Tony Wu has won numerous awards for his photographs, including Grand Prize in Japan’s largest underwater photography contest, the prize for Best Book of the Year at the Festival of Marine Images in Antibes, and first place in two categories of the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. He devotes much of his time to capturing images of humpbacks, sperm whales, blue whales and other cetaceans, “as well as documenting fish spawning aggregations, which are essentially orgies involving thousands of sex-crazed fish.”
More than a photographer, though, he considers himself a “photo-naturalist.” “People ask me what I do and the easiest thing to say is photography. But that really isn’t it. I go out and I spend a lot of time with animals; I sit there and I watch and I think about them and I research what’s known about them. So it’s like being a naturalist but using a camera as opposed to pen and paper. The challenge that I put to myself is to create images that are aesthetically pleasing but at the same time have biological and scientific value—something beyond just a pretty picture.”
We spoke to Tony from his home base of Tokyo, Japan, to find out how he travels.
What does your travel typically look like—how often do you travel and for how long?
In the past 10 or 15 years I’ve been on the road somewhere between nine and 11 months a year. I come [home] mostly to drop off clothes and get new clothes and gear. This year, I did a lot of travelling within Japan, and then I went off to Alaska and then I was down in the southern hemisphere. So I’d have to come back to home base just to both switch out gear and clothes. Generally I like to be someplace at a minimum of two weeks to a month. Some places [I’ll] stay longer—two, sometimes up to three months.
Why so long?
If you’re trying to understand and even become a part of the lives of animals and their societies, time is really important. You don’t necessarily understand what’s happening the first time you see it. In fact, you almost never do. And sometimes it just takes dozens of times, even hundreds of times to see something before you go, “Oh that’s what’s going on.” And that’s both interesting from just an intellectual point of view and curiosity point of view but also in terms of taking photos.
You don’t take photos by reacting to something—like, something happens and you press a shutter. You take photos by knowing what’s going to happen five, ten, fifteen seconds in advance and getting everything ready and being there for when it actually happens. [That’s how] you get the best images—you know exactly where to position yourself, how the light’s going to be. In the case of animals, you know what that expected behaviour is and what that peak point of interest is going to be. And the only way to really figure that out is by really knowing your subjects.
Where do you stay?
[Finding] places to stay can be difficult sometimes. If you’re a tourist and you go someplace and you pay $US120 ($166) a night to stay at a hotel for three nights, it’s expensive but you’re like ok, three nights, I can pamper myself. But if I want to be someplace for one month, I can’t do that. So I’ve got to find someplace that’s acceptable in terms of general safety and cleanliness and all that, but I don’t really care about the luxuries and all that stuff—I’m willing to put up with a lot. And everything every place, every country, every situation is different. Sometimes the options don’t exist and then you have to get creative and try to figure things out.
What’s always on your packing list?
A large part of the preparation process is trying to visualise in advance what exact equipment I’m going to need; I’m never going to get it exactly correct. So usually I end up taking more than I need. Having too much and not using it is a lot better than not having what you need when you need it. So I tend to have a lot of camera gear. I use mostly Nikon cameras now: a D850, D800 and D500. The equipment I use to house and protect my gear underwater is provided by Nauticam and Zillion. My underwater lights are provided by RGBlue.
In terms of other stuff, I spend a lot of time trying to keep myself fit, because a lot of stuff I do is physically demanding. I have a collapsible foam roller which is just fantastic. Normally foam rollers take up a lot of space because of the volume but this collapses flat. If you use foam rollers, I’m telling you, you should get one. [I also bring] bands. Wherever I go, there’s no gym per se so I’m making do with whatever I have—stairs, trees, balconies, anything that I can use to work out.
What’s your luggage like?
I try to get stuff that looks generic—there are boxes that are made for travelling with gear, but they advertise that it’s expensive gear inside and that’s the last thing that I want to do. So I tend to convert things that look kind of bland and use padding inside. When I do that, it just looks like any other tourist luggage.
I have a lot of waterproof stuff too, which is hard to find actually—completely waterproof, so that at the very least if something gets dumped in, doused with seawater, the stuff inside doesn’t get damaged. This is good for things like cameras when you’re trying to take photos above the water but you’re on the water—like you’re in a little boat and you’re waiting for whales to breach or do something. And there’s water splashing everywhere and you just want to keep everything dry when you’re not using it.
There are a couple of pieces that I use a lot now. One is [from a brand] called Ortlieb and they make stuff for bikers. And then there is one that’s Japanese called Stream Trail. But I’m not completely wedded to them.
Do you bring food or snacks with you?
I always have some powdered green tea. I’m a huge tea person, and green tea is something I really like and just having a little bit in the morning is is great and it’s very easy to get in Japan.
The thing is that when I’m at home, like I am now, I’m really careful about what I eat. Lots of fruits, lots of vegetables—I’m lucky in Japan. We get a lot of fresh stuff, a lot of fish. I eat constantly throughout the day and I work out a lot. So when I go away I eat as well as I can. When I’m travelling inside Japan I get almost anything I want. In some places like a remote island in the South Pacific it’s impossible. So I don’t worry about it very much because if I did, I’d just drive myself crazy. I found over the years that because I spend the time consistently looking after myself, in the times when I’m unable to, I’m usually able to maintain a pretty good level of health until I come back.
What do you bring with you for entertainment?
Back in the days of film I used to pack a whole bunch of paperbacks and hardbacks because there was a lot less gear involved back then. But now, all that digital has just completely magnified the amount of equipment that [I] need. So I keep [my books] on my iPad. I always have 40 or 50 books on the to-read list and every time I come across something interesting I’ll add it—like today I came across this list in the Smithsonian. If anything looks interesting I’ll download it and put it in my collection and then when I’m sitting there waiting for stuff I just choose a book and read. When I’m out in the field, there’s a lot of downtime.
What do you do when you’ve arrived at your destination?
I try to arrive at least 24 hours if not 48 to 72 hours before I need to do anything. Setting up equipment, especially underwater equipment—it’s not difficult but it does require you to be there mentally, to be in the moment and know exactly what you’re doing. Because if you screw one little thing up you can destroy all your equipment very quickly —and it happens a lot to people. And the primary reason is not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the gear but it’s because you are kind of half-dazed, half asleep. And you just kind of forgot to do something or made a simple mistake. And I don’t want to do that. I can’t afford to do that. So I try to arrive early.
I don’t look at my gear for at least a day. Usually I’ll have people that I know on locations, and I’ll try to spend time with them and catch up, have a few laughs—get in the groove of where I am before I start. Then I’ll prepare the equipment and get into thinking about what I need to do.
That is the ideal scenario. For the most part I am able to get at least a couple of days in the front end. It’s a little bit less important on the back end—although, I try because I found that one of the most important things about doing this is having good relationships with people. So being able to spend even a day after everything is done with friends I’ve made—that means that going forward [we] have a good relationship. I think it’s really important.
How do you fight fatigue and jet lag?
Pretty much since 1991, I’ve been on the road for the entire year. In the beginning, it was crazy hectic—I would be hopping continents like every week. So I got used to it; I know myself really well [and] can tell when I absolutely have to crash and I know when I can push through it. So that’s really helpful. But one of my tricks is to try is to arrive wherever I’m going in the afternoon, if not early evening. So [then] all I need to do is get where I’m going to, clean up, have a meal and go to sleep. I’ve been able to train myself to go to sleep and get 7-8 hours pretty easily. Once I do that, even though my body is still not going to be in sync with the time zone, I’m really ahead of the game and usually then it requires one more night of sleep and I’m 90% there.
What tech or apps do you use when you travel?
I’m a news junkie, so anytime I have Internet access I’m usually reading current events, smacking my forehead about how screwed up the world is—but I need to stay informed. I get news off of Flipboard and Feedly. To write, I use Byword. Lately I use Apple Notes more often just because it syncs with the Cloud. I’m a big fan of Duck Duck Go as a browser. Just because you never know what internet connection you’re using. I always have VPNs on, like the one that was put out by CloudFlare, the 220.127.116.11. And also I have another one, Private Internet Access (PIA). You never know—I’m not overly paranoid but I use them anyway.
Do you bring souvenirs home from your trips?
Yes, but they tend to be stuff that I think most people wouldn’t consider souvenirs—things like the inner shell of a deepwater squid. Or skin from a whale—a biology-geek type of thing. (Important note: These are items I’ve found. In many places, people collect and kill live animals in order to sell trinkets to tourists. I don’t want to inadvertently encourage anyone to purchase shells and such from trinket shops.)
Sometimes I come across people who make incredible art carvings, related stuff [to my work] with cetaceans or something else to do with nature and it’s just beautiful and I’ll want it because it’s nature-related. I don’t generally buy stuff in stores—except for my wife. I do buy things for my wife.
Do you have any travel disaster stories?
Earlier this year I dedicated a month to be in a place in Japan, Wakayama prefecture, [to photograph a] specific event. I spent a lot of time thinking through, designing and getting made special equipment, in order to try to get a kick-arse photo that has never been done before. I had it all envisioned and everything worked out, I tested the gear—high fives all around with all the technical people involved. And then: I spent a month doing nothing … because everything that was supposed to happen in the ocean did not.
In this specific case there is a warm water current that hits the east coast of Japan called the Kuroshio, which keeps parts of the east coast of Japan relatively warm during the cold seasons. The entire ecosystem is based on that. There are corals, there are tropical fish that come up with that current, and you know they don’t fare well when the current eventually weakens and goes back during the natural cycle. But that’s all part of the system.
So this year the current didn’t show up, or it went elsewhere. And the ocean froze. It became a Slurpee. Literally an ocean Slurpee. And the tropical and semi tropical fish obviously died. Even the more temperate water fish died. The corals bleached and died. Basically what I have been targeting didn’t happen at all. Clearly—because nothing was happening. And when that happens it’s too late for me to turn around and go someplace else.
But the reason I’m telling you this is because pretty much everywhere I’ve been for the past year and a half plus has been … off. I’ve been dealing with nature for over two decades, so certainly there’s been a lot of variation. But it cycles in and out. The things I’ve seen [in the past year and a half] are outside the band of what I’ve experienced.
Another example is being up in Alaska this summer. The water’s supposed to be filled with plankton and phytoplankton and then all the other things that eat that—and then [it should be] streaming with herring. And there was nothing in the water. It was crystal clear. I spent three weeks with friends and we did manage to find a few things to photograph, but it was tough. I spoke with science friends and followed up after that and since about 2015 the number of whales that go into Alaska has dropped precipitously. No one knows what’s going on.
These are travel disasters for me—but more importantly, it’s a disaster for the animals. And I see this everywhere: I mean, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Southern Hemisphere, Northern Hemisphere, Asia, US, Africa, Southeast Asia. It’s been the same everywhere.