Although the image in this blog is of a white rhino, an auction is planned this weekend in Dallas to issue a permit to shoot a black rhino in Namibia. The claim is that the $1mm will go to conservation. I personally find this absolutely unnecessary and abhorrent. However, I always try to listen to others who have expertise. One person I completely respect is Chris Liebenberg. He now lives in the U.S. but is Namibian – and has worked in the field for many years. I asked if he would comment and allow me to make his statement public and he consented.

This is, and thankfully always will be a very touchy subject.
I worked in Etosha and Damaraland in the early 90’s, chainsawing the horns off rhino so they would not be shot by poachers. I have been with the trackers on the northern border in pursuit of poachers. I have seen the millions of dollars the government and NGO’s have poured into Rhino Conservation. I have heard from the founders of the conservancies how they are happy to have invested and trusted conservation for the sake of the sustainability the land now offers as a tourism destination, vs a poaching haven. I am so incredibly proud of the often “against the tide” decisions Namibians have made when it comes to conservation. We can claim for now to have been arguably one of the most consistent and successful when it comes to some major conservation issues and concerns. This desire now to allow the benefits of all the conservation, play itself out by having all this effort rewarded by having an animal shot, does actually make some bizarre sense. I do agree that rhino and conservation land has to pay for itself and some will argue that hunting should be allowed on land that is not as economically profitable via photographic tourism, I get the argument and can even pragmatically (not emotionally) agree with some of the arguments. Statistically and scientifically, the argument can be made and it could even be considered a strong one. However, I do still have 2 nagging arguments that I would like to hear the folks in favor of killing Namibian Rhino answer for me. 1) I am proud of how Namibia has managed to conserve, often in the face of “common wisdom” and been successful. However the fact that we have earned the right to utilize our natural resources does not allow us to exist in a vacuum, free of the problems of the rest of Africa. Yes, our Black Rhino are part of our National Herd but they also form part of the bigger picture. To OK a hunt in the midst of a continent wide poaching crisis is inconsiderate at best, to the woes of our neighbors. 2) All this talk of how some areas are just not suitable for photographic tourism. I agree that these areas certainly exist but how can an area have such a rare and charismatic, sought after species and still not attract photographic tourists? You could put a rhino in a septic tank and people would show up! And if these rhino really are in such an area then my question is why? There may be a time, in some distant future where the continent wide rhino situation in terms of population and geographic distribution based on available habitat, will make me arguing against the hunt, more about passion and less about science and politics… but we are not their yet so please hunters, take your eyes off our rhino for now, let us save a few more and help our neighbors do the same.
Chris Liebenberg – owner – Piper & Heath Travel

Westerners have a tendency to blame China for the bulk of the world’s pollution problem.  While recently visiting China, Beijing in particular, I witnessed the beauty of the city on one special sunny, blue-sky day.


However, within 36 hours the ubiquitous blanket of smog returned – smelly, cough-inducing, eye-burning smog.  And just yesterday the smog was reported at a record high of 40 times the international safety standard. This is a serious problem in many of the most populated areas of China where too many cars with no emission standards exist and there is a pervasive use of coal for producing electricity and heat.  Was I angry and upset?  Well, I knew I would be coming home to beautiful Seattle with its clean crisp air.  My new Chinese friends did not have that choice.  When speaking to the younger generation of Chinese, they too are extremely concerned about the quality of the air in Beijing – and of the planet.  Young people who will want to raise children someday but not in an environment that may eventually poison their family.


Many people may point fingers at the Chinese, but that isn’t the only side to this story.  Here in Washington State, there is currently heated discussion about building a large port just south of Bellingham. This port would take enormous loads of coal from the U.S. to –yes you guessed correctly – China! It seems American energy companies just care about profits and not the health of our global community. So where do we take responsibility for contributing to the continued destruction? And is this really a case of pushing our pollution out of sight and out of our lungs?

Turns out no it is not. 10 billion pounds of airborne pollutants from Asia reach the United States each year. Scientists can actually track the brown clouds across the Pacific Ocean by satellite. They also are studying how Asian pollution is destabilizing weather patterns across the Western US and reducing rainfall. The particulates coming over are so numerous that they accumulate on the West side of Mount Rainier each summer and create what looks like a shadow on the mountain. Most people don’t realize that “shadow” is really coal, soot, mercury, pesticides, and PCBs.

So we really shouldn’t be pointing fingers. Everyone else’s backyard is our backyard as well. Pollution doesn’t follow country borders and neither should our environmental policies. It doesn’t get much more global than this.

Watch Coal, the documentary, for more information on this important Northwest controversy:


After seeing Blackfish and posting my distress on Facebook, I wanted to reopen this Blog for comments. The activity was quite heavy but it wasn’t until I received a comment that was made about a photo of me with a hornbill on my shoulder. First assumption was that I was in a zoo and the bird was captive. That assumption was incorrect but that is now not the point. The point of this blog is to openly discuss – “Is there EVER an acceptable time to have animals in captivity?” Let’s talk about this and would love to hear your views.


In the past few years, I have become an advocate for many issues.  One issue keeps repeating itself – over and over, again and again.  Why do humans need to be entertained by jumping, squeaking dolphins???  True scientific research and rehabilitation is one thing.  Keeping these magnificent cetaceans for pure exploitation and entertainment is another.  I have seen “dolphinariums” in seaside towns throughout the Caribbean, just a leap away from being in their natural environment.

  But recently, I was reminded just how cruel we humans can be just to be entertained.  A stroll down the Las Vegas strip during the recent dive convention (DEMA) with glitzy signs announcing the shows of celebrities and come-on’s to the strip clubs, a sign at the Mirage advertised a Siegfried & Roy’s dolphin show.  Here in the desert, these animals are held captive for the mass of humanity to scuffle in and see…

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White rhino calf and mother



As a fellow of International League of Conservation Photographers, and one of several who travel to Africa and care about the wildlife, I wanted to begin a discussion on the use of television and the upcoming program Battleground: Rhino Wars to air on Animal Planet tonight.  The number of rhinos slaughtered last year in Southern Africa was 618, and as of this posting, 146 have been killed this year.  In discussing this with my friend, Chris Liebenberg of  Piper and Heath, he stated: “I am excited that we are bringing attention to this crisis but I am afraid that any type of insincere sensationalist style coverage may do more harm than good. Some of what I have seen in the previews looks like they are talking about the right issues but I hope they address them in detail. The one thing Africa shies away from, especially in South Africa is any kind of paternalistic overbearing foreign influence and we need to be careful that these guys are sincere, but more importantly, have some skillset or motivation that is not present in South Africa. I believe the Rhino Poaching solution lies in intelligence, the way we do it in Namibia and so I am expecting a lot from the intelligence officer”.  Chris is intimately involved in this issue – raised in Namibia and years of guiding guests to the wonders of African wildlife, he has seen many changes. Chris has worked in front line Rhino conservation, including working on a Rhino de-horning project in Etosha National Park in the mid-nineties. Chris goes on to say: “Basically we would dart and immobilize the Rhino and then chainsaw the horns off so the poachers had no reason to kill them. It worked quite well in Namibia but has proved less effective in other countries”.

White rhino photographed in Zimbabwe

White rhino photographed in Zimbabwe


The question to ask yourself, and perhaps join in on the dialogue is “How can we save a species?”  Is the use of reality styled programming a valid platform to inform the public about the hideous slaughter of rhinos?  Can the collaboration of retired US military be valuable to the team of anti-poaching squads in Southern Africa or is this just a ruse for television ratings?  Watch tonight then get back to this blog post for what I think will be a lively discussion.

Our last day in the Acteon group with the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, representing iLCP, my assistant Megan and I were able to photograph the turquoise waters where Tahiti’s famous black pearls are grown. Pearls come in a rainbow of colors, but Gambier has the reputation for the finest pearls in French Polynesia and a distinct blue-green shade.

One of the Tahitian free divers retrieving an oyster filled screen.

One of the Tahitian free divers retrieving an oyster filled screen.

It was a vigorous start to the morning with Dominique Devaux, the head manager for GIE POE O RIKITEA teaching us about the pearl farm industry. Starting with the freedivers amid the labyrinth of pearl lines to pull in oyster baskets, it was an amazing experience photographing the task – underwater. After years hanging in the water column, filter feeding on the plankton, and secreting a shiny compound called nacre, the pearls inside these bivalves were ready to be harvested.

A delighted group of pearl free divers.  Amazing young men.

A delighted group of pearl free divers. Amazing young men.

Flashback to oysters’ young lives: A spat, at one year old (science’s word for oyster baby) is ready to be seeded. The shell is pried open with a special wooden wedge peg in order to reach inside for graphing.  The oyster is alive (and hopefully will stay that way) so opening the shell as little as possible and swift skillful handling are essential.

Quick and gentle opening of the oyster is essential.

Quick and gentle opening of the oyster is essential.

A technician slides a small square of mantle tissue, muscle from a donor oyster with great color, and a small nodule (called a nucleus) into the oyster body.  You could easily hire these Tahitian women in any dentist office across America after seeing how precisely they move big sharp metal tools in tiny places!

A technician implants the nucleus that will be the base for the pearl.

A technician implants the nucleus that will be the base for the pearl.

Oysters plop back into the water for the waiting game.  It will take 45 days before managers will know if the oyster accepted the graph and another year or two before the pearl is ready for harvest. Graphing is a highly developed skill so technicians label their batches of work and are evaluated individually on how many quality pearls are produced each cycle.

In the wild only about 1 in 2000 oysters are growing a pearl inside. Pearl farming has upped the odds and satisfied the global market.  Working as a pearl technician is a college-trainable position and farms are a backbone to the Tahitian economy particularly in remote island chains like Gambier. Without pesticides, antibiotics, fish-food spillover or heavy nutrient influx, pearl farming is a very low impact aquaculture practice.  Culturally the black pearl is an icon of French Polynesia and an ocean fashion statement you can wear proudly as a symbol of healthy ocean stewardship on a homegrown level.

The result of an oyster's life on the farm held by one of the lovely technicians.  Beautiful tattoo!

The result of an oyster’s life on the farm held by one of the lovely technicians. Beautiful tattoo!

Just remember to thank the whole team of oysters who chipped in on your layered strands, as an oyster will only produce 1-3 pearls in its lifetime! 

One of the most exciting parts about shooting this Living Oceans Foundation mission is learning the diverse passions the world class scientists on board. One of our shipmates Jenna Moore, a graduate student from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, loves studying worms – specifically polychaetes a group of segmented marine worms. Polychaetes live everywhere from the abyssal deep sea to the splashy intertidal, boiling hot water springs to Antarctic ice sheets. There are over 8000 species and they may be the most numerous creatures in the sea!

Jenna at work in the lab on board M/Y Golden Shadow.

Jenna at work in the lab on board M/Y Golden Shadow.

Jenna studies the worm family Chaetopteridae (pronounced “key- top- terr- i- dee”) which live in U-shaped tunnel burrows and filter feed from the current they create themselves when beating their modified piston-like appendages (truly called notopodia). She fell in love with them in her first undergraduate marine invertebrate class and has now been studying them all around the world.

Collection team - Jenna, Simon and Gaby sifting through sand, algae and oysters for interesting creatures.

Collection team – Jenna, Simon and Gaby sifting through sand, algae and oysters for interesting creatures.

Because we often splash into a coral dive searching for big critters, photographers forget sometimes how cool the miniscule can be. In the water and in the lab Jenna is cataloging and photographing invertebrates we find throughout the Gambier Island chain. Like so many things on this mission, no one has ever looked before to know who lives here.


Heteronucia Jenna Photographed


Phyllochaetopterus Verrilli Jenna Photographed


Phyllochaetopterus Jenna Photographed

The images coming from the microscope are stunning. I hope to be able to hook my own camera to the scope soon and capture some of this unique ocean life. I never knew worms could be so fascinating!

The Living Ocean Foundation team is hard at work at Hao Atoll, far flung in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. We’re six days into the first EVER comprehensive reef assessment for this beautiful coral atoll.


How do you count all the fish in the sea?  Divers lay down transects and record every fish that swims within a 4m wide belt.  Because the same methodology is used all over the world, these reefs can be compared to others around the planet.  Meanwhile the rest of the team is scooping sediment, diagnosing coral disease, installing oceanographic instruments, identifying coral building blocks, and searching for sea cucumbers.

Joao Monteiro from the Azores, is using a transect grid, camera and sampling bags.

Joao Monteiro from the Azores, is using a transect grid, camera and sampling bags.

Eva McCure from Australia counting fish.

Eva McCure from Australia counting fish.

James Bond has his gadgets; Batman has his utility belt, but no superhero has as many tools as these science divers.  It takes a lot of equipment to diagnose a healthy reef.

Marie Kospartov - can she be carrying any more gear?

Marie Kospartov – can she be carrying any more gear?

Some of the science from this week will help the government of French Polynesia make choices about the sustainability of the recently closed sea cucumber fishery. The market was new to the island in 2009 and skyrocketed, much faster than scientists could learn how many cucumbers were present throughout the islands. Thankfully officials intervened and now our team is keeping a sharp lookout for these humble, sand-dwellers.

Reefs around the world come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  One of the most common questions I am asked is, where are the MOST beautiful.  I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder as long as the reef is healthy.  How exciting to be seeing new reefs and taking new pulses.