From the first day of our adventure traveling up the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island along the stunning rocky coastline, through a few sparsely populated little towns and copious fields of sheep, I knew this journey would challenge my usual photographic instincts. As a photojournalist whose work is generally centered on people and wildlife, photographing in such a sparsely populated place was at first a radical and sometimes uncomfortable departure for me. After a few days, I stopped looking for humans and began seeing what South Island offered up on another more sublime plane.
From our first few days in the Marlborough Sounds—described as a network of “sea-drowned valleys”—where we spent a surreal morning paddle boarding over large winged stingrays and thousands of jellyfish—I felt like we’d entered a magical new realm best described in shades of blue. I noticed how the water constantly shifted hue and texture as the island’s weather patterns rearranged light and wind.
Everywhere we went, the intersection between weather and water seemed to play out in a complex dance. In the North, Abel Tasman National Park offered up golden beaches, azure lagoons and long tidal flats that appeared mirage-like with their ribbons of color and occasional horse riders. In contrast, on the west coast, the waters were turbulent and unbridled, wearing the rocks into strange pancake formations and pounding the shoreline incessantly.
We spent an evening bicycling around the coastal town of Greymouth—once a bustling port for coal export that now seems a bit lost in time—stunned by the purplish evening hues and a whole new pigment we didn’t know water could acquire.
And then, further down the coast, there were the ice-blue glaciers rising up so unexpectedly after we emerged from rainforest. How can one make sense of a place so raw and elemental and seemingly connected to a geological past few of us understand?
And just when I thought the incarnations of water couldn’t get more dramatic, we spent an evening kayaking in pouring rain through Millford Sound’s interior bays surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise up 4,000 feet with thousands of waterfalls streaming down. Milford Sound—which is actually a fiord created by glacial erosion—was its own mythical country, full of rich Maori tales, dramatic tree avalanches and more rain than most of us can imagine standing.
Rounding the bend to South Island’s Catlins, we discover the rich marine life I’d been hoping to see and photograph. At Curio Bay—known to be a nursery for young dolphins—we watched these playful marine mammals surf waves and spring out of the water with seeming limitless enthusiasm.
At nearby Waipapa Point, a a harem of sea lions lay about in fat, happy arrangements, the large male occasionally rising to fend off a curious male challenger. Further up the coast, the ocean offered up the extremely rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguins. In the evenings, they’d be spat back onto shore after a day of fishing only to be accosted by their hungry chicks—mouth open, squawking, begging for food. Nearby, seal pups frolicked on the beach like energetic puppies while oyster catchers stabbed hungrily at shellfish.
Even heading inland to the interior lake region, I was struck by the unusual watery sightings like Lake Wanaka’s lonesome tree growing quite unexpectedly out of the water and the exquisite hue of Lake Tekapo, the turquoise blue of the Greek Isles. Apparently this remarkable color is the product of glacial sediment turned into fine dust particles suspended in water whose interaction with light creates the unusually bright blue hue.
And of course, beyond New Zealand’s sublime waters there is so much more—rainforests so green and moss-laden, the vast, raw Southern Alps, volcanoes, geysers and rollings greens pocked with sheep and cows. With the limitation of this blog post, I cannot begin to do justice to these beautiful places but in the meantime, here is my photographic experience of this rather unpeopled, transcendent place.