LOCATION: Lauderdale by the Sea, FL, USA
STORY: At just one hour old, this baby green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) has a very, very big day ahead of her. She’s heading due east, instinctually heading into the rising sun, desperately searching for her only hope – the sargassum weedline. That’s where she’ll spend the next phase of her life, floating in the seaweed in relative safety. For now, every moment is perilous. But let’s back up a few months…
For the entire summer, I had been creating a map of each & every sea turtle nest on my backyard beach on my phone, marking out the date that it was laid, the species, and my projection of the hatch date. And each morning, starting an hour before sunrise, I’d be out on there, spending the next 2 hours with my mask, fins, snorkel, and my 45-lb underwater camera, hoping that my research & math would add up. Every morning, I’d walk the beach, examining each nest, marking their progress, making notes of any change. And after ~4 months of repeating this every morning, my luck finally paid off. I was inspecting a nest that hatched out 2 nights earlier (under the cover of darkness, as they always should), and I noticed the telltale grain of sand shift at the hatch site – sign that a there was a straggler moving around in there! I sprinted 3 buildings north to where I had laid my gear, and sprinted back carrying it all. And when I made it back to the nest, my heart sunk, as I saw a tiny set of tracks leading away from the nest. Yep – I missed it. But I found her before she made it to the water, just a few minutes before sunrise.
Getting my mask, fins & snorkel on in record time, I positioned myself in the shallows, and watched her crawl down the sandy slope towards me. I was so fearful that I’d lose her in the first few waves, as she tumbled head over flippers again & again, but I managed to keep eyes on her, and we made it out to deeper water. In the first 15 minutes, I was shooting like mad, not knowing how long I could stay with her, and that’s when I created the Fish Faces Collection image, Squirt. But as time went by, I became a bit more relaxed, and started to work on my vision. I became amazed at her progress – at first, she was only able to hold her breath for a few seconds before popping back up to the surface, but after an hour, she was getting down to 8 or 9′ deep for 45 seconds at a time. Finally, I could create the shot that I had sketched out – she needed to be facing the lens, flippers outstretched, and juuuust about to break the surface of the water for her next breath. And I nailed that. I nailed a bunch of those shots. But as my exhaustion mounted, she started to get a little ahead of me – and that’s when I saw that my sketch had been all wrong. As I lagged behind, I saw this perspective, and realized it was a far more powerful composition than I had been focusing on. Shooting her from behind, heading into the sun, told the story that my head-on shots were missing. Before, it was about the cuteness of her face. Now it was about telling the story of the first hour of a 120-year adventure. Against all odds, she has to avoid every predator from below and bird from above. She has to be lucky enough to stumble across the sargassum weedline. And lucky enough to get into the right wind & currents to be the 1 in 1000 hatchlings who makes it to reproductive age and ley her own nest back on this ver same beach around 24 years later. This literally is the first day of the rest of her life.