Photojournalist Treks to a Place Few People Ever Will Go

Ian Shive documents wildlife and ecosystems in the Aleutian Islands.

Ian Shive

Ian Shive

Ian Shive went on his latest adventure armed with some serious outerwear, major camera equipment, and a thermometer like the one he uses to check the temperature of his backyard grill.

An award-winning nature photographer and conservationist, Shive joined a team of scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a trek to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to assess the wildlife population and document the health of the ecosystem. 

Located in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea between Siberia and Alaska, the Aleutians are comprised of more than 2,500 rugged islands. Designated as an Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the islands are home to millions of birds and marine mammals in a part of the world that few people will ever see.

The research vessel Tiglax
The research vessel Tiglax. Ian Shive

Shive documented his formidable six-week journey, traveling on the research vessel Tiglax (pronounced TEKH-lah), which means eagle in Aleut. The researchers saw Steller sea lions, tens of thousands of puffins, pods of orcas, and the largest auklet (sea bird) colony in the world.

They were the first to film at the active volcano on the island of Bogoslof, which is home to what they say is one of the largest colonies of northern fur seals on Earth.

Shive shares the highlights of his daring and breathtaking expedition in the documentary “The Last Unknown” which begins streaming March 18 on discovery+. He spoke to Treehugger about the highlights of his trip.

Northern fur seal
Northern fur seal. Ian Shive

Treehugger: You describe the Aleutian Islands as some of the most remote, inaccessible, and wildest places on Earth. Is that what made this adventure appealing to you? Did you have any trepidation?

Ian Shive: I'm absolutely intrigued by wild places. There are so few places left on the map that aren't fully explored down to the finest detail that the idea of going somewhere that isn't completely trampled is super appealing.

That said, the most appealing aspect of this for me is the idea of connecting it to people who may have trepidation about spending days on end in the Bering Sea, because without the visual and visceral connection that photography and film provide, they will have no idea what exists in the Aleutian Islands.

If you don't know what exists in a place, how do you care about it? How do you value it and promote its conservation status? The risks that come with my profession are real, and I accept those, because I think my role is bigger than myself.

departing in skiff
Getting on and off the islands was the most dangerous part of the trip. Ian Shive

What were some of the physical challenges like? You described them as brutal and at points the elements sure looked grueling.

It's tough! It's cold, wet, miserable most of the time and when you aren't warding off a shivering chill, you are trying to keep dinner down while the ship you are on gets tossed around from side to side in the rough Bering Sea.

The greatest physical challenge is moving our gear around, which can weigh as much 400 lbs. Imaging lifting huge cases of expensive camera equipment onto a beach that is fringed by giant boulders covered in slippery kelp. It's a broken ankle waiting to happen!

Getting through these challenges is one thing, but I have newfound respect for the scientists who do this every season, when no camera is there to document these glorious moments. They truly are my heroes. 

At one point during the journey, the captain said the weather would dictate everything you’d do there. How often did that happen during your trip?

All of it. In order of seniority it went Weather-Captain-First Mate-Deckhands-Scientists-Everyone else (including me and the crew). This is an expedition that is truly led by real science and real world situations. We've ruined the word "reality" when it comes to television, but if it ever wanted to make a comeback, this is the show.

Auklets in the Aleutian Islands. Ian Shive

What was it like to watch the largest auklet colony in the world, especially the moment when they let their guard down and the predators noticed?

The auklets, a type of seabird that travels in groups, are absolutely mesmerizing to watch. A lot like the famous sightings of starling murmurations, when they fly they move in this beautiful, synchronized way.

We had spent close to 30 hours sitting in the auklet colonies watching their behavior, and while we had seen a lot of predators watching them (they are hunted by other birds such as bald eagles and glaucous winged gulls), we hadn't seen any actual interactions until this one moment. It was like watching a dogfight between two fighter jets! I'm so glad we caught the whole story on film. 

Bogoslof Island is an extremely active volcano
Bogoslof Island is an extremely active volcano. Ian Shive

How hot is it walking around inside a volcano? Smart planning bringing a thermometer!

Not as hot as you'd think! The air is quite cool and there is usually a breeze so it balances out to a nice comfortable temperature. We were very mindful of where we stepped to be sure we didn't fall through any thermal features.

The thermometer genuinely made me laugh though, because I have that same laser thermometer at home and usually use it while cooking on the grill, so it was pretty wild to play around with it inside the active volcano. 

harem of northern fur seals
A harem of northern fur seals. Ian Shive

What was the most fascinating moment for you or the animal you enjoyed photographing the most?

I was really entertained by the northern fur seals, because they spend most of their life at sea where they are so graceful zipping through the water like torpedoes and traveling thousands of miles away, but on land it is a different story. We observed them on a beach - 140,000 of them too! - where they create territories for mating, and they are a lot less graceful than they are in the water. They sort of bounce around, roll around, and hop, which makes for a really entertaining time. We caught ourselves laughing quite a bit when filming them! 

How does this compare to some of your other nature adventures?

This was unlike anything I have ever done. I've traveled on assignment to over 45 countries, often to some of the wildest and most remote places, but to experience 2,500 protected islands that are so primordial and so really shook my imagination. It also made me realize how important it is to have a protected area like Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, because even though we may not see it everyday, these places are vitally important to the fabric of life and the health of our planet. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to share it with the world. 

How would you sum up what you learned about the health of the ecosystem?

We saw a bit of everything out there. There were signs of healthy and robust seabird and marine mammal colonies, but we also saw some troubling signs that their food supply is in trouble, indicating something is happening in the ocean. The key takeaway from all of this though, is that we can't take one trip and fully understand it. We need long term data sets so that the scientists can analyze the trends. Some years are good, some are bad, but if we see a trend developing in one direction, then we can truly have an accurate reading on the health of the ecosystem.

View Article Sources
  1. "Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge." U.S. Fish & Wildlife (USFWS).

  2. "Sailing for Science." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.