I arrive 20 minutes before the Natural History Museum is due to be open at 10am. I’d tried to visit the day before but, by early afternoon, the queue at the entrance was almost to the gardens and street corner. Yeah nah, not today, I’d said to myself.
So when I arrived early today there was only a few people loitering around the closed door. However, within 5-10 minutes, more and more people gathered and a queue started to form. By five minutes before opening time, attendants began to organise us into an orderly line, again down the side of the building, again stretching almost to the gardens.
Talking to a local, I find out that this is typical for the Natural History Museum. It’s very popular with locals and tourists alike. And it’s not even school holidays yet.
What’s the attraction, I ask. Is there something special on right now? No, she says. It’s the dinosaurs. Kids are fascinated with them, and theres lots of other stuff for the whole family to see and do. It’s always been this popular, she says.
I’m guessing Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park have had a lot to do with creating that popularity over the years.
By 10am we’re herded through bag search and let loose into the ground floor. Some people are rushing this way and that. I’m puzzled as to why. Those dinosaurs have been dead awhile now, folks. They’re sure not going anywhere!
Anyway. I didn’t come to see the dinosaurs. I came to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. That’s what fascinates me at the moment. So I find a museum guide and make my way to the Green Zone, where the exhibition is tucked into a back corner. I pay the £12 entry fee and pick up the souvenir guide for another £8.
The attendant is an ex-pat Kiwi and we take a moment to not-so-quietly share a patriotic cheer for winning the America’s Cup yesterday. She tells me she was watching the final race in a local bar where TVNZ happened to be filming footage for its Breakfast Show. She didn’t realise they were there until her phone blew up with messages from family and friends back home, saying they spotted her in the crowd.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition is a collection of the 2016 finalists. If you appreciate the mental and physical pain that photographers like these go through, just to capture the perfect shot of a parrot grabbing the tail of an iguana as it raids the bird’s nest, then it’s well worth a visit.
The hall is low lit, allowing the rows of backlit photographs to take centre stage. Each one with a short story telling you how the photographer managed to shoot the moment and some educational information about the uniqueness of the animal or scenery captured.
Some of the images are quite visceral. The first of two hyena feasting on the piled carcasses of wildebeest, trampled victims of their yearly desperate drive to get clear of the steep riverbanks and snapping crocodiles, is shocking. Further in, I find the one showing hundreds of curled, dead, endangered pangolin, discovered in the back of a truck heading for China and India, just gut wrenching. Such a disgusting waste. A stark reminder that hyenas are not the only unconscionable predator on this planet.
Most images though, leap off the walls with the vibrancy of life. The startling blue, yellow, and red face of a pelican; the swirl of iridescent blue jelly fish as they reach for sunlight at the ocean’s surface; the wide black eyes of a nocturnal Jaguar captured on a motion-sensor camera as it slinks through the dark alleys of Mumbai; the fanned face of a young male orang-utan as he climbs up a giant fig tree.
But other images are more subtle. The sweet melancholy of a sleeping owl who recently lost its life partner; the giant paws and toothy jaw of a lioness clutching the curled body of a pangolin; the isolation of three arctic hares dotted against a vast blanket of white snow; the face of a tiny frog peeking out of the flowing green swirl of pond slime; the alien-like body of dust-bin jelly fish floating on the glassy sea surface at dusk.
The exhibition gives me a new appreciation of the lengths these passionate people go to, to help us understand how special and vulnerable these creatures and environments are.
Stunning, wouldn’t you agree?