Inhale, exhale

Here’s my 2023 entry for Ocean Geographic‘s Photographer of the Year Awards – photojournalism category, consisting of my essay and some of the images I submitted to illustrate it. I was kinda beside myself to be named Runner-Up for this entry in such a prestigious competition – high five!

PS: If you’re viewing this page on a mobile, please scroll down – the story begins after the images below

Inhale, Exhale – Essay for Ocean Geographic Photojournalism Award (Runner-up for 2023)
OGP RMackintosh 06
OGP RMackintosh 08
OGP RMackintosh 05
OGP RMackintosh 09
OGP RMackintosh 03
Greenland Ice Sheet
humpback whale, sydney
Humpback whale double head lunge, Sydney harbour

Inhale, exhale

Again, I’m dizzy. Holding my breath. In this aeon-moment my viewfinder is a portal to somewhere so ‘other’ that my medulla oblongata – the brain’s engine room for breathing – freezes. I process what I’m seeing: the seamless symmetry of crisp ventral pleats. Daisy-shaped barnacles gilding her pecs. A dainty dorsal fin downplaying her girth. White flukes flashing turquoise in the sapphire brine. 

Gasping, she surfaces in a fountain of fish-stinky glitter, her blow ablaze in the setting sun. Gasping, my lungs groan as the camera clicks. Now we inhale together, gulping in a moment that’s binding, fleeting. 

Breathlessness is something I’ve long lived with, here in Sydney, cruising with migrating humpbacks. But now that I think about it, maybe I felt it the first moment I ever saw one – that was back in 2001 on the Northern Beaches. That period of life wasn’t especially kind and I’d often come to whisper my secrets to the sea, to seek its buoyancy. As I was sitting on my towel, sinking into the horizon, a distant humpback bounced from the blue like a bus-sized ballerina. I exploded to my feet in a shower of sand, breathless. It was just so improbable – like reality had ripped open to offer me a peek at raw, infinite possibility – and all over in a millisecond. Yet it must’ve bobbed just beneath my consciousness for years, because eventually I found myself on a whale-watching vessel in Sydney Harbour for the first time. 

The Tasman was in a pissy mood that day. I was on my backside, slammed by waves of sea-queasiness as a humpback glided portside – a slow-moving mystery unveiling itself in fleshy abstractions, cloaked by the ocean. As she languidly surfaced to breathe, her booming ‘Ooorrh-Pooorh!’ bounced through my organs and filled me with awe to the core.  

Fast-forward a few hundred humpback close-ups later in Merimbula, Iceland, Ningaloo, British Columbia and Hervey Bay, and now I’m floating face-down in Ha’apai, Tonga, eye to eye with a snoozy giant, her restless calf romping across her rostrum. Somewhere, deep in the inky infinity below, a suitor is serenading her, his lusty trills vibrating through my viscera, the saltwater sliding from my eyes into the sea. She’s not moved by his song, but I’m breathless. 

Over the years I’ve collected these aeon-moments, used them to build a shield. It deflects the numbing tedium of grunt work, the vexing minutiae of finances, the puzzle of human relationships.

In time though, I notice I’m holding my breath not just from wonder, but from a lingering sense of worry for the whales. Because, even to my wishy-washy creative brain – which doesn’t do so well with science – the changes to their world are obvious and ongoing. 

Wonderfully, there’s so many more whales out there now, and that’s because Australia’s East Coast population has bounced back after the whaling industry pushed it to the brink of extinction. When the processing plants closed in 1963 there were only a few hundred humpbacks left, but 60 years later, their numbers have climbed to around 40,000 – a living, breathing testament to the resilience of nature. 

With more whales comes more interest in them: every year new vessels appear in Sydney’s fleet, introducing first-timers to the unfettered ocean. Their joy makes my chest swell like a lunge-feeder’s mouth, fills me with hope. But it’s also brought out the Moby Dickers who, in a dangerous combination of excitement, lacklustre helming and disrespect for maritime law, drive their tiny tinnies right over the humpbacks, or block their path.  

With more whales comes more entanglements: the Humpback Highway has become a minefield of floating suffocation stations, bringing the whales into direct contact with pointless shark nets, plastics pollution and roped miscellanea. 

And the humpbacks seem to be getting hungrier – we’re seeing more of them feeding opportunistically as they pass our coastline; in fact, in 2020 and 2021 feeding megapods were discovered off the New South Wales South Coast. Are the whales widening their search for food? It’s possible. According to an extensive study by Andrea Piñones and Alexey V. Fedorov published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal, Antarctic krill levels have declined by up to 80 per cent in the past 40 years due to climate change – an alarming trend that’ll continue escalating without immediate intervention, and which might be a factor in this new feeding pattern. 

As sharper minds than mine explore the science and debate the possibilities, the fact remains the Poles are changing – and I’ve witnessed it first-hand at both ends of the Earth… 

It’s March 2022 and a heatwave is rolling through Antarctica: on the 18th the Concordia Research station records a temperature of -11.5C at Dome C – more than 40˚C above normal. 

I’m kneeling in the zodiac at Neko Harbour, watching a lone humpback forage beside a baby blue glacier, its inhales and exhales sending an aria of air blasts around the icescape. Then there’s an almighty thwaaack! and hhhwaaaaack! as the glacier suddenly starts crumbling, summoning the cetacean out of the deep. Holding my breath, I click off a few shots as the leviathan’s head lunges forward then vanishes beneath a raft of just-calved ice.

Four months later, I’m in Greenland, wearing short sleeves and watching news reports about the region’s uncharacteristically high temperatures. The prospect of photographing humpbacks in their Arctic playground is what brings me here, but almost immediately the theme changes, becomes more about the disintegration of that playground. 

We’ve been exploring Prins Christian Sund by ship, kayak and zodiac for seven days before we see the sole whale of the trip – a distant, skittish humpback who takes two quick inhales then vanishes before I can hold my breath. I wonder, why haven’t we seen more whales here? Are they aggregating elsewhere? 

The next morning, a possible factor splashes under foot as I hike the Greenland Ice Sheet. When I arrived, the icy ground was sharp, crystalline, but after an hour under the 15˙C sun, slushy puddles started appearing and now I’m surrounded by them. I think to myself: the heat is changing this landscape. Right before my eyes, under my feet. Quite possibly for good. It might even be affecting the whales’ food source, changing their feeding patterns and mirroring what’s unfolding in Antarctica.

Between July 15 and 17, 2022, more than 18 billion tonnes of water melt off the ice sheet, with Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center describing it as a “spike in melt”. Sidestepping the shallow pools around me, I try to fathom what’ll happen if this heatwave continues. Greenland’s ice cap sprawls some 1.7 million square kilometres. Experts say that if it melted entirely, global sea levels would rise by six metres, causing an irrevocable catastrophe for not just my beloved whales, but 8.7 million different types of living thing here on Earth.  

Breathing beside humpbacks has given me life, but above all, it’s shown me that right now, we need to hold our breath. And as our medulla oblongatas freeze in this aeon-moment, let’s use the rest of our brains to process the gravity of our past decisions; reconnect to that raw, infinite possibility, and make the conscious decision to evolve as a species.

It’s only then that we’ll truly inhale and exhale in sync with our planet, and each other.