7 times I thought I was going to die for a photo

I’VE USED MY CAMERA to climb collapsing mud banks, and I’ve gently pushed sharks away from me with it, but it’s wrong to think of a camera as some form of protection. Photojournalists and adventure photographers often find themselves being drawn in to more dangerous situations while looking for that “perfect” shot. We’re like the proverbial ostrich with our head in the sand. Thinking we are safe and hidden, while in fact we are fully exposed. There have been a number of times I’ve made near fatal mistakes in the process of taking an image, and sometimes I did nothing wrong — I just was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I pride myself on being a safety-conscious individual, but I’m also not risk averse. Sometimes you have to weigh the probability of disaster against your fear, and make a choice based on that.


Too close an encounter with a crocodile

I’ve spent a lot of time working in Costa Rica; the oceans, jungles, and beaches are a mecca for photographers and storytellers. I’ve run into jaguar, sharks, poisonous bugs, and venomous snakes, but none of them have ever left me with the unease that a crocodile gives me. It all began when I was climbing down a mud river bank to photograph a crocodile that had caught a horse and dragged it into the river. I stopped on a large boulder about 20 feet above the crocodile, and it submerged itself until it was just hidden from view. I stood there waiting for the croc to resurface, and the ground dropped out from under me. The boulder had cut loose, and I was sliding head first down the riverbank. The croc, an opportunist, rose back up out of the water and opened it’s mouth, ready to receive its appetizer. The only thing that saved me was that tumbling boulder, the size of a coffee table. It actually bounced over me, leaving me with only a scratch, and landed in the water right in front of the croc. It was enough to scare it off, but I wasn’t going to hang out. My new camera became a climbing tool as I used it for purchase in the muddy riverbank, and climbed to safety.


Elephant seals aren’t as slow as they look

Walking along the beach at Año Nuevo, a surf spot north of Santa Cruz, I came across a huge bull elephant seal that had arrived early to stake his territory. They are the size of a Volkswagen, and weigh up to 8,800 pounds. They don’t elicit much fear while they are on land though, as they take the form of a giant slug trying to bellyflop up the beach. I walked right up to the seal, took a few photos, and then backed off a safe distance to see if I got any interesting photos. As I looked at the LCD screen on my camera, I saw an enormous shape in the reflection, rising up behind me. Elephant seals fight by body slamming each other, they raise themselves up 8 feet tall and bring their full body weight down on their foe. I only had time to roll to the side as the beast crashed down where I was only a moment before. I crawled backwards on my hands, kicking with my feet as he continued to charge. I admit it, I screamed at the top of my lungs as he repeatedly brought his weight down into the sand only inches from my feet. This slow “slug-like” animal could move and he was gaining on me. At last, he stopped, and I swear he was smirking at me as I rolled back over and sprinted away.


Crocodile attack while shooting sharks

I was in Corcovado National Park shooting a story for National Geographic on bull sharks swimming up into fresh water rivers. I’m very comfortable with sharks, but this murky water was also home to crocodiles. I’d already had my first run in with a croc years before, so I had two people watching the river around me for any sign of them. At one point, all of the sharks disappeared, and I pulled my head up out of the water to ask if anyone saw where they went. Just then, my camera moved in my hands. A huge crocodile had snatched it, grabbing between my hands on the underwater housing. My first reaction was to try and take a photo of the inside of it’s mouth, at which I failed because one of my guides had already grabbed me and started to drag me back into the boat. After that I made a boom pole, and mounted the camera in a way that allowed me to shoot from the boat!


Disturbing mountain lions' kill

Around my house in Colorado, there are mountain lion sightings regularly. They are elusive creatures, only being seen when they choose to let you see them, but they have little to fear from people in this area. My brother Jesse had found a lion kill about 6 miles up a trail near our house, and I had just purchased a camera trap that would take photos of anything that walked past it. We hiked up to the kill, and rigged the camera up next to the kill, planning to return in a week, hopefully catching a shot of the lion. We casually set it all up, and began our walk back in the dark. Not long after we turned back, our headlamps started to pick up two pairs of eyes off in the woods, following us down the trail. The lions did not like that we had messed with their kill. For the entire six-mile hike, those eyes stayed with us. Sometimes, we would see them ahead of us, just off the trail, and other times, we’d turn around and see them behind us. It was incredibly spooky, and had the lions actually wanted us, we would have been theirs.


Toe to toe with an elephant

I was in Africa a number of years ago, guiding a safari for a group of clients with the TED Conference. We’d come to a place where we could see elephants off in the distance so I climbed up on top of the hood of the land rover for a better view and began to take pictures. It seemed like the elephant came out of nowhere. It had been right next to us and we’d never noticed that it was there. It walked out of the bushes, and straight up to me. Elephants can be incredibly dangerous, and are easily provoked. Its body language was not aggressive, but I didn’t dare move a muscle. Everybody was telling me to get back in the car, but I thought it better to hold my ground. The elephant stopped at the hood of the car, looked me up and down, and then wandered back off into the brush. After it left, I began to breathe again.


Caught in a shark's feeding frenzy

White tip reef sharks are like the puppy dogs of sharks. They only get about 5 feet long, and they don’t have that “sharky” look. They spend most days laying in the sand under a rock somewhere. At night though, that all changes. It’s feeding time for them, and they swarm the reef looking for prey. I was on Cocos Island, shooting a story on sharks, so I went out to photograph the nightly frenzy of about 300 sharks that happened in a nearby bay. The sharks are constantly looking down into the crevices of the reef, so as long as you stay a good distance above them you are safe. A few people had gone with me, but they’d returned to the boat. I stayed to try and get a better shot than anything I’d gotten so far. I followed the sharks down along the base of a reef, and stopped to check my photos. Just then, a second group of sharks came from above the reef, and I was sandwiched between the two schools. One of them latched onto my foot and began to vigorously shake its body. The other sharks, all tuned in to the fact that this one had found something turned on me as well. I kicked that poor misguided shark in the face as hard as I could until it would let go, pushed a few others away with my camera, and returned to the surface as quick as I could. The shark had mistaken my foot in the dive fin for a ray, one of the species that white tips prey on. Had it known I was not a ray it would most likely have left me alone. This was entirely my fault, and hasn’t changed my opinion of sharks in any way.


Sometimes it's the smallest things that are dangerous

When i was doing my work on Cocos Island photographing sharks, I’d swim out a mile or so every day to find the big schools of hammerheads. It was a lot of work, and it could be very intimidating swimming in open water with no view of what’s around you. Sharks are not the terrifying aggressive animals that we have reputed them to be though, so I got fairly used to it. The thing that actually nearly killed me was much less intimidating. I’d gotten blisters on my feet from all the swimming in dive fins, and while walking back across the beach to camp, a tiny ant bit me right on one of those blisters. Within a day, my foot had swollen up the size of a football, and the infection was moving up my leg. It took me a full week to catch a two-day boat ride back to the mainland, and by the time I got there the infection had gone systemic. I was violently ill, and went to one of the worst hospitals in the country to see if they could help. They offered to take my leg off for me, suggesting that it was the “only way” to keep the infection from spreading more, and that still it could kill me. I insisted that they just clean it up, and I’d catch a flight back to the US the next day. The doctor began to operate, and sliced my foot open to take out the gangrene that had developed. This is also when I learned that this hospital had no anesthesia to help with the pain. When I got back to the US, I went straight to the doctor and got on antibiotics. The doctors said that the Costa Rican doctor had done a good job, it looked like it was how we would have done it in World War II, but it was a good job none the less.


I’m an author and journalist who has written for Scientific American, Outside Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, National Public Radio, Surfer's Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and more.

I’ve spent the last several years working on a book called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. It released through Riverhead/Penguin Random House on May 26, 2020 and was an instant New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times, Sunday London Times Top 10 bestseller. Breath will be translated into 30 languages in 2021.

The tome explores the million-year-long history of how the human species has lost the ability to breathe properly and why we’re suffering from a laundry list of maladies—snoring, sleep apnea, asthma, autoimmune disease, allergies—because of it. I ended up traveling the world in an attempt to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The answers, I discovered, weren’t found in pulmonology labs but in the muddy digs of ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, New Jersey choir schools, and the smoggy streets of Sao Paulo. Drawing on thousands of years of medical texts and recent cutting-edge studies in pulmonology, psychology, biochemistry, and human physiology, Breath turns the conventional wisdom of what we thought we knew about our most basic biological function on its head.

My first narrative nonfiction book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What The Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was released in the United States and UK in June 2014. DEEP was a BBC Book of the Week, a Finalist for the PEN American Center Best Sports Book of the Year, an Amazon Best Science Book of 2014, BuzzFeed 19 Best Nonfiction Books of 2014, ArtForum Top 10 Book of 2014, New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, Scientific American Recommended Read, Christian Science Monitor Editor’s Pick, and more. The book follows clans of extreme athletes, adventurers, and scientists as they plumb the limits of the ocean's depths and uncover weird and wondrous new discoveries that, in many cases, redefine our understanding of the ocean and ourselves. DEEP has been translated into French, German, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and more.

Along the way, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at Stanford Medical School, Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, the United Nations, UBS, Global Classroom (World Health Organization+UNICEF), as well as more than 40 radio and television shows, including Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the Joe Rogan Show, BulletProof, ABC’s Nightline, CBS Morning News, and dozens of NPR programs.

On April 16, 2016, The New York Times and Sundance Institute debuted “The Click Effect,” a Virtual Reality short documentary I created with Sandy Smolan. The film, produced by Annapurna Pictures with support from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, was based on a chapter in DEEP. “The Click Effect" became one of the most viewed VR films to date, with over one million views. In September 2017, "The Click Effect" was nominated for an Emmy Award for Best VR Experience.

In 2017, I began working with National Geographic Explorer and marine scientist, David Gruber, to try to find a way to try to understand cetacean communication. Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) was soon after launched. It’s a nonprofit research group that develops and employs technologies such as machine learning and Artificial Intelligence in the hopes of one day cracking interspecies communication. Project CETI was accepted as a TED Audacious Project in June 2020.

When I was younger, and stupider, I wrote a little coffee table book culled from notes on meditation and other ancient/hippy practices discovered in the crawlspace of my uncle’s retro-mod bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills. (The book combined medical science with humor and illustrations and was given a lame name by my editor, which I soon after—and still—very much regret.) Along the way I joined a doomed surfing expedition to Norway and Russia for Outside Magazine in 2009, in which I joined a cadre of kooks to ride some mysto breaks in the Arctic Circle. I lived for a short time with Vanuatuan yam farmers who worshipped the US Army.

At home in San Francisco, I run my 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300D on used cooking oil whenever I can and used to zip around town (correction: breakdown all over town) in a Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar, the first-ever American-made production electric vehicle, which barely ever worked and was soon after offloaded on some dude with purple suspenders in Eugene, Oregon.

Bar-Tailed Godwit

Though their migration is a long one, layovers aren’t part of the bar-tailed godwit’s flight plan. “They will try to do the entire journey in one leg without stopping,” Davis says. “So it’s literally fly or die for them.”

The migration is the longest nonstop flight of any known bird—an incredible 7,000 miles. In spring in the Northern Hemisphere the birds leave New Zealand for an eight- to nine-day journey to the food-rich mudflats of the Yellow Sea off the coasts of China and Korea. The layover in Asia is the birds’ only respite before finishing the flight with a 3,700-mile leg to their summer breeding grounds in the Yukon and Alaska. In autumn they fly the route in reverse.

How do these godwits pull it off? “They have to put on so much fat that they become like butterballs at the stopovers,” Davis says. “It’s pretty crazy to think that you’re adding 50 percent of your body weight and then going on this marathon journey. But if you’re not going to stop on the way, then you’d better take it with you.”

Traveling During Chinese New Year in Taiwan 2021

Dear reader: This article contains links to products and services that I may be compensated for, at no extra cost to you.

If you’re planning a trip to Taiwan during Chinese New Year, whether you did it intentionally or by accident, there are some things you should know to help you have a smoother trip. Some people feel strongly that Lunar New Year is NOT the best time to visit Taiwan. Moreover, despite being called the “Spring Festival”, it actually takes places in the middle of winter in Taiwan, a time that can be chilly and damp, especially in Taipei.

Lunar New Year in Taiwan is the country’s most important holiday for locals, but the festival doesn’t offer much for visitors to enjoy, unlike some other countries in East Asia where the holiday is celebrated with parades and other events. In the past, Taipei practically became a ghost town during Chinese New Year. Public transportation still runs on holiday hours, but almost all restaurants and shops close. Moreover, the country’s highways, hotels, and attractions become overrun with domestic tourists on certain days.

However, things are changing. More and more of Taipei’s attractions, which I’ll cover below, are remaining open through the holiday. It’s still feasible to plan a trip around Taiwan and avoid the worst of the crowds using the tips I’ll provide. On the plus side, the weather during Chinese New Year is perfect for visiting these amazing hot springs, and depending on the dates, you may be able to catch some cherry blossoms! Therefore, Chinese New Year isn’t necessarily the worst time to visit Taipei.

2021 Update: Note that tourists are not currently permitted to enter Taiwan. In mid-January, the government announced that the 2021 Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival and Taipei Lantern Festival will be postponed this year, while the national lantern festival in Hsinchu has been cancelled.

In this article, I’m going to cover all the special activities coming before, during, and after Chinese New Year in Taiwan, including the popular Lantern Festivals two weeks into the New Year. I’ll also discuss things to do during Chinese New Year in Taipei and other cities, how to plan a trip to Taiwan during Lunar New Year, and exactly which days you should avoid traveling in Taiwan during the Spring Festival.

If you’re in the middle of planning your trip to Taiwan, see my recommended Taipei itinerary, best day trips from Taipei, Taiwan itinerary, and where to stay in Taipei.

Use this link to sign up for Klook and get discounts on travel activities in Taiwan. You may also want to consider getting a Taipei Unlimited Fun Pass.

Chinese New Year vs Lunar New Year

When speaking English, most people in Taiwan refer to the holiday as “Chinese New Year,” but some, especially non-locals in Taiwan, prefer the more inclusive “Lunar New Year,” because many countries and nationalities celebrate this holiday, not to mention that Taiwan is not a part of China.

In Mandarin, the holiday is called Spring Festival (chun jie/春節) or guo nian (過年). I use all these terms in this article, but especially “Chinese New Year” simply because that is what most people in Taiwan, including my Taiwanese family members, say.

Anytime around the holiday, you can say Happy New Year (xin nian kuai le/新年快樂) or Wishing You Prosperity (gong xi fa cai/恭喜發財) to locals and they will love it!

Thank you!

Pilots in Pajamas was shown on East German television in early 1968, at which point the broadcast was picked up by U.S. military monitoring of the Communist nation’s propaganda. Toward the end of one of the segments, there was Dewey Wayne Waddell, his eyes flicking up to the meet the camera, just as he had planned.

“Well this thing that showed up turned out to be exactly what I’d hoped for,” he recalls. “When [the Air Force] saw that, they pulled off several stills and sent them to my family, who identified me of course. So that’s what changed my status from MIA to POW.”

Waddell was released on March 4, 1973. But the story of the photograph doesn’t end there.

Years later, at a cartoon and photography convention, a friend of Waddell’s happened to meet the son of one of the German photographers, Thomas Billhardt, the man with the still camera. Later, on a visit to Berlin, that friend went to see Billhardt’s work — and there, hanging on the wall, was a picture of Wayne Waddell, taken the day of the Pilots in Pajamas filming. The friend arranged for the former prisoner and the photographer to connect. They met in Berlin in the late 1990s at a “nice little session” that was recorded for local television and the newspaper and, upon leaving, Waddell’s wife asked to purchase the picture to take home.

A few years later, Waddell was interviewed once again about his experience, this time for a piece in the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine about graduates who had been prisoners of war. The magazine ended up using that photograph on the cover, it also subsequently made the cover of a book about the POW experience. (It was at that point that Waddell discovered that he had been “reidentified” at some point along the way. In the caption information that travels with the photograph he is listed as “Pewey” Waddell.)

In recent decades, Waddell has returned to Vietnam several times, the first time in 1994 with his wife and children. Though he says he was apprehensive as their plane neared Hanoi — it “brought back memories of high-speed run ins on bombing runs,” he says — he has fond memories of the place from later trips. He has noticed the spread of capitalism and of the English language, and found the people he met friendly and accommodating.

During a visit to the Hanoi prison, when one of the Vietnamese officers present asked him what he had been thinking when he’d been there as a prisoner, Waddell responded that he’d been thinking “I sure would like to get out of here.” His hosts, he says, thought that was funny.

And now, a half-century after that photograph was taken, Waddell says he’s “intrigued” to see the nation’s eyes turn to Vietnam as a piece of history, as the subject of a documentary rather than daily news.

“That’s an interesting thing for me, that I’ve pondered a few times. The way I’ve described it, it’s like a movie that I saw, except I was in it,” he says. “As a matter of fact, it seemed I had a starring role.”

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