Humpback whale calf leaps free of the water of Silver Bank in a spectacular surface behavoir called breaching.
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The Traveling Photographer: Humpback whale tales — topside lessons, part one

I recently spent a week swimming and snorkeling with humpback whales. While we were scanning the horizon from our skiff, looking for telltale blows, we had many opportunities to witness and photograph their topside behaviors. It was a treat to see and a challenge to photograph. I learned many lessons, which may be useful to others shooting in similarly unpredictable situations.

As with all wildlife shooting, it’s necessary to be in a place where there is a reasonable likelihood of encountering animals. One doesn’t expect to see marine mammals strolling down Fifth Avenue in New York! So, rule number one is …

Go where the animals are

I was in Silver Bank, a relatively shallow underwater plateau measuring roughly 10-by-20 miles, with depths to 100 feet, about halfway between the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos. This area is surrounded by much deeper waters and is where humpback mothers-to-be migrate from colder Northern Atlantic waters to give birth and nurse their calves to a size and strength capable of making the lo-o-o-ong yearly migration north back to their New England feeding grounds. Male humpback whales come there too, looking to mate with the females. In the months of January to March, there is a relatively high concentration of these leviathans in a circumscribed area.

In the case of Silver Bank, it is a protected marine mammal reserve, the Sanctuario de Mamíferos Marinos de la Republica Dominicana. There are only three permit holders who run trips during the season, limiting the number of visitors to the area. This trip was with Gene Flipse of Conscious Breath Adventures, in his 17th year working in the area.

This brings me to rule number two.

Go with an expert

There is no substitute for local knowledge. In the case of Silver Bank, being in a sanctuary, there is no choice. But when there is, consider carefully the pros and cons of doing it yourself vs. availing yourself of the expertise of a local.

Packing for this trip, I armed myself with the longest lens I own paired with my fastest camera. In my case, this was the Fujifilm X-T3, with the XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens. The Fujifilm X-T3 will shoot 11 frames per second on continuous with a mechanical shutter. The 100-400mm lens proved to be a good choice. I also brought two Fujifilm teleconverters — the XF 1.4x TC WR and the XF 2x TC WR — but never used them.

Where the whales would pop up was very unpredictable. We saw many breeches on the far horizon, where no amount of magnification would be sufficient. Still other behaviors were so close, 100 mm of focal length was too long.

What I learned

Pick one workhorse setup, stick with it and shoot when the conditions suit the focal length you have. With whales, where and when they appear is very unpredictable and happens very quickly. There simply isn’t time to riffle through a gear bag switching lenses.

As Gene said early on, your camera may be well-protected back on the mothership in your room, but it won’t do you much good unless you have it with you (I’m paraphrasing). I found a balance had to be struck between having the camera protected yet readily available. Fortunately, on Gene’s tenders, Pec and Fluke, there is a well-designed dry area up front which shielded the gear when splashes and spray were happening. Some people had their cameras in drybags. I wrapped mine up in a wrapping cloth which I usually use for transport and a little extra padding. Other days I just wrapped it up in a quick-drying microfiber towel. My lens happens to have an especially deep lens hood, which does a great job protecting the front element from splashes. When there was a lot of wave action, I just turned the camera lens down and wrapped it up in the towel or held it under the protected area. I always use a cross-body strap, as boats can jolt one off balance in a hurry.

Take some test shots for overall exposure before the action starts happening. When it starts, there won’t be time to check results and make adjustments.

Use a fast shutter speed. Most of my topside behavior shots were taken with a shutter speed of 1/2000s. Shutter priority mode is a good bet in this situation.

Shoot on continuous high at the fastest frame rate your camera can achieve. Prepare to delete a lot of failures.

With whales and surface behaviors, if you miss the breech, pec slap or spy-hopping, don’t despair. Many whale behaviors are repetitive. Once you have an idea of their rough distance from you, you can anticipate where they will next appear.

Take some video. Some behaviors, especially pectoral fin slapping, are very dynamic and are better communicated with video. Compare still images of pec fin slaps, below, with a video clip:

A humpback whale on the surface winds up for a pectoral fin slap, which resounds with a tremendous THWAAK which can be heard underwater for miles.

Video better captures the dynamism of this behavior:

Others, like breeches, happen so fast, they are over almost as soon as they happen. A still image communicates the strength of the movement of the whale and the water in a way that is unforgettable.

An unforgettable sight: Breach! A humpback whale calf launches itself out of the water in a spectacular cascade of water and whale in Silver Bank (f/6.4, ISO 800, 1/2000).

While seeing the whales on the surface was wonderful, seeing their interactions underwater is magical.  I learned other lessons shooting the whales underwater, a topic for a future post. In the meantime, here’s a preview:

Silver bank scene: A curious calf surfaces for a breath and comes close to check us out, while mother hovers below, never letting the calf stray too far.

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

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