This story appears in the January 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The eagle is a national symbol, not just for Americans, but for Germans like me and many other people too. Photographers tend to portray the birds as these majestic animals, always soaring in a blue sky with their plumage perfectly in place.
In the Aleutian Islands in Alaska I found bald eagles that were wilder and tougher than that. They were dirty, they were wet, and they fought with each other, which is not what we expect from our national symbols. But maybe a bird that can deal with strong weather and difficult comrades makes a better source of inspiration.
Around the village of Unalaska and nearby Dutch Harbor, the largest fishing port in the United States, the eagles are very much used to people. Fish are everywhere, and the eagles hang around, looking for leftovers. They go to fishing boats, where they search on the decks after the boats come in. They go to where the fishermen clean their nets. They sit on the roofs of processing plants.
To make these photographs, I would go to the wild places outside of town where these habituated eagles congregated. There I could face the eagles eye to eye. I could get close to them without using a blind. They were always fully aware of me. I had to be careful, I had to study them, and I had to know what they liked and what they didn’t like. You might have found me lying on my belly, surrounded by 40 eagles.
I have been to the Aleutians seven times, and I will go again. I am an eagle man—I like eagles so much.
You see, they can fly, and I cannot.