Smoke on the Water: Braving Frigid Temperatures to Capture an Amazing Phenomenon
Living in northern New England offers a wide variety of benefits for photographers such as myself. Beautiful landscape that includes mountains, rolling hills covered in flowers, thick forests, rivers, lakes, dramatic cliffs dropping hundreds of feet into the ocean, lighthouses, and picturesque fishing harbors to name several. But one thing I never even knew existed until I moved to Maine in 2016 was a phenomenon known as "sea smoke".
Sea smoke, as it turns out, is a phenomenon that happens on the ocean when the temperatures turn bitter cold. We're talking single digits or worse. It forms when cold air is blown by a light wind, mixing it with a shallow layer of saturated warm air, just above the warmer water. The warmer air is cooled so quickly it can no longer hold vapor, so it condenses out, much like steam out of a hot bath or boiling pot of water. It turns out, that despite the fact that we have to bundle up in layers to get out and photograph it, every year photographers eagerly await the arctic temperatures in hopes that we get some sea smoke.
While I'd photographed both locations a few years ago during a similar cold spell, one thing I hadn't photographed was Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse. Ram Island Ledge sits across the channel from Portland Head, and can be photographed with a telephoto lens from Fort Williams Park. I decided I wanted an image of the lighthouse emerging from the sea smoke in the early morning light. So that was my first priority, after which I photographed the other two images you see above of Portland Head Light and Spring Point Ledge Light. I should mention, the temperature when I got out of my car was -11ºF, with a wind chill of -37º.
So far this year, the weather hasn't been cold enough for sea smoke. Heck, it's barely been cold enough for snow! But Friday afternoon into yesterday, arctic air moved in for a brief visit, giving us the opportunity we'd been waiting for. I planned the outing for days, even picking up a new base layer from LL Bean's to ensure I'd be warm enough. I've previously written about what I wear when going out in such conditions.I considered several locations, but was unsure how much sea smoke there might be in those spots. I was considering a few harbors where the fact that the water was shallower might mean little sea smoke because the water temperatures would change too quickly. Knowing that there was a good chance there'd only be one day of it this year, I opted for tried and true spots like Portland Head Lighthouse and Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse.
Five years ago, on New Year's Day 2018, I made the image above and the two below. That was my first experience with sea smoke. That time was different, as we'd been crushed by a polar vortex that hung around for three weeks. From the end of December to mid-January, the temperatures never got above single digits. On that morning, the temperature was a colder -14ºF (what's 3 degrees difference, anyway?) but the wind chill was a much more comfortable -24º. I began my day then, as I did yesterday, at Portland Head Light, but on that day I stayed on the south side of the lighthouse and did not venture to the other side as I did yesterday. I also did not photograph Ram Island Ledge as I did yesterday.
After photographing at Portland Head, my wife, who had been brave enough to accompany me, and I headed back to the car. We got back in the car and I looked at her and sheepishly asked if she minded one more stop. To her credit, she said she didn't mind, and we headed a few miles away to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, where I made the image above and the one below. I got lucky enough to catch the pilot boat passing the lighthouse in the smoke, which added another dimension and illustrated life on the Maine coast in winter.
Last year we had a few days of sea smoke, and I managed to get out for one of them. On that day I decided to head to Willard Beach to photograph the shacks at Fisherman's Point. I don't recall the temperatures, but for some reason I felt colder that day than either of the other two. I didn't stay out long, as the cold just went right into my bones. I got the one image, but ended up missing out on another one I had hoped to get, that I still haven't gotten yet. Maybe next year.