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Glorious images of the natural world

by Sura Wood

"The Rescue" from "BigPicture: Natural World Photography" at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: Audun Rikardsen/BigPicture
"The Rescue" from "BigPicture: Natural World Photography" at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: Audun Rikardsen/BigPicture  

We're swinging into the final round of summer, which means it's time for the California Academy of Sciences' annual "BigPicture" show, where a cavalcade of eye-popping color photographs is now on view. The exhibition showcases 48 images, many of them astonishing, taken by winners and finalists of the Natural World Photography Competition, which the museum is hosting for the fifth year. Supplemental scientific information augments the images, if you visit in person, but viewing the exhibition online (, where the high-resolution photographs are offset by a black background, offers an even more dramatic visual experience.

Truth be told, this is one of my favorite shows to write about each year, not only for the beauty and superior quality of the photographs, but also for the wondrousness of subjects often hidden from the eyes of the less intrepid among us. The featured photographers, who compete in an array of categories, employ a mixture of stealth, cunning, treks to remote parts of the planet, and inhuman patience to retrieve the prize-winning images. This year's grand prize was awarded to Tanya Houppermans' "Harmony," a portrait of a shark who's achieved Nirvana, at one with the world, or at least with the daily lunch special. While diving in near-total darkness inside the wreckage of a sunken German WWII freighter that functions as an artificial reef off the coast of North Carolina, Houppermans nailed a clear shot of the underbelly of a sand tiger shark floating above her in a maelstrom of bait fish. "It was beautiful and peaceful, which are two words most people don't associate with sharks," she recalls.

Rhapsody in Pink from BigPicture: Natural World Photography at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo: Donna Bourdon/BigPicture  

Snuggled in a voluptuous bed of feathers like a Vegas showgirl and appearing for all the world like a tangerine fur ball, a Caribbean flamingo chick, newly arrived on the planet, tentatively peers out from under its mother's wing, and within range of Claudio Contreras' camera, to glimpse what will be its universe for the first week of its life. Hunkered down in a nest safely ensconced in a conical mound of mud shaped like a mini volcano, the chicks are able to stand within hours of hatching, though they're not exactly road-worthy. They'll be protected by their vigilant parents until they're able to make a graceful exit.

A gorgeous Roseate Spoonbill on the verge of landing on its nest is the exquisite headliner of Donna Bourdon's "Rhapsody in Pink," a finalist in the Winged Life category. Impossibly delicate, long-necked and bony-legged, this exotic wading bird is seen folding lushly feathered wings that resemble a costume from the Folies-Bergerre. But for unbridled joy, there's no matching "Playtime in Mom's Bubbles," which walked (or swam) away with the Aquatic Life trophy. The shot, taken by underwater photographer-biologist Renee Capozzola, who specializes in wide-angle, over-under images, captures an ecstatic humpback whale calf cavorting in the azure blue seas of French Polynesia. It rises toward the surface, opening its mouth to snatch the bubbles its mother has exhaled, seeming to clap its fins in juvenile delight.

Eduardo Acevedo's "Hood Ornament" details the quandary of a glasseye fish with its mouth agape, apparently flustered by the ice-blue parasite that's parked itself right between its eyes. The party-crasher will feed on its unfortunate host's blood as it hitches a ride through the tropical waters of the Canary Islands. Back on land, the otherworldly sight of the Northern Lights is savored by a European common frog with an uncommon view of shooting stars streaming across the Arctic sky. Warmed by organic compounds in its veins that act like antifreeze, it submerges itself in the freezing river to hibernate for the winter; no other creature can survive this far north. Norwegian photographer Audun Rikardsen, who took home several ribbons from the competition, including one in the Terrestrial Wildlife category for this picture, photographed the scene in a single exposure, steps away from his house. As if posing for a money shot, a winter-white arctic fox narrows its eyes and licks its chops with a long pink tongue for Canadian photographer Peter Mather. Mather was snowmobiling during a three-week trip to Alaska's North Slope when, after a painstaking two-hour approach, he immortalized this wild beauty, which he initially mistook for a rock.

Trevor Frost's "Crocodile Tale" won the Human/Nature award, but human nature doesn't win any prizes, especially in light of one of the most revolting yet awesome spectacles in the show: the sight of a slain 15-foot-tall saltwater crocodile. The largest and most aggressive of the species, once nearly extinct in Australia's Northern Territory, it's propped up on its tail with its belly exposed and its snout roped to an upper tree branch to show off its full height. The two weary hunters who harpooned and killed it after an epic two-hour struggle stand on either side of the captive prehistoric giant, affirming man's status as the deadliest predator on earth.

We've seen the enemy, and it is us.

Through Oct. 21.


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