Rochester nature photographer Denise Dupras follows a simple prime directive when it comes to photographing wild life.
Whatever it is, be it lion or black bear or elephant, DO NOT DISTURB the wildlife or do anything to change the animal’s behavior.
It is a safety precaution that can save one’s life as much as serve as an ethical directive. But when you have been taking pictures of wildlife for nearly 20 years, it is perhaps inevitable that situations will arise. It kind of goes with the territory.
And so in her pursuit of spectacular nature photography, Dupras has been chased by a hippo while boating in African waters and found herself in a tense stand-off with a big-horned sheep in the Canadian Rockies.
“It did not charge me,” Dupras recalled. “I just stood there and averted my eyes to avoid that.”
Now, Dupras is about to embark on her next great adventure, a two-week photographic expedition beginning this week to the world’s southernmost continent, Antarctica.
Cold and ice-covered with some of the most extreme weather in the world, Antarctica also abounds with a rare kind of biodiversity: Humpbacked whales, leopard seals and varieties of seabirds.
It will be a photographer’s dream. But for Dupras, who has visited and photographed in every continent but Antarctica, the great lure will be the penguins.
“The challenge for me is really capturing the pictures of the place, capturing the essence of the place,” said Dupras, a Mayo Clinic physician. “The opportunity to go there not knowing what you’re going to see is just fascinating to me.”
There are 17 species of penguins in the world, the majority of which are concentrated in Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island, Dupras said.
Dupras will head south at a time when global warming is shrinking the pack ice around Antarctica with consequences that aren’t entirely known for its penguin population. But one result, she said, is that penguins are having to swim further and further out to sea to find food and bring it back to their young.
“At this point, they’re not imperiled so much, but what the future holds we don’t know,” she said. “Pieces of ice are breaking off. We know that. And it’s, I think, less well-publicized from what we’ve seen in the Arctic.”
Her trip coincides at the time when the weather at the south pole will be at its warmest and most amenable to humans. Antarctica is the windiest and coldest continent on the planet with temperatures that can reach a bone-chilling minus-80 degrees. Dupras should be there when it is a balmy 40 degrees.
From the moment of her departure from Minnesota, it will take about 24 hours to reach her destination. The last leg — a crossover from Argentina to Antarctica — will take place on a reinforced ice breaker with other photographers on the tour.
Dupras has picked up some valuable pointers during her global photographic forays. And one of the most valuable, she said, is to respect and know the species you are photographing so you can avoid placing yourself in a dangerous situation.
“One of the key things is to know the species, to be able to read the species,” she said. “If the ears are back on an animal, that animal is stressed. If you’re with brown bears and they start to chomp their jaws like they’re yawning, that’s stress.”
On an aesthetic level, Dupras says she has learned the value of patience in cultivating her photographer’s eye. Early in her career, Dupras would be so intent and oriented toward getting a certain picture that she would often miss out on what the landscape was offering her.
“I often didn’t just stop, take a deep breath and look around,” she said. “And once I started doing that, I really became much more attuned to my surroundings — things I might not have taken pictures of.”
For Dupras, the best part of a trip years in the making is the anticipation, the adventure that awaits.
“It’s just the unknown,” she said. “It’s a place I haven’t been before. It’s the excitement of not knowing what you are going to see.”