Cannibals and Sea Lions

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This is the epic story of why us landscape photographers love to do what we do.


Balclutha – South Island of New Zealand

It was before dawn and I could see the first hint of colour in the clouds, through the dirty windscreen. It was freezing outside and I had the heater blowing full blast. The strong smell of instant coffee was still hanging in the air and I was as excited as a kid at a birthday party!

We were chasing the sunrise and I had a feeling it was going to be epic. I pushed the camper van as fast as I could, around the dirt track leading towards Cannibal Bay. I heard the crunch of the tires as I veered a little close to the edge of the road. Jay was next to me in the front seat. He was looking at his phone, working out the distance we needed to travel.

“Brent, you need to go faster so that we don’t miss this sunrise!”
“Jay, I’m going as fast as I can in this van – I don’t want to end up down in that ditch!”

The road got progressively worse as we got closer. It went from a secondary sealed road to unsealed to a single-lane farm track, winding over hills and through gullies, past sheep and cows in the predawn light. I hoped we wouldn’t meet another vehicle going the opposite way! That would have been a disaster since there was no place to turn off to let them pass. The clouds starting to show bits of pink and red. Man, this was going to be amazing sunrise.

Drive faster!!! How much faster could I push the camper van on that dirt road and not kill us all?

“How much farther to go, Jay?”
“Not too long guys. Is your camera gear ready?”

Would we make it – or miss the spectacular light? My stomach was in a knot from nerves or maybe it was just anticipation! I kept pushing the camper – we really needed to get there before it was too late! Johny was in the back getting our video gear ready – being tossed around as we raced around another hairpin bend on the dirt track.

“Hey bro – watch the road man! I’ve got no seatbelt back here.”
“No worries, bro. I’ll drive and you get our gear ready.”


Around the next corner, travelling at double the speed limit, we reached our destination. I stepped on the brakes, skidded a little, and Johny came tumbling forward between the two front seats. There it was, the turn-off and parking area for Cannibal Bay.

We had made it. YES!

“Everyone out!” someone yelled.

Jay and Johny were the first out – running down to the beach with their backpacks full of camera gear, each carrying a tripod. I quickly parked the camper… right in the middle of the track that leads to the beach. No time to look for a better spot. I hoped we wouldn’t get towed away by a cop or a farmer with a tractor. I grabbed my bag full of camera gear in one hand, my tripod in the other, and ran to the beach.

My face was hit by the freezing air, but my heart was racing with excitement. As I ran through the head-high grass and reached the beach, I was stopped in my tracks by the view.

A deserted beach with wet, reflecting sand, two headlands on either side, and a sky that was turning out to be, well, unbelievable! Epic!

First things first – the landscape photography course we were working on. Jay and Johnny were already in position.

Lights, Camera, Action: Record the LessonJohny

Johny and I got out gear unpacked: Tripod setup, lens, camera, audio – check! Johny was filming Jay with a wide angle lens and I was filming the back of Jay’s camera – to show everyone exactly how he does it. The lesson went smoothly. We checked the footage. All good.

Landscape photographers in Heaven!

While I was filming the “filler” footage, Johny and Jay were already shooting this spectacular sunrise. They were in heaven!

There was one more scene I still needed to capture. I wanted to add the excitement of this moment into this course. I wanted to capture the feeling we were experiencing, the emotional state we were in.


“Jay, how do you feel right now?” I asked him while recording.
“Awesome, this scene is amazing, WOW! The only thing that would make it better is if we got to see a sea lion right here.”
Jay replied with a little chuckle.
“Yeah, right. That would be cool.” I laughed – Jay was always joking around with us.

What were the chances of spotting a wild sea lion?

Filming was complete and it was time for me to capture this epic sunrise. Off I went to find a good composition, changing lenses to my wide angle as I walked and scanned the beach for an interesting foreground element. Then the sky turned on the most amazing light show I have ever witnessed. Reds, pinks, purples… you name it.
Everywhere I looked, there was spectacular color.

I dropped my backpack and started shooting with my wide angle lens. I went into my “landscape photography meditation zone” where I was totally focused on the moment, living in the present. A single focus of appreciating nature and capturing it to share with others later on. Any problems I had before totally vanished in that moment.

This was pure happiness!

Huge sea lion on the beach

I heard Jay gasp and that sound pulled me out of my meditation state. Wonder what he had seen? There, up the beach, coming down to the water was a massive sea lion. No way – I couldn’t believe it! What were the chances?

A wild animal on the beach – how close can I get and still be safe? It was time to change back to my 135mm f2.0 lens and start shooting wildlife.

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We spent the next 10 minutes photographing this amazing creature as he made his way down to the water’s edge, stopping and lazing around every few minutes, rolling over, yawning and then getting up again to make his was closer to the water.

For me, this was one of the highlights of my life. One of those moments I will never forget, like my wedding day or the birth of my two children. And to share that moment with two other passionate landscape photographers – just topped it off for me.

Only a photographer knows the feeling

I guess only a photographer could understand the feeling of racing for the light and almost risking it all – to capturing the beauty and the feeling of a wild sunrise in such a remote and beautiful location. Have you ever felt the same? Feel free to leave comments below…

About Author Brent Mail

Brent Mail is an award winning pro-photographer who loves to help fellow photographers improve their craft. He has created more than a dozen popular photography courses and now spends most of his time in the Share-Inspire-Create Lounge: an online community dedicated to helping photographers master their photography, become inspired and connect with other passionate, creative people. Brent grew up in Africa, lived in Colorado and now runs a successful portrait photography studio close to the beach in Australia.