Gray whales and elephant seals can’t vote in elections, but if they could, these charismatic wild animals would do away with national borders and regional conflicts. Their understanding runs much deeper. They’re part of an interconnected web of life that migrates along sweeping natural corridors.
If acclaimed nature photographer Florian Schulz has his way, these corridors will become the focus of wildlife conservation moving forward. In his new book, The Wild Edge – Freedom to Roam the Pacific Ocean, stunning images and passionate essays erase political boundaries. Along with scientists, writers, and environmentalists, he documents the journey taken by gray whales from the birthing lagoons in Baja up the coastline to the high arctic, where they feed during the summer months.
“I wanted to look at animals that really stand for the need to roam,” he says, “and the need to protect these places on a larger scale. We can’t think about conservation by drawing a line around an area and saying it’s protected. Even elephant seals will swim all the way up to Alaska and feed.”
The history of open space in the U.S. inspired Schulz’s thinking decades ago. He came here as a 16-year-old exchange student, and his first book to explore wildlife corridors, Yellowstone to Yukon, evolved out of the uniquely American concept of national parks. “You created the first one with Yellowstone in 1872,” he says. “Imagine if a new vision of wildlife corridors, which are essential to maintaining the fauna and animals in an area, could spread around the world.”
He isn’t surprised by the recent uptick in wildlife sightings and encounters in Monterey Bay. “It’s a special area,” he says. “There are deep canyons with cold water masses and algae blooms that later set up a food chain along the coast. But also, because food is scarce in other areas, it brings animals right to near shore waters.”
Other ecosystems have not been so lucky. He points out dramatic changes in the arctic because of climate change. “Sea ice is gone much earlier and doesn’t return until much later,” he says. “This results in major erosion in areas essential to animals like walruses that now have to swim further between foraging and have been seen hauling out on beaches in great numbers due to the absence of ice rafts.”
But Schultz tempers the overwhelming nature of climate change by focusing on opportunities. “We can protect habitat, and if we give animals the possibility to use natural coastline, to get a break from over-fishing, and to have reserves and other areas where they can retreat and take refuge, they’ll be more resilient and resistant to factors challenging them.”
His career in photography began 28 years ago when his father gave him a manual Praktica camera with a slide zoom and lenses that had to be screwed on. “The beauty of it was that I had to really learn photography, because each time you wasted a roll of film with bad exposures or out of focus images, it was expensive.” By now, the choice of a lens or settings is second nature to him, but the key to his passion for the art lies in a strong sense of place. “I love developing images in my mind before I take them,” he says, “so I return to locations again and again. I look for ways to be out in the wild. The longer I’m out there, the more special images come forward.”
Florian Schultz will speak at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, March 16 at 7 p.m. Free.
His reaction to the digital revolution in photography was complicated, but ultimately gave him piece of mind. “I worried about the value of it when everyone can snap a picture,” he says, “but there have been pens and pencils around for ages. It doesn’t make everyone a writer.” He also worried about the ease with which digital photography could be manipulated. “For me it’s about being out there. I want to live that moment and see something real. If I started manipulating my photographs, I couldn’t tell the story of how I got them. There would be no joy for me. When I stay true to what I do, people pay attention. They see that it’s real, and it puts me at ease.”
Book talk and presentation at Bookshop Santa Cruz – 1520 Pacific Avenue – 831-423-0900 Wednesday, March 16th @ 7:00pm – Free