Because I have photographed so many humpback whales breaching during my career, I have become very specific about the type of photograph that I am searching for. First off, I prefer to be very close to the surface of the ocean so that the cetacean emerges well above the horizon line. This is only possible while working from small boats. Secondly, the animal needs to breach pretty close by, because I use a medium telephoto lens. Thirdly, since I use such a short focal length, I like to line up the whale with a dramatic backdrop in order to give a better sense of place. In this case, I used the dramatic sidelight illuminating the north shore of Lanai with dark clouds in the sky above as my background. Finally, the direction and rotation of the breach are very important, and the further the leviathan comes out of the water the better. I love how in this photo the enormous whale is momentarily suspended above the waves with its back perfectly arched and its pectoral fin out to the side as water is being thrown off in all directions. Awesome!
This image was created along the drive down to the north shore of Lanai on the first day of my February visit. Though the main purpose for my trip was to photograph humpback whales breaching, I also photographed landscapes whenever I had the opportunity. I had arrived the night before and not yet assembled my inflatable boat to go out whale watching, but I still wanted to shoot the sunrise. I knew from my previous explorations of the island that there were large numbers of lava formations along the side of the road which would make an interesting foreground. As the sunrise approached, I parked, jumped out of the truck, and then bolted towards this prominent feature, barely setting up my camera in time to photograph this magical light briefly illuminating my subject as the clouds moved across the sky.
My recent visits to Lanai to photograph humpback whales breaching were among my most productive trips ever. I have dozens of new photos of this awe-inspiring behavior. This stunning moment of an adult whale almost completely out of the water was photographed in January on an especially calm day, as can be seen by the reflection of the whale on the surface of the ocean. I worked especially hard to keep my boat in position in order to line up the whale with the West Maui Mountains in the background. Normally, I prefer breaches at their apex, but my auto-focus was slightly off for the 2 frames before this one because I was zooming in tighter as it transpired. This behavior is so fleeting that it is always disappointing to lose any photos because they are soft. Fortunately, this one is razor sharp. It is also not that common to see an adult whale almost totally out of the water.
One of my favorite locations to photograph on Lanai is Keahiakawelo, which is more commonly known as the Garden of the Gods. This unique geological setting reminds me more of places in the Southwest than in Hawaii. It can easily be accessed by a 30 minute drive from Lanai City via four-wheel drive, as long as it has not recently been raining. During my January whale-watching trip, I took an afternoon off from the ocean in order to drive my travel companions out here to shoot the sunset. I composed this dramatic image as the clouds swirled overhead and the setting sun vividly illuminated the eroded boulders.
I took a gamble when I decided to ship my 12′ Achilles inflatable boat and 15hp Honda outboard motor to Lanai last fall. I had never gone whale watching in the area, though, I had seen a ton of whales from shore during my previous winter visits. Since my boat was so small, I needed the weather to cooperate and crossed my fingers that the whales would provide me with some dramatic photo opportunities. Once I was there, I required an enormous amount of patience and dedication to be out on the ocean every day, but never in my wildest imagination did I expect to encounter as many breaching whales as I did. I have probably observed over 1000 breaches over the last decade, but after my two trips to Lanai this winter that total is now closer to 2000! This image of a humpback whale breaching was created in the ‘Au‘au Channel on the north side of Lanai on an overcast day. I really like how far the whale is out of the water and all of the spray and its blow are perfectly frozen at 1/2000 second. The island and cloud backdrop also makes this image much more interesting to me than just a simple horizon. A lot of people have commented to me over the years how much nicer my breaching whale images are from Alaska compared to Hawaii or Tonga because of the background. I hope that my regular readers won’t get bored with all of the new breaching images that I will be sharing in the coming weeks.
I have spent a lot of time on Lanai the last few years. It is a beautiful and quiet island, but there is not a lot going on and only one real road. Even though I have explored most of the island in search of new landscape images, I often find myself down at Manele Bay for sunrise or sunset since it is so easy to get to and iconic. When I frequently return to the same location, I get to the point where I only break out my camera when something particularly dramatic happens. This was the case during this brief but intense sunrise. I was driving down the hill from town to the harbor to go out whale watching when I observed this ever so slim hole in the clouds on the horizon in the pre-dawn light. I have been skunked plenty of times trying to photograph Puu Pehe, but I felt that this morning was worth the chance. As walked over to the top of the cliff, climbed down to the beach, and set up my camera for the umpteenth time in the dark, I watched the clouds move further in the wrong direction potentially ruining my sunrise ambitions. Just as I was thinking that it was not going to happen, an ephemeral beam of golden light began to pierce the veil of clouds and bath the sky in fantastic light. Perseverance and down-right luck are what lead to exciting images like this.
I have been back home from my most recent trip to Lanai for a few weeks now and finally made some time to edit my photos. Over the years, I have witnessed double breaching humpback whales on the horizon, but never gotten close enough to justify pulling out my camera. So, when these two whales started repetitively breaching close by I became focused like a laser on creating this image. For about 30 minutes, these whales timed their dives together before spectacularly erupting above the waves in perfect choreography. It was incredibly windy and the waves were beating me up in my small inflatable boat, but I was not going to allow anything to stop me from photographing this amazing behavior. I was also able to line up the West Maui Mountains in the background, because why not make an already dramatic scene even more stunning?
For the last two years, my 12′ Achilles inflatable boat has been stored rolled up in my garage. I used it a ton in Alaska between 2007-2012, but not since. I decided last fall to ship it and my 15HP Honda outboard to Lanai in order to use it to photograph humpback whales this winter. When I visited Lanai in January, I assembled it and then spent a week out on the ocean using it. My main goal was to be out well before sunrise in order to photograph humpback whales breaching in golden light. I was unsuccessful, however, I did observe numerous breaches at that time of day, but they were all too far away. As the sun rose higher in the sky, I had better luck getting closer. This is a nice breach of a male during a heat run. Every five minutes or so, the entire group would pop back up to breath and this male would do a head throw or breach. That made it much easier to anticipate and with the aid of my polarized sunglasses I could see the whale about to launch above the waves a second before it happened.
This past December, I attempted to photograph this spectacular location on the north shore of Kauai a half dozen times at sunrise. Most of the mornings that I visited the weather was uncooperative with pouring rain and strong winds. Fortunately, my best image which came from my first sunrise. Powerful storm waves crashed onto the rugged shoreline and washed over the lava rocks into the boiling surge cauldron as the sun illuminated the underside of the dramatic clouds. There was a ton of spray in the air, so I spent a lot of time just keeping my lens and grad filter dry. I would also like to point out to anyone that might ever consider visiting this spot that it is a very dicey location to photograph when the waves are big. I was vigilant against the larger wave sets and careful not to get knocked over by the surging waters as they completed my composition.
Last summer, I flew my drone above Polihale Beach on Kauai but did not create the image that I was hoping for. When I returned in December to try again, I was pleased to experience the ideal conditions which lead to this photograph. Late in the afternoon, the wind was non-existent and the clouds boiled over the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. I prepared my hexacopter for its initial flight and was ready for takeoff when the sunlight began to penetrate beneath the clouds on the horizon. Though I flew as far as 300m offshore and as high as 100m in the air, this photo was created at about half that distance and elevation during my reconnaissance of the scene.