Wanderlust Travel Photographer of the Year

It's been a while since I have put a blog up, and have been very busy looking after expeditions around the world. One of the trips I led was for a film crew to document the worst human made environmental disaster, which is the loss of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, which used to the fourth biggest inland lake. Due to the Russians diverting the rivers that fed into it to make irrigation canals. These were used to deliver water to cotton crops which are very water intensive, but to compound the problem, 95% was lost to evaporation into the desert. 

The rivers stopped flowing into the lake and so it started to shrink. As the water levels dropped, plants died, increasing desertification, lack of tress meant wind speeds increased and this enhanced the evaporation of the water. Salinity levels increased and this killed off any fish. The lake used to be a tourist destination and also employed thousands in the fishing community. Now the lake is only 10% of the original size, water salinity levels are 12% with no wildlife apart from brine shrimp and health problems went up as the dust that was created caused many problems such as tuberculosis. 

In Kazakhstan the Government dammed off part of the sea and the northern section is now increasing in size again with a few signs of life coming back as the water salinity drops, but in Uzbekistan, Cotton is such as big earner for the government coffers they do nothing about the disaster. I was very lucky to be able to be part of a team to document this tragedy, and managed to take a few pictures to highlight this. 

When we arrived to the town of Moynaq we went for a little walk at sunset to get our bearings and just as we were heading back to our accommodation I turned the corner and saw several kids walking towards me, perfectly backlit by the sun. As the dust levels are so high there this increased the rich colour of the sunset, and I very quickly had to get a couple of pictures which i knew was going to be special. 

Children walk home through the dust created by the loss of the Aral SeaChildren from Moynaq walk home on what was once the Aral Sea bed. Desertification and huge health problems have been caused by the loss of the sea at a town which thrived with the fishing industry before all the fish and vegetation died.

Somehow despite the morbid situation they have grown up in, these children show a sign of hope coming through the dust. 

 

We then went on to visit a boat graveyard which lies on the edge of the town. Now the lake lies over 100km away from the once bustling port, and these fishing boats lie rusting away as a constant reminder of once was their livelihood. The people there cannot sell there houses as nobody will buy them due to the health problems and lack of jobs there.

 

Rusting old fishing boats at the ever decreasing Aral Sea in UzbekistanRusting Fishing Boats on the edge of what was the Aral Sea near Moynaq, Uzbekistan

We then ventured to where no one else has travelled and was heading terra igognita and find out where the lake actually is. On the way we crossed what was once the lake bed and found a dried up river bed with thousands of dead fish. Although this was not from the lake but a small stream that used to feed into the lake it is a stark reminder about the death of the lake. 

 

We travelled all day by 4x4 and we eventually arrived to our first sight of the lake at sunset. It was a magnificent view and quite an eerie light, but despite the mortality of the lake it was also a beautiful scene.

The ever decreasing Aral Sea in UzbekistanSunset over the remaining Aral Sea in Uzbekistan

When we got down to the lake proper it was again quite an arresting scene and it was hard to imagine only four decades ago the water would have been 20 metres above my head. As the sun rose over the water the next morning the wind was bringing up foam and salt deposits at the water edge just highlighting how stagnant and dead the water was.

Once back home, a lot of my friends encouraged me to enter a competition with the children in the dust image. It was hard to know which category it would fit into, and as I have never entered a travel photography competition was unsure which one to enter. I then saw that the UK's largest and best known comp was due to finish and I decided to enter a portfolio as the story of these combined images, i thought was very powerful. This is the only category that professionals could enter and as over 8000 people enter I thought I would have no chance in wining. I was very surprised to here then months later that I had been shortlisted as a finalist. I got invited to the awards ceremony at the Times Destinations Travel Show at Earl's Court in London, and seeing the rest of the finalists in my category, again thought I had no chance. I was utterly gobsmacked when they announced that I was the runner up. Truly one of the highlights of my photography career, and to top it off the pictures were published in the latest edition of one of the travel magazines that has always provided inspiration for both travel and photography.

 


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