By Rhea Mahbubani
7:19 PM EDT, May 2, 2013
A young humpback whale swam less than six feet away from Bryant Austin while he was snorkeling off the Kingdom of Tonga in 2004.
Lowering his camera, afraid it would get struck out of his hand, Austin was mesmerized by the marine mammal's subtly hued skin, belly button and musculature.
A couple seconds later, he felt a tap on his shoulder, which from its force — and the fact that he was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — was not from a human.
Turning around, Austin found himself staring into the eyes of the calf's mother. As she and her offspring swam away, Austin was too breathtaken to snap a picture. But the moment sparked the passion that he's pursued for nearly the last decade.
"No one had ever created life-sized photographs of whales before," he said. "I wasn't sure how possible or practical it would be, but eventually I committed to my inspiration full-time."
Such encounters are anything but commonplace for the 44-year-old Carmel resident, although he spends nearly 10 hours a day in the water, weather permitting.
Austin will lecture about his craft at ExplorOcean at 7 p.m. May 9. He presented there for the first time in late 2008.
"People [can] enjoy hearing about his experience in trying to photograph these whales — and how much time he spends in trying to get the photo and the relationship he's developed with [them,]" said Vice President of Development and Marketing Leslie Perovich.
At "Photographing Whales as Large as Life," a component of the Waterman Lecture Series, Austin will discuss and sign copies of his new book "Beautiful Whale."
"The very rare and special moments I've documented with whales only become complete when they are shared," he said. "Less than one millionth of one percent of the human population will ever know such moments. So it always means a lot to me to have an opportunity to share photographs and stories of the many whales I've come to know as individuals."
Love of the unknown
When Austin was 5, he visited a marine park where he witnessed two badly scratched, bottlenosed dolphins in a filthy brown four-foot pool. Honing in on the lethargy and sadness in the animals' eyes, Austin sensed their suffering and threw a tantrum, demanding to leave.
He connected the dots recently upon recalling the incident.
Since then, a fascination with the unknown has inspired him to photograph "complex social animals" like the humpback, minke, blue and sperm whales off the archipelago of the Azores, the island of Dominica and in the Pacific Ocean, near the coast of Monterey.
The artist and certified free diver works closely with biologists who identify spots where he is likely to encounter whales. Once in the predetermined location, Austin stays still on the surface of the water on snorkel only, as opposed to swimming or diving in search of aquatic life. Closing in on whales can force them to swim away.
"There's a lot of trust in making these photographs," he said.
Armed with his trusted Hasselblad H3DII-50 digital camera, Austin is careful not to take pictures when at a distance greater than six feet, since the color and details disappear, he said.
Once out of the water, his photographs, taken in five-foot-wide sections, are connected seamlessly on Photoshop — a process that takes nearly 300 hours. They are then converted into smaller, 4-by-5-foot portraits or printed in 6-by-10-foot sepia-toned panels, which are pieced together to reflect entire whales. The largest, so far, is 10-by-36 feet.
Austin's favorite partner to date has been Ella, a female dwarf minke whale from the Great Barrier Reef, who sports two markings on her right pectoral fin that resemble L-shaped brush strokes. He has spent the most time with her — up to six hours per day.
While conducting fieldwork, which can last between five weeks and three months, Austin tries to charter the same boat. Retaining consistency in the sound of the boat's engine, his gear and even his movements creates a greater chance of working with the same whale multiple times.
"I'm curious to see if they can come to know me as an individual and if I can gain a deeper level of acceptance and curiosity from them," he said.
Protecting the wild
Austin's 24 limited-edition pieces, made on commission, range from 12-by-18-inch to 6-by-30-foot photographs and are priced between $1,200 and $164,000.
Circumstances, however, haven't always been this way.
While he was trying to get his feet wet, powerful motivation compelled Austin to sell his car, home and boat in order to fund 124 days of field work in the South Pacific. Living in his mother's guest house helped, too, as did exhibitions in Norway and Japan, countries notorious for whale hunting.
"I don't want to tell people how to think or feel," he said. "I want simply to inspire people to lose their appetite for whale meat and have the demand for whale meat decline. And here in my own country, I want to inspire people to not want to eat seafood. Or at least food that is caught with gear that kills whales."
His most ambitious creations include a life-sized photograph of a blue whale, as well as a living whale entangled in commercial fishing gear.
According to Austin, who is now pursuing his next project to photograph killer whales in the Arctic Circle, entanglement in commercial fishing gear is the number-one cause of death for marine mammals.
"These are the subtle things I want to convey, and I don't want to make it a polarizing issue," he said. "I just want people to think about where their food comes from, what is the cost and what's at stake."
If You Go
What: Lecture by Bryant Austin
Where: Fun Zone, ExplorOcean, 600 E. Bay Ave., Newport Beach
When: 7 p.m. May 9
Cost: Free for members; $15 for non-members