I recently completed a month-long expedition in West Papua, Indonesia documenting biodiversity highlights across various habitats from forest-lined coasts to mountain peaks. I’d like to share a few highlights of the expedition in the next several Wildlife Diaries.
Our first objective was to document Leatherback Sea Turtles at a place called Batu Rumah Beach, a 24 km stretch on the north coast of Papua’s Bird’s Head Peninsula where according to researchers, 75% of the entire Pacific Ocean population of Leatherbacks come to nest. Having never seen a Leatherback before – the largest of all sea turtles – I was especially excited about this opportunity. We worked closely with the research team from the University of Papua in Manokwari, who monitor the beach nightly from three patrol stations spaced out along this remote, roadless coast. It was challenging work, hiking at least 10 km each night in sand to try to catch sight of a turtle that we could film and photograph. In the end we succeeded, and I hope the images below capture a sense of the awe we felt at witnessing this remarkable creature carrying out its timeless ritual of reproduction.
This expedition was supported by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and with our local partners in Indonesia, our hope is to spread the word through the media we create about the global importance of Papua’s unique environment, one of the treasures of Indonesia’s biodiversity. The Leatherback turtles that nest here feed on jellyfish off the coast of North America, where conservationists are also working to protect the species. These sea turtles thus connect Papua with the United States, on the other side of the vast Pacific. Below is just a little sneak preview of what we captured. I’ll be sure to let you know when the finished media are released.
Leatherback Nesting by Moonlight
On our third night of hiking Batu Rumah Beach in search of Leatherbacks, we got lucky. It was a beautiful moonlit night, and we found this turtle starting to lay her eggs. We got our cameras ready at a distance while waiting until she had finished laying. Then, while she spent considerable time burying her nest and spreading sand all around to camouflage it, we moved in to shoot. I ran time-lapses for stills, and shot motion on my RED V-Raptor camera, while my assistants Faizal Aziz and Wahyu Susanto helped with lighting with our red lights, and shooting detail shots with the RED Komodo. It was a whirlwind of activity during those few minutes, and we barely had a chance to appreciate what we were witnessing before she started heading for the sea. But when she stopped and came back up to do some more sand flinging, we took a moment to really appreciate the amazing animal in front of us.
This image is a frame form my time-lapse series. For you photography nerds out there, these were my settings for this image: Canon EOS R6 Mark II camera, RF 15-35 mm lens, 1/4 Sec at f 2.8, ISO 5000, processed in Lightroom with denoise, and with the lower half of the image masked and desaturated to remove the supplemental red lights (see example below).
Shooting the Leatherbacks
This pair of images shows how I photographed and filmed the nesting turtles illuminated with red light, and then removed the red in post-production. Turtles can’t see the red part of the spectrum (which makes sense since red light barely penetrates into the ocean), so by using only red lights on the beach, we avoid confusing them or disturbing them. With the wonders of modern post-processing, removed the red cast, as you can see in the second image, thus revealing a basically black-and-white image of the turtle, as they looked to our eyes in the dim moonlight.
1.) Our tents under a tarp on the beach. It was a beautiful location to camp, but not easy to sleep during the heat of the day despite being tired from hiking and filming on the beach all night. Still, it was well worth the effort to have a chance to document this important conservation story.
2.) This hand-held night shot of our team on the beach captures the feel of our night-hikes by the dim light of the moon.
3.) Early in the morning, the team makes their way back along the spectacular coast toward base camp after a night out shooting.
4.) After a long night of hiking the beach and filming turtles, one of our porters carrying a heavy tripod bag hikes the beach back toward base camp as the sun rises.
5.) Sunrise on Batu Rumah Beach. The name means “house rock beach”, because the small island just off shore is shaped like a house when viewed from the sea.
Thanks for tuning in to my adventures. I’ll be sharing more from my recent Papua expedition in upcoming Wildlife Diaries so please stay tuned.