Bryant Austin: From The Eye Of A Whale

Posted by Bela Shah on Oct 13, 2013
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Can you imagine being gently tapped on the shoulder by a 15 foot, 2-ton pectoral fin of a humpback whale? How would you feel in that moment? For some of us, perhaps our lives might flash before our eyes. For photographer Bryant Austin it was a magical moment of awakening.

There he was in the middle of the ocean, gazing at a mother whale and baby calf taking an afternoon nap when out of the blue, the baby calf woke up and started swimming towards Bryant, almost on a collision course. Turning away at the very last moment, Bryant was stunned by what he saw.
“I remember just being in awe of all the fine details on the whale’s body, the true colors, and all of the subtle changes….the calf was only five weeks old! I remember just floating there, my mind trying to reconcile what had just happened when I felt this gentle tap on my shoulder. I turned around, visibly shaking, and there was mom, her eyes holding a calm and mindful gaze.”


On last Saturday's Awakin Call, Bryant had us spellbound. We listened in wonder as he softly shared his journey to find what he calls, “his people” or his tribe. Free diving into the ocean, being in the presence of these magnificent creatures, and imagining how they experience the world, Bryant has made it his life quest to share their vast intelligence and beauty. How he arrived at this place is a deeply moving story of faith and overcoming fears. In the following interview, Anne Veh explores more:

Anne: Can you tell us more about that fateful day when you were tapped on the shoulder by the 2-ton fin of a mother humpback whale?

Bryant: Early in the morning of that same day I had a really profound moment. I was actually on a tour with other whale lovers when we saw 5 whales and a baby whale in about 60 feet of water, with their shadows tracking along these beautiful coral reefs. It was so stunning and I had been waiting my whole life to experience something like this. I just stood still, trying to soak it all in.

But the others started swimming toward the whales. When we feel a scarcity of time, we compromise our own behavior and the wellbeing of something that we love, and we disrupt them. I realized in that moment that as a photographer, I had been doing it all wrong. This feeling was heightened later in the day when the calf swam right up to me.

"There was the mother whale, reaching out with her 2-ton pectoral fin. She consciously touched me with the apex of the fin because if it had been the leading edge, she would have broken my back. They have such delicate capacity to be so careful with us and that always humbles me. I remember when I looked in her eyes I felt her restraint and care. I never forgot that."

Anne: How did that experience of incredible vulnerability change you?

Bryant: As I swam back up to the boat, I realized that I had literally built my own prison. My whole life was built around the need for safety, security, a good paying job, and all the other things in life that you are told are important. And I had to return to this life; I didn’t have the capacity to say, “I’m going to stay here for another 2 months. This is important, something is happening, I need to explore this inspiration that was given to me.”

After experiencing the closeness of the baby calf and the mother, I was inspired to create life size portraits of whales to share with as many people as possible and to allow whales to spark thought and emotion from people who have had no reason to be moved by whales. But at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready to give into that inspiration and let go of the fear of what was familiar and safe and this really rocked me. It moved me to tears and when I left, I felt like a tree being ripped out of the ground.

Anne: But you eventually sold everything you owned and quit your job. How did you arrive at that place?

Bryant: For 16 months I tried to do both; I tried to live my regular life as well as pursue this inspiration and I was doing both really poorly. I was miserable. I went into a deep depression and I remember it got so bad, that I was worried I would take my own life. One day, I just walked out of my office.
I told my boss that I had to leave and I got on a bus, went to a hospital crisis center, and checked myself into a locked facility. I was terrified.

The doctor at the facility said I had to do something because I would ultimately take my own life or die of a heart attack. Those words stopped me cold. I walked into the therapist’s office and we sat there in silence. I shared a few words with her and she paused for a moment and looked at me and said, “I don’t know how to help you.”

"I was really stunned and felt hopeless and we sat there together for 30 seconds and then I remembered the whales and that quiet voice telling me that I had to leave all that is safe and familiar and I just honored it. It was like this weight was coming off my shoulders. I told her I had to quit my job and three months later, I did. Once I made that decision and that realization was honored, I’ve never been in places that dark anymore."

Anne: What was that process like for you, to let go of everything that you knew?

Bryant: The fear of isolating myself from others was very much alive. Everytime I sold something that I owned or even when I quit my job, I had to ask myself, “Does this feel ok? Does it sit with me? Am I still myself?” I had this fear that I would be alone during this whole process, and that no one would want to be with me because I had nothing material to offer. Over time, I realized that it was nothing personal, that it was just a difference in values.

"By doing what I did, I was not only able to create space for doing what makes me come alive, but I was also able to create space for that one person that does share my values and I am so grateful to her. She let me into her life when I had nothing, other than my photographs."

Anne: What has being with whales taught you?

Bryant: The world is so much bigger than our imagination and they teach that everytime I am with them. The one thing I left out from that encounter with the whale fin was that I had already been there for a week and the night before, I knew this was the last time I was going to photograph whales. I had been doing it for five years at a very intense level and I had nothing to show for my efforts and it came at a considerable cost; it cost my marriage and a lot of my financial and emotional well being. It’s just a risk that you take to photograph whales the way I do. I wait for them to come to me and often, nothing happens. It gets very expensive and often there is a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt in working with whales in this way.

Since I was making the decision to quit, I thought I might as well spend a bit more time there so I called my boss and said I needed to stay another week. I immediately regretted that decision. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? I’m spending all this money!” It was such an important decision especially if I was going to quit and I remember crying the hardest I had ever cried the night before. I just felt a lot of regret and sadness for all the pain and suffering this work had caused for my life and for my former partner. Then the next day the mother whale touched my shoulder and made eye contact with me. It was something that I had been seeking for ten years since the first time I had been in the water with whales.

Anne: It’s such a healing space to be in the presence of a mammal or an animal. There is this sense that when you’re so vulnerable and in a really sad state, they just come to you. There is this incredible nonverbal communication that happens, almost like a vibration. Can you speak more about that?

Bryant: The only time that I have been touched by a whale is when I’m at an emotional low and just really sad. After I sold everything and left my job, I was in the field for 124 days. I was near the tail end of that time and I had no photography, nothing to show for what I had risked so much for. I really felt that I needed a life sized portrait if my work was going to continue.

I had another night without any sleep and I felt a lot of anxiety and regret for the decisions I had made. I waited for the sun to come up and within 20 minutes of going back out into the water, I was with this mother whale and her calf. I had spent several days with them and I felt like I knew them. I named the calf Beethoven because he would try to get his mother to wake up and play with him whenever she was sleeping. He would swim down to her and rub his back all over her body, trying to coax her to move, and he would move his pectoral fins in the fashion of a conductor. That’s how we started this tradition of naming them after composers.

I remember feeling really tired, floating on the surface, just watching them and feeling really lost. The mother whale started swimming closer to me and I saw her eyes widen, which is a sign of concern and unrest.

"Before I could do anything, I felt this pressure against my back and the back of my head. I started to look up and beheld the underside of a whale float over the top of my head. The whale chin just stopped right over my forehead. I remember lowering my camera to my side and then this 4 foot long pectoral fin came around my body and rested against my chest and he just held me against his body while we breathed together for a few moments."

It just gave me pause. I thought, “Here again when I’m at my lowest, they step in and do something.” I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but the timing always humbles me and less than 48 hours later I composed my first life sized portrait of a whale. It would be my only one out of those 124 days and that portrait has led to everything else that I’ve done since.

Anne: What is the intention behind your photography exhibits? What feelings and perspectives do you want the viewers to walk away with?

Bryant: I want to provide the viewer with a profound memory of what whales look like. As part of the photography exhibits, the viewer can also hear the whale song. Whales have the ability to make musical compositions with all of the same qualities as human compositions so in a sense they also express themselves through art.

I want people to have something that they can contemplate after they’ve left the exhibit and returned to their lives. And then when they read about whales in a newspaper and come across something that describes how a whale is entangled in fishing gear, they’ll have that reference that will make whales a little more relevant in their world.

By 2009, Bryant Austin composed the largest and most detailed photographs of whales that have ever existed in the world. His work has been met with international acclaim, and has been received enthusiastically during exhibits worldwide, including shows in Norway and Japan – countries that continue to hunt whales.   

In his own words, “I went to these countries not as an activist or to protest or to judge, but to merely share and give viewers the freedom to explore their own emotions. I have faith in humanity that each of us has the capacity to make a change, to make a profound shift if we’re given the trust and freedom to explore our own emotions on a given subject.”


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Comments (2)

  • Janis Daddona wrote ...

    What a thrilling story! A beautiful posting, Bela. it made my day.

  • Pavi Mehta wrote ...

    Gorgeous! Thank you for sharing Bela...and gratitude to Anne and Bryant and all the others who held space on this call...