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Sea Otter Savvy

Sea Otter Science And Community Outreach

Winning Wildlife Storytellers

Our Winning Wildlife Storytellers

Wildlife Storytellers First place winner, Respect the Nap, by Allison Gregor

The mission of the Wildlife Storytellers Photo Contest is to promote photography as a medium for sharing stories about the deep relationships between organisms and the places they live. More than portraits of individual species, winning photos will tell a story about the relationship between a species within the context of the habitat it lives in, to inspire a deeper awareness and appreciation for the conservation of intact ecosystems and biodiversity. We aim to transform this aspiration for eye contact portraits to those that celebrate ecosystems and capture meaningful images that tell the stories of animal life in wild places.

We’d like to congratulate the winners of this year’s Wildlife Storytellers contest and thank all of the participating photographers. We received excellent entries that promoted our mission for ethical wildlife photography while emphasizing ecological storytelling. We hope you enjoy the winning photographs and their unique stories.

First Place:  Allison Gregor with ‘Respect the Nap’

Southern sea otter, taken from a quiet nursery viewing area in Morro Bay approximately 30 ft onshore behind a barrier fence. Canon 7Dii at 600mm (equiv. to 960mm focal length), photo not cropped, Dec 25, 2019Southern sea otter, taken from a quiet nursery viewing area in Morro Bay approximately 30 ft onshore behind a barrier fence. Canon 7Dii at 600mm (equiv. to 960mm focal length), photo not cropped, Dec 25, 2019

On a visit to Morro Bay last year, I came across an area known to locals as "the nursery", a quiet area for groups of sea otter moms to sleep, eat and teach their pups the ways of the world. I have spent countless hours watching the interactions between mom and pup at that location. Sea otter moms rule!

After sea otters give birth at sea they become 24/7 caregivers over the next 6-8 months. Along the way, mom will teach her pup how to swim, maintain its fur and eventually how to forage for its food. Sea otter moms will have been pushed to their absolute limits by the time the pup is old enough to be fully independent. 

Did you know that non-nursing sea otters have to eat roughly 25% of their body weight per day? They have huge energetic requirements and need to consume large amounts of food. Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters do not have layers of blubber instead relying on their thick fur to stay warm. A lot of energy is used to maintain their fur as well as foraging for food. If they are nursing or caring for a pup, even more energy is needed and their daily food requirement can be twice as much as those without pups. Some sea otter moms can spend up to 14 hours per day foraging!

So, whenever you see sleeping sea otters, think of all they need to do to care for their pups. Any disturbance to their sleep can be detrimental, not only to the mom but to her pup as well. 

                                                        — Allison Gregor

Runner Up: Kathleen Curtis with ‘Panic of the King Tide’

Photo taken at 300+ meters with a Canon EOS Rebel T6S using a 210 mm telephoto lens. Photo taken at 300+ meters with a Canon EOS Rebel T6S using a 210 mm telephoto lens.

This photograph was taken at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, in San Simeon, CA in January 2019 during the King Tide-the highest tide of the year. This unfortunately coincided with a strong Pacific storm, covering the beach in surf. In this image, new born elephant seal pups are struggling to stay on the beach, while the raging surf pulls them out to sea. These young pups do not yet know how to swim and their blubber layer is insufficient for the cold water. This image captures their brave struggle to survive.

— Kathleen Curtis

Honorable Mention: Sharon Hsu with ‘Mom’s Home’

Moss Landing, CA, Canon EOS 7D, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS USMoss Landing, CA, Canon EOS 7D, EF 100-400mm f/4.5-4.5L IS US

A snowy plover makes its way back to her nest to incubate her eggs. One of the last nests of yet another difficult breeding season for these small shorebirds, extra efforts were made by conservationists to protect this particular nest. The breeding pair may have been first time breeders, as the nest was constructed in an exposed area of the beach, and unfortunately, a week after this photo was taken, the eggs were swept away by an unusually high tide. 

— Sharon Hsu

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Sea Otter Vision

Why Sea Otters Don’t Need Sunglasses or Swim Goggles

By Sarah McKay Strobel

Artwork by Will Bullas

When was the last time that you woke up thirsty in the middle of the night? Maybe you got out of bed and turned on the light. Groggy with eyes blinking from the brightness, you staggered to the kitchen. After drinking a glass of water, you turned off the light, but the hazy afterimages in your vision forced you to rely on your memory and touch to return to your bed. You might consider this scenario a minor inconvenience, but consider if you had to repeat this every three minutes for the next four hours? 

Sea otters run through this routine regularly, but instead of going to the kitchen for a glass of water, they dive 30 to 100 feet to find and catch an unsuspecting meal at the seafloor. Light attenuates more quickly under water than in air, so even if the sun shines brightly at the water’s surface, shallow-diving sea otters hunt in semi-darkness. Unlike seals, sea lions, and whales, sea otters do not eat under water, so they bring what they catch to the bright light at the water’s surface to process and consume. After a quick spin to wash off lingering debris from their hard-shelled invertebrate snack, sea otters dive back to the dim seafloor to search for the next bite. While sea otters may get a reprieve from stark light transitions between dawn and dusk, they still successfully forage, groom, and socialize in darkness throughout the night [1-3]. Prolonged seasonal shifts are a fact of life for sea otters in Alaska, who experience nearly 24 hours of daylight in the summer and about 18 hours of night in the winter.

strobel fig 1Caption: The tapetum lucidum in a young, female sea otter reflects the camera flash as a green-yellow circle within the pupil at dusk. The tapetum lucidum in the same sea otter viewed with a special camera reflects a gradient of turquoise, green, yellow, orange, and reddish-brown The presence of the tapetum lucidum in the upper portion helps reflect light from the lower visual field (as in human eyes, images are upside down on the retina and the brain flips the image perceived by the eyes). Researchers have been unsure how to interpret observations of wild sea otters in the context of vision for decades. Sea otter prey is often visually camouflaged or buried, and the digging methods that sea otters use to extract them can actually make the surrounding water cloudy [4,5]. However, some sea otters seem to seasonally shift their foraging activity to daylight hours [6], which suggests that vision improves sea otters’ ability to find and capture prey, thereby conserving energy. As the folks at Sea Otter Savvy can attest, sea otters are highly visually attuned to disturbances and direct their gaze toward the offender when deciding whether to settle back in for a nap or leave the area. 

So what is a sea otter to do? Vision takes a lot of energy to maintain, and researchers have consistently found that conserving energy is one of the top priorities that drives sea otter behavior.  Have sea otters reduced their reliance on vision or have they developed specialized visual adaptations that help them navigate a highly variable and wide-ranging light environment? 

Recent research by my team has helped to fill in longstanding gaps to help us answer these questions [7]. We examined how parts of the sea otter eye—the pupil, retina, and tapetum lucidum—contribute to vision. We found that the retina resembles those of other nocturnal mammals with a dense array of photoreceptors (light-sensitive cells) that is heavily dominated by highly light-sensitive rods. Sea otters have a well-developed tapetum lucidum (Latin for “bright tapestry”) at the back of their eye, which acts like a mirror to reflect light to the retina. Humans and other primates do not have a tapetum lucidum, but it causes the eyeshine you notice in your dog or cat at night. Together, these findings indicate that sea otter eyes are sensitive enough to see reasonably well in bright light and low light, both in air and under water. 

strobel fig 2Size range of the circular pupil in an adult, male sea otter, photographed across day (left photo) and night (right photo). The scale bar in the upper-right-hand corner represents 1 mm.Sea otter pupils are highly mobile in size, but not as much as seals and sea lions [8], and the pupil’s constriction response is slightly slower than in other species measured [9-11] . Just like a camera’s aperture, the pupil’s size and shape determines how much light is transmitted to the lens then refracted to the photoreceptors and tapetum lucidum. These observations suggest that although sea otters can see over a wide range of light levels, they may be limited in adjusting to the rapid and extreme change in light conditions when diving during the day. 

However, sea otters’ ability to see across a wide range of light levels doesn’t necessarily mean that sea otters see clearly across light levels. When sea otters rest at the water’s surface, their eyes focus light the same way as human eyes: light bends as it travels from the air through the eye due to differences in optical density. When light bends just the right amount, it converges at the photoreceptors on the retina, resulting in a clear image. Even if you have clear vision in air, have you ever tried opening your eyes under water in a swimming pool and noticed that your vision is blurry? Since the optical densities of water and your eye structures do not differ much, light bends less as it passes through the eye. The result? Light converges behind the retina, resulting in a blurry image. Swim goggles remedy the blurry image for humans, since light travels through the air in the goggles before reaching the eyes. 

strobel fig 3Special staining techniques help us to better visualize the sea otter retina, in which the photoreceptors resemble a galaxy of colored stars! Highly light-sensitive rods (in blue) dominate the retina relative to cones (in green).In ideal conditions in air, sea otters can see about as clearly as seals, sea lions, and walruses [12-22], which is about 7x less clear than humans with 20/20 vision. If you are near-sighted, and your prescription is between -2.00 and -3.00, a sea otter may see about as clearly as you do without your corrective lenses (although keep in mind this is a very rough approximation). We have evidence that sea otters see just as clearly under water as they do in air [23], so what is the sea otter version of swim goggles? Sea otters can squeeze their lenses through their pupils into a more rounded shape when diving [23]. The more rounded shape bends the light more, which compensates for the reduced bending effected by water, and light properly reaches the retina, enabling a clear image. Although humans can change the shape of our lens when focusing on near and far objects (termed accommodation), our abilities and those of most other vertebrates measured are nowhere near as impressive as sea otters. In fact, sea otters have one of the highest accommodations measured in vertebrates, rivaled only by freshwater otters and diving birds like cormorants [24-27].

Since the pupil plays a key role in reshaping the lens of sea otters when under water, what happens to sea otter vision during low light levels when the pupil dilates to capture more light for the retina? Similar to trying to blow a bubble with an open mouth, if the lens is squeezed through a wider aperture, it will be less round and bend light less, resulting in a blurry image. This means that the sea otter version of swim goggles only works to produce a clear image under a narrow range of light levels.

Darkened daytime conditions like those experienced during California's 2020 wildfires may have triggered sea otter nighttime foraging superpowers. Photo by Sharon HsuDarkened daytime conditions like those experienced during California's 2020 wildfires may have triggered sea otter nighttime foraging superpowers. Photo by Sharon HsuSo, how does the combination of pupil, lens, photoreceptors, tapetum lucidum, and accommodation all factor into the visual world of wild sea otters? In air, sea otters likely use vision during the day in social interactions and to detect and avoid dangerous situations. Even though sea otters don’t have highly acute vision to resolve fine detail, they can likely ascertain danger based on contrast due to brightness or color differences (yes, sea otters can see color [28], similar to a red-green colorblind human!. Current predators of sea otters, including bald eagles, coyotes, and brown bears, tend to hunt diurnally from air or land, as did a former predator of sea otters—humans—prior to the last century [29-31]. When foraging under water, sea otters surely use vision during brighter light to detect non-buried prey and associated environmental features, and they may use vision in dimmer light to detect large environmental features associated with prey. However, sea otters are unlikely to use vision in low light to detect non-buried prey or fine details of the underwater environment. 

Like all living organisms, sea otters are not restricted to a single sense for any one behavior. We’ve known anecdotally for decades that sea otters can compensate for vision loss, since they can forage just as successfully during low-light levels and periods of poor water visibility, and when hunting for buried prey. Recent research has confirmed that this ability likely results from highly sensitive whiskers and paws, which can discriminate fine detail as well as humans and other touch specialists, but incredibly faster [32].

We still have so much to learn about sensory biology and its influence on behavior, not only in charismatic marine mammals like sea otters, but also in species less traditionally considered just because they seem very different than humans. All kinds of life—from insects to plants to bacteria—use some form of light, sound, chemicals, touch, electricity, and/or magnetic fields to survive. Examining sensory abilities across diverse life forms reminds us that what we humans consider as objective aspects of this world, based on how we view, smell, feel, and hear, are in reality the most inherently subjective concepts of all.

 

About the author

strobel biopic 2Sarah McKay was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee (which explains why she has two first names), and she recently graduated with her PhD graduate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). Her dissertation research investigated how sea otters detect, locate, and acquire benthic prey in controlled and natural settings. Sarah McKay is broadly interested in sensory ecology, neurobiology, and behavior of amphibious animals. As she continues to advance her research, she is also committed to improving equity in science and academia—she currently works as a program coordinator for STEM undergraduate tutoring services at UCSC. If you want to stay up to date with Sarah McKay’s research (and watch her learn how to tweet), please follow her on Twitter

When not in the midst of research or program coordination, Sarah McKay thrives on being outside as much as possible, rain or shine, and she enjoys pushing her body with activities like rock climbing, yoga, trail running, and mountain biking. She readily admits that she has zero self-control around a bag of cheesy popcorn, and she is finally making some progress with training her rescue german shepherd dog to realize that other dogs aren't so scary.

References

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[2]   J. Jolly, Foraging ecology of the sea otter, Enhydra lutris, in a soft-sediment community, Masters Thesis, University of California Santa Cruz, 1997.

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[10] R.H. Douglas, R.D. Harper, J.F. Case, The pupil response of a teleost fish, Porichthys notatus: description and comparison to other species, Vision Res. 38 (1998) 2697-2710. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0042-6989(98)00021-2.

[11] L.R. McCormick, J.H. Cohen, Pupil light reflex in the Atlantic brief squid, Lolliguncula brevis, J. Exp. Biol. 215 (2012) 2677-2683. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.068510.

[12] R.L. Gentry, R.S. Peterson, Underwater vision of the sea otter, Nature. 216 (1967) 435-436. https://doi.org/10.1038/216435a0.

[13] R.J. Schusterman, R.F. Balliet, Visual acuity of the harbour seal and the steller sea lion under water, Nature. 226 (1970) 563-564. https://doi.org/10.1038/226563a0.

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[15] A.M. Mass, Retinal topography in the walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergence) and fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus), in: J.A. Thomas, R.A. Kastelein, A.Y. Supin (Eds.), Mar. Mammal Sens. Syst., Springer US, Boston, MA, 1992: pp. 119-135. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-3406-8_7.

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[20] A.M. Mass, A.Y. Supin, Retinal ganglion cell layer of the Caspian seal Pusa caspica: topography and localization of the high-resolution area, Brain. Behav. Evol. 76 (2010) 144-153. https://doi.org/10.1159/000320951.

[21] M. Weiffen, B. Möller, B. Mauck, G. Dehnhardt, Effect of water turbidity on the visual acuity of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), Vision Res. 46 (2006) 1777-1783. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.visres.2005.08.015.

[22] F.D. Hanke, W. Hanke, C. Scholtyssek, G. Dehnhardt, Basic mechanisms in pinniped vision, Exp. Brain Res. 199 (2009) 299-311. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-009-1793-6.

[23] C.J. Murphy, R.W. Bellhorn, T. Williams, M.S. Burns, F. Schaeffel, H.C. Howland, Refractive state, ocular anatomy, and accommodative range of the sea otter (Enhydra lutris), Vision Res. 30 (1990) 23-32. https://doi.org/10.1016/0042-6989(90)90125-5.

[24] K.A. Ballard, J.G. Sivak, H.C. Howland, Intraocular muscles of the Canadian river otter and Canadian beaver and their optical function, Can. J. Zool. 67 (1989) 469-474. https://doi.org/10.1139/z89-068.

[25] B. Levy, J.G. Sivak, Mechanisms of accommodation in the bird eye, J. Comp. Physiol. A. 137 (1980) 267-272. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00657122.

[26] G. Katzir, H.C. Howland, Corneal power and underwater accommodation in great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo sinensis), J. Exp. Biol. 206 (2003) 833-841. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.00142.

[27] J.G. Sivak, T. Hildebrand, C. Lebert, Magnitude and rate of accommodation in diving and nondiving birds, Vision Res. 25 (1985) 925-933. https://doi.org/10.1016/0042-6989(85)90203-2.

[28] D.H. Levenson, P.J. Ponganis, M. a Crognale, J.F. Deegan, A. Dizon, G.H. Jacobs, Visual pigments of marine carnivores: pinnipeds, polar bear, and sea otter, J. Comp. Physiol. A. 192 (2006) 833-843. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-006-0121-x.

[29] M.L. Riedman, J.A. Estes, The sea otter Enhydra lutris: behavior, ecology, and natural history, Biol. Rep. - US Fish Wildl. Serv. 90 (1990) 1-136.

[30] D.H. Monson, A.R. DeGange, Reproduction, preweaning survival, and survival of adult sea otters at Kodiak Island, Alaska, Can. J. Zool. 73 (1995) 1161-1169. https://doi.org/10.1139/z95-138.

[31] R.G. Liapunova, N.N. Miklukho, Essays on the ethnography of Aleuts: at the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century, The University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, 1996.

[32] S.M. Strobel, J.M. Sills, M.T. Tinker, C.J. Reichmuth, Active touch in sea otters: in-air and underwater texture discrimination thresholds and behavioral strategies for paws and vibrissae, J. Exp. Biol. 221 (2018) jeb181347. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.181347.

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Post, Like, Share: The Power and Peril of Social Media and Wildlife Photography

feature photographer morgan rector 1200cropA hungry otter diving amongst the kelp at Asilomar.  Location: Asilomar State Marine Reserve Distance: ~300 ft Lens: Canon EF 100-400 mm, Morgan Rector

By Morgan Rector

When I first picked up a camera and decided to start my Instagram page, @seawithmorgan, I had a mission in mind: share the beauty of our planet and its creatures. However, the more time I spent near the ocean, a new mission became abundantly clear, to try to use whatever voice I had to spread awareness about the pressing issues facing our oceans, animals, and planet. My mission evolved. It became, to use photos, social media, and words to try to spread a message: Everything in our planet is connected. Our actions have an impact. We need to address climate change. Now. 

morgan pup with shell 500Early in the morning, this young sea otter was eating voraciously in the kelp of Moss Landing. Dive, eat, dive, eat, repeat. Location: Moss Landing, CA Distance: Similar to the previous photo, this was taken from about 100 ft away, and I was hidden. Camera Lens: 400 mm, this photo was cropped quite a bit, equivalent of a 600 mm lens. So why did I choose social media as my main platform? Social media has allowed people to connect more than ever before. We are able to collaborate with people in different regions of the world and reach thousands (even millions) of people in an extremely short period of time. Social media is a powerful, revolutionary method of communication with a larger, more diverse potential audience than we have ever experienced before. What better way to connect with others and share what I was seeing and studying?

Wildlife photography and social media can be difficult to navigate at times. To me, the distinction between good wildlife photography on social media, and poor wildlife photography on social media, lies in the motivation behind creating the material, and the knowledge of the subject portrayed. 

Love and respect are essential tools in wildlife photography. When an artist truly cares for and respects their subjects, they can create incredibly powerful content. I try to focus on the message I am trying to send and the care that I have for the animal every time I am taking photographs. Motivation behind taking wildlife photos is critical. Are you trying to spread awareness? Are you appreciating the beauty of nature? Or, are you trying to go viral and become famous? If it’s the latter, you may be erring on the side of unethical wildlife photography. 

When wildlife photography is backed in a strong understanding of science, this also increases its power. It is no accident that some of the best wildlife photographers in the world are also scientists. I have seen images by incredible photographers that have completely changed my perspective and even the course of my career (shout-out to Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, Bertie Gregory, and Brian Skerry). Does that mean you need to be a scientist to be an effective wildlife photographer on social media? No. But you do need to have a clear scientific understanding of your subjects. Before I attempt to photograph any animal, I research them extensively.

In fact, that is my most important piece of advice: study the animals you want to photograph. Be aware of their signals of distress, their normal behavior patterns, what they eat, where they sleep,etc.. Know that there are going to be many days when you are not going to get any good photos, so you are not tempted to resort to unethical practices such as scaring an animal or getting too close to get a good photo. Patience and ethical wildlife photography go hand in hand. Capturing a truly fantastic photo may take days, weeks, months, or even years.

On the other hand, the potential downside of wildlife photography on social media, is that it can be motivated by a desire for personal fame or for the number of “likes.” I have certainly seen many photos and videos online that have gone viral that are actually photos or videos of scared animals. For instance, I have seen countless photos of frightened otters captioned “curious otter,” because otters often pull their bodies and paws out of the water when they are afraid, which can look like a “curious,” pose. Again, without a thorough understanding of an animal before attempting to photograph it, people can unknowingly inflict harm on the animals. Many well-meaning people accidentally disturb animals purely because they are unaware.

Unethical wildlife photography is devoid of its power to motivate others to care and protect our beautiful planet. In a society that values “getting rich quick,” the desire to capture a photo or video that will make you famous online can override a commitment to ethical guidelines. 

morgan grizzled resting 500A sea otter lays back to take a well-deserved morning nap. It’s a lot of work keeping the kelp forest healthy! Location: Monterey, near the Coast Guard Pier in the Marina Distance: 100 ft, As well as being hidden on the dock in the Marina. Lens: 400 mm lens, cropped to the equivalent of ~ 600 mmAnother potential downside of social media, is that someone may see a photo by a wildlife photographer who has practiced all of the ethical guidelines and used a telephoto lens and think “I want to take that photo too.” In an attempt to recreate a professional photo, they try to use an iPhone and get too close not realizing that the photographer used a telephoto lens. This creates safety issues for the photographer, as well as stress on the animals. Photographers can help combat this tendency by being transparent about the equipment they use and the stories behind their photographs. 

Overall, I believe that the potential benefits to communication and connection created by social media outweigh the negatives. From my own Instagram account, I have been able to connect with people from all over the world. I have been able to show people what happens when balloons end up in the ocean, sea otters using an empty wine bottle to crack open a mussels on their bellies, when pelicans mistake plastic pollution for food, or when animals become entangled in fishing line and nets. I absolutely love this aspect of social media because it creates awareness and motivation to change. Social media has the power to incite movements and change hearts, if executed correctly. 

Research has shown that the impact of photos and videos reaches far beyond the impact of words alone[1]. When people can actually see the need for conservation, they are more motivated to act. The more people that see, the better. When I think of social media, it gives me hope that we can reach enough people to motivate large-scale change to reverse the impacts of climate change and protect our planet and its creatures. Climate change is a multi-dimensional, interconnected problem, that will require many brilliant minds of all different backgrounds to develop effective solutions. How can we connect with many brilliant people? Social media.

morgan otters in waves 800About 15 otters gathered in the waves at a turn-out in Pacific Grove, feeding on mussels and crabs from nearby rocks. Location: Pacific Grove, CA Distance: ~200-300 ft Lens: Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6l is ii usm lens (Canon 100-400 mm) 

[1] Loeffler, T.A. A picture is worth... capturing meaning and facilitating connections: Using outdoor education students’ photographs. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 8, 56–63 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03400804

About the author:

Morgan bio 350I know that people are willing to protect what they love, and my hope is to inspire love and appreciation for nature through my artwork. As a means of doing so, I document amazing wildlife, scenery, and photos of the plight of our oceans. I hope to inspire change in consumer behavior through my photography and encouraging people to connect with the planet. When I am not taking photos, I spend my time working with multiple conservation organizations in Monterey and the greater California area. I received an undergraduate degree in Psychology with a special focus in Biological Sciences from Cal Poly SLO in 2019, and plan to return to graduate school in the coming year.

On a more personal note… born in Monterey, California, I developed my passion for conservation, the outdoors, and adventure at a young age. I am an energetic thrill-seeker, spending as much of my life outside as possible. Whether that time is spent pursuing photography, hiking, kayaking, SCUBA, biking, camping, backpacking, cliff-jumping, free-diving, horseback riding, skiing, or a combination, I am constantly in pursuit of a new adventure.

Check out Morgan's website: https://www.seawithmorgan.com/

The Big Picture: Photographing Wildlife Ecosystems

This photo  of a sea otter at rest in kelp canopy was taken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia from a boat, at a respectful distance, with a Nikon D3 S with a 24-70mm lensThis photo of a sea otter at rest in kelp canopy was taken on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia from a boat, at a respectful distance, with a Nikon D3 S with a 24-70mm lens

By Isabelle Groc

When it comes to photographing wildlife, most of us are looking to create a connection with our subject, revealing the personalities of animals. We tend to focus on the eyes, working tight with long lenses, to create intimate and revealing images. The background may be irrelevant. What matters is the visual relationship between the photographer and the photographed animal. Our audiences also naturally tend to be attracted towards images that get us closer to the animal, whether it is an elephant, a polar bear, or a sea otter. These wildlife portraits are the ones that are often the most popular on social media.

We are particularly drawn to charismatic, beautiful animals, while numerous species are constantly ignored. I experienced this bias when I started working on my documentary Toad People. Many people repeatedly challenged us on our choice to focus on western toads, an amphibian whose delicate beauty was not immediately apparent.

Do portraits of charismatic wildlife truly create a lasting connection with nature? Do they help motivate audiences to protect and conserve the featured animals? Do they promote a sense of care? I would argue that while close-up wildlife images can be compelling on an emotional level and get people’s immediate attention, they do not always help towards the long-term conservation of species.

These photographs offer an abstract view of wild species, disconnected from their environment. In this moment, we forget that the animals are an integral part of a complex, interconnected, diverse system. No species exists in isolation as the images may lead us to believe.

Research exploring the “paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals” reviewed the conservation status of the 10 animals considered the most charismatic by the public: the tiger, the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the leopard, the panda, the cheetah, the polar bear, the gray wolf, and the gorilla. The study published in 2018 and led by Franck Courchamp of the University of Paris-Sud found that all these species except for the gray wolf were classified as either Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered according to the IUCN Red List.

What is particularly troubling is that Courchamp and his team found that the public was often unaware that the animals they deemed charismatic were threatened with extinction. Why was there such a lack of awareness? The study suggests that “people base their perception of these species on their virtual rather than real populations.” In other  words, as people are inundated every day with images portraying the animals, they are led to believe that they are way more abundant in the wild than is accurate.

When we show close-up portraits that separate wildlife species from their natural habitat, we, as photographers are contributing to this problem and are disconnecting ourselves further from nature as a complex system. Habitat destruction is the number one threat faced by many species, whether they are charismatic or not. I believe photographers have the responsibility to visually reconnect the animals to their habitat and symbolically give them their space back.

It is time to take a step back and reinvent our vocabulary. Wildlife images should not just be stand-alone abstract portraits. Instead, they can become part of a larger story that helps create awareness and connects the public to the predicament of species in the wild. Rather than zooming in or cropping our subject, how can we zoom out, see the big picture, and show the connections between the animals and the wild places they live in?

groc beach closure signs 2 500Sea otters at home in an estuary eelgrass bed with neighboring harbor seals. Photo was taken in Elkhorn Slough at a respectful distance from a boat using a Nikon D3 S with a 200-500 mm lens and 1.4 converter.Sea otters are a great example that illustrates this approach to wildlife storytelling. I have photographed sea otters for the last 12 years, and have come to understand how their role as a keystone species is essential to a rich, complex and connected ecosystem, contributing to the overall health of the planet. 

Like many other people, I first fell in love with their beautiful faces and wanted to capture all the details of their whiskers and paws with my camera. But as I spent more time studying the animals and interviewed biologists, the more I came to understand that sea otters reveal the importance of fully functioning ecosystems. Sea otters inspired me to see the big picture. I realized that everything was connected and that when one species is removed from the system, there are cascading effects that we barely comprehend.

This was a turning point for me as a photojournalist.  I no longer just wanted to create the images that revealed the variety of sea otters’ behaviours, I also looked for ways to visually “frame” these animals in the context of their multidimensional story of how they transform their environment in both obvious and subtle ways. This meant paying attention to the details of the local ecosystem, from invertebrates in the rich intertidal zone to birds, seagrass and kelp. It also stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the scientific knowledge that has been gathered  about the animals. The science now guides my visual storytelling.

In doing so, I have not only been able to document the world of the sea otter, but also rethink how I can visually give space back to all the species I photograph and tell the larger stories of diverse wildlife systems. My hope is that this approach can enhance our relationship to nature and encourage us to not see wildlife as abstract art but actively educate ourselves about the threats they face and take steps to protect the natural world.

To learn more about Isabelle’s work, visit her website and follow her on Instagram


Her most recent non fiction children’s book Sea Otters: A Survival Story with foreword by Dame Judi Dench and David Mills (Orca Book Publishers, April 2020) is available in print and ebook.