Paul, how did you manage to capture such a candid moment?
Though I’ve worked as a photographer for nearly 30 years, it’s only recently that I started shooting underwater. For me, it’s been like discovering an entirely new world. I had not yet spent a lot of time around walruses, but I was well acquainted with their reputation as large, smelly, clumsy and ill-tempered beasts. They’re the size of a horse, but more likely to spear you with one of their metre-long tusks. I wanted to see what they were like in the water, in their natural element.
That’s not easily accomplished. I had to charter a steel boat in Spitsbergen, a small island halfway between the top of Europe and the North Pole. I dragged along all of my scuba kit and underwater cameras and somehow talked the boat skipper into letting me try it. It wasn’t all that hard. He was kind of curious how it all going to turn out, too. We located a gravel beach with a few dozen walruses hauled out, and some others swimming in the shallows. I put on pretty much every stitch of fleece I owned, zipped up the dry suit and then we motored over to an iceberg. The skipper tied a bit of dirty rope around my waist as our sole concession to safety, and then he kicked me in.
The water was insanely cold, with bits of ice floating all around. I would have sworn a lot more, but I couldn’t move my lips. The walruses didn’t seem to mind though. They swam over almost immediately, drifting below me and slowly circling up. At first they were like enormous ghosts in the deep blue water, but they got pretty bold, swimming right up to me and pushing their whiskers and tusks against my camera. At that point there’s not a lot to do but keeping shooting pictures and hope for the best.
Turns out that walruses have a pretty short attention span, and a hypothermic, hyperventilating photographer isn’t all that diverting after a while. They swam off a few minutes later, and the winning shot was made when they gave me one last look before diving out of sight.
How did you get into wildlife photography? I imagine it’s not a commitment one takes to lightly.
I’ve wanted to be a photographer since I was about 11 years old. My grandparents travelled around the world in their retirement, and it became a family ritual to put up the projector screen and look at their slideshows. It seemed pretty magical, and I started borrowing their camera to take pictures in the woods around my home in Pennsylvania. I feel pretty lucky to have found my life’s work at such an early age. While I was studying at journalism school, I lucked into a darkroom job at one of the local newspapers, and went on to work as a staff photographer at a couple of different dailies. I started out with dreams of journalistic glory, but the work is often pretty mundane. I was hungry for adventure and a change of scene, so I took a job in Alaska, driving 4,000 miles in the depths of winter with everything I owned in a two-seater sports car.
That was the first place I saw real wildlife and wilderness, and I was hooked. I’ve been photographing in the far north for most of the last two decades. I left journalism after a few more years of house fires and basketball games and have been a freelance travel and nature photographer ever since. I’ve been able to travel to all seven continents and to more than 60 countries so far.
How much research did you do on walruses and their habitat before heading off to Norway?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I didn’t do nearly as much research as I should have. I knew walruses by reputation, and everyone I asked said I was insane to try swimming with them. I decided I better stop asking or I’d never try it.
I’ve heard that despite their general sleepy demeanour, they can be quite dangerous creatures. What kind of safety precautions did you take before going under?
Walruses are unpredictable and can be incredibly dangerous. They’ve been known to attack native hunters’ boats and could easily kill a diver. I’ve watched them spar and fight each other, and those tusks are formidable weapons. There’s not a lot you can do to protect yourself, besides staying the hell away from them. But I really wanted that picture. So I tried to be as quiet and non-threatening as possible, and hoped that my good karma would see me through.
What attracted you to the idea of shooting walruses?
I think one thing that attracted me was the fact that very few folks have done it. It’s not as if the publishing world is clamouring for underwater walrus images, but I thought it might be an interesting challenge. I’ve done a bit of diving in the Antarctic to photograph penguins and seals there, and in Greenland to photograph icebergs. But every time I go diving into ice-filled water, I wonder why I couldn’t be obsessed with someplace a little warmer.
Can you tell us about some of your other forays into the wild to capture nature in all its glory?
I’ve lost track of all the stupid things I’ve done along the way. I remember one night in Kenya when a pride of lions started swatting at my tent... That was pretty memorable. Over the years I’ve been slapped by penguins, head-butted by a whale, chased by bears and terrorised by critters large and small.
What do you personally get out of doing what you do? What is it about photographing wildlife that appeals to your nature?
I really love the work. It’s an excuse to be out of the office and out in the natural world that keeps me going back again and again. I love those quiet moments of connection with animals, in their home and on their terms. There’s something magical about an animal granting you permission to sit quietly and observe. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to it all being insane good fun to be out having some great adventures and scaring myself witless.
It takes some balls to do what you do.
I think everyone is afraid of different things. As a kid I was scared of almost everything. Now, I’m mostly afraid of Brussels sprouts.
How do you think something like the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award helps to shed light on some of the amazing work in photography going on around the world?
I think a competition like this shows people what a magical world we live in. Every year thousands of photographers spread out across the globe trying to create new and exciting images of the world. I think it helps capture peoples’ imaginations and builds an awareness of the need to protect and preserve wild spaces.
Finally, if I told you I was going to quit my job tomorrow and go to Africa to try and make it as a wildlife photographer, what would your advice to me be?
Don’t do it. Please. I don’t need the competition.
There has never been a better time to be a nature photographer. In the last decade, we have witnessed a revolution in digital photo technology. Guided tours travel to wilderness areas that were once the sole province of National Geographic and BBC film crews.
There has also never been a worse time to make a living as a nature photographer, since everyone and their dog can now go out on holiday, make amazing pictures and give them away on the internet for nothing.
It’s up to us as professionals to continually think of images that will show the world in a new way, to create pictures that people haven’t seen before.
Free with museum entry.