“Wherever there’s salmon there’s going to be chaos.” This was Karthik Subramaniam motto as he camped out near the shore of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve in Alaska, waiting for action.
It was the final day of his week-long photography trip and just a few hours before his ferry departed, but the software engineer-turned-hobbyist photographer stayed, watching as bald eagles swooped in and out of the fishing grounds. Haines, Alaska, a southern tip of land sandwiched between two inlets, hosts the largest congregations of bald eagles in the world every fall, when around 3,000 arrive in time for the salmon run.
Subramaniam noticed there was a log where a few lingered. This choice spot put the eagles in proximity to the shore, where their peers would sometimes arrive with the spoils of a successful hunt: a freshly caught salmon. When a fish appeared, the bystanders would descend for their portions.
As Subramaniam trained his lens on a branch, there was a commotion: an incoming eagle swooped in, intimidating its current resident, and claiming the prime spot. He titled the resulting image “Dance of the Eagles” as an homage to a fictional dragon war in George R.R. Martin’s novel A Dance with Dragons, and submitted it to the National Geographic Pictures of the Year contest.
For years, Subramaniam has been photographing landscapes and his travels, but, in 2020, grounded by the pandemic in his San Francisco home, he started experimenting with wildlife photography. He scoured the local natural reserves—driving an hour to Point Reyes National Seashore and walking the city’s parks—in search of birds and other creatures. Hearing that two bald eagles were nesting on top of an elementary school two hours from home, Subramaniam began going there on the weekends, camping out for as long as it took to capture them flying out to hunt.
The patience he learned in that trial period paid off. On Friday, his photograph of the eagles in Alaska was announced as our grand prize winner, earning it a spot in the May issue of this magazine. What Subramaniam appreciates most about the photo is the tension of the moment. “It opens up the question: what happened next?” he says. The reality is less mysterious: the triumphant eagle got bored when no salmon appeared and soon surrendered the spot to the next hungry observer.