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04.16.08

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Photograph by Kennan Ward
Just being nosy: A torpid polar bear gives Kennan Ward's camera a sniff.

'Endangered'

Santa Cruz wildlife photographers Kennan and Karen Ward bring a world of exotic sounds and images to the Rio for Earth Day.

By Traci Hukill


When they're not on location photographing wildlife in some of the planet's most spectacular environments, Kennan and Karen Ward pad around a house in Seabright tending to the machinery of a smooth-running business. The never-ending work of drumming up assignments, shepherding books and calendars through production and keeping equipment running (the computers are far more trouble than the cameras) demands almost all their attention when they're in Santa Cruz.

"The temptation when you're home," says Karen, a petite and very upright woman with long hair and a direct gaze, "is to do a lot of office work."

Not this time. Several days before our interview, the couple made a trip to Big Sur to shoot the release of a juvenile condor by the Ventana Wildlife Society. On the way they photographed sea otters, nesting snowy plover and bobcats--and that was before the main event. Their video of chick No. 78 taking off for the first time over the heart-stopping expanse of slope and sea that is the Ventana Wilderness is clear and lifelike, a showcase for the superiority of high-definition video in skilled hands.

It will likely make an appearance this Saturday at the Rio Theatre as part of "Endangered," the Wards' fourth annual benefit for the UCSC Recreation Scholarship Program, which helps underprivileged kids get acquainted with nature. The Wards see Saturday's video/lecture/slide show as part of their mission.

"There are a lot of people telling us the doom and gloom stuff," says Kennan, who's tall and ruddy, with a boyish shock of sun-bleached hair. "You hear something about the polar ice cap melting and you go look it up on Google. What we do is bring the eye candy. We've been there. We have firsthand experience."

Twenty years of squinting through the lens at a shrinking Arctic, at wolves, at translucent tree frogs that no one has observed in the wild since the '50s because they literally moved higher in the cloud forest canopy, has taught Kennan and Karen Ward that global change is happening at a terrific pace.

Their multimedia presentation includes gorgeous, almost 3-D footage of wildlife from all seven continents, as one might expect, but it also includes shots of human cultures that have all but disappeared. Among them are the Watus of Rwanda, decimated by AIDS, war and environmental damage.

"This whole group of people, gone in my lifetime," Kennan says.

But though the subtext may be that the global situation is dire, the Wards are firmly committed to avoiding the "I have a nightmare" message that undermines so many environmentalists. The beauty of their images, by turns soaring and intimate, abets their cause. The landscapes are inspiring, while the close portraits of megafauna, polar bears in particular, are almost personal. This in spite of the fact that, as Karen says, polar bears are "freaky. They look at you as calories right away. You're not safe with a polar bear in range."

"Ever," Kennan adds.

The exception would be unless, like Kennan Ward, you've spent five years in the Arctic, during which time you learned that instead of hibernation, polar bears regularly go into a slowed metabolic state known as torpor. You can walk right up to a torpid bear and photograph it without risk. The proof is a shot of a woozy-looking bear nosing the lens of the camera in Kennan's hands. Moments later he was almost assuredly getting the hell out of there on a ski-doo; torpor only lasts a few minutes.

It's hard to look at these shots and not think Kennan and Karen Ward have the best job in the world. And maybe they do, but it's not without its downsides. Cold, the necessity of waiting motionless for hours for a subject to move, the increased competition from hobbyists with a lot of expensive digital equipment--it all makes for work as stressful as any other. "You're spending $10,000 to go camping," Karen says with a smile.


Movie Times ENDANGERED, a multimedia presentation by Kennan and Karen Ward, shows this Saturday, April 19, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $14-$18, available online at www.ucscrecreation.com, Laser Light (831.685.1366) and Palace Office Supply (831.427.1550 and 831.464.2700).


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