Benjamin Williamson wanted to be a tornado chaser as a kid growing up in Mississippi. He thinks he ended up one better as a professional photographer who chases sea smoke in Maine.

“I found a different kind of excitement in Maine with extreme weather, like winter snowstorms, thunderstorms and sea smoke,” said Williamson, 32, who lives in Brunswick. “There is a sense of drama, a sense of awe of the power in nature.”

Professional photographers like Williamson may be the exception in Maine this winter: They’re miffed it has not been colder.

“Last winter was great,” photographer Kathleen Clemons of Harpswell said of a winter that broke records for cold.

The colder it is, the more dramatic the sea smoke, Williamson said.

Sea smoke, sometimes called Arctic sea smoke, is water vapor that forms when frigid air moves over the ocean surface. Moisture is carried upward from the water, and as it condenses in the colder air, it becomes visible.

It is best seen at sunrise on days when temperatures are near or below zero, creating a disparity between the air and sea by 30 to 40 degrees or more. Then, as the sun rises and warms the surface of the ocean, the sea smoke eventually dissipates.

Fog is different. It occurs when warm air becomes saturated with moisture and moves over a cold surface.

Photographers in Maine who chase sea smoke describe these towers of vapor rising off the ocean as mesmerizing and mystical. And they don’t mind getting up before dawn on frigid mornings for the chance to experience it.

“It’s not cold while you’re shooting because you’re just so into it,” Clemons said. “It’s magical to see.”

These artists tend to band together, congregating in the dark at favorite coastal vantage points, like Portland Head Light, Nubble Light and Portland Harbor. They get up two hours before dawn on frigid mornings to set up at their chosen scenic spot. And the colder it is outside, the better.

“The biggest thing is, it’s fun,” said photographer Moe Chen of Scarborough. “I’d encourage anybody, even if they’re not taking photographs, to see our state in different conditions and at different times. When it goes from pitch black (to dawn) and the sun begins to rise, you see the world transition. There is really a special feeling then.”

Williamson considers a sunrise temperature of 10 below zero as the threshold for sea smoke. Chen, however, said he’s seen it on rare mornings at the end of September on unusually cold days when the ocean is still warm from the summer.

During one morning of extreme cold, Williamson got frostbite. Now, his fingers are more sensitive to the extreme cold. A musician-turned-photographer, he has a cellphone weather app showing where the cloud cover will be and another that shows the exact direction of the sunrise, so he can line up steeples, lighthouses and lobster boats during the brief time the sea smoke is perfectly lit by the rising sun.

Clemons lives in Harpswell. Her husband, Jim, is a lobsterman who understands the ocean.

“My husband knows where there’s good sea smoke,” she said. “It’s no good if (the ocean is) flat calm. You need a little bit of wind, a little bit of chop. A little wind will pull it up. And you need the back lighting from the sun coming up.”

It also helps that she lives at the end of a peninsula.

“I don’t have to go anywhere. I just have to look out my living room window. My husband moors his boat in front of the house, which is a good focal point,” Clemons said.

Susan Cole Kelly, who spends her time photographing the Downeast coast, said she was turned on to sea smoke by Maine photographers on Facebook who share when, where and how they photograph it.

“I remember the first time I drove by it, five to 10 years ago, I thought, ‘What’s that?'” she said. “It’s very different. There are wonderful variations of light, as well as (what appears to be) texture in the fog. It’s fun to show the world how beautiful it is.”

If you’ve never heard of sea smoke, you’re not alone. Clemons, who teaches an online photography course, said she has students around the world who have never seen it.

“I have a photo friend who photographed it in Massachusetts this year (for the first time) and was just amazed,” she said. “It’s addicting.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph

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