Summer is coming quickly to the northern hemisphere, bringing vacations for many in cities across North America, Europe, Central America and Asia. Vacationers are seeking travel to see nature in action while visiting national parks, rain forests and even underwater reefs.
Some vacationers are planning ecotours of fragile, generally pristine and relatively undisturbed natural areas, with gorgeous spaces and interesting wildlife.
Many are planning trips specifically to see wildlife in their native habitat rather than in zoos, aquariums and aviaries. Hot spots for superb wildlife viewing and photographing this summer undoubtedly will include the Galapagos off Ecuador, South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the great parks of Tanzania and Kenya, as well as Svalbard and Greenland in the Arctic and, of course, Alaska and its huge Denali National Park.
Last summer, I was fortunate to have a sensational trip in the Arctic. I viewed polar bears trekking across the ice, walruses, muskox like the one pictured above and even blue and humpback whales.
Trips to see and photograph wildlife can be dangerous at times. When hiking in the Svalbard archipelago, while off our ship, we often were guarded with well-armed crew members specifically hired for that purpose. The potential danger of encountering polar bears unexpectedly was a constant worry in that region.
Whenever on a trip to see wildlife, safety must be the first consideration, even when the animals you’re viewing seem benign in their native habitat.
I’ve traveled to see and photograph wildlife for decades. Here are my six basic tips to help stay safe while enjoying breathtaking scenes of magnificent landscapes and seascapes with their amazing wildlife.
• Research the locations — Do this before leaving home. The rainforests in Costa Rica, the African savannah, and the fjords of Greenland are obviously very different. Learn about the terrain and the areas of the visit and the dangers and difficulties that may be faced. As a photographer, that research will doubly pay off by helping to choose the right photo equipment for the trip.
• Research the wildlife — Especially, read about the animals. The more photographers know about their habits, behavior, personality, proclivities, etc., the safer and the more enjoyable a visit will be. Pay particular attention to each animal’s “circle of fear.”
The “circle of fear” is an area surrounding an animal which forms its alert zone. As we approach animals they typically watch us, or use other senses, such as smell, to surveil us. As we get closer, the animal’s fear and stress level increases, sometimes rapidly. Eventually, they will become more and more afraid and/or aggressive. The action they take can be highly unpredictable. Some will run/fly off, while others will attack. The size of an animal’s “circle of fear” is variable and depends on the animal’s attitude and state of being at each moment.
• Use a highly qualified local guide — The guide at a destination should provide whatever is necessary for safety, including guards, proper vehicles, equipment, etc. They should know when and if the locale is too dangerous to visit or if circumstances change to make it dangerous while at the site. They are likely the best people to know precisely where to go in an area to see the most and stay safe.
When out with a guide, listen carefully and follow their directions precisely. It could be lifesaving.
• Be aware of the weather — Jungles can be very tough places when it rains. Flooding rivers and streams make paths and roads impassible. Deserts can be extremely dangerous in sandstorms. Plains-type areas can be dangerous in unexpected storms which could cause flash floods. Be prepared and wear the right clothing.
• Pay attention to surroundings while watching animals — Never get too close. Never touch a wild animal.
Grizzly bears in Denali are dangerous and travelers/hikers need to be cautious. Moose in Maine are unpredictable. Picking up a cute black bear cub in Arkansas can be a death sentence. We had armed guards protecting us from polar bears while hiking in the Svalbard archipelago, and for good reason. They can be very dangerous.
At Denali, the rangers will tell visitors to stay at least 300 yards (275 meters) from bears and 25 yards (23 meters) from other animals, dens and nests. They are good rules of thumb.
Photographers have been known to get so wrapped up in their wildlife photography and have such tunnel vision because they solely view the animal through their viewfinder, that they rapidly lose their perception of their distance to the animal, quickly getting themselves into trouble. Don’t let that happen.
• Avoid young animals — While most animals are typically safe, they can become a nightmare if they think you’re a danger to their young. If discovering cubs, immediately head away. Never pick them up.
(Muskox at Renodde, Scoresby Sund, Greenland: Copyright © 2013 NSL Photography, All Rights Reserved)