For marine mammal photographers like myself, photographing whale tails is not that hard to do, but creating a striking image is. This is the only part of the animal that most whale watchers will ever see. It’s not the most dramatic behavior, and certainly nowhere near as photogenic as a full body breach. Over the years, I have taken tens of thousands of whale tail images. I am grateful that I no longer have to spend money on film since most of these images are utterly useless and unworthy of even the 1 second of my time that it takes for me to hit the delete button. Still, every once in a while I photograph a nice tail, like this one. Here’s how the sequence of events needs to work in order to create an image like this. A whale has to surface within a few hundred yards of my boat. It will normally take 3-5 breaths on the surface before diving, which might give me enough time to close the distance on the tail and take up a position behind the whale, not slightly to the left or right, but directly behind it. When the whale begins its dive, there is usually 1 image where the tail is almost at its apex and water is pouring off of it. I am also ever vigilant for a pleasing background, like these snow capped peaks and non-distracting blue mountains in the distance. The entire image has to come together, not just any one part. You can also see other whale photos when you visit my whale photo galleries.
Another freakin’ humpback whale breaching photo? Well, yes, it is! I normally prefer breaching images at the peak of the whale’s trajectory, because they don’t appear as powerful in the limp-coming back down phase, let alone when the big splash happens. However, what I do like about this image is that it shows the power of the whale’s tail propelling it almost completely out of the water. You can see that there is very little of the whale still connected to the surface. I had to keep moving my inflatable for safety, but I also wanted to keep the whale on the inside of me in order to photograph it against the pretty blue mountains in the distance. See more photos of humpback whales.
By now, my regular readers and social networking followers are probably aware that I had engine trouble last week while using my boat on Prince William Sound for the first time. The repair bill is pretty bad, but not as catastrophic as I had initially feared. It’s par for the course in trying to shoot unique images in remote locations. I have not had a trip go sour in almost 2 years, so I can not complain. During my short visit, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty and potential images that I saw in the College Fjord area, let alone the rest of PWS. I hope to go back to Alaska in the next week and maybe even get out on my boat once it is repaired one last time. Either way, I have a lot to look forward to next summer.
Here is a new Steller sea lion image from my July trip to Southeast Alaska. I spent 2 days visiting the Yasha Island pinniped colony. The cacophony of sound plus the overpowering stench of the colony is impossible to share, but at least I created some interesting images that capture the spirit of the place. I used my inflatable boat to drift in the kelp in order to get a low-angle view which best conveys a sense of being in the water next to these curious creatures. Steller sea lions have bulging eyes which make them look like aliens, which really comes across in this image. I think they are even kind of cute. I used my Canon 7D and 400mm f4 DO IS lens to create this photo. This setup is excellent for being able to hand-hold a big lens on the water.
As I have previously mentioned, I will be editing my new humpback whale breaching images for months to come. This is another graceful breach from the incredibly cooperative whale that I photographed last month in Frederick Sound. This young whale repeatedly displayed its enthusiasm for the warm sun, good eating, close friends, and nearby photographer for almost 2 hours. I could not capture every breach perfectly, but I am pleased with how many of the sequences yielded surprising images. Take this one for instance. It is not the boldest breach ever, but I like the gentle angle, perfect composition, and delicate twist of water emanating from its pectoral fin. It just looks like a happy whale.
After spending 3 days photographing humpback whales bubble-feeding near Angoon, I motored my boat down Chatham Strait to photograph Steller sea lions at Yasha Island. I have been scuba diving with Steller sea lions in British Columbia during the winter, but have never put any effort into photographing them in Southeast Alaska. Their populations are declining in much of their range in Alaska, so I have not wanted to disturb them. Fortunately, some of the juveniles were very curious and approached my boat as they frolicked in the kelp. At one point, I even had one come within a few feet of my inflatable in order to play “let’s-splash-the-photographer”. I know that I shouldn’t have encouraged it, but I just had to splash back. It is difficult to take a decent picture amongst the chaos of a pinniped colony, especially when the light is less than ideal. It is even more difficult to hand-hold my 400mm lens in my inflatable when the current is running. I wanted to capture a moment from a low perspective when one of the sea lions was barking so that it looked like I was just another sea lion in the daily scrum.
When I visited Tracy Arm a few weeks ago, I was dismayed to see the decrease in ice from my previous visits. My 2007 images of the harbor seals took place near the North Sawyer Glacier which has drastically retreated and is now almost out of the water. In the past, I could not get anywhere near the South Sawyer Glacier, but this time I was able to even though it was calving huge pieces of ice. There were hundreds of harbor seals resting on the ice flows, but they were very skittish, thus difficult to photograph. I have spent enough time photographing wildlife that I am very conservative about approaching any animal. Harbor seals see my red inflatable coming from several hundred yards away and typically decide that they don’t want anything to do with me. Fortunately, I found this one critter that was not disturbed by my presence. In fact, this seal was so unconcerned, that it barely opened its eyes to look at me and repeatedly turned its back so that it could go back to sleep. I really appreciate the moment I captured in this image of the seal blissfully resting in its environment, unconcerned about the guy in the red boat with the big telephoto lens going click-click-click.
I have mixed feelings about photographing tidewater glaciers in Alaska. They are beautiful to visit, but I also know they will never be in the same position in my lifetime because of glacial recession due to climate change. During my previous visits to Tracy Arm, it was very difficult and dangerous for me to get close to the North Sawyer Glacier and impossible to approach the South Sawyer Glacier. The lack of floating ice during my recent visit might have been for a variety of reasons, but there is no denying that I would not have been able to stand on this recently exposed granite ledge when it was covered by the glacier a few years ago. After dedicating my last 4 summers to photographing Southeast Alaska, I have adapted my shooting style from always chasing dramatic sunset light to appreciating the subtle colors of the consistent overcast conditions. I was drawn to the red color of this ledge system and the patterns reminded me of Native American rock-art in the Southwest. There was no safe place to land my inflatable, so I had my dad drop me off for a few hours so that I could do my thing. He patiently floated amongst the ice and watched harbor seals until he saw me start waving like a mad-man wanting to get picked up. I wonder what the people on the handful of tour boats thought of the guy in the red jacket and bibs standing on this lonely ledge taking pictures?
After departing Juneau and motoring down Stephens Passage to Frederick Sound, I spent my first night anchored at the Brothers Islands. Because of the long distance I’d motored the day before, my first priority was refueling. En route to the Kake fuel dock, I encountered my first breaching humpback whale! This whale was clearly happy that I was there to photograph it and could not contain its enthusiasm for my arrival. I normally use my more maneuverable inflatable to photograph breaching, but since I was on my C-Dory, I quickly passed the helm off to my dad as I grabbed my camera and headed towards the bow. The whale was heading in my direction and posed several times for me where I told it to. Thank you for your cooperation whale and see you in Hawaii next winter.
I hope that my regular readers aren’t getting bored yet of all my new breaching humpback whale photos. Though I had spent over 20 weeks the last 4 summers cruising Southeast Alaska with my boat, not until 2 weeks ago did I encounter a whale that yielded so many publishable breaching images. I could post a unique breach a day for the next month if I wanted to. What an amazing experience! Based on my hectic travel schedule, I will still be editing and posting these images well into the fall.
I have high standards for photographing whales, especially since I am friends with some of the top professional marine photographers in the world, like Doug Perrine, Brandon Cole, and Stuart Westmorland. I prefer to use my Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS lens to photograph breaching. This lens gives me the flexibility to zoom in and frame the breach once I see it start to happen, but requires me to be relatively close to my subject. I used to also use a Canon 1.4X tele-converter, but now prefer the results of using the smaller image sensor on my Canon 7D with its 1.6X crop. I am a real stickler when it comes to my photography ethics and consider cropping more than 10% of the original image a failure. At 8fps, I typically capture a number of out of focus, poorly composed images, with a horizon that is consistently skewed down to the right. Thus, I am particularly pleased when I capture a moment like this, especially at 70mm.
Two weeks ago, I photographed this humpback whale on Frederick Sound. I find this image particularly striking due to the unusual, head-on perspective. The humpback breached towards me which helped illustrate its streamlined body. Also, the pectoral fins in this shot are perfectly angled at the whale’s side as it thrusts itself out of the water. This young whale must have breached at least 50 times over a 2 hour period. Incredible! I was able to anticipate the breaches about 50% of the time and zeroed in on about 12 different sequences that will yield publishable humpback whale images. My dad was with me and managed to capture this breach on video using my iPhone, which you can view on YouTube.