For Photographer Bob Talbot, the Perfect Whale's Tale Is No Fluke

updated 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1990 01:00AM

Lots of people get caught up in their work; photographer Bob Talbot nearly died from it. In 1985, cruising off southern California, he heard a radio report from a fishing vessel of an adult gray whale entangled nearby in a gill net. Rushing to the scene, Talbot went overboard in scuba gear to photograph and assist in the rescue. But the frightened whale suddenly shook its head and draped the netting around Talbot as well, pinning him against the thrashing leviathan.

"When the whale surfaced for a blow, I yelled for help," he recalls. "I slipped free of my air tank, but my right leg was still enmeshed. The whale began to dive. A companion, Chuck Mitchell, dove below me and cut me free." The whale was last seen swimming off trailing air tank, swim fin and its shroud of net.

That experience was his closest calk says Talbot, 31, who is acknowledged as an expert in his specialty: photographing marine life in the wild. His best work—often of whales, dolphins and seals shot underwater—is turned into art posters; last year gift shops across the country sold more than 300,000 at $25 and up. Half artist, half ecologist, he often donates his talents to environmental causes. His 1988 poster of a baby harp seal, for example, bears a pointed caption claiming that harp seals are still being slaughtered despite several fur-trade restrictions enacted in recent years, and a portion of the proceeds from the poster is donated to the International Wildlife Coalition.

Born in New York and reared in California, Talbot learned to snorkel at 8 and went on his first whale watch at 14. "For months after, I would lie awake at night wondering about whales," he says. "What other creatures did they meet below, what submerged valleys and peaks did they glide past? The whales' world became one of magic and wonder to me."

A high school teacher pointed Talbot toward photography, and a postgraduation trip to Puget Sound to capture killer whales on film launched a globe-trotting career, including stints with Jacques Cousteau. Now, with plans for documentary videos and picture books in the works, Talbot travels nine months each year, leaving him little time to spend at the home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., that he shares with live-in housemate Debbie Peterson, 27.

The financial independence of a six-figure income allows Talbot to work slowly, following the rhythms and habits of his subjects. "After all the years we've spent out in the cold, rocking in our little boats, we've learned to tell if a whale is going down for a deep dive or just ducking under for a couple of minutes," he says. Sometimes, he adds, familiarity breeds an eerie prescience. "I've actually previsualized some of my best shots," says Talbot. "God, it's great when that's exactly what shows up in front of my lens."

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