From the icy glaciers of Antarctica to the searing deserts of Africa, from Alaska’s Kodiak Island to the tropical Caribbean, Tsawwassen-based Ursula Easterbrook documents nature in all its glory. The extent of her photographic travels is astonishing: Japan, China, India, Nepal, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Scotland, Orkney Islands, Ireland and North America. It has meant getting up-close and personal with bears, penguins, owls, zebras, elephants and a multitude of birds, plants and outdoor scenes. And these photos are not ordinary travel snapshots; they are spectacular, unique images that have won awards, graced wildlife calendars, featured in gallery exhibitions, and appeared in magazines.
Reminiscing about a recent 25-day photographic expedition to the Antarctic, Ursula shared photos and experiences with an enraptured audience.
“In the Antarctic, we photographed until we dropped. And yes, it’s cold, colder than expected,” says Ursula. “It’s far away and you know you are going to have to cross some of the most turbulent ocean in the world - with huge waves. There were some days when we weren’t able to go outside because it was too dangerous.”
Seasickness became a regular part of the voyage. Ursula also strained her back on the expedition’s ship from climbing up and down her second-storey bunk bed, but that did not stop her quest to photograph and enjoy this rare adventure. The boat held 77 passengers, a crew, photo instructors, a biologist and passengers from countries including Germany, Australia, South Africa and the U.S.
“Typically, we’d have to get up at 5 a.m., have our breakfast and leave at 7:30 a.m. in a zodiac, which would take us back and forth from the main ship,” explains Ursula. “It was hard work getting on and off the ship and in and out of the zodiac, climbing and photographing birds and more birds. Each time, we also had to have all of our bags vacuumed so we wouldn’t take anything that could negatively affect the natural life there. We also washed off our shoes, so we did not track anything on or off the islands.”
But for all the challenges, it's clear her trip was worthwhile. Decked out at times in huge hip waders to capture the perfect shot, Ursula came back to her Tsawwassen home with hundreds of stunning images that she describes as “fantastic icebergs in an icy desert of a wilderness of snow inhabited with many penguins, sea lions, seals, albatross and other marine creatures. Some of the icebergs were 500-feet (152-metre) high, breaking off the shelf.”
At the same time, Ursula returned with questions about the ethics of going to remote locations such as the Antarctic. How much are humans changing the environment by visiting beautiful but rare natural places? At times on this voyage, she even expressed displeasure with photographers who got far too close to the wildlife - an action that could possibly affect their natural wildlife habitat and daily life. This comment got her the label of “troublemaker” - a description some say is a “badge of honour” - recognition of the importance of treading lightly when walking into the wilderness.
As a result of her Antarctic trip, Ursula expresses comfort in knowing that the seals and penguins appear to have recovered in this part of the world. Her own philosophy is: “try to be a naturalist first and a photographer second.” She says, “I also aim to make people aware of our fragile world and the beauty of it, hoping that they will then appreciate it more and protect it.”
Ursula's involvement with photography started at an early age.
“I started taking pictures with my mother’s camera when I was quite small in postwar Germany - black and white only,” she says. “Once in Canada, I got a Brownie camera and eventually started taking colour when it became available to the public, and then colour slides. I took photography in high school and even became the president of the camera club, but my main love was painting. I continued to photograph, but not very seriously.”
Ursula studied Medical Laboratory Technology in Toronto and once she started to work, she began to travel. “This increased my picture taking,” she says. “By this time, I had switched from prints to slides and shortly after that from painting to photography as my main hobby.
Then digital came along - now my love of nature makes it possible to pursue birds and animals, to capture their lives by taking the many photos required to get a good one.”
Ursula’s real passion for photography started after taking a six-day photo workshop in the Rockies in 1986. Today, she continues to share her photographic knowledge with others through teaching, mentoring, exhibitions, competitions, photo clubs and the editing of a B.C. photographic newsletter.
“Photography is now my hobby, my passion and my way of managing stress,” says Ursula. “Photography gets me into nature, into the company of like-minded individuals and to other parts of the world. To put it another way: photography is my addiction.”
JANUARY 2011 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND