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Elephant seal close encounter

There's an incredible island in the South Atlantic, hundreds of miles from any other land, carved by ice, shaped by wild weather, and overflowing with wildlife. South Georgia is one of the few places on this planet that can leave a human stunned and completely overwhelmed. Nevermind National Geographic's list of Top Ten Beaches with their tropical locale and powder-white sand. The bodies splayed out on the sand at Gold Harbour on South Georgia's eastern coast are fat and jiggle when moved. Denizens snort and sneeze with comical frequency. Bones litter the shoreline. It's a place of frenetic energy verging on chaos and it's also my favorite beach on the planet.

Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) are not only the largest species of seal, they are also the largest member of the Order Carnivora, which includes bears and the large cats. If it were not for whales, this would be the largest carnivorous mammal on the planet, with a maximum size pushing 8,000 pounds and 17 feet long. During the early summer breeding season, Gold Harbour is the stage for incredible feats of strength and monk-like determination. Thousands of male southern elephant seals will guard harems of females, sometimes battling with other males for the rank of Beachmaster. The fights are nearly always bloody and sometimes even fatal. Females come to shore knowing the larger males could crush them amidst the fray, but the insatiable need to give birth brings them back year after year.

To capture this image took more luck than anything. Not luck in the sense that I was lucky to get out in one piece. I was lucky to be in the right place just as this big boy was waking up from his nap. Although this male seal may have been a fierce fighter just days or weeks before, by the time I reached Gold Harbour, his energy level had waned with the ebbing mating season. Prime season had come and gone so he appeared to be biding his time, waiting for the right moment to leave the shore and head back out to sea until molting season.

Noticing his repeated, predicatable behavior, I moved slowly towards the yawning seal, making sure not to disturb the exhausted animal and also keeping an eye on nearby seals that could complicate a quick retreat. Kneeling on one knee, ready to spring up and run if needed, I set the camera's settings for an appropriate exposure and waited for the next yawn. It may appear that this animal is bursting from the sea in a fit of rage, but really he's laying in just a few inches of wave wash and yawning. Reaching out with the camera in one hand, just above the swilrling water, I snapped several shots per yawn. Because I did not want to put myself in a precarious position of laying down right next to this massive animal, I was unable to hold the camera up to my eye, and had to rely on prior experience with this lens to frame the shot. Never before or since have I been able to frame a "hail Mary" so well as with this shot.

Pre-visualization and familiarity with both my gear and the subject went a long way in creating this image. Without all three of those factors, I could have gotten squished or ended up with a completely medicore photo.

For more of my elephant seal images, visit The Daily Mail's article on my portfolio

Aperture: f/8

Shutter speed: 1/640

ISO: 100

EV: -1

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