Taking photos of giant marine mammals can be tricky. First of all, they simply can’t be counted on to show up on set on time. Whale watching tour companies chart the movement of known pods and individuals to ensure that their trips offer the most likely chances of seeing whales but even then, getting dramatic images is challenging. What can you do to ensure that you get the best shots?
I have ventured out to sea to observe whales off the coast of Canada, spending what seemed like a lot of money for tickets, donned puffy and unattractive whale watching suits and went flying over the water in a zodiac only to find that whale tourists outnumbered the whales. (I didn’t let go of the side of the boat so no way I could take photos.)
This weekend as I sat on my deck I heard shouts from a boat just off shore. As I looked up I saw a giant creature leap from the water. At first sight I had no idea what it was and involuntarily yelled out, “What was THAT??? A neighbor on the beach yelled back, “It’s a whale!” For nearly an hour the whale stayed in our neighborhood spy hopping (see definition here), blowing and feeding. It was thrilling to see this giant creature so close to home.
At one point some kayakers in the water sought shelter by hanging on to a fish farm float in the water a few hundred yards to the north of us. The whale immediately swam directly up to them and lurched into the air. When I next looked the kayakers had made haste to the shore perhaps chased by visions of Moby Dick.
Like many wonderful photo opportunities, this one came out of nowhere. Many of my neighbors were on the beach with their cameras and binoculars. At least five people took photos but when it was all over, no one had a picture that was identifiable as that of a whale.
How can you ensure that you will be ready when the next unanticipated action shot presents itself? A photographer I spoke to this week about his adventures with whale watching told me about a most unsatisfactory whale-watching trip with his family. His advice, “Don’t forget your camera.”
Photographing the behavior of animals is similar to sports photography. You must watch and be aware. Anticipate what will happen next so when the action unfolds, you’re ready. Is there a repeating pattern to the action? After we watched only two breaches, a pattern was revealed. The whale surfaced, cleared its blowhole and then immediately began spyhopping. After a few jumps, it would roll on its side, leaving the enormous fin waving around on the surface while it fed. Then it would dive and stay under for 10 or 15 minutes. The photographers on the beach needed to watch for the blowing spout as the whale surfaced to take a breath. This was the clue that the above water action was about to start. I’ve been told that in the North Atlantic, the water turns a lime green just prior to a whale surfacing. That is something to watch for on tours in that part of the world.
Part of the reason that my neighbors had so much difficulty capturing the action was the cycling time on their point and shoot cameras. The faster the camera, again obviously, the more likely you are to catch any action…be it whales or action sports. If you are on a whale-watching trip in a small boat like a zodiac, you should be prepared for a lot of spray as the small boat speeds into position. Take care or you’ll come home with a wet camera. Most tour companies usually offer tours in both the more flexible zodiac and a more protected, larger boat.
Another problem if you are shooting from shore in Alaska or the Pacific coast where migrating whales come close to shore, is that you may find yourself shooting into the sun. Time your whale watching tours to avoid this positioning if possible. “Our whale” moved about the area in and out of late afternoon sun reflecting on the water, but the savvy photographer could have gotten a great backlit silhouette.
Tips on whales and other marine mammals: in US waters there are restrictions on how close one can be to certain species of marine mammals. The boat that was near our whale chased the whale as it moved about and went right up within a few yards of it when it breached presumably to get photos. This is illegal and just silly as the whale could inadvertently hit the boat and also the creature is so big that a better image might be from a distance where the entire animal can be seen.
If you encounter a whale while on a non-tour boat, don’t go closer than 100 meters to the animal. Don’t try to pet or feed the whale. San Ignacio Lagoon in Mexico is a protected sanctuary for whales and visitors can get very close to the animals there. Strangely we have no images from this widely visited, although somewhat isolated place.
Whaling is a very controversial topic. Whenever there are disputes, there is need to illustrate the issues. We have no images of the giant Japanese factory ships that process whales nor anti-whaling protests on land or the boats that chase the factory ships.
Keywording: Searching on ‘whales’ reveals that some photographers seem to agree that a dolphin is a whale. It’s not! Some think sharks are whales. They are not! Please use care when naming animals. Don't simply copy keywords from others without doing your own research. Just because a number of images are labeled a certain way doesn’t mean that they are all correct.
Illustrators have a great advantage over photographers when documenting illusive subjects like whales. The illustration of the Killer whale here is a great example of how the illustrator’s skill can take us where it is very difficult for a photographer to go.
More information on identifying types of whales here and here