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In the wild: Panther captures stunning photos of nature

In the wild: Panther captures stunning photos of nature

Alumna Kirsten Hines' photography takes us on a journey into nature. As we prepare to celebrate Nature Photography Day on June 15, go behind the scenes with various Panther photographers who share the beauty of wildlife with us all.

June 11, 2024 at 11:03am

Nature Photography Day is June 15. To celebrate, FIU News sat down with just a few of the Panthers who love wildlife so much that they're using photography to share the wonders of the natural world with everyone.

In this piece, we feature alumna Kirsten Hines MS '02, who travels around the globe to photograph some of the most amazing animals on the planet. Tune into FIU News this week to read the entire series, spotlighting various Panther photographers and the stories behind some of their favorite photos. Nature Photography Day is designated by the North American Nature Photography Association and is meant to promote an appreciation of nature photography and the role photography plays in helping people learn about wildlife. 

Kirsten Hines MS ’02 can’t imagine a life far away from nature. She is a wildlife photographer searching for beauty, a biology alumna who appreciates the science behind natural phenomena, and, perhaps most importantly, a human who ardently desires to remain connected to her environment.

“Nature has always been my passion, my safe place, my calm,” she says. “It’s where I draw inspiration.”

With a camera gifted to her by FIU classmates and armed with the knowledge she learned while earning her biology degree at the university, Hines set out on an adventure to explore the world 10 years ago.

She hiked the mountains of New Zealand, lived in Australia, taught English in China and worked on a boat in the Bahamas. With her camera by her side, Hines began to realize her calling.

Today, Hines is a nature photographer-writer who has authored or co-authored eight books, including the award-winning “Wild Florida: An Animal Odyssey,” which was recently published.

Hines has continued traveling around the world, capturing the wonders of nature. She has photographed gazelles in Dubai, zebras in Tanzania, seals in Antarctica, birds in Costa Rica, an elusive panther (and her cubs) in Florida, and many more animals across the globe.

She gave us a look behind the scenes of some of her favorite photos.

The ultimate faceoff

Yes, this really happened. 

In the wintry wilds of northern Manitoba, Canada, a young polar bear and an alpha male wolf stared each other down. Hines (with her camera!), her husband and a group of co-travelers on a walking tour to see polar bears, watched nearby. They were mystified.

“The polar bear walks out as this pack of wolves is crossing the area,” Hines recalls. “Most of the wolves keep going, but this is the alpha male. They face off, turn around and size each other up.”

What ensued later that day was a series of exchanges that involved multiple polar bears and wolves chasing each other through the woods. The final showdown took place right in front of the humans’ eyes. The alpha wolf, who was being chased by a large polar bear, decided to play a wild card.

“The alpha wolf comes running to us, and now the polar bear is coming to us, too,” Hines recalls. “The wolf came so near to us that if we had stretched out our arms, we would have been able to pet him. And then as the polar started getting near, the guide started shouting, telling him to go away.”

The polar bear was confused and intimidated by the group of humans (all standing in a line to appear like one big animal) telling him to leave.

“So the polar bear stops, and the wolf saunters on and then looks back with this snicker on his face,” Hines says. “He had to know that the guide would let him get near us, but not the polar bear.”

That’s the story of how the "Arctic faceoff" photo got its name.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Hines

The cuteness factor

Is it a praire dog? A pika? A ground squirrel?

With a stoutly built body and rounded ears, this rock hyrax may just be one of the most adorable animals you've ever seen. Native to Africa and the Middle East, rock hyrax live in areas that feature rock crevices that allow them to hide from predators. 

Hines took this photo in Tanzania as part of her series, "Faces of Nature." The series features close-up photos of a wide variety of animals including a penguin, lion, racoon, giraffe, iguana and crocodile. 

"Faces of Nature is a way to connect people who are not connected to nature," Hines says. And it isn't just about capturing the cutest animals, Hines says.

"A lot of people are terrified of animals like iguanas and other lizards," she says. "I really wanted to bring all these animals up close and personal in a way that people can connect with their personalities. It’s a matter of trying to capture that through the camera."

The secret behind the smile

Pygmy sloths are only found in one place in the world: Escudo de Veraguas, a small island off the coast of Panama.

That's where Hines traveled to get her photos of the little sloths, which are only about 19-21 inches tall. But the task wasn't easy. Every time her tour guide — a knowledgeable boatman — pointed out a sloth, it was so far away that it looked like a tiny brown dot way up in the trees. Hines wasn't sure she'd be able to get a photo.

Then, the boatman signaled out this little sloth, nestled in a tree right by the boat’s bow. But the sloth’s face was buried in his arms as he slept.

To catch the sloth's attention, the boatman whistled. “Instantaneously, this guy looks up,” Hines recalls. “It was really fast for a sloth.”

Hines took the photo. Then she asked the boatman why the whistle had created such an immediate reaction in the sloth.

Simple. It was the sloth’s mating call.

“I guess this little guy was expecting someone other than me when he heard that whistle,” Hines recalls.

Mama bear

When Hines began working on her latest book, "Wild Florida: An Animal Odyssey," she created a list of Florida animals she needed to photograph.

"The bears ended up being my biggest challenge," she says. "I couldn't have a Florida wildlife book without a Florida bear."

She camped out at Ocala National Forest right where bears had been spotted, but they never came back. She staked out the homes of folks who regularly saw bears in their front yards loitering about for days at a time. The bears never showed. 

"There is 'no-scent' spray that hunters use. It smells horrible, but I dowsed myself in the stuff, dressed in camo and waited for hours. And nothing. I was starting to take this personally. "

After a couple of years, Hines eventually photographed eight bears in 24 hours. She later photographed this mama bear with her cubs. The experience reminded her of the power of perseverance.

"What was also amazing to me about the bear story," says Hines, "is that at this time when we need to invite nature back into the cities, people are proving they can coexist even with such a big predator. The bears really exemplified this. I photographed them near people's homes, where the residents happily share their yards with the bears and are thrilled to have them there." 

She adds that part of the reason she's able to take these photos, goes back to her FIU education, which trained her as a biologist and taught her to track and research wildlife. "That is what I rely on to get my photographs. It’s very important to me that I don’t disturb the animals. Being able to read them, being quiet and sneaky and respectful of them, it's so important."

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Hines

A headdress for the heron

Some of us get our hair done before a special date. Agami herons? Well, they get a whole new set of feathers around their heads. 

The agami heron pictured above is sporting special “breeding plumage” — the long white head feathers — and the crimson-pink color of its face. As it turns out, these features are temporary assets that help these birds find a mate. “After breeding, those really long plumes get broken off, and the face goes back to a yellow color," Hines says.

The species is considered rare and is found in areas of Central and South America. Hines ventured to a protected breeding rookery in Costa Rica to assist with a study of the species' nesting ecology. 

In 2016, the National Audubon Society touted Hines as the first person to photograph the agami herons' full mating ritual. Her photos provided a wealth of previously unknown information about the elusive birds. 

Most of us will never see this bird in person and much less witness its special look for finding a mate. But thanks to Hines, the moment is captured for us all.