By Vladimir Brezina
Swinburne Island, a small island in New York Harbor just south of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, hosts a healthy population of seals every winter. We’ve already visited them once this winter. But now in April, especially with spring arriving so early this year, we were wondering if the seals would still be there.
We were not disappointed!
Even though it’s been unusually warm all winter, Sunday is a normal spring day: a bit chilly in the wind, overcast but with patches of blue sky and even the sun, sparkling on the water, making an appearance at times.
We try to creep up on Swinburne Island without the seals noticing us.
The birds give us away, of course.
We sit quietly in our kayaks and scan for seals in the water off the island.
Swinburne Island is a nesting site for cormorants, whose poop has done quite a job on all the trees on the island.
My regular camera for kayak photography is the Pentax Optio W90, basically just a fancy, and waterproof, point-and-shoot camera. But there’s only so much that can be achieved with such a camera when a seal head pops up thirty or fifty yards away. So I’ve brought along my “good” camera, a Nikon D80 with a 55-300mm telephoto lens.
But what’s that in the lower right corner of the frame?
I quickly refocus on it…
And there’s another one!
Soon, seal heads are all around, looking at us, but keeping their distance. We even see one or two tiny seals—this year’s babies!—that, as yet more trusting than the adults, approach us more closely before diving down with a tiny splash. (Unfortunately, no photos!)
In the meantime, the American Princess has circled round and is approaching the island.
And it’s packed! At times it lists noticeably as the seal-watchers all crowd to the Swinburne side of the boat (just as the Circle Line boats that circle Manhattan always list toward the Manhattan side…)
Most of the time, scanning for far-away seal heads, I have the telephoto lens zoomed all the way out to 300mm. And looking through it is alarming. There are now some swells rolling in from the open Atlantic. They are quite small—no bigger than about 2 feet. But looking through the lens I have the feeling that I am in one of those submarine movies where the captain is looking through the periscope up at swells that tower over the boat (before subsiding momentarily to reveal an enemy destroyer coming on at full speed, of course!).
(Spot the seal in the photo above!)
And I can finally see how other kayak photographers get those dramatic rough-water shots. Through the telephoto lens (and with judicious cropping), even these small swells appear pretty impressive!
Johna tries out her newly-honed strokes as another swell rears up behind.
I switch back to the wide-angle (28mm) Pentax. The sea resumes its flat, calm look. But the clouds are beginning to look ominous.
In sum: Kayak photography with a DSLR with a long telephoto lens is a revelation! Now, I just have to solve the little problem of how to take sharp photos with it from a bouncing kayak. And it would be good if it were waterproof…