Tag Archives: OBX

Swimming Horses


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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Wild Horses of the Carolina Coast workshop


Yesterday I led another wild horse photography workshop up on Carova Beach. As the cold front came through the night before, temperatures went from a high of 76 to a high of only 44 the following day. These sort of weather changes can be both good and bad for photographing the wild horses, as they tend to get the animals up and moving – sometimes out in the open for warmth, other times deep into the maritime forest for protection.

Typically what I find is that on a cold, but sunny day with little to no wind, the horses will move out into the sun early in the morning to warm up. This can often times bring these guys right out onto the beach where the mornings first rays begin to warm up the landscape. Often times these horses will simply be laying down right up against a dune as they soak up the warmth and minimize the heat loss from being directly in the wind.

Yesterday morning, horses were feeding in the inter-dune habitat and along the areas of overwash first thing in the morning. The wind however began to pick up throughout the day and the horses began to move into the shrub thickets. Most of the afternoon was spent cruising the backcountry looking to make closeup intimate portraits of the horses as we waiting for conditions to change and some horses to move back out into the open.

As the sun sank lower along the horizon, alas this mare and her 2-year-old filly came wandering out over the dunes and right out onto the beach. This is not a normal situation. Typically, there are no single females as competition is so great on the island between the stallions and bachelor groups of young males. However this girl often manages to stray from her stallion for a while and has learned to use the beach for means of travel.

Except for in the late Spring horses are typically absent from the beach with only the occasional appearance a couple times a week. For this reason, any horse that utilizes the beach to travel can do so in relative peace and security. On Carova, this is not common. However down on Shackleford Banks, this is a daily occurence to and from watering holes. Traversing the inland parts of the island force horses to move through other dominant harem stallion’s territories and risk potentially being injured in fights or losing females to a more powerful stallion or aggressive group of bachelors. The beach in this regards becomes a neutral territory.

Back to Carova, we find this to be true as well in terms of the neutrality of the beach. In the Spring, when millions of biting flies will drive the horses in mass out onto the beach in times of strong winds to escape their torment, you may find as many as a hundred horses out by the surfline. The more horses that gather together, the more of a dilution effect in regards to the flies. Meaning, if there are X number of flies, than being around 40 other horses will limit the number of them that will be on you. The winds keep the majority of flies off the beach, but there are those that will brave the elements as well as the black flies who only occupy the beach.

The result can often times be a giant wreathing mass of horses, brushing constantly up against one another, twisting and turning, pushing and swatting. This is when times are desperate for the horses. You might even see a couple horses lined up nose to tail so that way each others tails can help swat the flies from the others face. This is when the stallions will tend to call a truce. Tempers still flare, and fights still occur, but typically they are just outlets of nervous energy and mares do not swap hands in the process.

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immersing onself in the abstract


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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Hurricane Bill – Holy Cow!


If Hatteras was amazing on Friday, than Saturday in Kitty Hawk was EPIC! Swells on the outside bar were consistently double over head with a few sets pushing triple over head Saturday at the Lillian Street break. As is expected, all the local and regional pros turned up for the towering waves that Hurricane Bill was sending in from out in the Atlantic. I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 gigs worth of photographs to sort through from the weekend – a seemingly daunting task at the moment. For now though, this is a sample of a few of the images I captured on the beach.

Up top is WRV’s Noah Snyder, ripping on the inside bar. The middle photograph I posted just to give everyone an idea of the size waves that we were having out here. As you can see, not your typical East Coast stuff. Last but not least is Tim Nolte of Tim Nolte Surfboards dropping in on his paddle board.



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Mother and Son – mustangs on the beach


Its spring time again! Not only does this mean the sun is shining and life is returning to the barrier islands, but also the biting flies are starting to hatch and feed on our blood. Regarding the biology of wild horses on barrier islands, there are a few weeks out of the year that the horses will actually come out to the beach. If you think about it, there’s really very few reasons they would ever have to come out there. Its a virtual desert! There is no fresh water, no food, no shade, no protection, and there are trucks driving past all day long. Therefore certain extenuating environmental circumstances have to happen in order to drive these animals onto the beach front.

The number one reason that they make thier way out here, plain and simple, are the biting flies. A recent university study found that the stallions of these horses could have as many as 200 biting flies on them during the peak of fly season. Imagine now for a moment if YOU had 200 biting flies swarming and pestering you! This of course would dictate every single thought that went through your mind and would therefore obviously influence your behavioral patterns. Thus is why the horses come to the beach. When the wind is strong and the sand is blowing, the flies cannot hold themselves in the stiff breeze that blows unhindered across the beach front. Horses will come out in mass sometimes to find some sort of reprise from the torment of these biting flies.

One our our harems of horses this year has two new born foals. This is a great situation as most harems do not have foals this year and those that do, typically only have one. Realizing the winds would be howling out of the west, blowing sand across the beach and filling in the surf, I knew that this would be the day for horses and so I set out looking for this family. As luck would have it, this harem had indeed made it to the beach by afternoon.

Photographing foals can sometimes be difficult as the mother and the harem in general likes to keep them close. Thus finding idealic compositions can be a bit trying at times. When I cam across this group, I walked around to where the sun was over my shoulder and simply laid right down in the sand. I wanted to pick up the highlights of the foals new fur which always has a beautiful sheen – thus is why I shot with the sun at my back.

The reason I chose to lay down  for this shot was a matter of perspective. The mothers are quite large, and the foals quite small. I did not want the mare here to completely dominate the photograph and so I dropped to the ground in order to bring the foal into a much more dominant element in the composition. The mother still towers above her new born son, but the colt takes a much more prominant role in the composition. This allowed for the foal to come in as the main compositional element while also brining its own size relative to its mother into perspective as well.


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OBX Swell


After a week of forcasting ridiculous surfing conditions for this weekend, the local cadre of surfers were out in force today looking for a peice of the action. A groundswell had been brewing for several days but the Northeast winds kept it unridable north of Hatteras until yesterday evening when the wind switched around out of the Southwest. I had a shoot up in the Corolla area for some of the local guys this morning, but as luck would have it as I drove North, the swell headed South. Making my way back down to the Nags Head peir this afternoon I found one of our local high school teachers, Joseph Tyson, taking advantage of the tail end of the swell in town.

Photo up top is from Nags Head, one of the bottom was Corolla. As you can see, this is the East Coast, and therefore lighting is much better for this sort of photography in the afternoon.


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