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Wondrous Whales: Photographing the Giants of the Deep

Encountering a whale in the wild is to encounter a mammal of sublime significance. Certified Photo Instructor Nathan Kelley has been lucky to experience these marine mammoths around the world, snapping dynamic photos of humpback whales in Alaska, diatom-coated flukes in Antarctica, and gray whales in Baja California. In celebration of National Photography Month, he’s sharing some of his favorite whale photos and moments, along with tips so you can capture your own. Get Inspired By Photos, Videos, Webinars, Stories, And Exclusive Offers. Sign Up

Humpback Whales in Southeast Alaska

When you plan a trip to Southeast Alaska, odds are there’s one incredible natural event you are hoping to see. For many people, it's a pod of whales bubble‑net feeding. This cooperative feeding technique performed by humpbacks isn’t a method used by all humpbacks. In fact, it's only been observed by a select number of individuals throughout the years. Sometimes working together in groups as big as 20 individuals, each member has a pre‑determined role to perform so they can maximize food intake for all. Whales dive down one by one, creating a net of bubbles which rise towards the surface while others herd schooling fish, most often herring, into the net. Then the “screamer” whale lets out a loud yell to alert the others it’s time to go up through the net, mouth open, to collect their bounty. They will then use their hairy baleen plates to filter out the fish from the mouthful of water.

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Gray Whales in Baja California

Getting the chance to be among gray whales in the protected nursing lagoons of Baja California is like no other experience. Here, mother gray whales teach their young how to live as a whale. Sometimes they might even bring their calves over to our pangas for a closer look and to learn more about the objects they share their waters with. During the old whaling era these lagoons were once used as hunting grounds. It’s incredible to think that there are possibly still whales from that time alive today who now are able to understand that the times have changed and we aren’t as big of a threat to them as we once were.

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Diatom Coated Flukes in Antarctica

Oftentimes when we get a look at whale flukes down in the cold Antarctic waters, we can see white, black, and brown pigmentation on the whale’s tail. Although the white and black pigmentation is used to identify individual whales, the brown patches will often change. These are known as diatoms, micro algae that develops on a whale's skin. Typically, they will shed their old skin but the cold polar waters limit how often they can do this so the diatoms linger. Using citizen science fluke databases such as Happywhale.com, we can see photo records of certain individuals that have a wide variety of diatom coverage throughout the years.

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Pods of Killer Whales

On many of our trips we travel through waters that offer opportunities to encounter killer whales. These matrilineal family pods ignite excitement for all aboard, staff and crew included. The sights of a male (bull) killer whale with a dorsal fin standing six feet tall slicing through the water offers many great photo opportunities.

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Whale Photography Tips to Try

NKelley Whale Day Photo #5.JPG

Prepare Your Settings
It would be nice if our whales would come to the surface, pose for us, and then go back down. Unfortunately, that often isn’t the case. That's why it is extremely important to have your camera settings ready to go so you don’t miss the moment.

A Fast Shutter Speed Is a Must
Setting your camera into shutter priority mode with a shutter speed of at least 1/1000, or even putting your cameras into sports mode will ensure you don’t walk away with motion‑blurred shots of the whales.

Opt for Burst Mode
Continuous shooting drive mode, or burst mode is also highly recommended to capture the whole moment with the whales. Each frame of a fluke up dive or even a breach will be its own unique frame.

Zoom Out for the Bigger Picture
Finally, the best tip I can give when photographing whales is don’t only stay zoomed in. You also want to zoom out and tell the whole story, give a sense of place to your photos, and where you are seeing these whales.