Curious humpback whale calf dwarfs a snorkeler in the warm waters of Silver Bank, a marine mammal sactuary and humpback whale nursery.
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The Traveling Photographer: Humpback whale tales — in the water, part two

In my last post, I related the lessons I learned photographing the surface behaviors of humpback whales on a recent trip to Silver Bank, a marine mammal sanctuary near the Dominican Republic. This is one of the few places in the world where soft in-water encounters are permitted with these amazing and giant creatures. The other two are in the South Pacific, in French Polynesia and Tonga.

The first question that may come to mind is, what is a soft in-water encounter? In the case of humpback whales, this is on snorkel, on the surface, without free-diving or SCUBA. How does this work? During the months of January-March, North Atlantic humpbacks migrate south to the relatively warm and shallow waters of Silver Bank to give birth and mate. Newborn calves are too small, weak and vulnerable to migrate north thousands of miles to summer feeding grounds in New England, so many pairs of mothers and calves can be found there in a leviathan nursery. The calves are feeding and growing until they are strong enough to accompany their mothers north.

Waiting on the surface, hoping when the calf surfaces to breath, it comes your way!

Humpback adults can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes or so, but usually surface every 15 minutes or so to breath. Calves must surface every 3-5 minutes. Some pairs are relaxed enough to permit quiet snorkelers on the surface to observe them for prolonged encounters. An occasional calf is curious and brave enough to come close by to check out the strange bobbing creatures in the water. That is what we hope for. A typical trip devotes 4.5 days in a week to searching for such animals and when conditions permit, slipping into the water for closer observation.

I’ve done this twice, the first time 12 years ago and earlier this year, in March. To say this is a magical experience is not hyperbole. The care with which the mother interacts with its calf is truly touching. I’ve also experienced at first hand how difficult it can be to think critically about photography under these circumstances.

I’ve learned a few lessons, which may help others in similar circumstances.

KISS

The Keep It Simple Stupid principle is well applied here. With reflections and bright sun, it is difficult to see well through the viewfinder on the surface and even framing the subject and focusing are surprisingly difficult.

On my first trip, with my husband Steve (Photofocus author Steve Eilenberg), we went with our first housed digital underwater camera. We only owned one lens at the time, purchased specifically with this trip in mind, a 16 mm fish eye Nikon lens.   Obviously, with this lens, there is no choice of focal length. We just had to wait until a whale swam into suitable range for this setup. A few shots from that trip illustrate how well that can work when conditions align with your gear.

I learned the hard way what can happen when more focal length options are available. This year, I took my Panasonic GH5, with a 14-42mm lens in a Nauticam housing, paired with a wet Nauticam WWL-1 lens, an optically corrected wet underwater wide angle lens with a potential field of view of 130 degrees (compare with a fish eye lens, with an angle of view of 180 degrees). Very frequently, the whales would not be close enough to be more than specks in my frame, so I tended to use this setup at the 42mm setting. This made the whales larger in my frame, but didn’t really result in technically optimal, usable images. Why not? When the whales were far enough away to require this much magnification to fill the frame, I was simply shooting through too much water, with too much scatter.

When the calves (usually, mothers rarely) would come close enough to use a wider angle, this happened so fast there really wasn’t time to react, to change the focal length, refocus and reframe. I did get some startlingly “close-up” shots of calf faces, which I like, but didn’t fare as well obtaining “whole animal” shots.

A close humpback whale calf swim-by encounter in Silver Bank happened so quickly, there was no time to change to a wider angle focal length and refocus.

What I should have done: Park the lens at the widest setting, fix the focus and wait for the animals to come close enough to fill the frame. I would have shot less, but possibly come away with a higher yield.

Even focusing at the surface can be difficult. Believe me that there is a lot of adrenalin flowing swimming out to intersect with a huge marine mammal and that it is difficult to think clearly and change parameters on the fly. The few times I tried to switch from 42mm to 14mm in a hurry usually resulted in my knocking the focus out of whack. To focus on a rapidly approaching animal is difficult; better to pre-focus on your fin (I usually focused on an adjacent swimmer) and adjust parameters to have a reasonable depth of field, bearing in mind that a wide-angle lens intrinsically has a lot of depth of field at apertures around f/8.

Another tip about focusing: Most cameras can be programmed to assign focus to a button other than the shutter release button. Since most programmable buttons are on the back of a camera, this is also called back-focusing. I do this both underwater and on land.

Watch the sun position

Marine mammals are generally best photographed with the sun to your back, although the situation and your guide may not always be able to make that possible. The water certainly looks cleaner with the sun to your back; shooting into the sun highlight innumerable particles in the water which are distracting.

I use a 45-degree angle viewfinder from Nauticam, rather than a straight viewfinder, which I find a lot easier to use, even on the surface.

Since this type of underwater photography is on the surface, where there is a lot of available light, there is no need for strobes. Since strobes can only reach six feet or so underwater, they will only serve to slow you down swimming and highlight particles in the water. Shooting with available light opens up the possibility of shooting on continuous (I usually use low rather than high), since there is no need to wait for strobes to recycle.

Since you will be jumping off a skiff into the water, often with your camera in hand, this can generate a lot of bubbles, which may cling to your dome port. I always sweep a hand over my dome port after jumping in to try to brush away any bubbles.

I’ll have another chance to take my own advice in September, when we’ll try again, this time with humpback whales in Rurutu, French Polynesia. Wishing all amazing soft in-water encounters with some of the most charismatic creatures in the sea!

Here’s looking at you! A curious humpback whale calf, with its mother hovering behind, checks me out at close range.

Postscript: Kirby Flanagan (Flanagan Fotos and Photographing the West podcast series) and I discuss whale photography in a podcast.

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