Tag Archives: Cape Lookout National Seashore

Swimming Horses

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Along the coast of North Carolina, there is a population of wild horses thought to be the oldest in North America. It was here where Western Civilization first crashed into mainland North America, and these horses are thought to be the result of these very first attempts and exploration and colonization.

This breed is known officially as the Banker horse, and unlike those wild herds of the west, the two populations of these mustangs are federally protected due to their historical significance.

For the last 400 years, these horses have adapted to a world of sand and salt, of hurricanes and nor’easters. Surviving on salt marsh grass such as spartina, and digging their own wells in the by pawing down to through the sand in low areas known as swales, these horses have survived countless calamities – including the shipwrecks for which some the original stock of horses are believed to have washed ashore form.

On one particular island, many of the individuals swim out along the edge of an inlet, through a bull shark nursery, fighting tidal rips, and risking drowning, to access tiny marsh islets where they will feed until the tide begins to drop again and they swim with the current back to their island home.

I created this image from my skiff – a flat bottom boat specifically designed for running in and navigating the treacherous shoal water around these islands. I have spent countless hours on these islands photographing the horses that eke out a living there. And this is a particular shot that I have spent several years trying to capture.

Part of the problem in the past, was that I was attempting to photograph these horses while they were actually swimming. Seeing a herd of these animals sweep past you with the current is an incredible experience, but it is definitely one that is best captured with video not still photography. What it finally took, was realizing that, from a still photography perspective, capturing the horses just before they officially kicked free of Terra firma was the moment that made the photograph.

Let the horses swim and you have a distinctly awkward horse head that looked like a furry alligator’s head sticking above the water. I still have ideas floating around in my brain for a shot that will work with the actual swimming, but I will need an underwater housing and a 9 inch dome port to make that happen.

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immersing onself in the abstract

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I have been working on a story for Wildlife in North Carolina magazine about barrier island migration. Every barrier island in the world is migrating. Its just the nature of these sandbars. As ocean levels rise, high tides are higher, and storm surges are farther reaching. With each overwash, sand is desposited onto the island. The storm surge the flooded out Hatteras Village during Hurricane Isabel deposited 2 meters of sand across the town! As this sand builds up, the elevation of the island grows as well. Yet sand is not static. Its shifting, moving, blowing, and constantly being rearanged. To say that change is the only constant on these barrier islands is not just some age old axiom but instead, a matter of physics.

As storms continue to pound the coast, as more overwash comes over the island, as hurricanes connect sea with sounds, sand is continualesly being transfered from the beach and the mid section of the island, to the waters behind it. Essentially, the islands roll overtop of themselves. This is barrier island migration in a somewhat oversimplified explanation.

Photographing for a story of this sort has proven to be quite the challenge. How does one go about photographically telling the story of long term geological processes? Stumps line the beaches of the Outer Banks as they do many other barrier islands. Trees however, do not grow out of the beach, therefore these are artifacts of islands migrating. Same thing with oyster shells along the Atlantic facing beaches. Oysters, like clams and welch snails (what you probably call conchs) do not grow in the ocean either. These are all esturiane species – meaning they live in estuaries, or the water behind the islands. The ended up on the beach because the islands migrated overtop of them and now thousands of years later they are being dug up out of the sand by wave action and tossed up onto the beach.

All of this is fine and dandy for telling a story with photographs, but to really explaine whats going on, you have to get off the island and up into the air. From the air this is no longer an abstract concept. The geography of the islands is a direct product of barrier island migration. The extensive marshes, the sand shoals, nearly every feature of the island has been shaped by this process. From the ground it is imperceptiable. From the air however it could not be more obvious.

Thus, I chartered a plane to fly me overtop of Ocracoke, Portsmouth Island, Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. All of these save for the town of Ocracoke and the ghost town of Portsmouth are uninhabitated and therefore stand as the best examples.

Flying over these pecarious little ribbons of sand along our coast is quite educating, and a hell of alot of fun. From 1000 feet you really get the feel for just how unstable a landscape we live on out here. As for asthetics, words cannot describe it.

Along with this entry into the photo journal are a few of the photographs made while on this trip. These photos are not necessarily the ones that will acompany the article, but are some of the earthscapes and abstracts that I made while in the air.

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