A Long Shot; The Quest For A Ghost Orchid

The Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Southwest Florida has been left virtually untouched by man, except for the construction of one of the world’s most beautiful boardwalks that wanders through the heart of this ancient bald cypress swamp. In July 2007, the discovery of a ghost orchid at Corkscrew was very big news. Ghost orchids are rare; it’s estimated there are only 1000 growing in the wild and they can only be found in Cuba and South Florida. This orchid is pollinated by the Giant Sphinx moth only at night. Before the seed of the orchid can germinate the seed must be infected by a strain of beneficial fungus and receive the right amount of moisture and sunlight. A ghost orchid has no leaves and when it’s not blooming it’s nearly impossible to see. When the orchid blooms, its white flowers appear to hang in midair like little ghosts, giving the orchid its name.

Upon arrival at Corkscrew I met with the staff to get the orchid’s location. After about 30 minutes of walking, I looked toward the east into the swamp about 150 ft and 50 ft up; I then saw the giant 600-year-old bald cypress tree. Barely visible with the naked eye, I could see the spray of white flowers. The group of flowers was about the size of an automobile license plate. As soon as I looked through my Nikon D2X with a 200-400mm VR lens, I could see I might be in trouble with this one (#1).

All Photos © 2007, R J Wiley, All Rights Reserved

The orchid was too far away for a real good close-up with this lens. I had permission to leave the boardwalk and get closer to the tree, but the best angle was from the boardwalk. I took a few shots and headed out because of an incoming thunderstorm. The next morning I got to the swamp early, set up my gear and waited for the sun to light up the orchid.

If you’ve ever photographed on a boardwalk you’re probably familiar with the vibrations that come along from people’s footsteps. With the 200-400mm lens plus the 2x converter and 1.5 multiplier effect of the D2X, I had the equivalent of a 1200mm focal length, very tough to hold still. The newspaper and TV news picked up on the story the night before and when the sun showed up so did the public. At 1200mm and shooting in a dark swamp at f/18 and a shutter speed of 1⁄20 sec and slower, the vibrations coming from the boardwalk as people passed by made it nearly impossible to get many good usable photos.

In a few days it was all over and the flowers were gone. I did get some usable photos but nothing that I really liked. Knowing that I had at least a year to prepare for another bloom (that’s of course up to the orchid, they don’t always bloom every year), my plan was to start saving for a lens right away. But to everyone’s amazement a week after the last flower died the orchid budded up with 14 new buds. It looked like I didn’t have a year to get that new lens. After spending four hours on the Internet looking for a prime lens I finally found a Nikon 500mm f/4 and had it shipped overnight. The difference between the 500mm prime and the 200-400mm zoom using a 2x tele-converter was amazing, to say the least. Plus I picked up another 300mm.