Yellowstone Super Volcano




An active plume of molten rock from the earth’s mantle reaches up to the crust just below the Yellowstone area making it a super volcanic zone. As the local continental plate slid over this hot spot in a south westerly direction, major volcanic eruptions have taken place 2.1 million years, 1.3 million and the latest one some 630 thousand years back.





With the accumulated molten magma forcibly evicted by the last of these major volcanic outbursts, the top crust caved in into the emptied space below under its own weight to create the Yellowstone Caldera that was an elliptical depression some 72 kilometres long by 48 kilometres wide.





Sporadic minor eruptions and also the more gradual oozing out of molten lava to the surface thereafter, the latest episode being around 70 thousand years ago, filled up the caldera somewhat to result in the relatively flat current day landscape of the Yellowstone plateau at an average height of 8,000 feet above the mean sea level.




The presence of the super heated hot spot some 10 kilometres below Yellowstone combined with the water from rain and snow melt percolating down cracks and other faults in the rocky ground, through their dynamic interaction, have created more than 10,000 hydrothermal features in the Yellowstone area that together constitute almost half of such features found world over.




The hottest thermal features of the area are the hissing and whistling fumaroles, found mainly in the North West section of Yellowstone. They emit steam alone through vents in the ground as the scanty ground water in that area is entirely converted into steam such as the Black Growler in the Norris Geyser Basin. The effect of the subterranean hot spot is, however, more often seen in the form of colourful hot springs dotted all over.




Cool surface water being heavier descends into the ground till it comes in contact with the super heated rocks below and then rises back to the surface through gaping holes in the ground as hot water springs. Heat is dissipated on the surface and the water as it cools down sinks in again. This convection current set in motion keeps the hot spring from building up heat large enough to erupt.




The colour to the edges of the hot water springs is provided by microscopic heat loving thermophile bacteria that prosper in the super heated water, each colour band representing different colonies of bacteria, each of which prefer their own temperature zone. On the edges of the stunning Prismatic Spring, the yellow band represents bacteria that prefer higher temperature than the ones that form the rust or brown bands.




The deep blue colour of the central parts of other hot springs such as the Sapphire Pool is on account of the optics of white light penetrating the water wherein the blue end of the spectrum gets dispersed more than the red end. Typically, these dark blue pools are very deep with a clear wide column of water for the laws of optics to operate in that manner.




The North West corner of Yellowstone has extensive sedimentary deposits of limestone left behind by evaporation of sea water some 350 million years back. Hot water passing through this porous soft rock dissolves the calcium carbonate in it and once the water emerges on the surface the dissolved carbon dioxide is released and the residual calcium carbonate deposited as travertine terraces.




The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Spring, looking like ‘frozen waterfalls’, can grow at the rate of 5 mm a day or one meter in a year. The microbial mats formed by communities of thermophile bacteria provide colour to the terraces and also slow down the flow of the water to enhance the rate of deposit accumulation. The flow of the water changes direction frequently on account of possibly the underground cavities caving in under the ever increasing weight of the rapidly growing terraces above. The portions rendered devoid of water revert to the chalky white coloured travertine that hardens over time to form a softer version of marble and is mined for making counter tops.




If the underground plumbing system at a particular spot is not clear but has a constriction, usually close to the surface, then the heated water below the constriction tends to get super heated under increasing pressure. Beyond a point, the pressure can no longer be held back by the constriction and the super heated water forcefully pushes the water above the constriction through an eruption of steam and scalding water, visible as a geyser above the surface. Consequent release of pressure and the built up heat makes the geyser subside, usually within a few minutes, till the next cycle of pressure build up repeats the process.




The iconic Old Faithful Geyser is known for the regularity of its eruptions on account of its hydrothermal system not being connected with any other neighbouring feature. Over decades the gap between successive eruptions have increased and the current pattern is of an eruption after an average of 65 minutes, if the duration of the preceding eruption was less than two and a half minutes and an average of 92 minutes if the preceding eruption was for more than two and a half minutes.




In certain areas surface water collects in shallow basins that are heated up by steam and hot hydrogen sulphide gas, notorious for the rotten egg smell, seeping up from deep underground. Some bacteria, by using the hydrogen sulphide gas to extract energy, help convert it into hydrochloric acid that dissolves the surrounding rocks. Inadequate water flow in these locations results in a gooey mass called mud pots through which the steam and gas continue to bubble through.




The Yellowstone area in general still remains highly volatile with the floor of the caldera pushed up by almost 25 centimetres between 2004 and 2008, though the uplift has slowed down since then. The cause of this relatively sudden upheaval was the additional infusion of the molten rocks into the magma chamber 10 kilometres below the surface of the earth.




Researchers from Montana University studied the rate of mineral crystal growth from the samples found in the lava and ash from earlier major super volcanic eruptions and have discovered that the local infusion of sufficient quantity of magma to create a major volcanic eruption took, not thousands of years as hypothesised earlier, but a few decades alone.




The rapid speed at which adequate magma infusion could happen created a degree of public concern over an impending volcanic outburst in Yellowstone. The authorities have been quick to step in to allay such fears. The official position is that super volcanic eruptions are neither regular nor predictable and though another eruption may take place, but only after thousands of years, as the quantum of magma necessary for an explosion is simply not in place at the moment.




For the moment, the Yellowstone geology and its physical changes in real time are being very closely monitored by geologists and other scientists. This natural museum, where diverting thermal features for human use have been consciously avoided, will hopefully retain its character for many more centuries and continue to provide a window into the dynamics of the core of our planet.





The Intriguing Sperm Whale

Within a thousand meters off the coast of the Kaikoura peninsula of New Zealand, the continental shelf falls off sharply into the Kaikoura Canyon that runs in a north easterly direction for some 60 kilometres and is around 1,200 meters deep. The cold ocean currents from the south meet the warm currents flowing in from the north into this subterranean canyon to create an upswing of nutrients from the deep sea that sustain an incredibly rich marine food chain with an abundance of plankton, krill, squid and fish. Such is the density of the biomass of the Kaikoura Canyon that it has been called the ‘Serengeti of the Seas’.



The giant sperm whale, descended from even toed ungulates like the pig and the deer that went back to the sea some 50 million years ago seeking its rich food supply, which helped develop their massive size. Preferring the colder temperate waters, a population of relatively solitary adult male sperm whales are resident in the Kaikoura Canyon year round, besides transient males that pass through it occasionally. Local sightings of the close knit pods of the females that are physically half the size of the males, and their calves, on the other hand is rare as they spend most of their time in the tropical or semi tropical warmer seas.



The sperm whale, as an air breathing mammal, needs to surface regularly to blow out the carbon dioxide accumulated in its muscles and lungs and to re-stock the oxygen for its next dive. Forceful inhalations and exhalations at the surface for 8 to 10 minutes may be required to complete the process. With its head down, as the sperm whale commences its next vertical dive down to its feeding area, the tail comes out of the water. Given its huge size, the beginning of the dive with the water flowing off the tail flukes shows to us the sperm whale in its most spectacular and recognizable form.



Diving below the surface to catch and to eat its typical prey of giant squid, shark and other bony deep sea fish at depths of 500 meters, that may extend to more than a kilometre below the surface of the ocean, the duration of a typical dive is 40 minutes but may exceed an hour. Not much is known about its hunting techniques given the depths at which it normally operates. The power for propulsion down to the inky depths of its feeding area and back to the surface for breathing is provided primarily by its tail flukes that can be up to 16 feet wide, while the sperm whale itself can grow to more than 65 feet in length. The unique pattern of nicks and cuts on the trailing edge of their tail flukes help researchers identify individual sperm whales.



Physically, the sperm whale is immediately recognisable with its large block shaped head constituting a third of its length. The enlarged forehead contains the spermaceti, a mix of oil and wax, which gives its name and is used to magnify and to focus loud 230 decibel clicking sounds that the whale makes to communicate and for echo location of its prey. The clicks increase in rapidity, till it sounds like the creaking of a door, once the prey is close. Hydrophone assemblies are used in scientific studies to record the location and frequency of the clicks to provide a picture of its activities in the invisible deep.



Mature adults may have no natural enemies but the young and the infirm are occasionally hunted by pods of orca whales. In the past, the waxy spermaceti that was used in oil lamps, for making smoke free candles and as grease in the seventeenth century was the reason for hunting down sperm whales in huge numbers by the whalers. Similarly, ambergris, a by-product of the sperm whale’s digestive tract, believed to ease the movement of hard squid beaks through its intestines, is usually vomited by the whale. Washed ashore or found in dead whales, the ambergris was valued as a fixative in the perfumery industry.

Shoot them and Let them Fly


Hunting has been a popular sport. It required planning, getting close to the target and fast reflexes for a successful shoot. The beauty of the natural habitat of the hunted species and the thrill of a fruitful outing contributed to making hunting one of the most avidly followed sports through the ages.





Gradual degradation of the natural environments and excessive hunting has led to a virtual ban on hunting. Fortunately, the enjoyment of the thrill of a hunt is still possible once the gun is exchanged for a camera. Photographing wildlife, in their natural setting, is as fascinating as hunting, with the added advantage of being able to enjoy the bounties of nature rather than destroying them.





The skills required by hunters are also a pre-requisite for a competent wildlife photographer. Knowledge of the chosen subject to be photographed, its preferred habitat and the likely places of feeding and resting are necessary to improve the chances of locating the subject. Behavioural patterns need to be understood not only to minimise dangers to personal safety but also to be able to anticipate the movements and actions likely to follow so as to capture the nuances of behaviour, at its best possible moment through the camera.





Standing on the deck of a cruise ship, en route from Goa to Bombay, I was watching the sun rise over the horizon creating a stream of shimmering golden ripples on the sea. Sea gulls flew around and I decided to try and capture them with the manual camera that was there with me then, without the now common auto features. First the difficult light conditions had to be tackled by taking the light readings off the sunlit patch. Next, as the birds came flying towards this patch I would start panning them by following their movement along their flight path through the camera lens, all the time trying to adjust the focus, so that the bird would be recorded as a sharp image.

One sea gull came fairly close to where I was standing, flying at a height slightly below my eye level. The tension built up inside me as I followed it through the camera lens as it approached the sunlit water. As soon as it moved over the golden patch I shot it. The click of the shutter sounded surprisingly loud. The thrill of knowing that I had shot it successfully was satisfying and what added to the joy was that, unlike hunting, as I took my eyes away from the view finder of the camera, the sea gull was still there, continuing its graceful glide beyond the shimmering patch on the luminous sea.



Tiger : A Potential Maneater


On the night of the locally auspicious Buddha Purnima that fell on 10th of May this year, the annual census of the animals in the Tadoba Tiger Reserve was taken by teams of one forest guard and two volunteers sitting overnight on each of the machans next to the remaining water bodies. They tabulate the number of such visitors to each water source over the night and in the visible range of the respective teams. The census happens on Buddha Purnima night because a lot of things come together. It is summer and because most of the watering holes have dried up, there are only a few water sources left for the animals. The full moon allows for better sighting. So, it is easier to count.



The tigress Maya in a bamboo forest


Early next morning on the 11th, a tiger in the core area of Tadoba killed one of the twelve Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra (FDCM) fire watchers that are employed from February to June every year to look out for and to try and control forest fires that are frequent in the scorching heat of the summer. Mangaldas Chaudhary, 46, had stepped out of the forest camp inside the reserve to attend to nature’s call. “Around 6 am, while he was probably squatting or sitting, a male tiger attacked the man on his neck, and killed him on the spot,” reports Kishore Mankar, the Deputy Director of the Tadoba core. As the tiger attacked him, barely 20 meters from where he was staying, the two companions with him ran away to alert the forest department over the wireless. A team of officials reached the spot around 8 am, but he was dead by the time his body could be recovered.


Soon after the incident, the forest department conducted a site inspection and a diary entry was made at the local police station. “This is the first time since the national park was notified that a tiger has attacked a human. Since there are no villages within the reserve forest, there was no question of an attack. However, the animal did not eat the body, which probably tells us that he did not realise that it was a human before attacking,” said Mankar, adding that, “the body was sent for post-mortem by 9 am on Thursday morning.” A compensation of Rs. 8 lakhs was promised to the kin of the deceased and employment in FDCM for his 20 year old son.



Maya comes to a waterhole for a drink


The forest camp where he was stationed has provision of toilets, but the elder lot, as is their usual practice, prefer to go out in the open for their daily abulations. In a dimly lit thick forest, squatting down behind a bush to defecate, in the middle of the tiger’s domain … the poor fellow was inviting serious trouble. These are wild creatures that have evolved to become large and superbly efficient killers.


Wildlife Institute of India (WII) scientist Bilal Habib, currently based in Tadoba, is of the view that it is an accident but authorities will now have to work backwards to find out why it has happened. “It has happened due to the lacunae on the human part. They should have seen the area properly, made noise when they moved out. Having gone to the jungle often, people tend to take things for granted. But in the jungle you never know when the animal is near, under a bush or under cover.”



Matkasur leaves the waterhole after cooling off


The incident has happened next to the Tadoba lake, which is the territory of a male tiger named Matkasur and the female Maya, who are at present courting. Pugmarks at the site of the incident indicate that the attacker was a male. Officials have put camera traps to check the movements of the five or six tigers in that zone. Pugmarks, till recently used to identify individual tigers, can also help in narrowing down the identity but, the forest officials may, at this stage, prefer to play down the unfortunate incident.


Experience tells me that it actually was Matkasur who had carried out the fatal attack. He is a dominant male and no other male will normally dare to venture into his territory right now when he is courting a female.



Matkasur remains the powerful dominant male of the Tadoba zone


Tourists and photographers visiting the park move in open gypsy vehicles and are safe mainly because the local tigers do not see human beings as a food item. Both of these tigers have iconic status in Tadoba and have otherwise been highly visible and tolerant of the teeming paparazzi. The award winning WII scientist Bilal Habib warns that “there has to be extra caution that has to be taken now especially by the tourists. Even though the two tigers are friendly but they are wild animals. We don’t know what is going on in their mind. They have tasted human blood and so at least for one month everyone needs to be very careful when they are around.”


If a tiger eats a human kill then it is more likely to do so whenever an opportunity arises. It may even begin to actively stalk and attack humans. On the other hand, if the tiger moves off from the human kill without eating it, as in this case, then the encounter may have been accidental and the concerned tiger may not remain a continuing threat to humans. For this reason the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (NTCA) guidelines prefer a wait and watch strategy wherein a tiger is declared a maneater, tranquilised and sent to a zoo, after it has attacked or killed people four times in succession.



Matkasur and Maya are together in a short lived courtship


However, there are political ramifications. If there are widespread public protests, then shoot at sight orders may have be issued by the administration at any time under public pressure. If the local people adopt a retaliatory approach after a tiger – human conflict incident then most of the local tigers, and not just the offending animal, would be doomed anyway. Wildlife administrators and conservationists have to walk the thin line between wildlife conservation and public safety to successfully preserve and to protect the remaining wildlife habitats in the dense human populated landscape of India.

The Art of Photography – Light


Light as The Subject


The camera captures light alone. The subject is incidental.

It has to be understood in photography that, what is being captured is not really the image of a particular subject, but instead, of the light as it is falls on that subject and is reflected by it to the camera. The image being essentially a record of the characteristics of the ambient light, the same subject can appear in various different forms, depending on the light conditions at the time that it was photographed and based on the angle from which the light falling on it was seen.

For the purposes of photography, flat lighting with no prominent dark or brightly lit areas, fits in easily within the dynamic range of brightness that can be captured on film. Such light is good for capturing the details and the colours of the subject.




This tigress had come down to the edge of the waterhole to quench her thirst. Her location was in the open shade which gave a smooth flat lighting. The details of her stripes and her reflection in the still waters could be captured perfectly because there were no prominent shadows covering any portion of the image. Bright sunlight, had it been falling on her, would have resulted in deep shadows and a different image, though not necessarily any inferior. Different light conditions simply permit us to capture the same subject in a ‘different light’.




The dull overcast and slightly misty atmosphere of this shot forms the backdrop for the fishermen and the sea gull both heading out early in the day on their routine search for food. With the water and the sky, both reduced to a dull grey, merging seamlessly and the details largely washed out leaves a lyrical timeless impression on the viewer of this image. This hazy image ends up triggering a particular impression that makes you think. It becomes an engaging image for that reason.




Mountains give us a sense of permanence. They have always been there as unchanging mute spectators to the hectic activities going on below. The changing character of the light, over the day and across seasons, challenges this perceived notion of the ‘sameness’ of the mountain. Magic is created when the early morning soft golden hued light of the rising sun, low on the horizon, hits this snow clad peak. The same subject constantly changes transforming from moment to moment when we try and capture the light reflected by it. Our eyes tune into fresh possibilities when we develop sensitivity to the play of light, rather than the subject.




The ambient light often defines character of a subject.

This monument erected as a cenotaph to a long dead local king had its intricate architectural features clearly visible in bright daylight. However, the somber mood of this subject was, at least in my view, appropriately captured when a mere record of the details of the monument was sacrificed by placing it against the glorious desert sunset later that evening. The disc of the sun by this time had sunk below the horizon, but continued to paint the sky red before the darkness could descend. The changed character of light had transformed the very same monument.




Backlit subjects typically have a warm halo of light around them but also confine the subject itself to relative darkness. This pattern is sometimes broken in flowers that have translucent petals. Some light filters through the petals to give them an ‘inner glow’ as in the case of these two orchid flowers. A similar effect can be achieved by using a compensatory flashgun light, but the dynamic range of natural light filtering through the petals gives a far more natural result that our senses find more appealing.

The Art of Photography – Purpose & Meaning


Photography can never be without a purpose. It is a form of art and, in common with the other forms of visual and performing arts, it remains a medium of communication. It involves an emotional as well as a mental engagement of the photographer with his or her subject. A successful photographer starts with gathering information about his subject and in trying to understand it. The essential characteristics that define the subject need to be isolated. The understanding arrived at is sought to be communicated through the medium of a photographic image to the viewer. The graphic quality of the image imparts a beauty to the end product that seeks to share the unique impressions of the photographer about the subject with the viewer.




The purpose of an image boils down to the reason why a particular image was recorded. Through appropriate timing, a well recognised subject can be made to appear in an unusual form that is thought provoking. That is also the context where a caption can engage and lead the viewer towards the thought process behind the capturing of that image. For instance –

Ashamed of herself for letting the population of the Asiatic lions drop to some 400 odd? She need not be, because her lack of fertility is not the cause. Instead it is the loss of habitat to the ever expanding human population and the poachers that are to be blamed for their sad plight.”



However, the photographer is not always around to provide the captions or to explain his specific reasons for taking a particular photograph which, as a standalone product, should ideally be complete in itself. The story telling capacity of the image by itself ought to be such that the viewer is able to comprehend the story even in the absence of any oral or written explanation provided by the photographer.




These workers were gathering lotus stems from the lake for supply to the local market as vegetables. Hard labour in a pristine and a colourful environment was attempted to be captured in this photograph. It is pleasant to look at and hopefully captures the story of these people toiling away for their meagre livelihoods in a gorgeous workplace, whose beauty they may not have the time or the inclination to appreciate.




This hyena was stalking flamingoes but they saw him coming and took off in the air. Unfortunately, he did not have the requisite wings to continue the chase. Emotionally, such situations are a bit confusing. You feel happy that the flamingoes escaped a violent death, but at the same time you feel sad for the poor hyena, having missed its potential meal, has to go back hungry. The small island, the disappointment of the hyena sharply rendered, the flamingos flying off into the distance and out of focus. All these elements are expected to work together to tell the eternal story of the hunter and the hunted on the African savannahs.




The evening sun provides a warm glow to the spectacular mountains forming the background, and together with the cold desert sands in the foreground it constitutes a formidable natural barrier. The camel caravan passing through this bleak landscape is an attempt at overcoming such physical challenges. The effort is at storytelling, through the medium of a photographic image, to reconstruct a bygone era of long distance caravan trade across deserts and mountain ranges.

The Art of Photography – Graphic Quality


Graphic quality of the image


The human mind is not comfortable with chaos. Visions of reality are more acceptable to us if they follow some kind of order. Human beings are compulsive symmetry seekers, unconsciously attracted to the visual impact of infinitely repeated shapes, which is also where nature, science and mathematics converge. The eye is automatically drawn to the lines, patterns and shapes that visually emerge from a photograph. In our instinctive perception, an apparent visual balance of the shapes and colours in an image are equated, in our collective consciousness, with the presence of harmony and beauty.




Recognisable patterns are abundant in nature and the photographer must consciously seek out these patterns, which the brain perceives as visually pleasant. The point of view of this shot of a flowering cactus was consciously selected so as to capture the perfect geometry of its form viewed from this angle. The overhead positioning of the camera also served to keep all the pink flowers in focus to overcome the challenge of the short depth of field normally available in macro photography.




Silhouettes are produced when the intensity of light falling on the subject is lower than that lighting up the background. This serves to sacrifice the recording of the details of the subject while emphasising the broad contours of its shape. The intricate pattern of the veins in the wings of the dragonfly and its shape become the subject matter of this shot at the expense of the details of its body.




The parallel sections of the grey sky at the top and the black and the mud coloured mountain ranges below it, in this photograph, are sought to be offset by the white and red monastery located near the bottom corner. The effort was to divide the image into clearly demarcated equal layers of different colours, with each layer following the same general shape. The positioning of the monastery ties the whole composition together.




The pink-orange colour of the feathers of this flamingo at rest is quite striking in itself. The viewer’s eye follows the sinuous shape of the neck cradled on its back till it reaches the eye of the bird. The wide open eye breaks the otherwise flowing lines to remind us that this flamingo is wide awake and is watching us.