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Australia's Minke Whales
By Brandi Mueller, April 15, 2013 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

By Brandi Mueller

Having traveled in search of photographing “the big stuff” underwater, I know by now that there’s always a good chance you won’t find what you’re looking for. And even if you are lucky enough to find your “white whale,” there’s the distinct possibility your subject won’t want to cooperate.

But photographing Dwarf Minke Whales off of the Great Barrier Reef, I couldn’t help but feeling these sensational cetaceans were trying to find us.

 

Animal Profile: Dwarf Minke Whales

Dwarf minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) are baleen whales that eat krill and small schooling fish, feeding in the Antarctic waters in the summer and coming north to warmer waters to breed and give birth during the Austral winter.  Small for a whale, dwarf minkes can look like overgrown bottlenose dolphins and are usually around 26ft as adults.  Their most notable characteristics include a white ring around their midsection and white pectoral fins.

Dwarf minke whales are seen around the Great Barrier Reef from March through October, but June and July is when 90% of the sightings occur.  Mike Ball Dive Expeditions and their fabulous vessel, Spoilsport, dedicate these months to the minke whales and run special charters in search of them.  But I still think it’s the dwarf minke whales looking for the Spoilsport.

 

Finding Minke Whales

On our first day, the boat motored toward a dive site that has been a favorite of the whales in years past, and still several miles from the dive site we heard the boat coming to a stop.  Going out on the dive deck, the crew spotted two dwarf minke whales.  In my past whale watching trips snorkelers are usually herded onto smaller, not-so-comfy chase boats, which involve lots of whale tracking, jumping in the water, watching the whales swim away, getting back into the boat and repeating.  Not here.

The crew put out two 100-foot-long lines with small buoys tied to them and told us we could get in the water on snorkel.   I was sure the whales weren’t even going to think about coming near us, but I got in the water anyway, camera ready.  Once everyone was in the water and hanging on, one curious minke whale swam under the lines seeming to look up at us.  We spent almost two hours with this minke and the captain finally called us back in to finish moving the boat to the dive site.

Once at the site, it appeared our two curious whales had followed us and found two other whales the way.  Even though the Mike Ball charters are designated minke whale charters during this time, they offer the normal diving schedule too (unless whales interrupt it) so we then had the choice of going for a dive or more snorkeling on the lines. 


I decided to get my scuba gear on and check out the site and although proper minke whale etiquette prohibits swimming after or chasing the whales, I didn’t need to.  The whales kept making circles around the boat, checking out the snorkelers and then swimming over to the bommie and checking out the divers.  It’s an incredible experience.

 

Photographing Minke Whales

Mike Ball is one of a few operations that have special permits to allow snorkeling with minkes.  To reduce any negative impact on the whales, touching or chasing is prohibited.  Staying calm and quiet in the water usually helps the encounter last longer as loud noises and lots of splashing seem to scare the whales away.  These rules are to keep the whales safe (and keep them from being spooked and swimming away), but they can make photographing them a bit challenging. 

Snorkelers must hang onto the lines, so you have to wait until the whales come close.  Luckily, they are very inquisitive will come close quite often: Although sometimes it was to swim right under us instead of alongside, which I would have preferred to get eye contact.  The main way to be successful with this limitation is to spend as much time in the water as possible and shoot away.  As others started leave, the whales came closer more often to the few of us who were left.  And eventually one swam right next to me, looking at me the whole way.

No strobes are allowed, which can make it challenging to make the mostly blue animal “pop” from a blue background. However, because the Minkes are so large and in open water, strobes would only serve to pick up backscatter.  Again, patience plays an important role.  Waiting until the whales come really close reduces the water between the camera and the subject. 

I achieved better results by manually white balancing, but this needed to be done quite often dependent on if the sun was out or behind a cloud and throughout the day. You can also use RAW conversion to change the white balance point in post-processing.   I also used magic filters on a few very sunny days when the sun was high in the sky and was successful getting more color definition in the whales.

I used either a 10.5mm fisheye and a 12-24mm lens.  The fish eye helps to get the entire animal in the frame when the whales came close, but when they are more skittish a rectilinear zoom proves more appropriate. I sometimes had difficulties getting my camera to auto focus when they were further away and blended in with the blue background. If they are sticking at the same distance, you can try locking in your focus instead of relying on auto-focus.

It isn’t uncommon to also find the Minkes hanging around dive sites, which can provide a more even view of the gentle giant.  Divers are still asked to not chase the Minkes or use strobes, so usually snorkeling provides more reliable encounters, with more color and light in the shallow water.

Mike Ball also invites a minke whale researcher aboard each minke charter to help them collect data as well as share information on the minkes with passengers.  This really enhances the trip by getting to learn about the animals you are trying to photograph. 

It was really exciting to be so close to these marine mammals and photograph them, feeling like they were maybe as curious about us as we were about them. 

 

 

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