“It was unbelievable,” she said. “As he approached, I had a sense of excitement. The closer he got, the bigger he got—and they’re huge! You have a sense of ‘oh my gosh.’”
North American moose are increasingly rare, but the awe Malan and her husband experienced is not.
When Jalen Brooks, a high school student from Illinois, came face-to-face with rare animals rescued from the illegal pet trade in a zoology class, his reaction was one with which many of us can identify. In a video taken by a classmate and shared on social media hundreds of thousands of times, he gapes at the animals, including a python, open-mouthed, clearly fascinated.
Some National Geographic photographers have also experienced awe-inspiring moments that inspired them to devote their lives to animal photography and to the larger cause of conservation.
The Shark Whisperer
Photojournalist Brian Skerry, one of the world's leading underwater photographers, has spent a significant portion of his career photographing sharks. He described the experience that jump-started his passion.
“It was 1982. I was invited out by a shark biologist who was doing scientific trips himself. Before that, I had no idea I could even see sharks.”
Skerry went diving off the coast of Rhode Island with a cage the biologist had built himself.
“It was essentially made of chicken wire,” Skerry recalls.
That’s when he saw his first shark. His reaction, according to his fellow shark enthusiasts, was unprecedented.
“This beautiful blue shark moved in, and she wasn’t coming closer, so I left the cage. They said I was the first photographer ever to leave the cage.” (See "Why Sharks Are Getting Stuck in Diver Cages.")
Skerry has never forgotten the feeling of that first mesmerizing encounter.
“The water was green but clear enough so you could see her. She was maybe five or six feet in length. I remember vividly that she was sculpted with the lines of an aircraft—this fuselage in the water.”
“I remember my heart pounding. She was aware of me, for sure, but not interested in me, and she just sort of swam off into the sunset.”
The experience shaped a lifelong love of sharks and fascination with their movement and personalities.
“They blend grace and power very beautifully. They exude this confidence but are also very graceful in the water.”
Inspired by his familiarity with sharks, Skerry has also become passionate about conservation, and speaks around the world about marine environment issues.
“I’ve come to learn that sharks are also in trouble. We’re killing a hundred million sharks a year, mostly for their fins. We can’t kill a hundred million sharks a year and expect the ocean to remain healthy."
Blood and Guts
Charlie Hamilton James, who was recently honored in the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition for his work on vulture conservation, shared the story of what inspired his passion. (See "Vultures are Revolting. Here's Why We Need to Save Them.")
“I love vultures, and not just because they’re charismatic, intelligent, and physiologically incredible," Hamilton James says. "No, I love vultures in a really sick way too. What they do when they feed on a carcass is repulsive, but—let’s face it—it makes for fascinating viewing.”
A young Rüppell’s vulture eats a piece of zebra in the Serengeti in this photo taken from inside a carcass.
Inspired by the visceral pleasure of watching a vulture dismantle a carcass, Hamilton James has been successful in raising awareness of a problem that gets less attention because of the nature of the animal.
“Vultures are the ultimate antihero: They’re ugly, aggressive, and have pretty rotten feeding habits. But they’re also one of the fastest declining families of birds in history.”
Joel Sartore loves to tell the story of how he started photographing animals in zoos in 2006, continuing a decades-old passion for animal photography. He began the project at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his friend John Chapo is CEO of Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
Chapo admits he was “mostly humoring [Sartore]” when he agreed to let him come shoot some pictures at the zoo.
Sartore asked only for a backdrop and an animal that wouldn’t run off but would sit still for a portrait.
Curator Randy Scheer suggested a naked mole rat, a bald, toothy, rodent about three or four inches long that's native to East Africa, where it lives in underground colonies.
That portrait was the beginning of a project called Photo Ark, which over the past decade has taken Sartore to zoos around the world. He has photographed more than 6,000 species to date. The goal is to document every species living in captivity, in the hopes of motivating people to save them from extinction.
"It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity," Sartore says. "When we save species, we're actually saving ourselves."
His passion is raising awareness about every animal, no matter how photogenic.
“I get most excited when I do little critters like this,” he says, remembering when he first got face-to-face with a naked mole rat, “because nobody’s ever going to give them the time of day.”