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My Photography blog


Experience and thoughts of my wildlife photography adventures 


Brooks Falls on Katmai island, Alaska has been long considered the best place to photograph brown bears in the world. One of the most famous wildlife photographs in the world, "catch of the day" by Thomas Mangelsen in 1988, became the iconic image of Brooks Falls. Over the years, countless photographers have attempted to emulate his classic photograph.

I have been longing to visit Brooks Falls for several years until I finally booked the trip for the summer of 2020 in spring 2019 originally. Unfortunately due to Covid-19 pandemic, it was postponed to this August. We were not sure about the brown bear activity in August, since July is considered as the most active time in general. For some reason, the brown bears came late to the falls this year. We were fortunate to witness this annual brown bear mega reunion. Normally they are solitary creatures within their own territory. The salmon migration attracts them to Brooks Falls each early summer, mostly, for the month of July.

A brown bear opens jaws and waits for the spawning sockeye salmon flying to her mouth

The journey to Brooks Falls took us more than a day. We flew to Seattle, Washington first, the took a late night flight to Anchorage, Alaska. After seven hours of lay way, we boarded a Beechcraft aircraft operated by Alaska Central Express for about 2 hours, we landed in King Salmon, the closest town near the Katmai island. Then we took a floatplane by Katmai Air for about 30 minutes, arrived at the Brooks camp in Katmai National Park.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by a park ranger. She gave us a lesson (bear school) regarding bear safety, this is required for every visitor prior to any activity at Brooks Falls.

Then we went straight to the Brooks Falls after check in the cabin. It is about 1.2 miles from the camp to the falls, by passing bridge over the Brooks river.

Entrance to the bridge.

Bridge over the Brooks river

We saw the sockeye salmon in a huge endless stream passing under the bridge, see the photo below. There is an underwater camera streaming the fish migration live on youtube.

Trail to the falls

The viewing platform and Brooks Falls

There is a limit of maximal 40 viewers on the platforms in the peak season. The park ranger will call the tourists out once one hour viewing time is over. We did not experience any limit during our visit because there were less than 40 visitors each day. We had to wait sometime for the front row position on the platform though.

Paradise or battlefield?

The above photos shows the view of the falls from the viewing platform. Many brown bears position themselves in different positions. The prime estate, best spots for fishing is on the top of the falls. Only the most powerful and high ranking bears have the privilege to stay. The less powerful bears stay below the falls. The rest only can catch fish in the downstream river.

Different bears have acquired different fishing skills. The bears on the top of the falls, they stand there, waiting the fish jumping into their mouth. The bears below the falls in the jakuzzi will raise their heads with open jaws to catch the fish who failed to jump over to the upper water. Some less skilled bears will pounce on the fish when they see the fish passing by; while some bears will snorkel to find fish.

Meet 480 Otis

Otis is the oldest and probably most beloved bear at Brooks Falls. He showed up on July 27, very late for the season. Last year he showed up on June 23. The rangers thought he was dead before he showed up at the falls this year. He is about 25-26 years old, equivalent to human at 90 years old. Otis is a past winner of the park’s annual Fat Bear Week competition. ( Current winner is 747, in last photo. ) He also was featured on the DisneyNature movie. A true star of bears! He is very slow, usually stays at back end of the falls “his office”, half sleeping most of the time. Long live Otis!!!

Life lesson at the falls

The baby bears were learning fishing skills from their mom. One of the baby bears was apparently not a good student. He/she felt bored, went to play with neighbors, and played with tree branches. This bear probably will have more difficult time in the future life compared to his/her sibling. They were very lucky though to stand at the premium spots because of their mother—— born with silver spoons in their mouths! Sounds familiar?

Catching fish is too boring!

I like to play! Me too!

The tree leaf does not taste good at all!

"Little brother, come down to learn how to catch fish!"


Mother:" You didn't listen, no fish for you!"

How to eat Salmon and bears table manner

The brown bears have their own way of eating salmon, (no need for wasabi or soy sauce, just kidding). They usually skin the salmon on both sides, and eat the skins, then eat the brain, then the rest, leaving the fish head and spine bone to the scavengers. Sometimes when their stomach are kind of full, they just eat fish skin and brain, throw away the rest. ( They build up body fat quickly by eating fatty tissue of the fish).

"What ?"

" Not for you!"

"Where to bite?"

Dreaming about more salmon

River walk with the park ranger

After photographing the bears at the falls for a whole afternoon, we decided to do the river walk with park ranger the second morning.

After putting on waiders, we walked with Ethan, the park ranger, to about five hundred yards downstream from the falls. The sky was dark and eerie, misty drizzle. We were quite concerned and worrying about heavy rain, it would not suitable for photography. Ethan assured us, "the weather on Katmai island changes every fifteen minutes. "

View of the falls, mountain and sky from downstream in Brooks River

This was a quite exciting experience. There were a handful fishermen casting their baits in the middle of the river. There were a few brown bears walking along the water's edge towards the falls direction. Suddenly, one of the fisherman waved to us forcefully, we turned around, saw a big bear now in front of us about 40 years away and walking towards us. We had to yield to the bear and stayed way.

Angler casting downstream in the Brook river

A big bear walking towards us

On the way to cafeteria for breakfast

The "bad ass bear" is coming

"Are you guys scared?"

In order to give the bear a direct way to the fall, we walked on the river bank to the ground beneath the Riffle platform, which is about 100 yards downstream from the falls. We had much better angle of view from the ground, other than looking down from the platform.

"Get out of my way!"

Once the bear passed us, we started walking in the river again following the stream. We saw a couple of bears still sleeping on the river bank. It must be a very conformable bed! Do you see the markings on the wall?

Then we saw a mother bear with her two cubs fining in the river.

Mother bear in the rain

The baby bear watching a flock of Merganser ducks passing by.

Bald eagle and bear

Salute to salmon!

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Updated: Jan 14, 2020

When I learned that a cheetah named Siligi gave birth to seven cubs in Masai Mara, I decided to make a special trip to Masai Mara to witness this rare event in nature. It was also reported by the Daily Mail and several other media.

Masai Mara has been one of my favorite places for wildlife photography, I have been there several times before. It is truly a fascinating a dream place for photography. Due to the abundance of wildlife and unique landscape, there is no other place alike in the world.

My guide reminded me to bring rain coat before I left for Mara this time. He was not kidding. Of the seven days of my stay in Mara during this trip, it rained five days. It had been raining for a several weeks even before I arrived. Most of rivers in Mara had been flooded. We were driving in mud and swamp most of the time, it made the safari very difficult.

Once we checked in Mara Simba Lodge, we were heading to the place where Siligi and her cubs were seen in the past few days. It was a short drive, about 25 minutes to the site. The color of Masai Mara at this time was quite different from what I have seen in the past. Grass and bushes were all in lush green due to the recent abundant rainfall. The grass was very tall, it added some difficulty to photograph small animals. I could smell the savory smell of grass while the car passing by. I was so excited to be back in Mara, my heart was pounding.

Here you go, Siligi and her cubs. Unfortunately, she lost one cub just two days before I arrived. It was not unusual due to their low survival rate (about ten percent) to adulthood. This was her second litter, she had three cubs two years ago.

They had not have anything to eat for two days. My guide said that she might hunt Thompson's gazelle. But with time went on, the sky became dark, rain started.

Only six cub left.

Siligi was looking for prey, but she could not locate any potential target. The lighting became poor, we decided go back to the lodge. It seemed that they would go hunger that night.

The second morning, it was clear in the sky. We were hoping for better lighting to photograph Siligi and her cubs. On the way to siligi's hiding place, we saw four cheetahs, mother and her three young adult cubs. We started to follow them for a while, hoping that they would start to hunt.

Cheetah in morning sunlight.

Two cheetahs on a tree trunk, looking for prey.

After about two hours, we realized that they probably did not have any luck to find a target, we decided to go to see Siligi. Apparently she did not stay at her resting site from last night. It took us quite some time to find them. When we got there, we just missed a kill by Siligi. She dragged the gazelle to the cubs.

They had not had food for three days, so this was a quite a feast for them. The sunlight was getting harsh, we decided to go back to lodge to have lunch. After lunch and a short nap, we came back to Siligi and her cub. Apparently they had a nap too after the meal. The cubs were playing in a tree.

Do you know how to get down?

Hey, wait, you can't jump yet!

Since we already spent two days with Siligi and her cubs, we decided to spend a day to look for other photography opportunities on the third day. We drove to Black Rock area with hope of seeing the black Rock pride, a large group of lions with many cubs in this area. We drove over one hour in this area, could not locate the pride. Our guide saw this famous male leopard walking in the grass. We positioned out car and waited the leopard to walk close to us.

Male Leopard in black and white.

After taking a few photos of this male leopard, we decided to continue looking for the lion pride. We saw several vehicles in the valley, we knew they had found them. The pride consists of three male lions, five female lions and eight cubs. We only saw lionesses and cubs walking in the tall grass field. It was quite difficult for the cubs to walk in tall grass, adult lion walked on the road for a short period of time, I was able to get a few shots of the group. They looked quite hungry and fatigued. They kept walking in the grass, there was no potential prey in this area. We saw the clouds and rain was coming, we decided not to follow them.

Lioness and cubs walking on the road

We decided to go back to Siligi. The rain was pouring. The visibility became poor. We drove around the area where Siligi was yesterday, we could not find her. We saw two birds --grey crowned cranes in the pond. Out car almost got stuck in the mud twice.

We kept looking for Siligi. We finally found them quite far from their previous location. They hunkered down in the grass in the rain. The sky was dark and the rain was relentless. I tried to take a group photo, a family portrait without any luck. Most of the time, they kept heads down in the grass. Occasionally Siligi licked water off the cub's head.

The cub shaked water off its fur in the rain.

We spent a few hours there till it got dark. The rain continued. We had to leave with some disappointment. Well, we still could come back tomorrow.

The next day, the sky was clear at dawn. We left the lodge very early with a hope to find Siligi and spend the whole morning to photograph her and her cubs with good lighting. When we got there, they had moved again. We spend two hours in the vicinity and could not find them. I was so disappointed, it was one of the two days that we had good morning sunlight during our visit, but we could not find the cheetahs. My guide contacted the Cheetah Guardians, the park rangers who were assigned to watch Siligi and her cubs. They even did not know where Siligi and her cubs were.

My guide suggested that we should move on to find something else to photograph while the Cheetah Guardian were looking for Siligi. If we would hear any new from them, we would came back to photograph them.

So we decided to drive to Black Rock area again with hope of seeing lions on the top of rock formation. It turned out that it was a very dismaying morning. We drove another two hours in Black Rock area, could not found any animal or wildlife for the matter. The golden sunray shined on the grass and the rolling hills and valley, it was so serene. But I could not enjoy much of the scenery, my mind was focusing on finding the lions and getting good shots. It was truly strange morning. I learned the word "Hakuna" from my guide. He asked all the drivers he saw on the way, the answer was universal, " Hakuna"-- meaning "nothing" in Swahili. I could see his disappointing expression on his face, he felt he could have done better than this. I said "Hakuna-matata" to him, borrowing a fraise from the Lion King movie. He chuckled. He called the Cheetah Guardian, the answer was "Hakuna".

Finally, he got a news that two lions were mating in the field about 40 minutes away. We decided to go there since we did not have anything else to photograph. It was late morning already, the sun was high, the light was getting harsh. Supporizingly, we drove into fog when we arrived.

Male lion in the fog, Masai Mara

While we were photographing the mating lions, we learned that the famous Cheetah Five Brothers were nearby and contemplating a hunt. Actually, they just failed an earlier attempt. So we decided to catch their hunting activity. When we got there, there were about twenty vehicles there already. One of the cheetahs approached the sleeping topi slowly, while the other four cheetahs scattered in different directions to form a circle to enclose the topi. Suddenly the cheetah accelerated and charged to the topi, the topi started to run but it was too late, quickly the five cheetahs attacked the topi in different direction, it only took about one minute to take down the topi.

We then spent the rest of day trying to photograph a male lion. The male lions laid in the grass near a main road, it attracted numerous tourists due to easy access. Because of the excessive rainfalls, lots of tour vans could not go off road, this became an easy scenery for them. I found it was very difficult to photograph this male lion. It slept most of the time. It was very difficult to get a good angle due to so many cars. We waited till sunset, still did not get any luck. We did not hear anything about Siligi either for the whole day.

The next day it was cloudy with occasional showers. We decided to look for Siligi ourselves. We covered a large area the whole morning without success. The Cheetah Guardians were looking for them too. We started to worry about her and her cubs. There was report of sighting the Conservancy lion pride nearby in the past two days. This pride lions are famous for stealing cows from nearby cattle farmers. They could easily kill her or her cubs.

Early afternoon, we were called to help the Cheetah Guardians to tow a vehicle from a ditch. It turned out that vehicle belonged to a French family who were touring Masai Mara, they were looking for the cheetahs too. Their vehicle slided into the ditch behind a bush in the morning around eight o'clock. Their cell phone did not have signal. So they stayed in the vehicle for about 6 hours until the Cheetah Guardians passing by. They were supposed to have lunch in a different city, which is three hours away. They had to cut most of the bush away to clear the path. Then the two 4x4 vehicles connected in series to drag the sinking vehicle out of the ditch.

Since we did not spot Siligi for a second day, we decided to go back to the lodge for a late lunch. In the afternoon, we were told that the cheetah guardian finally found them. They had moved quite far away from previous position. We were so joyful at that moment, learned that Siligi and her cubs were sound and safe.

When we got there, we realized that this was a quite bushy area. It was somewhat difficult to photograph them. Most of the time, they stayed behind the bushes.

You! Copycat!

From the above photos, if you paid enough attention, you would have noticed that Siligi was constantly looking around. She was looking for prey. by this time, the sun was out. Light was getting brighter. Finally she aimed on one of the gazelles, but she was not successful.

The cubs continued playing in the bush.

The sun was setting behind the thin clouds. It casted an orange hue on the ground, on everything. I quickly clicked the shutter, it lasted only for a few minutes. The the darkness settled in.

We decided to stayed a little bit late till they settled down for the night.

The next morning, our last day at Mara, we arrived before the first light. Unfortunately it was very cloudy. It did not take us long to find them. They were still in sleep. We waited patiently until Siligi started to wake up. I finally was able to take a photo that I was longing for, a family portrait of Siligi and her cubs. I wished I would have had some golden sun-ray from the morning sun, but it was impossible due to the weather.

Six cheetah cubs

After yawning and stretching, suddenly, Siligi started to walked towards the river bank. We were somewhat puzzled by her move. It seemed that she wanted to cross the river. The area across the river is beyond the Mara Preserve, it belongs to local conservancy community. Due to the depth of the river and the current, it was impossible for our vehicle to follow her at this point. We had to take a detour to find a spot to drive across the river. When we arrived at the opposite site of the river, we lost her and her cubs. The landscape were full of bushes, it was very difficult to drive around and to see anything. My guide suddenly spotted her again, now she had a small gazelle with her, calling the cubs for breakfast. Now we realized that she probably had spotted the gazelle before she crossed the river. The cubs were very hungry, it did not take long for them to finish the small gazelle.

Mom, let me tell you something!

The cubs tried to eat anything left on the skin. Then they started to drag the gazelle skin and ran around.

While the cubs were playing , we lost sight of Siligi again. Then the cubs ran away and disappeared into the bushes. We started the search again, by the time we found her, she was holding a baby impala under a bush.

Suddenly, Siligi looked very nervous. She stared afar into the bushes. We looked around and did not see anything. Then the cubs arrived near her, they also appeared on high alert. Now we could see a lioness, standing behind the bushes, looking at Siligi and her cubs. Then the cubs chirped, ran into different directions away from the lioness.

Then Siligi barked against the lioness forcefully. The next unthinkable thing happened, Siligi charged and ran towards the lioness with high speed, our guide quickly turned the vehicle around the bush and tried to follow her, I saw the lioness fleeing away from Siligi. It was stunning, but I missed the shot!

After this, Siligi gathered her cubs and walked into the bushes. Even the park rangers were amazed by Siligi's bravery. She is truly a super mom!

We had to end out safari at this time to catch a flight back home.

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  • willmu

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Polar bears roaming on the island

Kaktovik, a remote village on Alaska's Arctic coast, has become a hotspot for polar bear photography in recent years. It has been claimed as the polar bear capital of the United States lately, although it used to be called the Blizzard capital in the past. In late summer and early fall, there are increasing numbers of polar bears migrating to Barter Island, where the village of Kaktovik sits at its northern slope. Polar bear viewing became a booming tourism business for the tiny Iñupiat village. There are six companies on the island providing touring activities for tourists from all over the world.

We took a flight of one and a half hours from Fairbanks to Barter Island via the regional airline RAVN Alaska. Sue, the bus driver, was waiting for us at the airport when we landed. She took us to Waldo Arms Hotel, where we stayed for the duration. The hotel provides very basic accommodation, which consist of two twin beds per room, shared shower. There is a large TV and a pool table in the common area. The dining room sits about 15-20 guests. The spectacular view of the harbor and lagoon can be seen from the dining room. Meals were prepared by Chef Marty and his staff during our stay.

According to our boat skipper Jack Kayotuk, an Iñupiaq local in his fifties, there were few polar bears around Barter Island thirty years ago. Due to climate change, the Arctic icepack retreats further north each summer. It was about 50 miles from the shore 30 years ago, and is now about 400 miles away during the summer time. It is increasingly difficult for polar bears to hunt seals without ice to stalk their prey during this time. Instead, they come to Barter Island to search for food. The Iñupiat residents have a tradition of whale hunting. They still keep the practice of hunting bowhead whales each summer. They have a quota of three whales each year. The polar bears learned and adapted to this phenomenon. They scavenge on the whale carcass left by the villagers.

The villagers are butchering a bowhead whale

Polar bears are Scavenging on the whale carcass the second morning

A stuffed polar bear was strolling back to the beach

The hotel is not far from the place where the polar bears congregate. Our photography guide Steven Kazlowski took six of us to the harbor in his old rusty Chevy truck with cracks on the windshield. It took about 5 minutes to get to the harbor. The boat skipper Jack was waiting for us. There was barely enough room on the boat for eight people. It took about 5 to 10 minutes to get close to the polar bear viewing place. Since the boat stayed in the lagoon, the ride was quite smooth. However, it got a little rough when it was windy. We did have a taste of the unpredictable arctic harsh weather. The weather changed from hour to hour . We experienced rain, drizzle, fog and wind in one day. We only saw the pale sun behind the clouds briefly during our 4 days' tour.

Taking photos from the boat is not quite as easy as on land. The boat bounced and swung constantly due to the water waves, and it got worse with strong wind. There is a 90 yards rule distance from the polar bears according to the wildlife refuge regulation. So it is not easy to hold my 600mm lens with over 10 lbs equipment. Luckily I brought a monopod with ProMediaGear gimbal.

It is a joy to watch the bear cubs play. Each adult female bear will produce 2-3 cubs every 2-4 years. The cubs will stay in the den under snow drift for about 3-4 months. Then the cubs follow their mother and learn hunting and survival skills in the Arctic. They will rely on the mother's milk for about two and half years. They are very playful in nature. They would hold, touch and wrestle each other and roll on the ground. It is hard to imagine that they will grow into one of the fiercest land animal on the planet.

After playing with its sibling, this little cub was still full of energy, and found a way to entertain itself by playing with a stick.

Can you still see me?

Polar bears are born strong swimmers due to their strong limbs and high body fat content. The adult bear has about 4 inches of fat under the skin for insulation. They can swim for hours and over 50 miles without rest. They also like to play in water too. We watched two polar bears playing in the water for over one hour. See some of the shots below.

Let me go otherwise I will bite you!

Leave me alone, OK?

Is that a fish?

What's under the twig?

One night we heard single gunshot from our hotel. We were wondering if this community also has crime problem. It turned out that the gunshot was from the bear patrol. They scared the bear away from the village with a 12-gauge shotguns with beanbag rounds.

Hey! I am coming!

I am ready for the shot!

Do I really want to go there?

What's going on over there?

The Boneyard has became a famous photography spot in Kaktovik. Each year, the community has a quota of hunting three whales. Once the whale is butchered and distributed among the residents, the leftover carcass is delivered to a small islet across the village, where it is left for polar bears. Over the years with accumulation of tons of whale bones, this place has become a famous boneyard. Due to recent climate change and coastal erosion, this boneyard is not accessible by truck anymore. Whale carcasses were dumped into the Arctic Beaufort sea for the past three years. The polar bears still visit this boneyard regularly even to these days.

The Boneyard

Polar bear cubs searching in the bone pile

Polar bear mother with her cubs walking near boneyard, the backdrop is Kaktovik

According to a recent survey, there were about two thousand tourists visiting this new found polar bear capital each year. The tourism brought unforseen fortune to some residents of this remote Arctic community. However, not all residents embrace the opportunities. Some of them are quite concerned that pictures of whale butchering, animal bones and skulls could attract attention of animal rights groups and environmentalists. They also felt the violation of their privacy and their way of life due to the tourism. Taking photos of local residents, houses, or even the street are forbidden during our visit.

Two polar bear were alerted by a "grey" polar bear

I had a chance of chatting with Hatty, an Iñupiaq man in his forties during dinner. He told me that local residents have to take a flight to Barrow or Fairbanks to seek medical care since it is not available in Kaktovik. Sometime they have difficulty booking a seat on flights full of tourists. There are about 300 local residents in the village. There are about 60 kids attending Harold Kaveolook School from pre-K through grade 12 in the village. Iñupiaq culture teaching is part of their curriculum. Unfortunately, less Iñupiaq residents understand their native language nowadays. Hatty told me that his mother got scolded in her school while she was talking to her classmates in her native language.

They need to take a shower after the play

Three-day photography trip came to end quickly. I am blessed to have the opportunity to witness these amazing creatures in their wild habitat. The innocent polar bear cubs play was the best part of the showcase in nature. I also felt the impact of climate change to the lives of polar bears and the Iñupiaq community. For the time being, they strive to coexist and manage to carry on their own way of lives. The future is less certain though. I am wondering if our future generations will have a chance to witness these cute giants as we did today.

By the time we just packed our belongs and were ready for a ride to the airport, we were told that the RAVN flight of the day was cancelled due to mechanical problem. The next available RAVN flight would be in two days . We then had to hire a charter airplane to fly out the second morning. We ended up with an extra night stay at the ramshackle Waldo Arms Hotel. This was certainly something beyond our control. At last, we were glad that we came back home safely!

Any questions?

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