Photo Of The Day

A calcified Dove, preserved by the highly basic waters of Tanzania’s Lake Natron and photographed by Nick Brandt.

A calcified Dove, preserved by the highly basic waters of Tanzania’s Lake Natron and photographed by Nick Brandt.

This Alkaline African Lake Turns Animals into Stone

Photographer Nick Brandt captures haunting images of calcified animals, preserved by the extreme waters of Tanzania’s Lake Natron

In 2011, when he was traveling to shoot photos for a new book on the disappearing wildlife of East Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, photographer Nick Brandt came across a truly astounding place: A natural lake that seemingly turns all sorts of animals into stone.

“When I saw those creatures for the first time alongside the lake, I was completely blown away,” says Brandt. “The idea for me, instantly, was to take portraits of them as if they were alive.”

The ghastly Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania, is a salt lake—meaning that water flows in, but doesn’t flow out, so it can only escape by evaporation. Over time, as water evaporates, it leaves behind high concentrations of salt and other minerals, like at the Dead Sea and Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Unlike those other lakes, though, Lake Natron is extremely alkaline, due to high amounts of the chemical natron (a mix of sodium carbonate and baking soda) in the water. The water’s pH has been measured as high as 10.5—nearly as high as ammonia. “It’s so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds,” Brandt says.

As you might expect, few creatures live in the harsh waters, which can reach 140 degrees Fahreinheit—they’re home to just a single fish species (Alcolapia latilabris), some algae and a colony of flamingos that feeds on the algae and breeds on the shore.

Frequently, though, migrating birds crash into the lake’s surface. Brandt theorizes that the highly-reflective, chemical dense waters act like a glass door, fooling birds into thinking they’re flying through empty space (not long ago, a helicopter pilot tragically fell victim to the same illusion, and his crashed aircraft was rapidly corroded by the lake’s waters). During dry season, Brandt discovered, when the water recedes, the birds’ desiccated, chemically-preserved carcasses wash up along the coastline.

“It was amazing. I saw entire flocks of dead birds all washed ashore together, lemming-like,” he says. “You’d literally get, say, a hundred finches washed ashore in a 50-yard stretch.”

Over the course of about three weeks, Brandt worked with locals to collect some of the most finely-preserved specimens. “They thought I was absolutely insane—some crazy white guy, coming along offering money for people to basically go on a treasure hunt around the lake for dead birds,” he says. “When, one time, someone showed up with an entire, well-preserved fish eagle, it was extraordinary.”

Just coming into contact with the water was dangerous. “It’s so caustic, that even if you’ve got the tiniest cut, it’s very painful,” he says. “Nobody would ever swim in this—it’d be complete madness.”
SMITHSONIAN.COM

 


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  • Night Stick

    Reminds me of the Dr Who episode with the statues. Now I would imagine the Greens will attempt to clean this lake up, as the pollution has to be man made, because nature is clean and pure.

    • Kopua Cowboy

      Arsenic is an element, doesn’t get any more pure and natural than that.

  • Dargone

    Fascinating picture, really creepy.

  • conwaycaptain

    Wasn’t natron used by the Egyptians in the mummifying process??

    • johcar

      Indeed it was

  • Betty Swallocks

    Is this where Laila got her inspiration for the grey uniform?

  • The Grampus

    Maybe we could dip Wussell into the lake and preserve him as a mascot. btw did you hear him talking with Sean P this morning – wriggle as he might, Wussell was clearly thinking that a tie in with National has options – I don’t think he wants his party in the wilderness for ever. Lots of weasel words but he would not outright deny support for the Nats.
    Fortunately, the Nats have more sense.

  • Jman

    Not sure thats a dove. Looks more like a cormorant.

  • Refn8tor

    Ghosts of Labour past.

    There’s a touch of the Shearer about that one.

  • intelligentes candida diva

    Friday cocktail > science, nature and photography in one fix, good piece Lux & I LOVE the photo

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