Jeroen Hoekendijk doesn’t claim to be a professional photographer, but his photo “The Eagle and the Bear” drew the attention of many in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021’s People’s Choice Awards.
Organized by London’s Natural history museum, the competition recognized Hoekendijk’s work and determination, precariously scaling the landscape in order to get the best possible shot of an eagle watching a black bear cub snooze in the temperate rainforest of Anan, Alaska.
In this interview, we find out a little more about Hoekendijk’s background, and how whale spy-hopping can be both a startling and pleasant surprise.
What do you do?
I am a PhD candidate at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.
What did it take to get here?
I’m not a professional photographer, but it does combine nicely with my work as a marine biologist. I studied Marine Biology and for my PhD I am using artificial intelligence to automatically detect hauled out seals from aerial and satellite imagery.
I have always been passionate about photographing wildlife, both in my backyard and in more exotic destinations while traveling. I’m particularly interested in photographing marine mammals, such as whales, dolphins, and seals.
Can you tell us a little about the story behind your photo?
This photo was taken in South East Alaska, where I was to photograph humpback whales. The humpbacks in this area use a specialized collaborative hunting technique, where they use nets of bubbles to capture schools of fish. But besides the whales, there are many other amazing opportunities to photograph wildlife in this region.
Here, next to a small river in the depths of the temperate rainforest of Anan, we were waiting patiently for bears (and other wildlife such as eagles) to come fish for salmon. Black bear cubs will often climb trees, where they wait safely for their mother to return with food. Completely unexpected, this little cub decided to take an afternoon nap on a moss-covered branch under the watchful eye of a juvenile bald eagle, which had been sitting in this pine tree for hours.
Any funny stories from photographing out in the wild?
I recently saw a photograph that a colleague took of me, while whale watching in Mexico. Here, the whales come very close to the small wooden whale watching boats, and interact with the people inside. In the picture, you can see me bending forward to try to photograph a submerged grey whale, while behind me, a grey whale is spy-hopping (where they hold their head above the water). I completely missed that!
Any hairy moments?
Another story that involves spy-hopping! Earlier this year I was photographing sperm whales underwater while snorkeling. From the depths below, an adult female rose to the surface right in front of me, where she spy-hopped. I was expecting her to glide straight down again, but instead, she turned towards me, thereby immediately closing the little distance that was still remaining between us. She then started scanning me with her echo-location and swam upside down towards me. Although I do believe this was curiosity, the adrenaline surely kicked in at that moment.
What’s your most treasured piece of kit?
Whenever I go out to photograph whales and dolphins, I always bring my Canon 70-300mm L-series lens. It is lightweight, resilient to most weather conditions I encounter on the boat, and provides the perfect range to capture these animals. It has never disappointed me!
What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to get into wildlife photography?
I have not been able to make a professional career as a photographer. So, the only thing I can highly recommend is to just have a good time taking photos! I also really enjoy sharing them with people, so perhaps consider sharing them on social media and enter photography competitions such as Wildlife Photographer of the Year.