A dwindling number of regions in fast-growing Florida have the vast open stretches of pasture, forest, prairie and swamp of Okeechobee in the Sunshine State’s heartland. Though dedicated mostly …
Shooting (And Saving) Swamps and Springs
[Dunnellon, FL.–] Mac Stone is kicking across the Rainbow River against the strong current as fast as he can, and even though he is carrying a bulky underwater camera with two protruding strobes, it is very difficult to keep up.
Panting through my snorkel, I finally catch up — just in time to see him dart away again in hot pursuit of a cormorant which itself is in hot pursuit of a sunfish darting through the eelgrass at the bottom of the river. From a distance, I can see the strobe firing over and over and I really hope he’s getting the shots he wants.
Later, Stone said he kind of did.
“Today I got a lot of cormorants fishing, but I didn’t get the apex moment– the 1/100th of a second when the fish is in front of its beak and the beak is open,” he said. “You try to put yourself in as many situations as possible. Even if you get skunked, you’re okay because you’re getting closer to your goal.”
That attitude is typical of the “high hopes but low expectations” that Stone, 33, brings to his craft as one of the most sought-after professional wildlife photographers in the southeastern U.S. For this Gainesville-raised, former Florida Audubon biologist, shooting fish, birds, landscapes and other natural subjects is NOT about producing pretty pictures. Through his images, he aims to stir the emotions of regular people enough to make them care about the ecosystems where they live and want to conserve them– especially in Florida.
“There are things in Florida that don’t exist anywhere else in abundance,” he said. “Every state has things to marvel at, but Florida just seems Old World….places you can go to and feel like you are the first person who has seen it.”
Stone first became interested in photography in high school, but got away from it for several years while studying international politics, environmental science, Spanish and biology as a student at Virginia Tech. Following graduation, he took a job teaching photography to youngsters in Honduras. Later, as a biologist conducting research on fish and birds in the Everglades, Stone began to realize “the power of photography to compel people to see their natural habitat in a different way. After a year working there, I started making all these photos. No one, in a compelling way, had told the story of the wildlife and the way it relates to the flow of water,” he said.
The Everglades was and is in peril because of the lack of freshwater creeping south across the Florida peninsula to replenish it– the result of manmade re-plumbing over the past century for development and farming. In 2014, Stone published “Everglades: America’s Wetland” to convey to readers through breathtaking images the absolute dependence that species like the roseate spoonbill, Everglades snail kite, alligators and others have on the correct amount, timing and quality of water delivered. The book is now in its second printing and Stone has made wildlife photography a full-time career.
Lately, his attentions have turned to Florida’s imperiled springs and that’s why he was chasing cormorants fishing in the Rainbow River. The Rainbow, located in west-central Florida, is fed by a second-magnitude spring that pumps more than 450 million gallons per day of fresh, 71-degree water. While strikingly clear compared to Florida’s mostly tannin-stained water courses, the Rainbow still suffers from degradation from manmade sources.
Stone’s photos undoubtedly will drive home the importance of saving this and other springs.
“Springs are so unique,” he said. “They’re accessible, but not celebrated like other habitats are. We don’t realize that when we fertilize our lawns and run our sprinklers year round, that could have a negative impact on the aquifer.”
So he and I spent nearly four hours snorkeling and drifting in the Rainbow, with me carrying the dive flag and he wielding his camera to capture the images that would seize potential conservationists by the heart. He didn’t feel like he got them that morning.
“I just keep coming back and chasing the shiny red ball like a Labrador retriever,” he said, and headed back to the Rainbow that afternoon.
To learn more about Mac and his book, “Everglades: America’s Wetland”, please visit http://www.macstonephoto.com.