Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Year Ago Today: Giant Cigar Orchid with the Milky Way

A year ago, on this date, I set off with three of my children, Emily, Isaac, and Kenny to attempt an ambitious undertaking deep in the Everglades.

Left to Right: Emily, Kenny, Isaac, and myself.

Earlier that week, the news came in from other nature photographers that the Giant Cigar Orchid deep in the Everlgades was in full, spectacular bloom again--a little early this particular year.  I had visited this magnificent specimen with several of my children on quite a few occasions (almost yearly since we were made aware of it).  

Daughters Sarah (left) and Hannah (Right) showing the scale of this monstrous plant.

It has been photographed many times by many people, and one particularly intriguing photo was taken by one Stephen Shelley in 2015 with the Milky Way behind it.

It was my ambition to duplicate his photograph.

I had discussed this possibility with my wife, Joy, and she admitted that while Mr. Shelley's photograph was stunning, the thought of going out into the wild at night seemed just this side of completely nuts.  The 2016 blooming of this orchid came and went, with kids very busy with their college studies, and I was not able to catch up with this orchid at all that particular year, day or night.

So, with the 2017 blooming underway, Joy and I discussed this idea again.  I made the argument to her that this orchid, blooming in the middle of a salt marsh attached to a dead buttonwood tree stump, might not always be there...a good, strong storm or just the process of decay could cause the stump to break and plunge the orchid into the salt marsh below. We could never be certain when its last blooming ever might be.

This argument was persuasive enough, and she was fully on board, if still a bit nervous about the trip--I did assure her that most larger fauna tended to avoid this area.  The process of preparing for this trip was time-consuming and expensive.  We decided to take as many of my teenagers as possible, which required purchasing food, water, mosquito-mesh clothing, flashlights, bug repellent, some camping chairs to sit through the night...the list was extensive.  One thing that Joy thoughtfully purchased for us was a lightweight, easy-set-up tent for 4 that could give us some shelter from the mosquitoes for awhile.

The mosquitoes at this part of the park are usually not very plentiful in spring, but this year, they came early.  Later in the summer is usually when they become plentiful--maddeningly fast, small and abundant--the salt marsh mosquitoes there are the stuff of legend. 

Looking at the weather and tracking the stars in my phone app, it seemed that Saturday, March 18 was the best day to drive down, staying through the next Sunday morning.  I did have one grave concern: the moon would be around half full and centered in a portion of the galaxy, presenting a risk of washing out everything but the brightest of stars.  The brightest part of the galaxy would be up around 5 am

With the car packed to the brim with gear of all kinds, we set off with the goal of reaching the Cigar Orchid an hour or two before sunset.  We arrived at the park entrance in the early afternoon.

At the park entrance.

It then involved a drive to the other end of the park, parking, suiting up in our mosquito gear, and then hiking to where the orchid flowered.  Upon arrival at the other end of the park, we immediately regretted not already having donned our mosquito gear.   Each of us easily endured dozens of bites before we managed to get suited up.  Even fully suited, the mosquitoes managed to find parts where the cloth came close to our skin, biting us mercilessly on our hike out.

We arrived at the Cigar Orchid just in time to set up before sunset.  Another individual was there from Fairchild Gardens--he was hoping to get some star trail photographs later that night, but the half-clouded sky caused him to leave to return some other day.  This same sky made for some very dramatic sunset shots.

Cigar Orchid at Sunset.

Once the sun was fully set, we opened up our camping chairs, lit an Off brand citronella candle in a metal bucket (which proved entirely useless in repelling mosquitoes) and settled in for the long wait until galaxy rise early the next morning.

Sitting in our chairs, illuminated by candlelight.

As the night progressed, I set up the camera and fired a few test shots.  The clouds were still lingering, causing me a bit of consternation.

After a while, the mosquitoes became even more maddening and we decided to use the pop-up tent as a mosquito shelter. So, we put out the candle and set it up, leaving off the top rain flap so we could have a clear view of the sky through the mesh.  We could also see the massive Cigar Orchid just outside through the mesh as well, our constant companion through the night.  "Hello, you big, beautiful orchid!" escape my lips more than once as I shone my flashlight through the mesh and illuminated its cloud of saffron and crimson flowers.

Eventually the clouds cleared, revealing one of the most beautiful dark, starlit skies through the top mesh of our tent. Little did we know, but the Anthelion meteor shower was at maximum, giving us quite a show as each of us spotted at least nine or 10 meteors over the course of the next few hours through the top mesh of our tent.

The tent certainly provided welcome relief from the mosquitoes.  We hunted down any strays that had gotten in and settled in for the few hours until picture time.  Many cell phone alarms were set for around 4:30 AM just in case we dozed off.  It was not necessary--I took several light catnaps, noticing that the half moon was starting to shine into our tent.  I was vigilant to any noise on that calm night, although large mammals and crocodilians don't really venture into this area much.  We heard a few stirrings in the night, but nothing came near our tent.

4:30 AM came to a chorus of alarms.  The morning had become quite cold, with temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit.  I went out to check on the camera, which had become bedewed in the cold morning air.  I wiped it down and fired a few test shots and made some adjustments.  A few more shots and I realized that these pictures were going to be quite special--the moon was not entirely washing out the galaxy, but providing enough illumination for the scene without the need to try any "light painting".  I recomposed the shot vertically to include the half moon, the galaxy, and the orchid illuminated only by moonlight.

Here are some of the raw images from that night.

15 second exposure.

30 second exposure.

The result, when several shots of different exposures were combined together was nothing short of magical...a seemingly otherworldly scene, but entirely of this earth.  In this scene, the orchid is only about fifteen feet away, the treeline another 300 feet away, the moon some 250,000 miles away, and the stars making up the Milky Way--dozens to thousands of light years away:

Cigar Orchid by Moon (and Galaxy) light.

Inspired by our ethereal companion from earlier, I decided to set up the camera on the opposite side of the plant and try to get some star trails.  Thankfully, my camera had the ability to work with a remote app on my phone via wi-fi, so with my hand bundled well in mosquito mesh, I held the bulb button down on my phone for 15 minutes at a time.  We did this until dawn, capturing a few more magical photographs:

Cigar Orchid with star trails.

As dawn approached, we packed up all of our supplies and started to make our way back, first illuminated by flashlight, but by increasing daylight as we approached the edge of the marsh and our parked car.  We piled in and slaughtered any stray mosquitoes that made it into the car as we made our way home.

These photographs have indeed proven to be something special, winning several photography contests over the past year.

Sadly, Hurricane Irma felled this orchid, plunging most of it into the flooded salt marsh below.  A naturalist managed to rescue a few living pieces of it, transplanting those into living trees in the hammock nearby, where, hopefully, they will take root and live on.  This, magnificent specimen in all its glory in the middle of an open marsh, however, is now lost to the ravages of nature and time.  I never realized how prophetic my argument would be that this orchid might not always be with us.

Yet, we will always remember it, and that day, one year ago, when we set out on one of the most ambitious photography excursions of our lives.

Prints of these award-winning photographs are available in a variety of formats, from matted photos at $15 to $25 per print to gallery-wrapped canvases at $60 per print to prints on metal (inquire about metal print pricing).  You should see the galaxy image on metal hanging in our home - it is truly stunning.  Contact me at to inquire about ordering prints.  Proceeds from these sales help support the Florida Native Orchids web site and fund more photography excursions such as this one.

See more photos of this species here:

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...