One summer when I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Canadian Rockies. Bits and pieces of that trip return to me as vague memories, but one memory permanently etched in my brain is the color of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. My dad, a very passionate amateur photographer, was frothing with excitement and must have exhausted half his film budget (remember those days?) at Moraine Lake alone. Nevertheless, and despite my dad’s pictures, I couldn’t fully process a world where water could be that color, and for many years after that doubted my memory.
Long before visiting New Zealand I accepted that water really can be that color, but still had few opportunities to view it. Then I started visiting New Zealand, where photographing the lakes and rivers gives me a little déjà vu—it’s just plain disorienting to see water this color.
So what’s going on?
In areas of persistent cold, snow often accumulates faster than it melts. Over many years of accumulating, the snow’s weight compresses it into ice and a glacier is born. A glacier is incredibly heavy; since pressure decreases the freezing point of ice, at the interface between the glacier and the underlying rock (where the pressure of the ice’s weight is greatest), melting ice lubricates the glacier and allows it to move downhill. The glacier’s extreme weight, combined with this forward motion, breaks up the rock. Embedded with rock fragments, the glacier behaves like sandpaper, grinding the rock on which it slides into finer and finer particles. The finest of these particles is called “glacial flour.”
Meltwater from the glacier flows downhill, carrying scoured rock with it. While the larger rock particles simply sink, the glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff. While most of the sunlight striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the suspended particles, the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to turquoise water. The water’s exact hue (whether it appears more green or blue) is determined by the size of the suspended particles, which dictates the relative amount of green and blue wavelengths they scatter.
About this image
After losing two years to COVID, Don Smith and I were thrilled to resume our annual New Zealand winter photo workshop last month. I’ve been home for about a week now and despite (surprisingly mild) jet lag, am slowly making my way through my images. We had so many special moments that it’s hard to decide which one to process next—but I’m not complaining. I chose this one because it stands out as one of the trip’s most unexpected treats.
Our last stop before returning to Queenstown was Twizel, a tiny town near Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park. A couple of days earlier we’d rushed here from Te Anau, hoping to make it up to Tasman Lake ahead of a storm. Our effort was rewarded with a nice Tasman Lake sunset shoot, and though the storm did come in overnight as promised, we even managed to squeeze in a beautiful sunrise at nearby Lake Pukaki before the sky completely opened up.
The rest of that day was wet and gray. Despite the nasty weather, we drove back up to the park that afternoon, but eventually turned around because the farther we drove, the harder it rained. And since we’d logged a lot of miles in the last 9 days, the group didn’t seem mind a little break. Instead of taking pictures, we spend a couple of nice hours sharing images by the fire.
Based on the rain and forecast, on the morning we were to leave for Queenstown we had no reason to expect any quality photography. But we’re photographers, and this was our final full day in what is arguably the most beautiful country in the world, so we headed back up to the national park with no plan except to see what we could find. For the entire 45 minute drive the gray ceiling hid the mountains and showed no sign of lifting. We decided to head for the bridge over the Hooker River and see what happened.
We decided to hang out near the bridge over the Hooker River, and weren’t there long before the clouds started to brighten. Soon patches of blue appeared overhead. A few minutes later rapidly thinning clouds draped Mt. Blackburn and the surrounding peaks, catching the warm rays of the morning sun to create a clearing storm experience that rivaled anything I’ve seen in Yosemite.
We had about 45 minutes of great photography before more clouds smothered the peaks. I photographed from both sides of the river, but my favorite position was in the middle of bridge. This narrow, one-lane bridge had a pedestrian walkway, but it was on the upstream side—to get this shot I had to stand on the bridge with one eye on the scene and the other on the road. At one point a bus approached and I vaulted the rail onto the pedestrian walk, then waited while the bus squeeze by with about 6 inches room on each side.
That morning was a great reminder to each of us that the best photography often happens when you least expect it. We had no reason to believe conditions would improve, but we went out anyway. Many times the conditions never improve and we’re disappointed—as we had been the previous afternoon—but these times when Nature surprises is a more than ample reward for all the prior disappointment.
(Beautiful moments I had no reason to expect)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.