“Would you like to join me in Monterey to interview Bryant Austin?” Anne Veh asked me . “Are you serious?” I answered. A couple of years earlier, I’d met Austin at an exhibit of his remarkable photographs at Electric Works Gallery in San Francisco and I’d wanted to interview him then. What would it be like swimming right next to whales? How did that come about? There had to be so many things worth hearing about. But circumstances prevented an interview at that time, so I jumped at Anne’s invitation. A few weeks later we met at the Museum of Monterey where an exhibit of Austin’s photos were on display. Before the interview began, Austin walked a group of us around and talked about the photos. Afterwards, a larger group gathered in the museum auditorium where the following interview took place.
Richard Whittaker: I’d like to hear something about your early life, because I’m guessing there are important early memories or childhood experiences that must have pointed you in the direction you’ve taken in life.
Bryant Austin: Yes. The earliest experience, I think, came when I was six or seven years old and saw my first dolphins. They were bottlenose dolphins. They were in a touch tank in a marine park in Redwood City. The pool was probably only four feet deep. It was filthy. The water was brown and the dolphins were scratched up. I didn’t know what a dolphin was, but their suffering was really evident to me.
Everybody was happy and playing and splashing the water. And it just kind of stewed in my mind for an hour. Then eventually I threw a huge tantrum and went into a rage somewhere else in the park and my mom had to get me out of there. It wasn’t until maybe two or three years ago that I thought about that. I thought that was why I threw that huge fit. It was probably the first indication of this, almost this uncontrollable, empathy and connection to cetaceans, you know—whales and dolphins.
RW: What that makes me think of is that as children, before we’ve had our education—which often really shuts us off—we actually see pretty clearly. I mean you saw the suffering and you couldn’t just pass over that.
RW: You said you were a painter early on. What got you into painting?
Bryant: Probably since I could hold a pencil, I was drawing. I was an only child, single mom, chubby red-haired kid that went to a different school every two years. So you know no self-esteem at all. I had a really good third grade teacher. She had a big roll of butcher paper. She was like, “Now who should I give this to?” I was just kind of like “…ehh.” You know?
She’s like, “Yes, you.” It was just one of those things.
I felt like I could do this. I could paint. I could draw. It was mostly nature. When I was very young I worked in acrylics, mostly nature. And when I was a teenager, it was cars for a while, pen and ink. All kinds of exotic cars, and I just kind of went back into oil paints exploring how to paint an emotional state, like feeling awe and wonder.
RW: Now when did you get interested in painting an emotional state?
Bryant: That was probably from 17 through 20 years old, maybe 21 at the latest.
RW: Okay. Let’s stay with this earlier part. You said your family moved every two years or so?
Bryant: My mom did, yes. Almost every other year until I was about 15, and then she stopped moving.
RW: So that’s pretty tough. But as a kid you just accept it, I suppose.
Bryant: Yes. And we were in the same town. So we were just moving to different school districts and I’d have to go to a different school.
RW: And losing friends, I take it, every time you moved.
RW: So what were your refuges? There were probably things you found that occupied you.
Bryant: Just nature. My mom would say that I would disappear. We lived close to the American River.
RW: What would you do?
Bryant: Either I’d ride my bike or just walk. I don’t know. There are a lot of old memories I haven’t thought of in a long time. And I also tried to find comfort in possessions, being an only child. And since my mom felt guilty, she would buy me whatever I wanted. That was probably the most valuable thing, because by the time I was 19 or 20 I realized that possessions would never make me happy. I had to somehow focus on life experiences.
RW: That’s very interesting. When you were drawing cars, let’s say—I remember doing that as a kid. And I would draw planes and ships and trains.
Bryant: I drew planes too, yeah.
RW: I remember how completely engrossing it was.
RW: Totally. Do you remember that?
Bryant: Yes, yes. Especially the pen and ink ones where you’re doing dots. I would do that for weeks on a single landscape. Yeah.
RW: Cool. Then you were saying that at some point you got interested in these feelings of, you were saying higher feelings like awe—or what were you saying?
Bryant: All of the simple and profound emotions. I wanted to experience the most profound emotions that I’m biologically capable of experiencing. So as an overweight, red-haired kid going to a new school every other year I had no contact with the opposite sex. That part of me was just shut down. I thought I’m going to be alone until I die. But I still wanted to experience life. So how do I do this?
RW: Yeah, right.
Bryant: That’s what I paid attention to when I started base-jumping when I was 20 or 21 years old.
RW: That thing about “I want to experience life.” That’s a really big thing. Maybe it’s instinctive, but what happens to people? Do they lose that desire to experience life?
Bryant: We give up. I’ve tried to give up many times. I would inevitably just become depressed, clinically depressed, and happy to get support from medication. And my mom would always tell me, “Well, that’s life. You have to face reality. You have to get a job. You’ve got to be responsible.” And I would always wrestle with that. I would go back and forth getting a great job with the government in California and quitting. One time I quit my job from a phone booth in Seattle. I had a really good paying job for the Department of Health Services. I joined Sea Shepherd full-time for a year.
RW: You know what? That’s really interesting. From what you’ve said, the wish to really experience life was strong enough that you just couldn’t accept these substitutes.
Bryant: I tried, yeah.
RW: You tried. But they weren’t working, right?
RW: I relate to that. So talk about base-jumping. My goodness, what happened there? I mean that’s a pretty incredible thing.
Bryant: It just started with a desire to do something different, like crazy—like I want to feel something
while I’m still alive. You know? Something profound. I thought, I’ll go on a bungee jump! I remember a co-worker who was reading the papers and said, “Hey, look at this. You can go bungee jumping here.” That led to my first bungee jump. He was also an experienced mountain climber, rock climber, base-jumper and sky diver. And he eventually became my mentor. He’s basically my father figure.
I realized years later, after he died, that I was jumping off of buildings and cliffs so I could have a dad and also experience the sublime and these incredible feelings.
Bryant: Because there were no limits. He did not think with limits. Anything was possible. And he just looked at the world in wonder. It was like everything was just awesome to him. You know?
RW: That’s really cool. So when you base jump, you’re jumping with a parachute?
Bryant: You’re free-falling. If you can free-fall long enough, you’ll go so fast your body starts to fly. Like when I jumped El Capitan—it’s a three thousand foot drop—the free-fall is for almost 14 seconds and you’re literally flying your body away from the wall.
RW: You just jump off.
Bryant: You just jump off. It’s incredible. I don’t do it anymore. It’s a selfish sport; a lot of people die. If you have family or a loved one, you shouldn’t be doing it. But it is incredible. You don’t feel any fear when you’re falling. You feel nothing but wonder, and time and seconds just stretch out forever.
RW: You’re really present, right?
Bryant: One hundred percent. And you’re just blown away by what’s unfolding before you.
RW: You mentioned that you wanted to find a way to paint feelings of the sublime, or of awe and wonder. But you said, you didn’t have any life experiences.
Bryant: I think it was more of a longing, you know?
Anne Veh: I’m curious also to know if you were drawn to the water a young boy and what your relationship to water was?
Bryant: Oh, yes, very much. The American River and was my second home. I mean all summer I was gone with my friends. We would swim back and forth across the river. We would go down the river on inner tubes. I was completely at home in the currents and in the water. The ocean didn’t come until years later.
Anne: And also another image came to mind about a group of young men doing base-jumping together as a group, like with six others. There were some new jumpers. And one didn’t realize that he was coming down on top of another one. He didn’t even have time to think about what to do, but his body just knew what to do. So there’s that space where something else takes over. You’re just taken.
Anne: I think of that with you not only in base-jumping, but when you come to speak of your relationship with the whales where you don’t have time to consciously think about what to do next.
Bryant: Yes, exactly. I try to let my subconscious mind run most of my life. I can’t articulate it. I just trust it. My conscious mind gets me into trouble a lot. You know?
RW: How do you think you learned to trust your subconscious mind?
Bryant: I recently learned that it’s a hundred million, a billion-fold times more powerful than the conscious mind in terms of just processing power. It can move through much more information more rapidly and come to a deeper understanding of something very quickly than the conscious mind. So I just have been working to trust it more. I can’t articulate that.
RW: But you say you trusted it before that?
Bryant: I did, but I still wasn’t very confident. I was still very timid.
RW: Yes. Well, you brought up the American River and how it was like your second home. And there’s something about water that’s really profound. But we just take it for granted. Are there any water memories that pop up for you that are just indelible?
Bryant: I think it was actually in a swimming pool when I was younger. I was by myself at night in a swimming pool. No one was around and I was trying to learn to hold my breath, which is so dangerous. You need someone with you. But I would lie on the bottom of the pool and look up. I had my mask on and I would just watch. I could see there was a full moon. I could see the moon and there would be like a prism shift. You could see the blue and the red prism shifts in the moon. I remember feeling so at peace just lying at the bottom of the pool at night looking up at the moon.
RW: I remember just going out to Limantour Beach once on a hot summer day. Nobody was around. I just took my clothes off and went in. I would say it was something like a sacred experience.
Bryant: It is, yes. It’s very healing.
Anne: I’d like to go back to that moment when you could see the prisms in the water from the moon. Once when I was in a difficult place in my life, somebody told me to go to the pool. And I remember being in the pool and feeling like, I’m home
. I mean it felt like very much like I was being held. I can imagine that connection you had with the moon in that moment. You know?
Bryant: It’s like a reminder. You know, we’re aquatic mammals. You’ve probably heard of the aquatic ape theory where we evolved from primates that were very well adapted to the ocean environment. I would say and there’s no proof of it, because there is no fossil record. But we are the fossil record, and we’re so well-adapted to the ocean and to the water. And I think we’ve lost touch with it.
I mean you could think of every aspect of our body. We’re the only primate with subcutaneous fat that lets us float. We have eyebrows that keep water from our eyes. The shape of our nose is the same shape of the blue whale’s blowhole; it’s got this splash guard. Then there’s the mammalian dive reflex. If you put your face in the water and you can still breathe, your heart rate will just start to lower. And even when you black out from no oxygen, your body is still protecting you. Your mouth will remain clinched shut and it is still delivering oxygen to your brain and your heart, and you still have time to be saved. It will do that until you have no oxygen left and it will do what is called a terminal gasp and your body will just try to get air for the last time before you pass. We are hard-wired for the water.
RW: That’s fascinating.
Bryant: Yes. And it’s kind of lonely, because I free-dive. I work hard to find people to train with here in Monterey. So few people free-dive, you know—holding your breath and diving. A lot of people love to scuba dive, but I feel like I’m in a spacesuit when I’m scuba diving. I don’t feel connected to the ocean. I’m hoping some day free-diving will catch on.
RW: Isn’t there more about free diving than just taking a breath and going down?
Bryant: There are a lot of subtleties, a lot of things you can learn, too.
RW: I’ve heard that people who free dive have learned to override that moment when your body is telling you that you have to take a breath. You just don’t. And then you can get into a second space where you have another couple of minutes. And you’re in a completely different state. Is that right?
Bryant: There is a lot of truth to that, and you do enter another state. That’s where you have to have responsibility. You have to pay attention to your watch. And you can lie on your couch and condition yourself to tolerate more CO2, less O2. Then the convulsions will go away or they will be much less. And then, instead of coming at one minute, they’ll come at two minutes—and eventually three minutes, and then maybe four. It takes a lot of responsibility, but it’s easy to condition your body to tolerate that and the contractions go away. And you’re just underwater enjoying the environment. It’s a level of peace that I can’t describe—more than base-jumping, or anything else. It’s a lot safer, too. And it burns more calories than any other sport or fitness activity.
So it’s very demanding on your body even though it’s very subtle. You don’t feel like you’re doing anything, but your body is being shut down and oxygen is not being delivered to your limbs. Lactic acid is being pumped in and all of this physiological transformation is happening while you’re doing it.
RW: So how many minutes can you be down?
Bryant: I can only hold my breath for four minutes, so far.
Anne: The experience of being in that state must be akin to meditation.
Bryant: It has to be. Thought triggers the urge to breath; it triggers all kinds of obsessive, irrational thoughts. And if you can just be present, you can stay down longer.
RW: Does that sort of talking voice in your head stop?
Bryant: You want it to stop, yes.
RW: But it’s still there?
Bryant: Sometimes it’s there, if you’re nervous. When the visibility is three feet or two feet then you really hear the voices. They just kind of keep going.
RW: I notice that you seem to know a lot about physiology. How did you learn all that?
Bryant: My free-diving instructor is a 13-time world record holder. His book is this thick [shows us] and there’s a lot to learn.
RW: All right. So what was the thing that moved you towards photographing whales? Or maybe you should say how you got into photography before that.
Bryant: Well, I stopped painting when I started base-jumping. Then I spent a year photographing my friends and myself base-jumping. I had a camera on my helmet. My friend and mentor, Jonathan Bowlin, passed away at the end of that year. Then I just decided to not jump anymore. I decided to turn the camera towards what was really in my heart, just whales. All of that, all the base-jumping, was just part of waking up to who I am, and having the confidence to just follow it. I started with whales. I just had a childhood dream to swim with the whales. And I did that in ’94.
RW: Wait. Excuse me. You said you had a childhood dream of swimming with the whales?
Bryant: It was a desire, a longing to swim. I’ve dreamt about it too.
RW: And how old were you?
Bryant: Probably the youngest memory of a dream I had, I was probably 12.
RW: And you dreamt of swimming with the whales?
RW: That must have been a major dream.
Bryant: I’ve had dreams that stayed with me. I remember a dream—I was probably 16— it’s a full moon and I’m running naked on the beach with a woman. I felt nothing but joy and total peace in the moment. We ran into the ocean and we were immediately next to a humpback whale.
RW: To have a dream of an experience like that, I could see how it would be hard to not want to find that in real life, right?
Bryant: Yes, there are dreams that will stay with you like that. I mean just to feel that free and joyful, and not afraid at all. You want those experiences, those feelings. I think we just have to find it within ourselves. That’s the first step.
Anne: Did the longing nag at you through the years?
Bryant: You know, it was just a slow wake-up. I didn’t have the confidence or the imagination to really connect the dots that this is who I am in my core. My dad took me kayaking in British Columbia in 1990 where I saw my first killer whales. They were swimming under the kayak and one spouted up next to us. It was the first time I saw the eye of a killer whale looking at me. And the killer whale was completely transformed, because they looked like cute little sea pandas until you see the eye.
RW: What happens when you see the eye?
Bryant: You realize there is something more there. There is a consciousness, an intelligence. And you’re being studied. They’re very big and powerful and they’re just very gentle and curious.
RW: Wow. Is it at all like looking at a dog or a cat? I mean these are sentient beings, too.
Bryant: There’s something else there. When I look into a dog’s eye or my cat’s eye, I have that impression. And then with the whales it’s completely different. It may, in fairness to the dogs, it may be that whales are so unfamiliar and we don’t spend as much time with them as we do with dogs. So there’s the newness of that experience. But even over time, it’s still evident to me.
RW: So how did it happen that you actually started swimming with and photographing the whales?
Bryant: So when Jonathan died, I made the decision to stop jumping. I asked what do I really want to do? I want to swim with whales. I want to experience that. And I was so excited.
I found a person who organizes trips, We Can Swim with Whales, and we went to the Azores in the Atlantic to swim with sperm whales. I remember buying my first underwater camera. And I had my first experience with a sperm whale swimming by me.
I took a picture. I was overwhelmed and just completely taken aback. I remember looking at the pictures thinking, wow, this doesn’t do anything to recreate what I experienced. So I thought underwater photography was not the answer for what I was searching for. Everybody is creating that kind of photograph and I felt whales didn’t need more people bothering them to take the same kind of pictures.
So that’s when I started volunteering with the Marine Mammal Center. That was really profound, because it wasn’t so much photographing whales or dolphins. That was the first step at waking up to who I am, and I’ll never forget it.
I had another close friend and mentor, Mark. He’s kind of a savant. He’s really brilliant, but he’s kind of weird. He asked me a ridiculous question one time. We were at a shopping mall and he asked me if I ever thought I would have a girlfriend, or be with a woman—because I hadn’t. I forget how old I was at the time, probably 25. And I just sat there. I looked at him and I thought, no, I’m not. If I continue to repeat my history, this pattern, of course not.
And I thought, what is wrong with this pattern? I realized I’m not with my people, not with my tribe, you know? And that first step was volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito Friday nights. I would drive from Sacramento to Sausalito every Friday to feed and take care of sick seals and sea lions. I started to be around my
people. It was like okay, this is where possibilities can happen. That’s where it all started.
So I volunteered with many organizations, but I never felt completely satisfied with any of the experiences. I was just restless. It wasn’t the answer. In 1999 I made the decision to return to the idea of making marine mammals the subject of artistic study and just see where it went. I had no agenda. Initially I didn’t want to try to make money because I didn’t know what I was doing.
So I started photographing sea otters. I would get to know sea otters as individuals and I would meet the same ones over a year. I would know where they were. I would know where they slept. I also volunteered at the aquarium for the Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, and they would tell me where my otter went. And I could go and photograph them. Guy Oliver at UC Santa Cruz lent me his 12-foot Zodiac to photograph sea otters. So I could have a big lens on this little boat. I would tie it to kelp and just wait. He planted the seeds.
It was like, wow! I’m trailering a boat now and driving around, and I’m working on engines! And I could get a bigger boat and go further offshore! And I did.
I eventually bought a 20-foot Zodiac and trained a team of volunteers from UC Santa Cruz, and for about four or five years we went out on the Monterey Bay looking for whales and dolphins when winds were less than five knots. I tried to find the most evocative lighting and atmospheric states, the sea states, and bring all that into alignment with whale behavior. I did that all that time and I had nothing, no photographs to show for it.
And again, I was just spending all this money and time and effort. And towards the end of it, that’s where I was thinking I should probably stop, because that’s when it cost the marriage, and financially it was just pushing me to the limit. And I had nothing yet to show for it.
RW: That’s pretty tough. That was five years, right?
Bryant: Yes. In the end, it was five years.
RW: That must have been hard.
Bryant: Yes. Because you see it in your mind. And you know you need to make the investment of time. I had one moment where I learned some insight into how to be with whales—give them complete space to explore their natural curiosity.
I had this boat and was 12 miles offshore surrounded by blue whales. And all I knew was I’m not going to go up to a blue whale and take a picture of him. I didn’t want to communicate that intention to him, because they know the sound of your boat. And they’ll just stay away from you. That was my feeling.
So steady course, two miles an hour. Point the boat where the sun is ideal—so either the whale is front-lit or silhouetted. And don’t respond when they surface. Don’t speed up, don’t do anything
. Just hold the course. And there was a moment where I looked over the side. I was on the back of the boat, the most stable part, and I had my first Hasselblad camera. It was a film camera, auto focus; it was the first auto focus.
I remember just looking over the side. I could see the water turn color. It went from this dark blue to this silver. And this head was emerging next to me, this silver blue whale head surfaced right next to the boat six feet away
. The head was bigger than our boat, so it was probably a 75-foot animal. I remember hearing the blow. It’s like an explosion and this mist goes up 30 feet. Then she inhales—and imagine, her lungs are probably like from this floor probably eight feet up. So these lungs are filling up with air and you can hear this cavernous sucking sound. My legs are shaking. I’m forgetting to breathe, and I’m taking pictures. I can see my shadow cast in her blow and there’s a rainbow.
RW: Oh, my god.
Bryant: It was just great! And I finally had these moments on medium format film, which is really important. So a couple of days later, I came back from the lab where the film was developed. And it came back unexposed. I really just wanted to quit. It was too much.
RW: That’s a grim moment.
Bryant: Yeah. But I had already committed to a trip to the kingdom of Tonka in the South Pacific and I couldn’t refund it. I thought, okay, I’ll just go. But I didn’t even want to go. I didn’t even want to take pictures. I remember being in tears when I had to buy a replacement part for my camera for the trip. I didn’t want to spend any more money, didn’t want to do this anymore. And the whole time I was there, all I thought about was just getting back home and rebuilding my life. That’s when I had a moment the next day in the South Pacific where I met two whales that just changed everything.
RW: Wow. And what happened there?
Bryant: A five or six-week old humpback whale calf swam right up to me on a collision course. And he veered away at the last minute probably five or six feet away from my camera. I was afraid his tail would touch my camera, so I lowered it and I remember just being taken aback by the sight of his belly button going by my face.
You could see his skin and musculature moving and flexing over his frame as he is powered down his fluke one more time. I could see all of his true colors, all of these fine details, all of these elements that make him real. His tail went right by my mask, about a foot away.
I just floated there for a moment processing that experience, trying to see if there was anything I could do with it before I decided to give it all up. And that’s when I felt a single tap on my left shoulder blade. It was too solid to be human. I felt dread, and I turned to look and found myself eye-to-eye with the mother. She had extended her 15-foot long, two-ton pectoral fin and touched my shoulder with the very tip of it. I was shaking because if she had touched me with the leading edge of her fin, even just the outermost tip of it, she could have broken my back.
She was looking into my eyes with a very calm, mindful gaze. And that’s when I saw clearly what I could offer, what I could create. I knew
I went back to the boat to be alone. And I knew what I experienced was something that would make a difference. It was what I would want to do. But I also realized how imprisoned I was, and how we all are. I just sat quietly listening to my inner voice and it just kept telling me, “You have to leave all that is safe and familiar, if you want to do this.” I remember crying, and my contact lenses fell out. I guess I wasn’t ready, because I didn’t quit my job and leave everything, not until about 14 months later.
RW: That’s a very moving story. That’s amazing.
Bryant: It’s almost traumatic like when you realize you’re so off course and then you see the path back, but it’s not a clear and easy path.
RW: I think a lot of people don’t ever have a moment like that. You know?
Bryant: Yes. If it’s a moment you’ve worked hard for and then the moment comes, maybe you’re more ready to receive it. If life is great, and everything is fine and—here’s a moment for you… I don’t know.
RW: Well you paid dearly for that moment—five years and no photos, and then those wonderful photographs that didn’t expose on the film. That’s payment.
Anne: And you said something about feelings of dread and wanting to give up.
Anne: And then these amazing moments happen.
Bryant: That was the first one, where the whale touched me. It’s really bizarre because the night before I probably cried harder than I had ever cried in my life, just from the insanity of this work. And I just wanted to go home and put everything back together. And it happened the next day when the two whales just came on either side of me.
AV: So this is Beethoven, or are you talking about Corduroy?
Bryant: This is Corduroy in 2004. And Beethoven was two years later.
RW: It’s obvious that you’ve found a real calling. And part of that is having a sense of some larger purpose. In the art world you don’t see much of that. Regular people all understand this, but it seems that in the art world intellectualized or spectacular and fashionable things that get all the attention. I’m wondering, if you’ve struggled with that at all.
Bryant: I have struggled. I understand it better now. I mean I could go in many different directions on that subject. You know, when photography became popular in the late 19th century or the mid-19th century, Impressionism started. Painting had to reinvent itself. It kept evolving. Like painting has exhausted every subject matter, and the camera took away more of that.
So now, where do we go? Every subject matter is accessible to us. But the ocean, except for the shoreline and on boats, was never included in the art movement, because it’s not an accessible subject. It’s a hostile environment. So how do we get to that as a form of artistic study, a respected form? It’s difficult.
What happened with painting and other art forms is that we’ve moved away from the subject, and the artist now goes into his or her head. Alberto Giacometti is one of the most influential artists who went into his head and created incredible works. But the world is much bigger than our imagination. We’re not humbled enough by that. All I’m trying to do is—well, the work you saw today is the first step. I’m just working out how do you make these photographs? Then, really, the next step is exploring the aesthetics and composition, going deeper into that process. But there are worlds way beyond our imagination. You know? We’re losing big chunks of it all the time.
Anne: Well, what I love about your work is your curiosity and being with these animals in this very intimate space and experiencing the awareness of something that is so much bigger. You’ve shared that beautiful Carl Sagan quote. Can you share that quote with us?
Bryant: Oh, that has always stayed with me. In his Cosmos
series, he just very casually said, we are a way for the cosmos to know itself
. Basically, we are the self-aware cosmos is what I believe he is meaning. Think of some of the whale species, including mainly the sperm whales, killer whales as well, who have been around for over five million years. They have incredibly large brains and hunt like social animals.
We talk about trying to protect. Indigenous cultures are going extinct. Languages are going extinct every day. We already have decimated other cultures and other species. If they go extinct we’ll never know. I mean that’s the whole point. Are we truly alone in the universe? I mean right now. We may not be. We may have the ability to measurer their intelligence, the way they communicate, and possibly make contact.
Anne: Can you share what their kind of communication, echo-location, what that feels like?
Bryant: Sperm whales, toothed-whales and dolphins, will use echo-location to see their environment visually—or acoustically, I should say. It’s like ultrasound. So we’re saline, we’re mostly water. When they send that sound through the water and into you, it sends back the information beautifully. It’s like high resolution. So they can perceive their world that way as well.
Anne: What I love about your work is that instead of taking it to the art world and saying, wow, look at this! your curiosity keeps you focused on what’s that next step—the communication, or how do we learn from this vast knowledge?
Bryant: Yes. My work is just kind of a bridge to other opportunities. I want my work to inspire and spark emotion and thought in us. Really, my goal is help advance scientific study of these creatures and their intelligence and the way they communicate. So I’m friends with people from so many different disciplines and financial capacities. I’m just quietly trying to bring everybody together. It takes a lot.
I think the real change goes back to the discovery of humpback whale song in 1967 by Dr. Roger Payne and Scott McVay and Katie Payne. I wasn’t even born, but some of you may remember how that started the save the whales movement. Humpback whales create song with a lot of the same qualities as human musicians—they rhyme, they have movements and phrases. Each population has its own song and it’s shaped throughout the mating season, and every year it’s different. They’ve been doing that for seven million years.
Learning about that facilitated a profound shift in the way we perceive the natural world and the environment on this planet. There has been nothing since. We take pictures, continue to do scientific research and create documentaries, but there has been nothing that profound since. The next thing could be breakthroughs in measuring their intelligence and cognitive abilities and possibly making contact with them; having an exchange. You know?
Anne: I think I learned this at the Marine Mammal Center too, that whales could communicate like across…
Bryant: Across the ocean.
Anne: Yes, three thousand miles. And today we have so much debris and sonic interference out there.
Bryant: Ninety thousand ships.
Anne: It must make that communication almost impossible.
Bryant: Yes. It’s really hard. They have to raise their voices. Blue whales are fascinating. As I said, they’ve been around seven million years. I think fin whales, too. They’re the largest creature that ever existed on the earth. They can communicate with their friends and family from thousands of miles away. They don’t have to worry about predators. They don’t have to worry about going hungry. And they can cover fifteen hundred to two thousand miles in a week. They can go wherever they want. They have a different perspective of earth than we ever did. I can’t think of a more beautiful way to experience life on this planet before we arrived. Then things started to change for them about 120 years ago with the invention of the steam engine.
RW: I find it beautiful just to have you articulate these larger perspectives.
AV: And also, you were talking earlier about how we’re so deeply adapted to water.
Bryant: We are aquatic mammals. Doctors and scientists are starting to realize just the extent of how well-adapted we are. Free divers are constantly pushing the limits, holding their breath eight or nine minutes. I think the record deepest dive is 600 feet and unofficially 800 feet.
RW: That’s amazing. I know we could keep going, but maybe we have to stop soon. I have one more question. Maybe you do too, Anne.
Anne: Yes, I do.
RW: You said you were interested in opening up unexplored thoughts and feelings. And what about our bodies and sensations? And in your earlier talk, you mentioned experiences where it’s hard to find the language to describe them. So that realm of non-verbal realities is interesting for you.
Bryant: Oh, yeah. It’s weird. I’ve kind of started this work so I didn’t have to use words. I’ve had to overcome some shyness and use words—and try to use them wisely and with some thought behind them. That has become a necessity. But when I’m with a whale it’s looking at me as close as you and I are now. And there is nothing verbal that can convey that.
It’s like walking on the moon, you know, for the first time. I mean it’s an experience completely alien and foreign to us to see something that big and then, just on this entire mass, you pick out the eye. And we’re connecting that way—connecting through our optical nerves…
RW: You said the world is much bigger than our imaginations. You’re touching on perceptions of a much bigger reality.
Bryant: Yes. I call it earth’s reality
. There’s our reality, but then there is earth’s reality. It’s like trying to tap into that.
RW: And our reality, more often than not, is pretty small—I mean, speaking for myself.
Bryant: It’s small. Mine too.
RW: We go around in these little thoughts. But when you have this moment with the eye of the whale, I’m guessing that little world gives way and you’re connected with a bigger world.
Bryant: Yes. And you can connect to that world just being in the ocean. I don’t know if I ever shared this, but there is a vibration to the ocean. I feel it’s restorative; really it’s my only connection to whales right now, and myself. I haven’t worked with whales in two years, but it’s like the ocean is just as good for me.
Anne: Bryant, I’m wondering if there’s a favorite story you’d like to share?
Bryant: There’s an encounter I was able to photograph that I’m very fond of. I was in waters maybe 18 feet deep with two humpback whales, a mother and her calf. The mothers like shallow water to protect their young, to protect them from sharks and from courting males. I saw her for five days. She was always in the shallows near the dive base. The last day I saw her she was in water so shallow her pec fins were touching the bottom and she was walking around. She was walking around. And her calf would swim around her.
And at one point she would just roll on her back. So if you can imagine in this shallow space of the auditorium here, a humpback whale rolling and rubbing her back on the sandy bottom. And her calf kind of came down and laid on the sand with his pec fins out like this. Then mom came down and put her pec fins out and she let out a burst of bubbles, probably for ballast, and then they just stayed there. Calves can only hold their breath for about four minutes during their first couple of weeks. So she may have been just helping condition him, you know, to overcome that compulsion to want to breathe—like, just relax with me. I left them like that. I just went back to the boat. The sun was setting and we went back. They were still sleeping when we left.
Anne: It makes me think of your relationship with your mother.
Bryant: Yes. She’s been so important.
Anne: And throughout your life and through this work.
Bryant: Yes. She had to overcome a lot of fear—like what would her friends think? This isn’t what you’re supposed to do. We all have fears of how we are perceived by friends and family and peers. But she overcame it and just supported me. I was in my 20s, you know. She said, “If you want to save up your money and see the world and figure out what it is you want to do, go for it.” It was really important, and that’s why I am doing this work now.
Anne: You mentioned that you haven’t worked with whales in about two years. So where are you now on your path, and how have your experiences influenced you?
Bryant: They taught me to be patient. I’ve learned to value myself more. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I’m still learning. So while I’m still trying to figure out the next steps for my work, I’m okay being a little more patient and getting everything right. It’s been my most exciting year with the book release and finally having a really good gallery on the East coast representing my work. Things are starting to sell and I can actually think about fieldwork again for the first time in two years. So I’m not writing a script. I may work with killer whales in the Arctic Circle in Norway, photographing them underwater, really emphasizing the eye of the killer whale. I’ll probably do some one-to-one scale photography on them and other photography. I’m really interested in working with whales entangled in commercial fishing gear and working with the disentanglement team.
Anne: Can you share a little bit about that? There aren’t that many people who are trained to do that.
Bryant: There are very few people who are trained to do this. And most whales die in fishing gear. Just a tiny percentage get rescued. I mean, this is the subtle thing where we’re all responsible. It’s not the whalers. It’s our lifestyle. And everybody has been trying to draw attention to this issue through actions in one way or another. I wonder how we would respond if we could just see a life-sized, ten-by-sixty-foot photograph of a humpback whale wrapped in fishing gear? Just to see what kind of dialogues would come from that, because people ask questions. Was this whale saved? What kind of gear is that? Then you could start to have other dialogues as well, like, “These are crab pots. We love to eat crab and this whale probably dragged this gear down from Alaska two thousand miles.” We could say, “Yes, this whale was saved. They put a satellite tag on the gear on this whale so even if they could not rescue that whale that day, they would know where the whale is going. They came back and tried again.”
So I think it’s really important to find innovative, creative ways to start new dialogues. To not berate or finger wag or hold signs and tell people how horrible they are for eating seafood. I mean just show the consequences. That’s one whale out of 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises that are estimated to die entangled in fishing gear every year. That’s five times more than at the height of whaling in the mid-20th century. That’s happening every year. It’s just hiding in plain sight.
There are so many positive and funny and horrible things all competing for our attention. And all this just disappears in the white noise, you know?
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