CNN Photos

Waiting for the whales

“Dread and wonder” is how photographer Bryant Austin described the feeling of a solid, mighty tap on his shoulder from a humpback whale.

While he floated on the sea, the 45-ton creature was gently letting him know he’d gotten too close to her calf. But when the animal made eye contact with Austin, he was filled with a sense of amazement.

What sets Austin apart as a photographer is his method. He sometimes floats in the ocean for hours waiting for the giant creatures to come to him. His eye is trained on the viewfinder, which makes it difficult to see what’s going on.

“It can be a little disconcerting, especially when the 2-ton pectoral fin of a humpback passes by you,” he said.

He remains a completely passive observer and takes the risk of coming back with nothing. This allows the whales to explore his space while he is careful to unobtrusively take his photographs.

“I’m always floating motionless just watching from a distance and giving them space to explore their own natural curiosity,” Austin said.

Eventually, he realized how close he needed to be to photograph every detail of the whale. As it turned out, Austin has to get no further than 6 feet away to photograph the animal in order to get the kind of detail he wants.

“I wanted to re-create the sensation I felt when a whale passed by him for others to experience.”

He says he wants people to be aware of how the decisions humans make impact these giant sea creatures. “I want to create something that’s visually compelling, showing what is out there that’s relying on us and the decisions we make.”

It took six years to complete his latest book, “Beautiful Whale,” and produce the life-sized composite photographs on display in Monterrey, California.

The photographs include as many as 20 individual images that make up the whale’s body. Austin says it can take up to 300 hours to hand stitch these pieces together.

The size of the works allows the viewer to see details of the animals that you’d never notice in other photographs, like the close up of an eye, the barnacles growing on its belly, the texture of its skin.

Austin says his goal is to share that same experience of wonder and amazement with the millions of people who will never encounter a whale in their lifetime.

- Callie Carmichael, CNN

Images courtesy “Beautiful Whale”: Photographs by Bryant Austin, foreword by Sylvia A. Earle, published by Abrams.