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  Field Notes From

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From Author

Alex Chadwick

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From Photographer

Randy Olson

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by David Doubilet (top) and Fen Montaigne

image: spider
In a Pacific Paradise

Field Notes From Photographer
Randy Olson
I felt a quiet thrill being one of only a few people to visit this unspoiled place. In terms of boobies and perhaps other migrating bird populations, Palmyra is second to the Galápagos. It’s one of the few places where they can land and be left alone. Bird life in this place which has been undisturbed since World War II, is phenomenal. It was frustrating trying to photograph aerials. There were thousands of terns on the runway, especially during the early morning and late evening when there is good light. The only time the bird activity was low enough to get the plane up was between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Then there was the weather. Palmyra is in an area with a weather pattern called doldrums, a mix of calms, squalls, and shifting winds.
And if that wasn’t enough, one of my few windows of opportunity for shooting was lost when the plane had to get donors back to make their connecting flights in Hawaii.
With birds, bad weather, and an unavailable plane stacked against me, getting aerials became the most important thing to me. One day my assistant and I even fueled the plane to make the point that we were serious about trying to do aerial work. When it was all done, I ended up with one ten-minute window during a 20-minute flight to get the aerial photos that were published in the article.
During World War II, the military dynamited a channel to get big ships in. The channel leads to a lagoon which, because of military tampering, can’t filter properly and is very murky. Rays, sharks, and trevali use the channel as a raceway to come into the lagoon to hunt.
I do a little underwater photography, but it’s not my specialty, so I didn’t necessarily know what to expect down there. No one’s been diving in this place before, so it seemed that the fish, particularly sharks, were a lot more curious than in other places I’ve been. I swam into the lagoon and this trevali, a big slab of a fish almost the size of a refrigerator door, came out of the murky water right at me, corrected itself, and passed on my right side. Then another one skimmed past my left side. I didn’t know that black-tip sharks—which tend not to attack—hunt with trevali, but they came out right behind them. Even though I was safe, it was unnerving.

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