18 Favourite Photos of 2018

2018 shaped up to be yet another busy and exciting year with lots of adventures into new and unique areas. It also saw the release of an award-winning documentary film titled Anthropocene: The Human Epoch that I assisted on, a museum exhibit by Ed Burtynsky and book by Harley Rustad featuring Big Lonely Doug, and media coverage on the old-growth issue across the country and around the world. The highlight experience of my year though would have to have been the three weeks that I spent working as a naturalist and photographer aboard the Maple Leaf in the Great Bear Rainforest. The Great Bear stretches along BC’s central and north coast and is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. From whales to wolves, bears to eagles, and waterfalls to tall granite walls, the region is beautiful beyond words. The trip also underscored to me though just how special Vancouver Island and BC’s south coast truly are. Due to the better weather and prime growing conditions, it’s right here, in our own backyard, that one can still find some of the most magnificent ancient forests harbouring some of the world’s largest trees. But unlike the Great Bear, where 85% of the old-growth forests are now off limits to logging thanks to decades of conservation efforts, the ancient forests of the south coast are now highly endangered and still being cut at an alarming rate. So throughout 2018 we again clocked thousands of kilometers on logging roads and hiked through magnificent forests and horrific clearcuts in an effort to expose both the beauty and the destruction taking place. Clearly there is still much work to be done in the coming years to ensure that these incredible ecosystems remain standing for generations to come. For now though, please enjoy what are some of my favourite photos from this past year. If you have a favourite, let me know in the comments below! For the wild, TJ.

Fine art prints of these images and more can be ordered online at: tjwatt.com/prints

WOOOOSHHH!! A humpback whale bursts through the surface just off the bow of our boat in the Great Bear Rainforest. To say this was surprising would be a major understatement. In the hour prior to this moment, we had been floating silently while a group of about 20 whales swam nearby, calmly diving for krill. It was fun trying to guess where they might pop up but you never really knew where it would be and certainly none of us could have predicted a breach! Shocked, I somehow managed to spin around and catch at least one good shot before the giant splash ensued. Humpback numbers are thankfully on the rise today after being nearly hunted to extinction a century ago. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend time with these gentle giants. Listening to the peaceful “pwwossshh” sound of their breath break the silence was something I could listen to forever.

Drawn to the river by the smell of spawning salmon, a Spirit Bear named Warrior pauses momentarily in a sun-dappled creek before chasing after her lunch. Spirit Bears are not an albino but actually a white variant of a black bear and only a few hundred are thought to exist on Earth. Patience, local knowledge, and a lot of luck are the most important ingredients when hoping to view one of the world’s rarest animals. Thankfully, legendary Gitga'at bear guide, Marven Robinson, helped us to fulfill our dreams on this trip.

A bald eagle soars through the Khutze River Valley in the Great Bear Rainforest on BC’s north coast. During the fall salmon run, hundreds of eagles can be seen perched in trees and fishing along the rivers. By carrying the dead salmon off into the woods, the eagles help to fertilize the forest as the decomposing carcasses release nitrogen into the soil. Capturing birds in flight is always a difficult challenge, so I was thrilled to see the eye contact in this image and the beautiful definition in the wings and feathers.

Much of our time in the Great Bear Rainforest was spent floating up and down remote rivers as quietly as we could, hoping to catch a glimpse of local wildlife. Bears were often the main focus but there were many other creatures big and small that we got to see as well, like this kingfisher perched on the roots of an old snag. I really love the balance of elements in this scene and the colours as well. Reminds me somewhat of a painting.

A young male grizzly bear leisurely walks along the banks of the Khutze River looking for salmon. This was my first time seeing a grizzly up close and also the first grizzly we saw upon arriving in the Great Bear! It would also prove to be one of the best photo opportunities over the whole trip. Despite their immense power and potential for ferocity, it was amazing to spend so much time in close proximity to these animals and see just how gentle and playful they can also be.

If the Great Bear Rainforest wasn’t magic enough already, the bioluminescence in the ocean on our first night there was like something out of a sci-fi movie. Stirring the water with a pike pole caused it to light up a bright neon blue. You could see the shapes of fish swimming by, larger things following them, and little sparkles twinkling in all directions that seemed to mirror the stars in the sky. A few of the crew even jumped right in and made ‘glow angles’ with their bodies! Later that night, when it started to rain heavily, the whole bay lit up in a milky glow. It’s something I will never forget!

The view from a few thousand feet over Clayoquot Sound, looking west towards Obstruction and Flores Island. One thing you quickly notice when flying over Vancouver Island is just how pervasive logging roads and clearcuts are. Almost every direction you look, the landscape is scarred or altered. In only a few rare and special places can you can get a glimpse of the island the way it once was - carpeted from coastline to mountain top and back down again in ancient forests of every shade of shimmering green. Thankfully, the local Ahousaht First Nation have a Land Use Vision calling for protection of over 80% of the old-growth forests in their territory. May this view stay looking this way for many generations to come.

Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Located a 45 minute boat ride north of Tofino, the island is home to the incredible Wild Side Trail. The trail winds along 11 kilometers of stunning coastlines and amazing ancient forests before delivering you to the long, sandy beaches of Cow Bay, seen here during an amazing summer sunset. To capture this shot, I was running around barefoot looking for little pools of water to catch the reflection in and then holding my camera just above the sand to create the mirrored effect. I really dig the little trees too - three trees just like the three friends that were on the trip together!

Would you look at these little guys! These psychedelic looking creatures are tiny carnivorous sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), which can be found in the bog forests of Vancouver Island. Rather than make their food through photosynthesis, the sundew supplements its diet by feeding on insects! The sticky dew or “mucilage” on its tentacles helps it to trap and digest its prey for a hearty meal. The plants are so tiny that you could easily walk right by them unless you knew to look for them. For this image, I carefully laid my camera on the ground and used a macro lens to peer into the miniature world. I love the rainbow colours and cartoon-like shapes, which remind me of something from Willy Wonka or Dr. Seuss!

A camas flower awaits its time to bloom in Uplands Park. A fun photographic exercise is to pick only one lens and go for a walk in nature. One of my favorite lenses to do this with is my macro lens. It forces you to slow down and pay attention to the small things. Here, the soft textures and pastel tones of the flower really caught my eye.

A cluster of mushrooms grows in the mossy hollow of old-growth bigleaf maple tree near Lake Cowichan. This would have to be the cutest little colony of fungi I’ve ever seen! I half expected to see a little pixie land on one of them and head through a door into another world.

The hidden sandstone canyon and waterfall at Sombrio Beach is a truly magical place. I never tire of coming here as it always looks a little different depending on the time of day and the season. Aside from the picturesque waterfall, mosses, and ferns, there’s an eye-catching blend of natural curves and lines well.

Reflecting on the Nahmint. Confused? Try turning your head upside down 🙃

The Nahmint River Canyon near Port Alberni is a swimmer’s paradise when out hiking in the hot summer months. The cool, blue waters are flanked by towering cliffs and ancient trees, while the deep pools harbour schools of steelhead salmon. I first visited the Nahmint back in 2006 on one of my very first trips to photograph old-growth forests for conservation. With its exceptional recreational and ecological value, it’s back in the spotlight today as an incredibly important area to save from old-growth logging taking place.

In May of 2018, while on an Ancient Forest Alliance expedition in the Nahmint Valley, we came across an incredible old-growth Douglas-fir tree measuring 10 feet wide and 216 feet tall, making it the 9th widest Douglas-fir tree in the country according to the BC Big Tree Registry and as tall as Big Lonely Doug. It was a truly beautiful, awe-inspiring tree. Two weeks later, it was a stump. Cut down in one of the many clearcuts auctioned off by the BC government’s own logging agency, BC Timber Sales. Under BC’s current forestry model, old-growth forests are a non-renewable resource, as forests are re-logged every 50-70 years, never to become old-growth again. Ecological values aside, a record-sized tree like this one, growing on gentle terrain and next to the main road, can form the basis of an industry based on “big tree tourism”. In this light, trees can be viewed as a renewable resources in that people will come to see them time and time again, generating revenue for local businesses and leaving the forest standing at the same time. However, each time another giant tree or grand grove is cut down, we permanently remove that option from the table. With less than 1% of the original old-growth coastal Douglas-fir trees remaining on BC’s coast, it’s time for the BC government to create a science-based plan that protects these ancient forests and help create a shift to a sustainable, value-added, second-growth forest industry instead.

No other photo of mine created more of a stir this year than this shot of my colleague Andrea Inness walking past a giant old-growth redcedar tree cut down in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni. The image sparked outrage from the general public and went viral on social media, garnering hundreds of thousands of views and even making the front page of Reddit World News. ‘How can this still be happening’ people ask? ‘It must be illegal!’ Truth is, old-growth logging in BC is still taking place and at an alarming rate. 10,000 hectares is cut on Vancouver Island each year alone as the companies target the best remaining stands with the biggest trees. The vast majority of the time, this is taking place in very remote areas, far from the public eye. I do my best to bring back images that showcase both the beauty and destruction of our old-growth forests, but it’s still only a sliver of the bigger picture. Lets hope 2019 is the year that we start seeing some real progress on the old-growth conservation front, as time for these forests is quickly running out.

A wave breaks over the rocky shorline of Sombrio Beach. Storm watching is one of my very favourite pastimes and this is one of the best places to chase big waves! I was also impressed by how calmly the cormorants sat atop their precarious perch as well.

Morning mist hangs over the meadows of the San Juan River estuary near Port Renfrew. I enjoy the peace found at this time of day and often go down to the ocean to watch the sunrise or, when I’m in Port Renfrew, come here. The air is still and the sounds of the world waking up can be heard one bird at a time. Some days you’re treated to a fiery sky of pink and orange while others, like this cool, blue winter morning, are shrouded in mist. It often leaves me thinking of this quote from E.B. White “Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.”

Big Lonely Doug - The Story of One of Canada's Last Great Trees

Be sure to grab copy of Big Lonely Doug. Yes, that's right, BLD has his very own book now! Author Harley Rustad tells the tale of one of the country's largest and most iconic trees, the human stories around him, and much, much more. It also features one of my photos on the cover! You can find it at Munro's, Indigo, or online🌲 https://www.harleyrustad.com/book-big-lonely-doug/

Old-Growth Logging on Edinburgh Mountain

New logging has commenced on Edinburgh Mountain, an exceptional old-growth forest “hotspot” near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island and the location of Big Lonely Doug (Canada’s second largest Douglas-fir tree) and the spectacular Eden Grove. AFA campaigners visited the cutblock December 15th and were dismayed to find scores of giant trees cut down, including two-meter-wide cedars and an extremely rare, two-meter-wide, old-growth Douglas-fir. Over 15 hectares is being logged by Teal Jones, which adds to the over 75 ha of old-growth forest the company has logged on the mountain since 2016.

Just 50 meters away from the active cutblock stands a Douglas-fir tree that is the 6th widest Douglas-fir tree on record, according to the BC Big Tree Registry, and the 7th widest when including the Alberni Giant in the Nahmint Valley. While the near record-sized tree is located within a Wildlife Habitat Area, it remains vulnerable to future logging. Old-growth hotspots of high conservation and recreational value, like Edinburgh Mountain, are disappearing before our eyes and will be reduced to tattered fragments if action isn’t taken soon. The BC government must enact an immediate halt to logging in hotspots to ensure the largest and best stands of remaining ancient forests are kept intact and develop a science-based plan to protect endangered old-growth forests across BC! Send them an instant message at: www.ancientforestalliance.org/send-a-message

CBC News Coverage on BC's Old-Growth Forests

See the latest CBC article about the battle for old-growth forests in BC: Money Trees - The struggle over what’s ancient, giant, valuable and dwindling in B.C.’s coastal forests

Myself and Ken Wu spent two days with journalists, taking them on an old-growth bushwhack and through clearcuts on southern Vancouver Island.

*Take note of some additional relevant facts while reading:

1) Beyond their aesthetic appeal, old-growth forests offer a host of values that second-growth tree plantations do not. They support unique and endangered species that can't flourish in second-growth (like spotted owls and mountain caribou) and are vital for tourism, clean water, wild salmon, carbon storage, and many First Nations cultures.

2) Almost the entire western world is only logging second or third-growth forests. We can and should make the full, inevitable transition to a second-growth forest industry BEFORE the last of the unprotected old-growth is logged...and quickly.

3) The BC government’s and logging industry’s stats on the status of old-growth are deceptive. Of the 520,000 hectares of old-growth that the BC government says are off-limits to logging on Vancouver Island, less than 200,000 hectares are considered productive old-growth forests and are commercially valuable. The rest consists of stands with much smaller, stunted trees at higher elevations, on steep rocky slopes, and in bogs that lack the species richness and large trees of the productive forests. Almost 79% of the productive old-growth forests on Vancouver Island have already been logged - about 1.6 million hectares out of 2 million hectares originally. For stats and maps visit https://bit.ly/2QHJAvo

4) Independent, family operated mills are not representative of the coastal forest industry. Many have been forced to close due to increases in log exports, corporate concentration, and the depletion of the biggest, best, accessible stands of ancient trees over the past 20 years. Western Forest Products, Island Timberlands, TimberWest, Teal-Jones…these are overwhelmingly the companies responsible for the vast majority of the cut on Vancouver Island.

5) The “forestry workers who want jobs vs. environmentalists who love big trees” is largely a tired old division of the 1980’s and 90’s that we have worked hard as conservationists to bridge the gap on. One of the main forestry unions, the Public and Private Workers of Canada (PPWC), representing thousands of Vancouver Island sawmill and pulp mill workers, have called for an end to old-growth logging on Vancouver Island and we’ve worked closely with forestry workers to end raw log exports, ensure a value-added second-growth forestry transition, and to save old-growth for almost two decades now.

6) Economic studies have shown that old-growth forests have a greater economic value standing than for logging when factoring in tourism, clean water and fisheries, non-timber forest products like wild mushrooms and berries, carbon value, and recreational value in southern BC. This is more true today than ever. Port Renfrew and Tofino are shining examples of communities whose economies have vastly benefited from standing, living ancient forests.

CBC Kids News: Should old-growth forests be protected? This photo gallery features some of my images of big trees and giant stumps as well.

The stump from a 300+ year old Sitka spruce tree cut near Hadikin Lake on Vancouver Island.