Meet John Weller, Our Winter Nature Photo Contest Judge

This nature photographer is drawn to pictures that capture a subject’s essence and tell a story.

Weddell seals are year-round residents of the Ross Sea, braving winter storms, extreme temperatures, and months of night. Their survival depends on cracks in the sea ice. The water can be 50°C warmer than winter air, and the seals stay under the ice, surfacing only to breathe. But even the predictable cracks freeze over, so the seals must continually maintain their portals, raking their teeth across the edges to keep the holes from freezing shut. They survive by literally eating their way through the ice. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

Your photos have been pouring into our Winter Nature Photo Contest, which means that nature photographer John Weller has his hands full as our judge. Over the next few weeks, he’ll take a close look at your submissions and pick his top 10 shots, which will move to the final round of voting (along with the audience favorite from the first round of voting, which starts this Friday, February 21st, at 2 p.m. E.T.).

What catches John’s eye? He told SciFri that he’s drawn to pictures that capture something essential about their subject: “Can you reveal the agility of a hummingbird or the intensity of an owl? How about the silence of a snowy forest? Can you make me feel the bone-chilling cold of a winter sunrise? Better yet, can you reveal the polar bear not just as a powerful predator, but as a disappearing species?” John says he likes those last images best, because they tell “an important story in the world.”

The story John’s been telling for the last 10 years is about Antarctica’s Ross Sea. It’s a place he calls “the last ocean” because it remains (as yet) relatively untouched by fisheries. In collaboration with Antarctic ecologist David Ainley, he’s documented the fauna that populate the marine ecosystem. That translates to lots of time spent with one of the Ross Sea’s most photogenic residents: the Adélie Penguin. For John, watching the Adélies transform from “little guys in tuxedos” to “powerful predators” when they hit the water is one of the highlights of shooting down South. (It’s also one of the highlights of his new book of Ross Sea photographs, called The Last Ocean.) But John insists you don’t need exotic wildlife to get a great shot. “Find [a subject] you’re passionate about,” he says. “I’ve started really getting into the spiders in my backyard. I’ve started photographing them.”

  • Sea ice forms every year in Antarctica as temperatures regularly drop to -40°C (-40°F) during a winter that can last six months. The waters around the continent freeze into an unbroken ice sheet up to three meters (nearly 10 feet) thick, effectively doubling the size of the continent. Summer sun, wind, and waves break up the seasonal ice, which floats out to sea. Between the freeze and the melt, the drifting ice forms the basis for one of the largest, richest, and most dynamic ecosystems on earth. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • Nomadic icebergs in the Ross Sea cleave from the Ross Ice Shelf, which floats over the entire southern third of the Sea. The shelf is up to a kilometer (more than a half-mile) thick, and the size of France. In March 2000, the largest iceberg ever recorded—bigger than the country of Luxembourg—broke off. It drifted in the Ross Sea for years until it finally moved north, breaking up as it traveled. As of November 2011, seven pieces of the berg were still floating in the Southern Ocean. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • A flotilla of ice reveals penguin tracks from members of Franklin Island’s western colony of 100,000 Adélie penguins. Changes in the seasonal sea ice affect every member of the Antarctic ecosystem, and those changes are already underway. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • Weddell seals are year-round residents of the Ross Sea, braving winter storms, extreme temperatures, and months of night. Their survival depends on cracks in the sea ice. The water can be 50°C warmer than winter air, and the seals stay under the ice, surfacing only to breathe. But even the predictable cracks freeze over, so the seals must continually maintain their portals, raking their teeth across the edges to keep the holes from freezing shut. They survive by literally eating their way through the ice. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • The water in McMurdo Sound is so cold that changes of a few hundredths of a degree can make it freeze to the rocks. This “anchor ice,” as its called, easily cracks off and floats up, sometimes carrying a helpless urchin or anemone with it to a tomb in the thick sea ice above. Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • When this picture was taken, a long crack in the sea ice had opened just north of Cape Royds, the southernmost penguin colony in the world, exposing open water. “It was boiling with penguins,” writes John Weller in The Last Ocean. “[They] torpedoed in and out of the water in overlapping synchronized waves, with up to 15 birds in the air at a time. I could only imagine what it must have looked like to the krill. The characteristic totter and curiosity were gone, replaced by speed, control, and predatory focus. They gorged.” Caption adapted from The Last Ocean/Photo © John Weller

  • Scientists have identified the Ross Sea as the most intact large marine ecosystem on earth. In October 2014, CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, will discuss the Sea’s future, potentially as a no-take marine protected area, according to Weller. Photo © John Weller

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About Annie Minoff

Annie Minoff is Science Friday’s SciArts producer. She’s visited Olympic ski jumps and a nuclear reactor, all in the name of science.

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