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A whale of a time

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
A breaching Humpback Whale A breaching Humpback Whale Jandrie Lombard
20 Feb
With the possibility of spectacular breaches and tail fluking, it is unsurprising that whale photography is growing in popularity in many global coastal resorts

High on many wildlife enthusiasts’ bucket lists is wanting to see the largest creatures on Earth – whales. The sheer size of these ocean-dwelling mammals dwarfs anything found on land; for instance, scientists say the blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, even bigger than the largest dinosaurs. A fully-grown blue whale can reach 30 metres in length and weigh 200 tons. It’s tongue weighs as much as an elephant. Despite their incredible bulk, blue whales are graceful and powerful swimmers, capable of speeds exceeding 50km per hour in short bursts, and diving up to 20 minutes at a time before surfacing for air.

However, these prodigious abilities were never a match for the scale and determination of the 20th century whalers who wiped out more than 99 per cent of Antarctica’s blue whales before an international ban was enforced in 1966. Today, and particularly since the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) ban on all commercial whaling in 1986, whale watching has boomed as a global tourist attraction.

Although blue whales remain a rarely encountered species elsewhere, frequent sightings are made in the waters off California, where a colony returns each summer to breed. This colony is often visited by whale watching tours and is part of the sub-species of California blue whales numbering round 2,200 individuals that frequent the eastern Pacific coastline from Alaska to Costa Rica.


Breaches & flukes

Of the world’s larger whale species – blue, fin, sperm and humpback – it is the smallest of the four, the humpback, that is by far the most frequently seen on coastal whale watching tours. Although conservationists reckon humpbacks are less numerous than sperm and fin whales, they spend more of their time nearer the surface than their deep-diving cousins. Humpbacks are also seen closer to shore, especially when migrating to the warmer tropical and subtropical waters of their range to breed and give birth.

They are also renowned for their spectacular breaching abilities whereby they leap out of the water and crash back to the surface with a thunderous splash. In recent years, humpbacks have been photographed breaching within splashing distance of whale watching vessels. While scientists aren’t certain why whales breach, they haven’t ruled out it being simply for fun! The frequency of breaching and close proximity to boats when doing so, would suggest humpbacks are deliberately putting on a show for their human spectators.

Another sought after spectacle of whale behaviour prized by photographers is ‘fluking’. The fluke – a whale’s tail – is all that is seen above the surface when the whale dives. Humpbacks have an angular, wing-shaped fluke that makes a distinctive composition when framed tightly in camera. Each fluke is unique; it is the whale’s fingerprint, with each whale identifiable by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes.


Preparation & knowledge

The return of humpback whales to waters where they have been previously unseen for decades points to a recovery in their numbers following the IWC ban. So with the chances of a photographic encounter now better than ever, what should the photographer consider before boarding the boat?

Every whale photography expert will tell you to have your camera ready at all times because of the unpredictable nature of the subject. Most of the time you’re on board, the whale will be unseen, hidden beneath the surface, yet he will see and hear your boat long before you’re aware of his presence.

This is where it becomes important to know a little about whale behaviour. Because humpbacks head to the surface in a straight line, they usually first lift their head out of the water from a distance, almost like a periscope, to survey their surroundings. After submerging again, they are more likely to do something spectacular the next time they appear: it could be a tail slap, fluking, or even a walloping breach. The point is to have your camera ready and scan the water for their next appearance, ready to zoom in, frame and fire.

If the whale breaches and you miss it, don’t worry: humpbacks typically breach two or three more times after the first, usually travelling 10 to 15 metres between leaps. This is not a time to look down or change lenses! In fact, you should use only one lens during your whale-watching cruise – a telephoto zoom of around 70–300mm focal range. Not only will you avoid missing shots during lens changes, but by sticking to one lens you also avoid letting sea spray and saltwater enter your camera, which can cause considerable damage.


Live View & shutter speeds

Another aid to success is to use the camera’s live view setting. By viewing the scene on the LCD monitor rather than through the viewfinder, the photographer is able to employ their peripheral vision beyond the viewfinder and so react more quickly if the whale appears out of the frame area. A high shutter speed is also recommended to freeze water splashes when the whale breeches: around 1/1000sec or faster should be ideal. Even on an overcast day, exposure levels will be higher than on land because of the amount of light reflecting off the water.

By using the shutter priority mode, you can keep the shutter speed at your preferred setting, leaving the camera to automatically adjust the aperture or ISO to maintain the exposure at the measured reading. Many photographers also recommend switching off the automatic white balance setting. Instead, you should manually select the white balance to the setting that matches the lighting conditions of the day and be prepared to change this if the clouds build up or disperse.

The best shooting condition is a calm sea. But even a calm surface will be short-lived when a whale breaks the surface, particularly if it tail slaps the water or breaches close to your vessel. You need to hold your camera as steady as possible and employ any vibration reduction or image stabilization facility.

Of course, you should expect to get wet, whatever happens. In some ways, the wetter the better as it’s probably evidence of a close encounter with a very hyperactive, large and acrobatic humpback whale. Choosing the right whale watching boat is also a key decision. The best boats are those that provide the least obstructive view and carry a smaller number of passengers. A larger vessel with greater capacity is unlikely to get as close to the whale or manoeuvre as quickly when it moves.

All that splashing and sea spray raises the prospect of not only keeping yourself dry but, more importantly, ensuring that your camera – especially the front lens element – are regularly checked and cleaned. A super absorbent towel or cloth should be included in your camera bag, which should also be waterproof – or at least water-repellent – and kept sealed when not in use.

Fortunately, many cameras today are weather-sealed with the use of O-ring seals to keep out moisture from vulnerable controls, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dab-dry wet surfaces of your camera and lens during the course of the day.


Polarizer & shutter bursts

Finally, two more tips to consider before getting aboard your boat: pack a polarizing filter, and beware of continuous shooting. Photographing at sea with the sun overhead means glare and stray reflections will increase contrast levels, making it more difficult to get sharply focused and well exposed images with plenty of detail.

Adding a polarizer to your lens will cut down the surface glare, reduce contrast and render more detail in the image. The only downside is that a polarizer reduces the amount of light reaching the image sensor by two stops. Assuming you are using shutter priority exposure mode, this means the resulting aperture or ISO setting will increase to maintain the nominated shutter speed.

In the excitement of a close encounter, it makes sense to have the camera drive set to continuous shooting, allowing you to take a burst of shots and select the best image later. However, over reliance on continuous shooting has some potential pitfalls. For instance, taking overlong sequences may fill up the camera buffer before the end of the sequence. During the course of a day you could fill the memory card or drain the batteries sooner than expected – without spares of either, you may have only half a day’s photography to show for a whole day of whale watching.



Watch the action on your camera LCD monitor, using live view. Doing this rather than looking through the viewfinder allows you to react more quickly when something happens outside of the frame.

Pack an extra absorbent cloth or towel. Expect plenty of sea spray so check the front of your lens regularly to dab dry any water drops on the surface.

Select shutter priority exposure mode. It is important to have a fast enough shutter speed when photographing the acrobatic leaps of humpback whales. Shutter priority ensures your chosen shutter speed remains constant while aperture and ISO settings can alter automatically in changing light levels.



Change lenses once onboard. It is best to stick to one zoom lens, say 70–300mm or similar to give you a range of framing options. Changing lenses risks letting water and spray into your camera – as well as missing a shot.

Take the tripod. Tripods are completely impractical when shooting from the deck of a boat that is pitching and rolling after a whale has breached.

Forget the wider view. Upon seeing a whale, the temptation is to zoom in for the closest view, but a wider view showing the whole of the whale in its setting gives a better idea of context and scale.


Recommended reading

Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales by Elin Kelsey, University of California Press, hb, £16.99

On the Trail of the Whale by Mark Carwardine, Thunder Bay Publishing, sb, £4.99

The World Guide to Whale and Dolphin Watching by Ben Wilson, Angus Wilson & Keith Brockie, Colin Baxter, sb, £27.24


equipment selections

Lens option: Super zoom

There’s no shortage of high-quality super zoom lenses covering the 28–300mm focal length range. One of the best value makes is the Tamron 28–300mm f/3.5-6.3 VC PZD (£550). It’s well built and features a vibration control facility to counteract camera shake. An ultrasonic motor also ensures silent autofocus use. Available in mounts for Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony SLRs. www.intro2020.co.uk


Accessory option: Polarising filter

The circular polarizer’s effect on bright days when photographing highly reflective surfaces such as water are obvious: a reduction in glare and hotspots, darker blue skies, more definition to clouds and the rendering of subject detail beneath the surface. The Japanese-made Hoya Super Pro 1 D Revo SMC circular polarizer (£100) is arguably the best filter of this type on the market and available in most lens filter sizes from 37mm up to 82mm. www.intro2020.co.uk


Camera option: Touch screen

DSLR Touch screen technology is now appearing on budget DSLRs. In situations such as whale watching, photographers can make adjustments to focusing by touching the screen while using the Live View facility. The new Nikon D5500 (£640 body only) is the first crop-sensor DSLR to use a vari-angle touch screen. Other features include a 24.2 megapixel sensor, built-in wi-fi, a 100–25,600 ISO range, a 39-point AF system and a 5fps built-in motor drive. www.nikon.co.uk

 This review was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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