Bora Bora by Starlight
In Capturing Context, we share the story behind the image, providing insight into the photographer's approach and experience, and allowing the reader to connect more deeply with the work.
Finding unique locations to shoot long exposure astrophotography can be a difficult undertaking. Astrophotography takes planning, preparation, and the right location. The perfect setting requires accessibility but without attendant light pollution, and some luck with the weather. In September 2016, though, I found a rare opportunity buried away in the South Pacific Ocean during our honeymoon in French Polynesia. I spent quite a bit of time researching and preparing for this trip, but I would come to discover that there are some things for which you can never prepare.
The trip included time on the islands of Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. Each island has its own personality and beauty, but Bora Bora was the island on which I had planned to focus my astrophotography. My research of the island resulted in numerous exotic photographs of the island’s beaches and resorts but very few astrophotography shots. The shot image I had in my mind represented a chance to do something different in a place featured as the subject of many beautiful images.
On our second night on Bora Bora I set out hiking down the beach, with my camera and tripod propped over my shoulder, to see if I could find any interesting shots within walking distance of our bungalow. It is a surreal experience to explore a foreign place in the dark. I remember the sounds of the palm trees blowing in the breeze and sounds of anchored boats rolling on the waves. I noticed the salt water smell of the lagoon and felt the water lapping at my legs as I stood behind my tripod shooting photographs of the beaches and blowing palm trees.
As I hiked further down the coastline I noticed a large structure quietly looming out into the night sky: a resort abandoned to the elements. I headed straight for it, walking slowly through the dark, abandoned structure with my infrared headlamp illuminating the empty rooms in an eerie red light. The wooden floors were rotting, slick with algae, and creaked underneath my feet. Stars peeked through the vaulted ceiling in the places where the palm frond roof had blown away. It was a thrilling, but scary, experience to explore this abandoned resort and its many structures alone in the middle of the night.
When I finished my explorations, I began working my way back out to the beach to shoot a photo of the front of the resort. I heard a rustle in the underbrush as I walked and then, without further warning, several dogs appeared growling and barking. It was so dark I could hardly see them; they were shadows just a shade darker or lighter than my surroundings weaving around me in a circle, nipping at my sandals. I was alone, in the dark, and surrounded by angry dogs I could hardly see. I yelled back at them and eventually started swinging my tripod and camera around to keep them at bay. Then I remembered I had a headlamp strapped on my head. I reached up, turned on my light, and screamed at the dogs at the same time the beam turned on. To my surprise, all the dogs went yelping off into the night. Taking a deep breath, I set my tripod back up and took one last shot before walking back to our bungalow, a little shaken but also smiling from such an odd and adventurous night. The following morning I showed my wife the abandoned resort – its character much changed from the night before in the tropical breeze and friendly light of day.
Soon afterward, we rented bikes and began a leisurely trip around the circumference of Bora Bora, taking in the island and its mysteries in our own time. As we biked, I kept a close eye out for a very specific shot I had planned long before we landed on the island. The center of Bora Bora is a dormant volcano, called Mount Otemanu, which has a very distinct shape. I hoped to silhouette this unique looking mountain against a blanket of stars. I found the perfect location when we stopped and hiked out to see an old WWII cannon post on a peninsula referred to as The Finger of God. The U.S. government had strategically installed eight 7’ cannons during WWII strategically around the island during the war, when it was a supply base from 1942 – 1946. Two of those cannons were positioned out on the peninsula with a commanding view of the sapphire-colored lagoon. When we returned to our bungalow that evening from our bike ride around the island, I rented a car with the intention of setting back out for another adventure in search of the astrophotography shot I had in my mind.
The drive down the coastal road was peaceful and the hike through the jungle to the old WWII site was quiet, hot, and humid in the dark night. I was dripping with sweat by the time I reached the cannons and the lookout. I set up my tripod, mounted my camera, and waited for windows in the passing clouds to shoot my astrophotography. The silhouette of Mount Otemanu stood out prominently in the starry night as I had hoped. I could feel the history in this location as I looked out on the lagoon and back toward the island, with no hurry, no rush, from one shot to the next. I imagined the young sailors that must have spent so many nights out there contemplating a world at war and keeping an eye out for Japanese planes and ships. As I stood there thinking about the past, I suddenly felt several large things begin to crawl on my sandals and up my legs in the dark of the night.
I turned on my infrared colored headlamp to see several orange slice-sized cockroaches climbing up my legs and covering the ground at my feet. I immediately began dancing around and stomping my feet to get them to fall off. As I looked around the site, I saw that they were everywhere and realized that there was nowhere to go to escape them. I could either hike back to the car and call it a night or make the most of this location. Taking a deep calming breath, I turned my headlamp off and receded back into the dark night. I concentrated on making the most of my time there, stomping my sandaled feet every few minutes to kick off any new hitchhikers.
While I planned to shoot astrophotography in an exotic location like Bora Bora, the last thing I prepared for was dealing with a pack of angry dogs or a small army of cockroaches but I love that it happened. It made my experience on the island that much more memorable as I shot photos of an ocean of stars in the South Pacific and took in the view of Bora Bora by starlight. The memories of those nights resonate with me as I think about the purpose behind the Slow Photography movement and the importance of experiences where you are forced to stop and just take in the moment as your shutter remains open collecting the light.