qualities are hard to appreciate. In Beautiful Whale, photographer Bryant Austin endeavors to bring whales into the immediate view of humankind and to show these creatures in breathtaking, exquisite detail.

2013-07BrevSaundersFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAustin has created portraits of individual whales at life size, some over 30 feet long. A book simply can’t accommodate an image the size of a whale, but this book is larger than most, and foldout pages give a sense of the scale and detail of the full-size versions. He made the photographs by combining high-resolution frames, each of which captured, at most, 5 feet of the whale’s body. Substantial resources and technology are necessary for such a project, and the data processing alone is mind-boggling: Some of the the resulting digital images are about 60 gigabytes in size.

“My goal,” Austin writes, “has always been to find whales curious enough to initiate a close inspection of me.” He often focuses on the eye of the whale, which he feels showcases the creature’s intelligence. The intimate perspective allows him to show subtle colors and fine details not usually seen. To take the photographs, he floated motionless near the surface of the water, sometimes for hours at a time. He had to be within six feet of a whale, with the animal completely filling his field of view, to capture images of sufficient resolution for life-size portraits. It’s daunting to imagine being so trusting of a 90-foot, 200-ton animal that could easily injure a human by accident.

One image that stands out is a four-page spread with a full-body portrait of a dwarf minke whale dappled in sunlight. The piece is seamlessly stitched together from 15 separate photographs. Such works are amazing on their own, but the stories Austin tells impart even more meaning to this series. He describes photographing a curious, young male sperm whale and hearing the vocalizations the whale made as he used echolocation to discern Austin’s position. When he was photographing dwarf minke whales, even when he couldn’t see the animals, he could tell how close they were by the numerous, tiny flakes of their skin—dandruff—that floated on the current.

2013-07BrevSaundersFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageA two-page spread showing a closeup of a juvenile humpback whale’s lower jaw and throat is in itself a marvel—and then we learn that this is the exact view the photographer saw when the whale decided to rest against his back. Indeed, a touching aspect of the book is how Austin relates in unflinching prose the many trials and failures in his journey to producing these portraits. As he notes, he had expected the photographs to speak for themselves, but his personal encounters with the subjects have elicited much fascination. And they have opened up discussions about whale conservation apart from politically charged arguments about whaling and environmental management—even in countries where whales are hunted commercially.

Oceanographer Sylvia A. Earle points out in the foreword that baleen whales form social groups that persist for years, and that sperm whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth—seven times the size of a human’s—and engage in complex communication with one another. Sperm whales have small fins, so they use their lower jaw like an opposable thumb to manipulate objects. They have been observed plucking fish from fishing lines without injuring themselves on the hooks. Dwarf minke whales have yet to be tagged for tracking, so other than a five-week period each year when they visit the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, no one knows where they go or what they do. Much remains to be learned about these complex creatures.

Austin began this work out of concern for the long-term survival of whales, the chances of which he thinks can be improved by providing viewers with a visceral understanding of what whales really look like. He acknowledges that the scope of necessary environmental change may seem too vast for any one person to consider, but he believes that small changes in lifestyle choices can add up to shifts big enough to have a positive effect—even on something as large as a whale. Whether or not such small changes will be enough, these stunning portraits are undeniably a help to whales, offering viewers new awareness of these animals’ lives and, in doing so, the possibility of more compassion for their plight.

Fenella Saunders is managing editor of American Scientist, where she covers work in the physical sciences, among other subjects. She received her M.A. in psychology and animal behavior from Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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