Vancouver Island nature photographer recalls secret assignment to capture Paul McCartney on camera
PORT MCNEILL -- Imagine a humpback whale emerging from the ocean in slow-motion, taking a big gulp of the water near the North Island. That’s the type of action Rolf usually captures with his camera. That's why he was surprised when he received a phone call from the U.S. Humane Society.
“[They asked], ‘Are you willing to photograph a celebrity in the Arctic?’ And I said, ‘What?!’” Rolf smiles, recalling his disbelief. “‘[Then they said], ‘We can’t give you any more information right now.’”
It was a secret assignment for an anything-but paparazzo. While the nature photos on Rolf’s Instagram page certainly feature subjects with screen presence, like otters looking through his lens, his subjects don’t usually walk red carpets – picture bears stepping across green seaweed. They certainly don't earn splashing headlines, except perhaps for his photos of dolphins parting in the sea.
“But whatever. If they pick me they got a reason,” Rolf smiles. “So of course [I accepted the assignment and asked] what’s involved.”
Rolf was told to start travelling across the country the next day, from his home near Port McNeill, Vancouver Island, to Prince Edward Island. He completed his flight, but his equipment didn’t. Rolf was stuck with what he had in his carry-on bag.
“I was down to two cameras and two lenses,” Rolf says. “For a photographer on a big shoot, that’s like going to the arctic half-naked!”
Then, Rolf’s heartbeat started racing even faster than the time he faced a cougar — he was finally told he’d be photographing his favourite Beatle.
“They told me that Sir Paul McCartney was coming,” Rolf says. “I was like, ‘Whoa!’”
Rolf had photographed some bright lights in his day, like the Northern Lights, but never a star as luminous as McCartney.
“The most awesome experience was to feel how down to earth he was,” Rolf says.
The next morning, they flew 160 kilometres northeast of Prince Edward Island. Rolf was in a four-person helicopter with McCartney, his then-wife Heather, and the pilot. With the ice floes below, the previous day's camera troubles seemed far away. McCartney provided the soundtrack by clapping his hands, drumming his knees, and making up a song.
“It’s amazing to see, when he’s relaxed, what he does,” Rolf says. “He starts singing and making music.”
When they arrived, Rolf started documenting McCartney’s protest against the seal hunt. It was so cold that Rolf lent Heather his gloves and Paul his hat. Although the photographer was more comfortable pointing his camera at the seal pups, aiming his lens at Sir Paul proved to be an unexpected pleasure.
“Well it was much more relaxing for me,” Rolf says. “Because [unlike many animals], he didn’t run away!”
The pictures of the Beatle posing with the seal pups ended up being shown around the world in March of 2006. Rolf’s brief stint as a celebrity photographer proved to be a priceless experience, despite his equipment never arriving and his hat never leaving McCartney.
“Sir Paul got my hat and I never got it back! He’s still got it!” Rolf says with false indignation, before breaking into a big smile and admitting he’s okay with it. “It’s a good donation to a good person.”
And a good end – cue the photograph of a humpback diving into the water – to Rolf’s whale of a tale.