This past July, I lead my only photo tour of the last 2 years. It was a pleasure to be able to spend time searching for humpback whales with my friends Tony Wu, Steve Levi, and Doug Perrine. Unfortunately, we had to search longer and farther for whales than anytime since I first started visiting Southeast Alaska over a decade ago. Eventually, we located a group that was cooperatively bubble-net feeding in Frederick Sound. During the evening that I photographed this scene, the ocean was calm and the sunset light was prolonged. I love the dark clouds and tree covered hills in the background as the golden light illuminated this whale’s breath. If you look closely, there is also a faint rainbow visible near the base of the blow. It took luck and skill built up during my years of experience in order to compose this image while also piloting the skiff and shooting at the same time.
Over the last decade, I have focused much of my travel and photography on Alaska. However, my only trip up north this year was in early August when I lead a small group tour in search of my favorite subject, humpback whales bubble-net feeding. There were some ups and downs associated with this particular trip that I do not need to get into, but it was definitely my most productive tour photographically for bubble-net feeding. I told my clients that they should be proud of what we accomplished. The exhilaration of photographing over a dozen humpback whales cooperatively hunting and feeding on schools of herring never gets old. It does get frustrating, but never boring. This image shows a very close encounter where I had to zoom back to 70mm as the whales erupted above the surface with their mouths about to slam shut. If you look in the mouth of the whale on the right, you can even see a silver herring flying through the air about to be engulfed.
My image Humpback Whales Bubble Feeding 110 is featured in Outdoor Photographer’s June 2013 article “Pro Tips For Summer Hotspots”. In the article, I describe what it is like to observe humpback whales as they cooperatively feed in Alaska, as well as how to photograph this incredible behavior. Also featured in the article, is one of my personal favorite images Tonquin Valley Sunrise 3 along with a description of how to photograph this dramatic scene located in Jasper National Park.
I’m finally home long enough to start editing my images from the last 6 months. Dang, have I been busy and time flies. This is my favorite image that I photographed while co-leading the Alaska portion of Tony Wu and my dual hemisphere Humpback Whale Tour last summer. See how sunny and perfect the conditions were? I kept telling our clients that the weather never got this nice in Southeast. It was an ideal day to spend with a large group of humpback whales that were bubble-net feeding. As this glorious day progressed, the whales stopped feeding and did what whales do best. Absolutely nothing! However, we decided to work on our tans and patiently stay with the whales hoping that they might do something. Eventually, they all started to breach at the same time. It was insane watching all of these enormous animals launch themselves out of the water, let alone positioning the skiff so that everyone could photograph this behavior. I love how the water cascaded off of this whale, plus there is a small rainbow behind it from its blow. I’ve seen this multiple breaching behavior happen enough times to consider that it is some kind of goodbye gesture. Sure enough, after all this breaching was over, the whales swam off in separate directions. I created this image using a Canon 1DmkIV with my 70-200mm f2.8 IS II lens and processed the RAW file using Aperture 3 and Photoshop CS6.
I was traveling all of December, so forgive me for not having posted any new blog updates for awhile. However, I am excited to share that Outdoor Photographer published my “Discover Alaska Wildlife” article in the February issue! In my article, I give lots of advice about where and how to photograph many of Alaska’s most sought after animals. I especially like the opening full page image of the lynx that I encountered while leaving Denali National Park last July. I have dedicated most of my last 5 summers to photographing Alaska, and look forward to another productive summer up north starting in May. Please let me know if you read that article and what you think.
Photographing humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Southeast Alaska is the most incredible experience that I have. Over several days in July, I was again fortunate to witness this extraordinary behavior. Even though I cruise with my own boat, finding a groups of whales feeding can be difficult and time consuming. However, once I have located them I drift nearby for hours hoping that they will occasionally come close enough to be photographed. During their attack the whales emit a high-pitched song to scare the fish and coordinate their timing. (Check out my YouTube video to hear what it sounds like.) To create a picture like this, my reflexes have to be lightning fast. It certainly helps if my camera is already pointed in the right direction when they break the surface. The momentary drama of water exploding into the air and fish jumping out of the whale’s wide-open mouths to avoid being swallowed is beyond my wildest dreams. I used my Canon 7D and 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens at 70mm to create this image.
Here is another amazing humpback whale breach that I photographed during my July trip in Southeast Alaska. Breaching whale encounters never get old. I wish that I could photograph whales every day, but for a variety of reasons it would be impractical, least of which is that they don’t cooperate like this very often. This juvenile humpback probably breached close to 100 times over the 2+ hours that I spent photographing it. This gave me ample time to maneuver my inflatable into position with the sunlight at the best angle and with the most pleasing mountains in the background. I did not anticipate where the whale was going to breach correctly every time, but when I did, I was rewarded with images like this one. The hardest part of photographing breaches is having my camera pointed in the right direction and responding fast enough before the entire moment is over. I used my Canon 7D and 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens with a shutter speed of 1/1300 second to stop the action.
One of my new Steller sea lion images is featured in the Alaska Exposed section of the December 2010 issue of Alaska. Typically, it takes me a few months to process my new images before I get them on my website or submit them to my agents. However, Alaska saw this image on my blog back in September and immediately contacted me about publishing it. In my experience this is an unusually quick turn-around from creation to publication.
I always say that if I could photograph only one thing, that it would be whales. Unfortunately, they are the most difficult and expensive subject that I photograph. I have swam next to these gentle giants and watched them repeatedly breach into the air, but the most amazing behavior I have documented is humpback whales bubble-net feeding in Alaska. This phenomenon involves a group of whales diving beneath a school of fish and blowing a ring of bubbles underwater to effectively form a net as it rises to the surface. The ring can be up to 100′ in diameter. The fish get scared by the bubbles and become concentrated in the center. At the last second the whales swim up from beneath the school of fish with their months open swallowing everything they can in one enormous gulp. Research has shown that the individual whales repeatedly take up the same positions as they come out of the water during each attack. The best photographs include the most dominant whales in the center positions as they burst above the surface and slam their mouths closed. An incredible amount of patience and luck is involved in anticipating where the whales are going to form a bubble-net. If I am close enough and can see the bubbles rising at the last second, I have to react fast enough to capture the moment as they lunge out of the water. Magnificent!
Over the Labor Day weekend, I wrote an article for one of the big photography magazines about how to photograph Alaska’s wildlife. It is scheduled to be published in the upcoming January issue. I want to share an excerpt from the article and a new harbor seal image that I created in Tracy Arm in July. I hope that you look forward to the complete article, but for now, please enjoy this teaser:
Most of the tidewater glaciers in Alaska support communities of harbor seals resting on icebergs, but it is difficult to approach these skittish animals. My best photo opportunities have happened by drifting amongst the icebergs in my inflatable in order to quietly observe the seals. You will need to have a long lens in order to get in tight. I own the Canon 400mm f4 DO IS lens, which when combined with my 7D becomes a very hand-holdable 640mm equivalent. I prefer my images to be as close to eye-level at the water as possible, so try to get down to the lowest part of the boat. It looks much more intimate from a low angle than when shot down on them from up high. If you are unable to get in close enough for a frame filling shot, look for complimentary iceberg patterns around a seal in order to show it in its environment. Also, remember to over-expose your image at least +1 stop when you are photographing bright subjects like icebergs!