World-renowned wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas has photographed jaguars in Brazil, lemurs in Madagascar and wombats in Tasmania. She’s swum with humpback whales in Tonga and hand-raised and released an orphaned serval kitten in Kenya.
Her greatest adventure, though, is always the one still to come.
She’s pursuing her life’s mission, one of the few women making a living in the male-dominated field of wildlife photography.
Admittedly stubborn and focused, she’s known since her childhood in Marin County that her love of all animals, wild and domestic, would lead to a career in photography.
A Petaluma resident when she isn’t traveling around the world to photograph wild animals in their native environments, Eszterhas, 41, can barely keep up with her own passions.
She’s outlined 72 future projects, “some I have dreamed about my whole life,” including an upcoming trip to Botswana and South Africa to photograph mobs of meerkats.
As an award-winning photographer and dedicated conservationist who has worked with several rescue projects, she knows there’s never a shortage of stories and subjects to share.
“It’s the endless thing about my job that I love,” Eszterhas said.
Her compelling work can be found in more than 100 feature and cover stories in magazines like National Geographic Kids, Smithsonian, BBC Wildlife, Popular Photography, Audubon and her childhood favorite, Ranger Rick.
Her photo of a lone Adelie penguin atop an iceberg in Antarctica was featured on the cover of a 2007 Time magazine double issue on global warming.
Eszterhas specializes in chronicling newborn animals and family life in the wild, sometimes spending weeks or months gaining the trust of mothers by quietly blending into their environment.
“If you do anything to violate their trust, it’s incredibly hard to get it back,” she said.
She researches her subjects before traveling to points across the globe — she’s photographed wildlife on all seven continents — focusing on her safety and that of her subjects.
Understanding behaviors, and watching for them, are paramount to her work.
A yawning lion can mean the cat “is pretty relaxed or sleepy or content and fat from a big meal,” Eszterhas said. A yawning bear, however, can be expressing stress, “an indicator he may charge.”
Knowledge and respect are critical. “You have to respect their space and their behavior,” she said. “If you let your guard down, it’s really your own fault.”
A full-time wildlife photographer for the past 15 years, Eszterhas has an edited portfolio of some 38,000 images from the “millions” she’s taken. Today she spends three or four months in the field, down from the 10 months earlier in her career.
Eszterhas is the author of 13 children’s books, including three on wildlife rescue centers. Her latest, “Baby Animals Playing,” will be released this month. She hopes her Safari Nursery Art line will inspire even the youngest children to develop a love of animals.
She achieves her shots with great patience and dogged determination, doing what’s necessary to wait for just the right moment. She’s hidden in blinds (and urinated in bottles), not moving for hours while waiting to connect with her subjects for the ultimate photo.