In late October I had the chance to photographs some beautiful timberlands owned and managed by Rayonier. We had visited the same location near Ocala National Forest back in March during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. To capture the textures of the pine and hardwood forests, I shot several composite panoramic images. You can see the low resolution samples below. You can click either of the three horizontal images to open a high resolution view. Be sure to zoom in to see all the detail!
I’m splashing through potholes on Janes Scenic Drive southbound towards Everglades City. As I drive out of the deeply wooded Fakahatchee Strand and enter the open prairie to the east the full moon is rising just over the horizon. My eyes are focused at the far reaches of my high beams hoping that I might see a panther crossing the road. My chances here are as good as they are anywhere in the world. But that’s not the reason for my visit. I spent the last three days covered in mosquitoes and sweat trying to photograph the elusive Ghost Orchid. My last visit to the Fakahatchee was in February during the first month of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. There were mosquitoes then too but conditions were idyllic compared to now.
The Ghost Orchid Dendrophylax lindenii is a wonder of nature. It spends 99% of its life dormant as a nondescript brown growth, hardly distinguishable from a twig, on the side of a pond apple or cypress tree. Then for a week each summer a few plants produce ephemeral white flowers that glow spirit-like against the dark trunks and mud of the swamp. Approximately 2000 individual plants reside in the swamps of South Florida. Of these, only one in ten bloom each year, and of those only one in ten are pollinated. The fact that Ghost Orchids are able to reproduce at all seems like a miracle. The biological reason for their magical blooms is to attract pollinators, each flower emerging for the chance to disperse genetic material to another and continue the life of the species. Only one insect, the Giant Sphinx Moth, has a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar and the end of the orchid’s nearly six inch nectar spur. The moth must be patient to find such a rare meal. This is perhaps less surprising when you learn that the moth itself spends an entire month of its own life cycle dormant beneath the dirt. If you’re a moth or a photographer, as patient as you may be, when Ghost Orchids are blooming, it is time to move.
I was not planning to be in the swamp these first days of July. I was thinking further down the road. Last week I picked up the phone and called Renee Rau, the director of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, who had so kindly hosted our expedition team a few months before. I was beginning to pull together photographs for my October Florida Wildlife Corridor exhibit at Selby Gardens. One picture living in my mind but missing from my portfolio was the Ghost Orchid. Selby Gardens is one world’s leading centers for epiphytes, including bromeliads and orchids. I really wanted an orchid picture to complete the show. I was thinking I might make the drive down to the swamp later in the summer or preferably in early fall. But Renee told me to come right away. She’d spoken with biologist Mike Owen who said that there were several orchids in bloom and that they would probably not persist for more than a few days. The flowers are delicate from first bloom and once pollinated vanish within a day. I did my best to get out of town right away. But my truck was in pieces in the driveway because I was installing new lights, a second battery, a refrigerator system and other improvements for the fall field season. So I had to put things back together in a hurry. I also had to buy a camera. I had sold my D800 and still waiting for a D800E. So I scurried over to an electronics store to pick up an amateur D3200 hoping that the resolution would suffice. I also had to finish some repairs around the house. The dryer wasn’t working and I couldn’t leave Suzie stranded while I was out of town. So after spending too many hours in the attic and carport, tools in hand, I packed the truck and hit the road.
The last few days in the Fakahatchee have been intense. The sun doesn’t set until nearly 9:00 PM meaning I don’t get out of the swamp until 10:00 PM. Then the sun rises again at 6:30 AM so I have to leave the hotel around 5:00 AM. Between archiving photographs and finding food, I haven’t found much time for sleep. My goal has been to capture the essence of the Ghost Orchid in a photograph. I tried a number of compositions and techniques but in the end kept coming back to the straightforward portrait. The first word that comes to mind to describe the Ghost Orchid is clean, so I suppose it’s appropriate that I was taking a clean and simple approach to the photograph. After all, the flower itself is so elegant, its natural form is not something that can really be improved with camera angle or lighting. So I did my best to soak in as much of the orchid’s essential beauty as it would share in a single frame.
The dim swamp light did not make things easy. Attaining sharp focus was a challenge. Especially in natural light. The orchid has a lot of relief, meaning that a large aperture number is necessary to get most of the subject in focus. That also means slow shutter speeds. Most exposures required between two and 15 seconds. But even with no wind the orchid had a tendency to dance. I guess that makes sense. The large delicate flower is suspended in the air by an improbably thin stem. A small waft of wind, temperature gradient, drop of water or wing beat of a mosquito is enough to send the orchid dancing. Once it starts, it doesn’t seem to want to stop. I guess I shouldn’t have expected such a rare being to surrender its image easily.
Liking the green hues from the canopy and rich out of focus brown of the background, I shot hundreds of exposures in natural lighting hoping to have a few that will pass the grade for sharpness and clarity. I also made a bunch of photographs with flash, trading depth of focus and sharpness for a black background. Unfortunately I only had one flash and no sync cord. This made things even more challenging. During the course of a one or two second exposure, I would manually trigger the flash, often two or three times. Positioning the flash to the side seemed to provide good texture helping it not look like a white stencil against a dark background. Though I wish I had multiple lights. Instead I tried various combinations of bouncing and diffusion seeking to capture a lighting effect suitable for the white flower. The thing I was missing most with my one light setup was a rim light or backlight. I realized this after reviewing my first two days of photographs. So my last afternoon in the field I experimented with some backlighting. I placed a reflector and an empty soft box at angles close to the camera lens hoping to get some reflected front light to fill in the darker areas that were not translucent to the backlighting. The effort was exhausting and I imagine the orchid was tired of me too.
When I packed up in the dark and prepared to walk out of the swamp for the last time, I took a moment without my camera to reflect on the beauty of the orchid that had just shared itself with me. I gave thanks for the beautiful creation and offered a prayer that the orchid might fulfill its purpose by attracting a moth in the coming moonlight. The canopy of the West Slough is open enough that the full moon could radiate through and allow the orchid to glow in full glory. I imagined it luring any moth within miles. Whether to giant sphinx moth, photographer or passing panther or bear, the Ghost Orchid under full moonlight must be a sight to behold. Protected within the longest flooded strand forest in the world, not far from the bustle of modern Florida, the ancient ritual of tree, flower and moth was safe to unfold for this orchid and its extended family secluded in the darkness.
I would express appreciation to partners at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, especially Renee Rau and Mike Owen, for their help with this project and general support of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition. It is thanks to people like them that the Ghost Orchid still survives in the Florida Wilderness.
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Day 99
A water lilly catches evening twilight as dusk settles over the Okefenokee. Transitioning sunset to new moon darkness while paddling through Chase Prairie, a sea of grass reminiscent of the Everglades, provided perfect passage toward our final campsite in 100 days.
Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, Day 97
The rain soaked team treks from the Mixon’s Hammock campsite in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge toward their boat launch. After a short paddle, they will be greeted by family, friends and colleagues gathered at Georgia’s Stephen Foster State Park for an Earth Day celebration and their final event. Photo by Mac Stone.
We arrived at the American Prime property and set camp on the southern banks of the Caloosahatchee River. We have just spent more than three week traversing the vast natural habitats of the Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Seminole Big Cypress Reservation, Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest and several beautiful cattle ranches. All of these place were functionally connected as one. Then we entered the narrowing wedge of remaining natural habitat leading up to SR 80 and and the Caloosahatchee River east of La Belle. I could feel the tight squeeze of human development on the land there for the first time in the Expedition and a real sense urgency that from a wildlife perspective, knowing that Florida south of that point would soon become an island isolated from the rest of the state if the American Prime property was not protected. We just learned that the land was going into foreclosure and at risk of being sold to developers and that the USWS, USDA, Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Refuge Association were scrambling to pull together a deal to save it. It all feels intensely pivotal, geographically and politically. Keith Fountain, director of protection for the Nature Conservancy, came to meet us at our camp and interviewed with Elam for the film. Joe and I successfully swam across the river from our camp. I’m sure most animals can do it too. Some restoration of the floodplain would certainly help bring natural ground cover closer to the water’s edge. We also really need a series of wildlife underpasses under SR 80 along the southern edge of the new conservation property.
My cousin, John Ward, and his wife Gretchen peer out over pastures near Devil’s Garden. They have been growing cattle and vegetables on their J Seven Ranch in Hendry County for most of their lives. Just north of Big Cypress National Preserve, their home is deep in the Florida frontier. The closest chain grocery store is either in Ft. Lauderdale or Naples, each more than an hour away.
View from the kayak…
Leaving the marina at Flamingo, the team paddles up Buttonwood Canal toward Coot Bay.
The team paddles into Florida Bay.
While fishing for Tarpon near Boca Grande Pass, where the Charlotte Harbor Estuary meets the Gulf of Mexico, I witnessed some beautiful afternoon storm clouds – sure signs that summer was on it’s way. The panoramic photographs are composites of nine individual frames. The combined resolution allows for exceptionally detailed prints up to ten feet wide. Click either of the panoramic photographs below to view them in higher resolution.
The Naples skyline fractures the horizon as the sun rises above the Florida peninsula as seen from the Gulf of Mexico after passing Cape Romano, which separates the Everglades wilderness from the densely developed southwestern coast.