Bob Talbot: A Spirit of Ocean Activism

Orcas, Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada
I captured my first poster image during an extraordinary day in 1979. In the summer evening light of my first encounter with orcas two years before, I came away with this shot in my mind, and now finally had it on film. (Canon F-1, 200mm f/2.8 lens, Kodachrome)

At one time the marine photography of Bob Talbot seemed to be omnipresent, decorating the walls of dorm rooms, offices and homes. Posters were a big thing in the 1980s, particularly tastefully designed and well-printed fine art posters. More than 30 editions of Talbot's photographs were eventually published, and millions of posters were sold. While pleased with the popularity of his work, he feels that the greater achievement is the awareness he brings to the marine mammals he photographs. That spirit of ocean activism has defined his career.

Talbot was born on the East Coast and lived on the Long Island Sound seashore as a young child. By the time he was 5 his family had moved to Eagle Rock, a small, land-locked suburb in Los Angeles County, California. While the ocean was no longer a part of his daily reality, television brought a virtual reality in the form of Jacques Cousteau programs. Underwater exploration became a burning passion in his imagination, but the sea was 30 miles away. His brother, who was 9 years older and had a driver's license, was (and still is) an avid surfer who didn't mind taking his kid brother along when he went to catch the break at Redondo Beach. Talbot would freedive along the breakwater and under the pier, where he was enraptured by the resident marine life. He got his scuba certification in 1972 at the age of 13.

The next year Talbot met Tony Bernot, a scuba enthusiast who was trying to build a wet sub with plans he found in Popular Mechanics. That same year Talbot got a Nikonos II camera for Christmas, and Bernot got a 16-foot Avon inflatable boat. No longer limited to beach dives along the Southern California coast, they could significantly expand the range of their often foolhardy adventures.

Humpback whales and California sea lion, Monterey Bay, California
Many years ago I traveled to Alaska to photograph humpback whales. These whales, however, were feeding in my own backyard. Monterey Bay is one of the few marine habitats that is in better shape now than it once was. (Nikon D850, 80-400mm lens, digital)

They soon added a third person to the crew. Randy Orton encouraged Talbot to enroll in an afterschool photography class and helped him develop and print his first roll of black-and-white film. Watching an image appear in the red glow of the darkroom ignited Talbot's fire for visual expression, and he began to learn everything he could to translate his vision to film.

The first cetaceans Talbot ever saw were the orcas and dolphins at Marineland of the Pacific on the Palos Verdes Peninsula when he was 11. The wild whales and dolphins Talbot and his friends encountered on their small inflatable were strikingly different from the captive cetaceans in the tanks at Marineland. Long hours on the boat led to fanciful schemes of how to free Marineland's orcas — an idea Talbot would later revisit and capture on film.

After high school Orton went away to college, and Chip Matheson joined the duo for their first truly grand adventure. They found a somewhat roadworthy trailer for the inflatable and hooked it up to an old Datsun pickup for a long trek north to fulfill their dream of diving with wild orcas. At the first stop, Washington's San Juan Islands, weather and fickle orcas conspired against them, so they continued northwest to Vancouver Island.

Humpback whale, Frederick Sound, Alaska
I was expecting this whale to surface on the other side of our small Zodiac boat when I heard a rush of water behind me. It took a quick spin of aperture and focus rings to catch this shot before the whale slipped beneath the surface. (Canon F-1, 85mm f/1.2 lens, Kodachrome)

They had learned about Paul Spong, a pioneer in whale research and a founder of OrcaLab, which was located on Hanson Island, British Columbia. After leapfrogging logging roads by ferry, they launched the old Avon inflatable in Alert Bay. Navigating a labyrinth of tree-lined waterways, they continued along the Inside Passage until they came upon Spong's storybook treehouse. He wasn't there but had left a note inviting any visitors that came along to stay. Talbot and company did, and they encountered orcas twice during their forays into nearby waters.

During their first encounter Talbot captured a shot of the whales lined up perfectly abreast of one another, their blows backlit against Vancouver Island. The shot was poorly composed and overexposed but was enough to tease the vision of what was possible. On their second encounter they entered the water and came face-to-face with the animals of their dreams. Elated by the encounter, they headed back to the treehouse to prepare for the next day's adventure. While motoring through a tide eddy in a narrow pass, they struck a log and split the lower unit of the outboard in half, abruptly ending the trip.

A fishing boat towed them to Hanson Island, but it took three days to hail a passing boat to get them back to their vehicles. Despite the unfortunate end to their trip, the three young men were already planning their return trip during the long trek back to Los Angeles.

Orcas, North Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
I photographed these orcas against a beautiful but fleeting sky deep in the inland passages off North Vancouver Island. (Canon F-1, 85mm f/1.2 lens, Kodachrome)

They returned to camp on Vancouver Island in 1979. In addition to his still photography gear, Talbot brought along a housed Bolex 16mm windup movie camera. On a single day of this expedition he shot his first underwater footage of orcas and captured the stills that would become two of his early posters. The morning had provided an exciting underwater encounter with an orca mother and calf. That evening Johnstone Strait was flat calm, and Talbot was able to capture the images he had envisioned during his first encounter with orcas.

That year Talbot began selling framed prints at street art shows. He had flowers, otters and seascapes, but his orcas were the most popular. "The fine art poster market was going off then," Talbot said. "High-quality lithographs sold as posters were providing the public affordable access to a broad range of art. The biggest poster distributor was close by in Santa Monica, so I gave them a call and then dropped by with my work. They liked one of my orca images, and we signed a one-off licensing deal. At the time neither one of us had a clue what was ahead."

Common dolphins, Southern California
These common dolphins waited until after sunset to bow ride a freighter steaming along at more than 20 knots. The low light required a wide-aperture lens that necessitated us being a bit closer than comfortable in our 25-foot boat. (Canon F-1, 85mm f/1.2 lens, Kodachrome)

The 1979 trip to Vancouver Island was a significant event in his photographic journey, but the watershed moment came with a 1986 expedition to southeast Alaska. This time Talbot trailered a 25-foot Skipjack boat to the north end of Vancouver Island. From there he and two friends, Jeff Kornmann and Dan Donley, headed north to Frederick Sound, Alaska, to photograph humpback whales. Talbot wanted to capture an image he had in his head of a humpback tail. For 56 days the three men lived on the cramped Skipjack and worked out of the small Zodiac inflatable boat they towed behind. Most of their humpback encounters there were lackluster and played out under dreary skies.

On the morning they were preparing to leave ahead of an approaching storm, a single humpback circled the small bay where the Skipjack was anchored. The whale fluked high and straight each time it sounded. With every dive Talbot could see the shot he was looking for playing out against the dramatic background of incoming weather, but the whale was constantly changing direction, so positioning the Zodiac was challenging. Kornmann deftly piloted the small boat with Talbot draped over the bow, peering down through the speed finder on his Canon F-1 rotated to the waist-level position. The whale finally surfaced perfectly in frame. Shooting Kodachrome 64 film with a 200mm manual-focus lens left no room for error. Talbot adjusted the aperture with each blow, second-guessing his exposure while trying to balance the bright glow on the horizon with the shadowed foreground.

Spotted dolphins, Bimini
My first time photographing dolphins in the Bahamas was in 1987. Every trip there since then was for a film project until my first stills-only shoot in 2015, when I captured this image. (Nikon D810, Sigma 15mm lens, Aquatica housing, digital)

Like a great wing, the whale's tail rose from the sea and quickly began to fill the frame. It seemed impossibly large — too close for his long lens. As the whale sounded, Talbot exposed a series of frames, carefully focusing between each on the trailing edge of the tail while trying to keep the tips of the flukes in the viewfinder. A moment later the whale slipped beneath the surface, leaving him unsure if the shots were properly exposed, sharp or even completely in frame.

The Cousteau Society had called Talbot while he was in Alaska and asked him to join the Alcyone crew to film orcas in British Columbia. The invitation was much appreciated but meant that he wouldn't get home to open his little yellow boxes of Kodachrome slides for several weeks. People who have never shot film will never know the anticipation, the disappointment and the occasional glory that came from reviewing a slide with a Schneider 4x loupe — or the heartbreak of an image that's almost perfect.

Talbot couldn't pass up the offer and went on another trip, left to wonder what would be waiting for him at home. When he returned and was finally able to look at his whale tail shots, the edges of the tail were ever-so-slightly covered by the sides of the frame; he had just barely missed getting the shot. "My heart sank," he said. But he started wondering if more image was hidden underneath the slide mount. Holding his breath, he removed the mount with an X-Acto knife. The full frame revealed the entire tail, edge to glorious edge. Talbot had his signature whale tail shot.

Humpback whale, Frederick Sound, Alaska
At the end of a long trek in a 25-foot boat from Vancouver Island to Frederick Sound, Alaska, I draped over the bow of a small Zodiac to finally capture the image that was the purpose of the entire trip. (Canon F-1, 200mm f/2.8 lens, Kodachrome)

STEPHEN FRINK: I know your early work as a still photographer but also realize you are equally adept as a filmmaker. You were the director and cinematographer for the IMAX film Ocean Men: Extreme Dive and worked on many other films, including the IMAX film Dolphins, your art piece Dolphins and Orcas, Being Dolphin 4D and your most famous work in film: the wildlife footage of orcas in the Free Willy movies. How do you navigate between a single moment frozen in time and the constant motion that is film?
BOB TALBOT: I have different mindsets for telling a story with a single frame as opposed to having it unfold over time.

I'm not

Talbot recently filmed Being Dolphin 4D in Southern California. (Photo by Karla Wilson)

shooting all the time, but when I am I'm usually working on a specific story or specific images I have in mind. While I'm working on a film and am afforded the time, crew and hardware to capture cinematic scenes of wildlife, I am completely focused on the story and the shots. Doing a film requires me to anticipate shots I hope to get while also thinking about what has been shot and how all the pieces will come together to tell the story. I'm constantly thinking about the narrative, the visual transitions and how it will all play against the score and sound design.

Shooting stills presents the challenge of evoking emotion with a single frame without the use of music, voice-over or the context provided by a story arc. When I shoot stills I'm often alone with the animals, which makes it easier for me to connect with my subjects and not be as distracted as I am around people.

Harp seal, Newfoundland, Canada
Weather whittled down a one-week trip to one hour on the ice. With time running out, I came upon this this little guy who was blissfully napping and would only half open his eyes. My poor seal imitation momentarily got his attention for this shot. (Canon F-1, 100mm macro lens, Kodachrome)

Your commitment to ocean environmental causes is as well-known in some circles as your visual art. You served for many years as chairman of the board of trustees for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and on the board of Sea Shepherd during the contentious time of trying to disrupt the Japanese whaling fleet. I sense that your ocean activism is a consuming passion.
When I was a kid it wasn't photography that first inspired me, it was the ocean. Imaging was a way to share the sea with others in hopes that it would compel them to protect it and its inhabitants. I naively thought then that intimate images of and stories about marine life would spark the same kind of empathy and compassion that many of us who are lucky enough to be around these animals feel. It is the driving force behind my work, though I've learned a lot along the way.

Humans can be violent, egocentric creatures by nature. We can also be extraordinarily compassionate. What strikes me most about our species is our ability to use our intellect to guide our emotions — to choose to some degree how we feel. There was a time when shaming people into submission was very effective. I now believe that hope lies in acknowledging our nature and our respective positions. That's not to say that there are not fights to wage — there most certainly are, but I don't think it's productive to self-righteously come out swinging.

Dusky dolphin, Kaikoura, New Zealand
We received an early morning greeting as we headed out to film dusky dolphins. (Nikon F4, 80-200mm lens, Kodachrome)

Tell me how the Free Willy assignment came about. You were well-known in the fine art world and as a nature filmmaker, but big-budget Hollywood production is a different world.
I connected with executive producer Richard Donner through Marineland, where I had filmed the birth of two orca calves. One of the trainers was consulting with Keith Walker, who had written a script about a boy who frees a captive orca. He asked me for some signed posters to send to Donner, which I was happy to provide. The idea that the film could be made, much less me being a small part of it, was too amazing to dare believe.

Seven or eight years later I got a call from one of Donner's producers for some reference footage of wild orcas. By then I had finished the rough cut of the orca sequence for my film Dolphins and Orcas, so I stopped by the studio with a VHS tape. The producer watched the piece and then disappeared with the tape into another office. Ten minutes later Donner came out of the office and asked in his booming voice if I could shoot the same kind of footage on 35mm film. All the footage of orcas I had shot was on 16mm, which is far less challenging, but of course I said I could. A few weeks later I was in Johnstone Strait, where I had seen wild orcas for the first time many years before. I spent the following three summers in the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, where we shot the remainder of the wildlife sequences for Free Willy and Free Willy 2. Being even a small part of what turned out to be the beginning of a movement remains one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Humpback whales, Tonga
I'm always touched by the trust of a mother humpback when she brings her calf over for a look. (Nikon D810, Sigma 15mm lens, Aquatica housing, digital)

Humpback whale, Monterey Bay, California
This whale seemed to be enjoying a perfect summer morning along with me. (Nikon D810, 70-200mm lens, digital)

You've been at this long enough to see changes in our world's oceans. Can you remain optimistic?
I try to be, but the planet is in dire straits. As our population increases and resources dwindle, fewer people have the luxury of being concerned with global environmental issues.

Can we make a difference in our daily lives? Sure. One of the most effective things we can do is to eat lower on the food chain, though it will take much more substantive action to significantly alter our ecological trajectory. Those of us who profess to care about the sea need to focus more on being effective and less on being right. We must find ways to cut through the noise and not only expose problems but also offer well-thought-out solutions.

We won't know for generations whether all the beautiful images being created by photographers around the world will inspire meaningful change or be fleeting Instagram moments of what once was. What we do know is that the awe they inspire fosters respect for all living things and that we can show that respect every day through empathy and compassion, no matter what the future holds.

Photos ©Bob Talbot

Spotted dolphins, Bimini
Returning to the Bahamas in 2018 to photograph dolphins felt like reuniting with old friends. (Nikon D850, Zeiss 15mm lens, Nauticam housing, digital)

Explore More
See more of Bob Talbot's work in this promotional video.

© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2019