A trio of sperm whales moves through the shallows off of Dominica
“Sperm whales are big, but the ocean is bigger.” These words of warning from trip leader and multi-award-winning underwater photographer Keri Wilk have reached a crescendo in my cranium as complete silence dominates the deck of the dive boat. We’re on high alert for the faintest of sounds you’d ever expect from a 100,000-pound marine mammal: the hazy hiss of a blowhole breaking the surface off the coast of Dominica.
In addition to a photographer and whale whisperer, Keri also happens to be a heck of a freediver—diving down to 100-plus feet when the action is slow—but he has nothing on the sperm whale. The whales spend much of their day hunting squid thousands of feet under the surface on dives that span 45 minutes. And they are quite punctual: The 8 to 10 minutes spent at the surface in-between these dives is the best chance to get up close and personal with these behemoths.
Directional hydrophone in one hand and a smartphone loaded up with a timer in the other, Keri knows the whales are on the rise to the surface. The only question is where. Just as the timer crosses the 45-minute mark, a pair of spouts interrupt the doldrums. The whales are here. And the clock is ticking.
Underwater photographer and trip leader Keri Wilk uses a hydrophone to locate sperm whales while they hunt for squid
Dominica’s Resident Sperm Whales
The first thing I notice about the sperm whales isn’t their immensity. After all, these are relatively mid-sized females and calves—measuring in the 20-to-30-foot range for the most part. No, it’s their beady, black eyes that pierce through the slightly turbid Caribbean water. What are those eyes seeing? Probably a clumsy intruder into their world.
That’s exactly what I am as I thrust my underwater camera system in front of my body in a futile attempt to match the whale’s pace. Even at relative rest, the massive marine mammal gains tremendous thrust from a flick of the tail. My freediving fins are no match.
With encounters lasting only a few minutes, it’s important to have your settings perfected before you get in the water with these massive marine mammals
For the most part, the encounters with the animals are fleeting. Sure, if you spent every day on the water with the whales for months at a time, then your chances of bearing witness to long-lasting, enchanting interactions—be it playful behavior or pooping—are higher. But in my week on the water in mid-April, I am not so lucky.
Most of the interactions can best be described as fly-bys—kicking as fast as we can alongside mothers and their calves as they catch their breath near the surface. From a photography standpoint, it’s a challenge to say the least. The sun is always on the move. One minute it’s casting harsh shadows from behind the whales, the next it’s at my back, and then there are times when the clouds blot it out almost entirely.
In order to focus less on the ever-changing lighting and more on the animals, I have set my camera to aperture priority and Auto ISO. I have limited my camera to a maximum ISO of 800 (there’s plenty of light near the surface and I don’t want digital noise) and a minimum shutter speed of 1/200s (any slower and there could be motion blur). I then select an aperture value of f/8 to provide more than enough depth of field for the large animal. And finally, after taking some test shots of my freediving fins, I fine-tune the exposure by reducing the exposure compensation by two-thirds of a stop.
It might seem like a lot of work, but once I’ve put these perameters in place, I can let the camera do all of the exposure work as lighting conditions change. This comes in handy when you are snuck up on by a group of eight whales and only have a few seconds to compose a shot before they dive.
Aperture priority is useful for situations where the lighting is constantly changing but the subject remains the same
Swimming in the Sargasso Sea
The sperm whales are slight in comparison to the large swatches of Sargassum that accumulate off the coast of Dominica. And so, when the whales decide to spend a day in the depths or on a jaunt to nearby Guadaloupe, we explore the hidden world that lies below the weed.
Technically a macroalgae, Sargassum has gas-filled bladders to help them stick close to the surface and photosynthesize during long voyages in the open ocean. They can span miles wide and several feet in thickness—and in doing so attract a variety of life. Mahi-mahi and tuna cut through the pillars of cathedral lighting streaming in from gaps in the sargassum surface.
Freediving under a seemingly endless patch of sargassum is an otherworldly experience
If you’re a skilled freediver, the best view comes from about 40 feet below the surface. It is from down here that the scale truly comes into focus. The weedy algae thickets the surface in such density that ambient light is virtually non-existent—sunlight perforates in sparing bits, giving the illusion of staring into a starry sky.
There’s plenty to see in the shallows. Sargassum is a micro-habitat of its own and offers refuge to many bizarre nomads. One such weirdo is the aptly named sargassum frogfish, which might easily be mistaken for just another clump of the algae if not for the eagle eyes of Keri.
Getting an image that highlights the frogfish’s colorful camouflage is tricky. It has evolved for thousands of years to stalk its prey and avoid predators without being seen—so an image that can attract the eye of the viewer must make this sneaky Sargassum subject stand out. I opt to shoot upwards through Snell’s window to include the cloudy sky for contrast and to provide context that this surreal scene is right within reach of the surface.
Several elements—Sargassum, frogfish, blue water, and sky—combine to make a more unique image
Dominica—The Nature Island
In the list of songs not expected to grace the FM waves of a Dominican radio station, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” from the 1959 classic musical The Sound of Music might be at the top. But that’s exactly what we hear while driving to dinner after a day of swimming with whales, photographing playful spinner dolphins, and climbing through a series of waterfalls in the rainforest.
The tune is an homage—or perhaps a song of scorn—to the Category 5 hurricane that killed more than 1,000, devastated so much of this part of the Caribbean, and indeed posed so many problems for Dominica going forward. But such as nature’s raw power has tested the resolve of this small island, so too has it offered a glimmer of hope for the future. Dominica’s moniker as “The Nature Island” holds true both and above the waves—and it very well may be the unquenching thirst of underwater photographers to capture this beauty that keeps the island afloat in uncertain times.
A mother and calf take off into the abyss after a brief respite on the surface