Above photo: Bubble-net feeding whales in Southeast.

I’m “whale challenged.” Allow me to explain. Though I’ve photographed numerous whales of all species—and even pet a few friendly gray whales in Baja—most of the time, I have zero idea what I’m looking at when I see them.

For instance, I have a tough time finding their eyes and distinguishing them from the barnacles, wrinkles, or blotches on their skin. (I also just had to Google “Do whales have skin?” because I am truly that clueless.) If they’re partially in the water with their tails submerged, I don’t know if I’m looking at the front or the back of them or if they are swimming upside down or right-side up. In my defense, the eye of a whale isn’t where I expect it to be, which throws everything out of proportion. The eye sits next to the corner of the miles-long-stretch of mouth just above and in front of the flipper—which means that the eye is located on the whale’s chin.

Further complicating things, the chin takes up about 2/3 of the whale’s face—the human equivalent would be Jay Leno. As you might imagine, observing humpbacks bubble-net feeding exhausts my brain and renders me dumbfounded. All those mouths open at once, like a handful of pistachio nuts in a bright blue bowl, and a pink feathery part appears, that may or may not be the roof of the mouth or the tongue of the whale surrounded by baleen, which—at this point, I give up.

Wildlife photographers have a few rules, and one of them is: As long as you capture the eye of the animal and it’s sharp, the rest doesn’t matter as much. Mercifully, whales offer other acceptable shot opportunities that don’t involve the eye. A few of those are: the whale’s tail (fluking), a dorsal fin with spray from the blow hole, pectoral fin waving or slapping, distant breaching, and bubble-net feeding (where open mouths take center stage over eye contact). So, while I might be whale challenged, I’m pretty good with a camera, and have learned a few tricks to capture whales from moving boats.

When you’re using a camera on a boat, you are moving, the boat is moving, and the whale (or bird or seal) is also moving. Level of difficulty on a one to 10 scale: 11. Thankfully, most of today’s cameras and lenses have built-in image stabilization, which you should set to the highest possible level. You’ll need to increase your shutter speed or use the “sport” setting on point and shoot devices. Think of the whale like a linebacker that can run 20 mph.

A whale spy hops in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Tripods are useless on boats and cumbersome. They’re more likely to trip you than they are to steady your camera. If you need help steadying a heavy lens, try a monopod instead or use the railing. For the railing method, place your fore- arm beneath the camera body to dampen vibrations of the vessel’s motor—and consider kneeling. Kneeling stabilizes your body in a way that standing does not. However, I speak from experience when I say: Always wear your camera strap around your neck—or attach your smartphone to your wrist. One bounce and Siri will have to learn to speak whale like Dory in Finding Nemo.

The hardest part of shooting from a boat will be finding the whale quickly, focusing on it, and keeping it in the frame. A few tips: first, zoom out. While you’ll be tempted to get a close-up shot of the whale, if you’re zoomed in too close or are using a large telephoto lens, you’ll severely limit your field of view, thus limiting your chances of locating the whale in the first place. If you have people around you, use them as spotters. A shout of “whale at three o’clock” helps tremendously.

Once you’ve found the whale, follow its trajectory and pace so you can anticipate where it might surface next. Put your settings on auto-focus, with a narrow group of focus points selected, so that the camera isn’t picking up items moving within the entire frame (like other boats, waves, birds). If you lose the whale, pull back from the viewfinder, and scan the ocean again.

To get the tail shot, watch a newly surfaced whale blow three times or so and then arch its back to signal a deep dive. Burst off several frames as the fluke rises and slowly disappears. It could be 15 minutes or more before the whale is in view again, likely far from where you last saw it. Patience comes in handy. Likewise, bubble-net feeding happens quickly, but you’ll likely see turbulence in the water just prior to the pod rising. They have a short “hang-time” so when you see it happening, wheel toward the action and press that shutter. Or increase your odds of success by shooting video.

To capture breaching, fin slapping, or spy hopping, look for a whale actively displaying the behavior, and head that direction. While you might miss the first bit of action, the whale is likely to repeat the performance, giving you a few chances to get the shot. If all else fails, throw your frustration overboard and just enjoy the show. Whales are magnificent, and your time with them will live on in real memories that are way better than pixels.

Comments are closed.