Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Zen and the Joy of Swimming

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In the Field

Zen and the Joy of Swimming. Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 13, 2015.

I have an admission to make - I'm a huge and unabashed fan of Sea Otters. To me, they're nothing short of rock stars. Extirpated from the BC coast over a hundred years ago. Successfully re-introduced to Vancouver Island between 1969 and 1972. Fascinating fully marine mammals with a globally unique means of retaining heat in a cold environment (Look Ma - no blubber, just an amazing fur coat!). A keystone species that punches WAY over its weight in ecological impact and that's responsible for the expansion of kelp forests with a huge corresponding increase in biodiversity. And, cute and incredibly fascinating animals to watch and to photograph! See? Pure Rock Stars of the zoological world!

Sea Otters only VERY rarely come out of their salt water home, even when giving birth and providing care for their young (the young are born with thick coats that provide good insulation but they initially can't swim). And, like with both sea lions and seals, Sea Otters are amazing swimmers. Watch a Sea Otter swim for awhile and you'd swear that they just LOVE their main means of locomotion - even while going in a straight line they'll twist, roll, and spin in the water as though they're having the time of their lives!

We were traveling parallel to this Sea Otter (in a Zodiac inflatable boat) when I captured this shot. This particular otter was a female, and seemed to be on a mission to get somewhere fast. But even so it took the time to gracefully roll and, at times, swim on its back. Here she's just initiating a smooth and graceful roll while "climbing" a small swell in the water. Why the roll? I can't be sure, but if someone was to suggest it was just for the joy of it I wouldn't argue with them.

This image was captured using a Nikkor 400mm prime lens (the "new" 400mm f2.8E lens) paired with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.

Here's a higher resolution version of the graceful and blissful Sea Otter (2400-pixel) for your perusal:

Zen and the Joy of Swimming: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)


1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

3. This image was captured during my mid-summer "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" photo tour in August of 2015. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various boreal owl species and wildlife of Canada's Arctic. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Behind the Camera

Zen and the Joy of Swimming. Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 13, 2015.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 3200.

Nikon D4s paired with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter (800mm total focal length). Hand-held from floating Zodiac, VR on and in "Sport" mode.

1/1000s @ f9; -1.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Zen and the Joy of Swimming. Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 13, 2015.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One"s Capture One Pro 8. Three raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure (0.4 stop total difference between the variants), highlight recovery settings, and noise reduction settings.

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the three output files from the raw converter, several minor selective exposure adjustments, minor selective colour saturation and desaturation, selective contrast adjustment via selective curves adjustment, and selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone"s "tonemapper" tool.


Zen and the Joy of Swimming. Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 13, 2015.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to Raincoast*.

Species Status in Canada**: Special Concern (April 2007) - protected off the North American coast since 1911.

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's the Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris) was hunted to near extinction along both the Asian and North American Pacific Coasts. The reason? It's luxuriant coat. Otters are unlike any other aquatic mammal in that they don't use fat or blubber to insulate themselves from the chilling effects of the water they are found in. Instead, they rely on their amazingly thick fur coat for insulation. Their amazing coats have a higher density of hair (up to 150,000 strands of hair per square cm!) than any other animal in existence today. To ensure that this coat serves its insulative purpose, otters spend a disproportionately large amount of time grooming their coat (to ensure its natural oils continue to provide an effective waterproof barrier). Unfortunately, the biological functioning of the otters coat can be easily fouled by contamination by oil and other hydrocarbons - thus making them extremely sensitive to the effective of marine oil spills.

Other fascinating aspects of the biology and behaviour of the sea otter include the use of tools (they will use rocks to break apart shellfish such as sea urchins), and the fact that they have an metabolic rate two to three times higher than other mammals of their size. This means they must eat 23% to 33% of their own body weight DAILY, just to to replace the calories burned through maintaining their body temperature in the cold water environment they live in.

*The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

**as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada