Big Animals – Humpback Whales, Dominican Republic, Tonga
Every big animal photographer’s portfolio requires several in-water shots of humpbacks. There is just something special about being in the water with these massive mammals, who have figured out how to live full-time in the ocean, whereas we can only visit. Populations of humpbacks migrate through every ocean and the best locations to see them are in their breeding and birthing grounds near the equator and their feeding grounds in the far north or south. Because humpbacks are protected (although currently not endangered), many countries have laws preventing boats and people approaching the whales.
SILVER BANK, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Small inflatable boats sail around Silver Bank in search of cooperative whales. Usually a mother and calf group are the easiest to get in the water with. A dive guide will usually get in with the whales first and if they stay then everyone else gets in. Having strong swimming skills will help you to keep up with the fast-moving whales. Strobes tend to slow swimmers down and the whales are too large to get proper lighting. Freediving is not allowed at Silver Bank. Weather and visibility can vary, as it is winter when the whales are present.
When to Dive
January through March is the humpback season, but go in the middle of the season for the most whales.
Always be ready on the boat with fins on and camera in hand, because not only can the whales swim away fast, but getting in the water first can help get you closer to the whales and without other people in your photos.
Be ready to swim fast and trust your guides as they have had lots of in-water experience with whales and they know what to do.
Don’t forget a camera for surface shots as the topside action can be as good, if not better, than underwater.—Brandi Mueller
Similar to Silver Bank, smaller boats are used to find and get close to the whales in Tonga. Captains will try to get in front of fast-moving whales and drop divers off so the whales swim by them. Tonga has some of the best visibility compared to other whale-watching locations.
When to Dive
July to October.
Focus on the encounter, not the shot. If there is one essential piece of advice for interacting with whales, it is to try to connect with them as opposed to going in exclusively to take something from them—like a picture. If you want to create intimate, meaningful images, you need to have an intimate, meaningful experience. You need to put the animal first and picture-taking second.
Find the blue and let the whales come to you. If you are looking to capture stunning images, you won’t get them in green murky water. Instead of following after whales for hours in the soupy water hoping for the conditions to improve, go to where the conditions are great and wait for the whales to come to you.
Context is everything. A lone whale in matte blue water does not usually translate into something unique or special. Seek out interactions—mother calf intimacy, calf playfulness, male heat runs—and work to capture images where the conditions magnify these, such as whale racing over reefs, bubble bellowing, chiseled light rays, and so on.—Shawn Heinrichs
Chance encounters to get in the water with humpbacks include Socorro from June to March. Go with the Solmar V.