What Comes Naturally

Jaffa-born photographer Amos Nachoum specializes in close-ups of large mammals.

He has a small apartment in San Francisco, with a view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, but he's hardly ever there. For the past 20 years he's been in continual motion, spending just a week or two at home before setting off on yet another expedition. In the past six months, for example, he has been to the Cocos Islands (Costa Rica), the Caribbean, the Azores (Portugal), the Galapagos, Antarctica, the Yap Islands and Palau (in the Pacific Ocean), and before the year is out he'll be traveling to Mongolia, the Philippines, Tonga, Japan and Norway.

This good life didn't come easy to Amos Nachoum. He was born in 1950 in Jaffa's Givat Aliyah neighborhood, the eldest son to parents from Tripoli. "Ever since I was little I had big dreams about adventures and roaming the world," he says. "It was hard for me at home, with a domineering father who was a carpenter and wanted me to follow in his footsteps, and in other ways as well. I would lose myself in books by Jules Verne. I knew them by heart."

He prefers not to discuss his army service as an officer in the elite Sayeret Shaked unit, about the wars and the friends he lost, and about his long tenure in the security services. The shrapnel fragment from a Gazan grenade, still embedded in his forehead, is only part of what ties him to Israel. "I always say I'm from Israel, even though I haven't lived here for over half my life now," he said proudly one evening as we ate dinner together in Sri Lanka's Yala National Park. "It doesn't matter where I am physically. My personality, values and ambitions were shaped in Israel."

In the mid-1970s, he landed in New York without money and with a dream of studying film. By night, he worked as a taxi driver, and by day he gave diving lessons, but his dream remained unrealized.

Instead of pursuing filmmaking, he and a partner opened a tour company that took groups to exotic diving locations such as the Maldives, Papua, New Guinea, the Red Sea and the Galapagos Islands. In the later 1980s, he sold his share of the business, for ideological reasons, as he explains: "I saw with my own eyes the significant deterioration of the coral reefs where we dived, and I knew that no matter how I looked at it, I had a part in it, too." He went through a period of "private mourning for the destruction of the reefs," which lasted over two years and became a time of soul-searching. "I gave serious thought to what I really wanted to do with my life, and I discovered that what I really wanted was to make photography my profession."

Not just any photography, but photography aimed at improving the image of large marine animals. He devoted the next three years to researching and photographing these creatures around the world, and since then he has also been leading deep-water diving parties and photography expeditions. On each trip he takes a maximum of six clients, who are willing to pay between $6,000 and $15,000, depending on the location and length of the expedition.

"To find a whale in the middle of the ocean, you need a lot of experience and knowledge, and especially time and patience," he explained. "In order to dive with it and photograph it, you need to make it feel comfortable, and this is a very tricky task that few people even attempt."

Waiting for a dream

"I dreamed of this picture years before I shot it," says Nachoum about one of his images. The photo is of a Great White shark, about four meters long, shooting out of the sea like a cruise missile, its body gleaming in the morning sun, covered with glistening droplets of water. "This shark feeds on seals that swim on the surface, and when it catches them it tends to leap to an incredible height. No photographer had ever captured this shark leaping from the water in a vertical shot, with the direction of his jump. I knew that was exactly the picture I wanted to get."

Nachoum went to South Africa, rented a boat and set out to sea. He sat in the stern for days on end, holding his camera in position, breathing in the engine fumes, getting drenched by waves, and waiting. "I came home after a few weeks empty-handed, and with a few thousand dollars less in my bank account," he relates.

A year later, he returned to the same place. After a few days in the stern of the same boat, as he was hovering between wakefulness and sleep, between hope and despair, the shark suddenly appeared before his lens. He reacted instantaneously and took 18 shots within three seconds. "To be honest, I never even saw that jump," he laughs. "I think I was sleeping when that shark jumped, but my subconscious was so prepared for this moment, and it just reacted all by itself."

All his seagoing activity doesn't keep Nachoum from also going on land expeditions, like the one which I joined, as an assistant, last June, to photograph elephants and leopard in Sri Lanka.

The sun was about to set behind the green hills surrounding Lake Minneriya in central Sri Lanka. A large herd of elephants was contentedly devouring grass on the muddy banks. Nachoum took a few pictures from afar and then he asked the 4x4 driver to take us closer. The driver explained that it was dangerous, since there were many calves in the herd. He pointed to an adult female and said: "Her young offspring was run over by a car not long ago when he crossed a road at night. Lately, she's been showing signs of agitation whenever vehicles come near her. We'd better keep our distance."

Nachoum insisted, and the driver began to slowly move toward a group of 15 elephants of different sizes. Noticing our approach, the elephants began quickly striding toward us while grunting, whipping their ears about and blowing dust from their trunks. It felt like the earth was shaking. Nachoum instructed the driver to stop and to kill the engine. The angry elephants surrounded us now, threatening to overturn the vehicle. Nachoum, who was standing in the 4x4 the whole time, raised his hands and gave a deep growl. The elephants froze for a moment, and then they stomped the brittle ground with their feet and made trumpeting sounds with their trunks.

Nachoum's hands dropped down to the camera around his neck and he began shooting. He spoke gently to the elephants, asking them to move toward a small dirt mound near the vehicle, where the sun would shine directly on their faces. "Come to Amos, yes, a little more that way," he whispered to them, in English - and they obeyed. He lay down on the bench of the 4x4, his upper body protruding, and photographed the elephants as they stood directly over him.

Breaking the ice

"On one of my trips to arctic Canada we dove into freezing water along the length of an iceberg. When I came back up to the surface, I spotted a lone walrus a few dozen meters away lying on its side and resting its tremendous whiskers on the ice. In retrospect I know that this was a dying female, which had gone off alone to await death. I wanted to photograph her from close up, with a wide lens, from below, with the frozen spaces and the blue sky with light, scattered clouds in the background. I wanted to emphasize her loneliness within this wilderness.

"I started to approach her quietly, so she wouldn't run away, with my body in the freezing water as I'm breaking the ice, at first with my hands and then using my underwater camera case. It took me almost three hours to get to her, to gain her trust, to break the ice between us - in every sense of the word. When I got to just 60 centimeters away from her I photographed her and then I moved away. She didn't even budge."

What was going through your head when you were floating in the water right next to a predator that weighs as much as a thousand kilos?

Nachoum: "I believed that she wouldn't attack me. These animals can sense very well who and what is facing them. I came toward her from below, I bowed before her, I wordlessly asked her permission to immortalize her final moments. Why should she want to hurt me?"

Each year, with the start of spring, he heads to northernmost Canada to photograph the polar bears as they teach their young to hunt. "I team up with local Inuit guides I've worked with for many years. We enter the bears' habitat on snowmobile." He shows a frontal shot of a huge polar bear, 400 kilos and 3 meters tall when standing on two legs.The picture was taken from 7 meters away: The bear is resting on the ice, its eyes closed. Then he shows another picture of the same bear, with its eyes wide open.

When it opened its eyes, were you afraid?

"I felt tension and adrenaline flowing, but I didn't let it turn into fear. Fear has two main enemies: knowledge and experience. I knew that for recognition, a polar bear uses its sense of smell almost exclusively. We approached with the direction of the wind, and the direction of the wind hadn't changed. I concluded therefore that it had not awoken because of us. I also knew that my guide had a hunting rifle, and that if necessary he could fire into the air to frighten off the bear. By the way, we never had to fire those rifles. I took some pictures and got out of there quickly."

But in an earlier encounter with a bear, Nachoum almost lost his life. He was trying to photograph a polar bear underwater, without any protection. He entered the freezing water of arctic Canada with just a special wetsuit, an air tank on his back and an underwater camera in his hand. "I relied on information that says polar bears cannot dive deeper than 10 meters. I planned, in an emergency, to escape by diving beyond that depth. The bear swam toward me, and I started diving to the safe depth. He dove after me with tremendous speed. I felt his claws pushing the water just centimeters away. He didn't give up until we reached a depth of 25 feet. I waited for him to leave the area and then I returned to the surface."

Orca opportunity

In early November, large schools of herring swim into the cold Norwegian fjords to slow down their metabolism before winter. Black-and-white killer whales, also known as orcas, follow them and, working as a team, surround them, diving below and then blow in order to push the encircled fish up to the surface. Then they slap the trapped fish to death with their tails before delicately devouring them one by one.

Nachoum was the first person in the world to photograph this phenomenon. A few years later, about 10 years ago, he led a National Geographic team to get video footage of it. "The days were growing shorter, we had less than six hours of light per day to work," he recalls. "When not at work I would daydream, and imagine over and over what I would do the moment a pod of orcas passed by the boat. The orca is a swift and unpredictable creature, and the only way to photograph it is to anticipate its moves ahead of time. I noticed that whenever I pictured myself slipping into the water with the camera, my intuition told me to turn right. Years of working in nature had taught me to trust my gut feelings.

"And in fact, at the moment of truth, when a pod of orcas passed near the boat, I slipped into the water and immediately turned right. Four orcas quickly passed in front of me. One had something in its mouth. I didn't know what, but I photographed like mad. Only later, when I got home and developed the pictures, did I realize what happened there."

The picture clearly shows one of the orcas pushing her dead fetus along with her snout.

"When marine mammals have a stillbirth, they usually swim with the body for days, accompanied by several members of their pod, as if in a farewell ceremony," Nachoum explained. "In recent years, the orcas have had an infant mortality rate of about 40 percent due to pollution of the seawater, and they're not alone. In 1900, there were 350,000 blue whales in the oceans. A hundred years later there are only 12,000 left. The biggest animal that ever existed on this planet, which can grow as long as 30 meters and weigh as much as 150 tons, is becoming extinct, and we are solely responsible for this.

"Humans hunt 38 million sharks each year, more than 100,000 per day, so the Chinese can eat soup made from their fins. Often, the fishermen don't even take the sharks on deck. They just cut off their fins and toss them back into the sea to bleed to death. And the absurd thing is that meanwhile we're making movies like 'Jaws' that portray the sharks as cruel, bloodthirsty predators."

Amos Nachoum's Web site, at www.biganimals.com, features images of his work. W