Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Sharing a moment of peace with harbor seals

Harbor Seal in Backlight, Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

I didn’t plan to spend an evening hanging out with a herd of harbor seals, but many of my favorite experiences in nature of late involve some serendipity. Venturing out without a plan or any pressure to produce something is incredibly relaxing. And I find that almost every time it results in photos.

There is no shortage of beauty along the Oregon coast. The coastline is full of rugged stretches with spectacular rocks jutting out of the ocean waters, relics of ancient headlands that have become stranded due to erosion.

In the summer, many of those rocks, known as sea stacks, become breeding colonies for sea birds. Between the beauty and the benefit, miles worth of rocks off the southern Oregon coast have been designated as their own wilderness area: the Oregon Islands Wilderness.

I first stumbled upon this area nearly 20 years ago when I was also ambling along on a road trip with no particular place to go. I was wowed by the scenery and thankful that the motel across the street from the beach had rooms available for the next few nights.

The short stay provided inspiration for a photography project. From a particular angle, one of the large rocks near the town of Bandon looks like a face. The Coquille Indians tell a story about it and for the next several years I made repeated trips there to try to create an image that brought that story to life. It took years because weather on the coast is notoriously uncooperative.

I recently got a chance to return there — my first visit in many years. And like my very first visit, I had my camera, but didn’t have a plan.

Bandon Beach at Dusk, Bandon, Oregon

The rocks look very much the same, even though I’m sure the repeated pounding from Pacific Ocean waves has made them fractionally smaller. The beach, however, has grown more crowded. It has become a classroom of sorts. It’s now a prime destination for nature photography workshops.

It’s a big beach and I’m not opposed to sharing, but I don’t typically enjoy photographing in a group of photographers, even if I’m not technically part of that group. I find that environment distracting and I struggle to create something that feels like anything other than the product of a committee. Given that I didn’t need a picture from that stretch of beach, I took this as a welcome push to go out on my own and explore.

I find that there’s always something to photograph, but you have to be in the right mindset to see it. Every step I took in the sand took me away from any preconceived notions of how I might spend the sunset. Within minutes my senses opened up. I was seeing new things.

A whimbrel was hunting on the beach. Waves were crashing through a sea arch I had never noticed before. And there was an odd glow atop some rocks. The sun was behind them, bathing them in a dramatic fringe. Once I got closer, I realized I was looking at the outlines of sleeping harbor seals.

I was captivated by the beauty. I climbed onto a neighboring rock, separated by a channel of ocean water, and began thinking about what I could do with the scene. What I loved most was that the harbor seals were outlined. The problem is, when they’re laying down sleeping, their outlines make them appear more like rocks.

Harbor Seal in Backlight, Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

All I could do is wait for one to wake up, stretch, and, hopefully, enter what my wife calls the banana pose — their heads and tails curled toward the sky. One did just that, but it was turned in such a way that I wasn’t sure its outline would be recognizable in an otherwise dark photo. So, I kept waiting.

Many people believe that the camera is itself a distraction. They have a point. You spend much of your time looking at the world through a viewfinder. When a dramatic moment arrives, you’re busy fiddling with settings and clicking the shutter.

I, however, find it to be a relaxation tool. The search for the next picture forces me to pay more attention to my surroundings. Then, when I get an idea for a photo, I may have to wait for the perfect moment.

Nobody else would invest this kind of time kneeling on a sharp rock, bracing themselves against 20-mile-an-hour wind. I had time to watch sunlight stream through the mist of the ocean waves and to appreciate the graceful form of the seals. Every now and then I would take a picture.

Harbor Seal in Backlight, Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

The finished product is a dramatic photo with much of the image pure black. This is the result of limitations of the camera rather than Photoshop trickery. Sometimes I like to use these limitations for creative effect.

Our eyes can see an incredible amount of dynamic range. We can appreciate a scene that has bright sky and details in the shade at the same time. A camera cannot. Without filters or processing techniques, a camera can typically do either-or.

For this image, I set the exposure to preserve details in the bright highlights, the only part of the seals in the direct sun from my vantage point. Because those parts of the image were so bright almost everything else dropped to black.

There are things I could have done to create a picture that more clearly matched what I saw with my eyes, but that wasn’t the point. I wanted to show how the late evening lighting emphasized their graceful forms. A more minimalistic image also felt more peaceful to me, the mood I wanted to express.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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