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Bryant Austin, the whale man, the man who floats in the sea with his camera and snaps pictures of whales who come to him and sometimes nudge him with curious affection, will exhibit a series of his photographs, called “full-body, life-size composites,” in Monterey on Feb. 2.
Titled “Beautiful Whale,” the photographic exhibit and reception, the first showing in North America, will take place at the Museum of Monterey from 5 to 8 p.m. Austin will also deliver a lecture on whales on Jan. 26 at the Museum of Monterey at 2 p.m. to coincide with Monterey’s annual Whale Fest, to be held Jan. 26 and 27 at the Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey.
Already renowned for a body of photographic work over the past decade photographing whales in some of the most remote and exotic spots in the world, Austin said his hope is to use photography to protect whales.
“Whale hunting is not the most serious threat to whales, less than one percent are lost that way,” he said. “Most of the problems, 99 percent, come from our own lifestyle choices.”
Austin said sea pollution, becoming entangled in fishing nets, ingesting discarded plastics and other related hazards, including collisions with hundreds of cargo ships, are far more serious threats to whales than the hunting of them.
In 2008, he exhibited his photos at the International Whaling Commission meeting held in Santiago, Chile. He has also shown them in Japan and Norway, two countries that still allow the hunting of whales.
“The reception in Japan was a very positive experience,” Austin said. “The people there love whales and dolphins. The symposium was attended by up to 800 people per day.”
Austin floats motionless miles out to sea with a snorkel (no air tanks) sometimes six days a week and up to 11 hours a day. The whales, sensing no threat, approach him to see what he is.
“My boat was anchored off the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) where I was photographing dwarf minke whales,” he said. “Dwarf minke whales are very shy, but for a five-week period, they change and become inquisitive, and I don’t know why.”
He also took photos of sperm whales in the Eastern Caribbean, and humpback whales in the South Pacific.
“The South Ocean in the Antarctic is where humpbacks feed, but from July to October, they come to the South Pacific to mate and give birth,” Austin explained.
Austin’s expensive Hasselblad 50 megapixel camera is able to take photos of whales that are exhibited life-size just as they appear in the water. One of his favorite spots is the island kingdom of Tonga.
“One time a humpback mother whale with a 2-month-old two-ton calf approached me,” Austin recalled. “The mother was under me and I lost sight of the calf. Then a pectoral fin brushed against my chest. The calf swam behind me and rested its chin on my back. I think perhaps the calf was mimicking the behavior of the mother.”
Another time Austin came so close to a whale he was literally eye-to-eye with the huge mammal.
“You can tell when a whale is soothed and relaxed,” he said. “Their expression gets very placid and calm.”
Austin, who grew up in Sacramento, worked for a government office and in a warehouse before realizing his life’s dream of recording whales in a way nobody had before.
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