– Words by Sean McIntyre Photographs by Don Denton
Catherine Babault still recalls the excitement of returning home decades ago to develop the photos from her middle school trip to the United Kingdom. Outfitted with a Kodak 110 instant camera, Catherine joined classmates on a tour to many of the country’s top tourist attractions. Once the rolls of film were processed, her friends’ shots revealed a bucket list of destinations: Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Big Ben.
Catherine’s envelope of pictures was entirely different.
“I had a lot of pictures of a horse in a field,” she says. “Forget about the Queen, it was all about nature.”
She may not have realized it at the time, but that horse represented the seed of a distant and destined career as an independent wildlife photographer. Now comfortably settled in the Comox Valley, Catherine has happily swapped a desk job in the public service to follow her dreams of a life with her lenses and the wild spaces of North America.
Catherine’s passion for photography, exploration and education has evolved into a full-fledged photography business that includes online and in-person workshops, public presentations, freelance as well as stock photography, and the recent publication of her first book of photographs.
Vancouver Island Wildlife: A Photo Journey celebrates an island rich in scenery and species, although it’s the result of photographer Catherine’s patient and respectful approach to her chosen craft. Catherine approaches her work with scientific rigour akin to a biologist, carefully reading over research papers explaining the habits and life cycles of specific species. She pores over maps like a cartographer in search of new areas and access routes. She’s also got the “always prepared” mindset of an adventurer set to head into the wild.
“You have to get up before sunrise, look at the weather report, check the road access, the condition of the roads, and bring a first aid kit,” she says. “Even if it’s only a day, it’s an expedition.”
Of greatest significance, perhaps, is her approach to the animals themselves. Catherine is a strong proponent of ethical photography. According to WildSafeBC, a registered society dedicated to preventing conflicts between humans and wildlife across British Columbia, ethical photography includes not using animal calls or bait to attract animals and always giving animals plenty of space.
Prior to setting out, Catherine ensures the soles of her boots are free of seeds and pathogens that could contaminate the areas she visits. She avoids scents that may distract animals and always approaches as quietly and calmly as possible to avoid stressing her subjects. Staging shots is out of the question.
“No animal gets injured, no environment will be destroyed; that’s how I approach it,” she says. “For some people, it’s all about vanity, getting the picture and having it published. For me it’s about showing the species that we have here and highlighting our responsibility in the sustainable development of our region, as well as its preservation and restoration for future generations.”
Catherine is based in the Comox Valley, but her studio covers wild spaces found predominantly on northern Vancouver Island. Her favourite spots are located anywhere north of Nanaimo to Cape Scott and the west coast of Vancouver Island. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’d even made several trips to Alaska to photograph grizzly bears. After three years of committing full time to photography, however, Catherine has come to appreciate the immense wealth of flora and fauna, and interesting locations in which to photograph them, that can be found within a relatively short drive from her home—although it isn’t uncommon for her to drive three or four hours to reach a particular site.
“When we talk about Vancouver Island, people think Victoria, Tofino, Campbell River, sometimes Port Hardy, and then they think of whales, bears, eagles, sea otters and that’s pretty much it. But there’s more than that, and that’s what I want to get across in my book,” she says. “We have so much diversity that we can sometimes take it for granted. There are a lot of species of special concern in our region as well as endangered species like the Vancouver Island marmot, which locals and visitors might not be aware of.”
Vancouver Island Wildlife: A Photo Journey contains stunning images of bears, eagles and sea otters, yet these are just a sample of the species presented among the book’s 150 full-page colour photos. Images rise from the island’s intertidal zone into alpine meadows framed by snow-covered peaks.
There are diminutive chestnut-backed chickadees, northern red-legged frogs and scurrying crabs, as well as the mesmerizing natural patterns found in the sky, the sea and the leaves. An American mink appears to pose for the camera with a herring in its mouth, a sea lion and seagull swirl around the day’s catch, a Vancouver Island marmot pokes out of the earth to catch the morning sun and an elk feeds a gang of three calves.
After hearing Catherine explain the patience and dedication of her approach to a project, her ability to capture such intimate images is understandable. These images convey a sense of being immersed in nature. It’s as though the viewer is out there waiting with her: waiting and watching for the intimate moment to arrive.
Whereas landscape and wildlife photographers, especially novices, may feel the pressure to rush to get a shot before moving on to the next opportunity, Catherine’s effort to become part of her landscape makes it feel as though the animals have welcomed her into their world. This, in turn, puts the subjects of her photos at ease, a state which serves up those fleeting moments which produce spectacular images.
“I’m fascinated by the natural world. I love being there and being quiet. I get in my bubble with nobody to distract me, and I walk through the forest very quietly, very slowly. I look around, and I start to hear the forest,” she says. “It’s fascinating to see those animals in the natural environment and to have that little moment. It’s sometimes a few minutes, sometimes maybe an hour or more, but it’s always amazing to see.”
More information about Catherine’s photography, workshops and public presentations is available on her website, catherinebabault.com or on Twitter, @catherinebabault.