A stunning white southern right whale calf: Only one in every 100 calves sport this amazing coloration
In recent years, expeditions to photograph southern right whales in Patagonia have seen a surge in popularity. For both the whales and photographers, the fact this is possible is quite remarkable, as it wasn’t too long ago right whales were hunted nearly to extinction.
It is commonly believed that right whales earned their name through unfortunate and morbid circumstances. They are inherently curious and would often approach whale hunting boats, which made them easy to harpoon. Once harpooned, they tend to float. Those two factors made them the “right” whales to hunt. It led to a nearly complete decimation of the species throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Since then, northern right whale populations have not recovered and remain dangerously low, with the latest estimate being 341 individuals. The southern right whale, however, has benefited tremendously from concerted conservation effort in several places around the globe. Nowhere has that success been more evident than around the Valdes Peninsula in southern Argentina. The Patagonian coastline is a protected haven for all different types of wildlife and its two bays, Golfo San José and Golfo Nuevo, host large numbers of southern right whales every year from around June through December.
Mother and calf frolic in the shallows just below the surface
A large adult breaches into the sunset at the end of another epic day of whale encounters
Rules and Regulations
The Argentine government and the citizens of the peninsula have instituted very strict regulations relating to whale watching and boating activities while the whales are in the area. Some regulations include limiting when, where, and for how long a whale-watching boat may be on the water and restricting non-whale watching boating activity during the season. These regulations have positively impacted both the community and the whales, as the ever-increasing population of southern right whales also brings in more tourists. However, it is expressly forbidden to enter the water unless you have been granted a professional photographer’s permit from the Argentinian government.
There are numerous criteria that have to be met to be granted a permit, some of which include a list and examples of recent publication credits and a photo plan and/or goal. If you are able to secure a permit, you must go with a representative of the Argentine Park Service, on your vessel, and only two permitted divers are allowed in the water at a time. The Park Service representative has the final say on which animals you may try to photograph and how long the interaction can take place. Thankfully, as the permits are only granted to professionals, the supervision is usually a formality, as everyone has extensive in-water experience.
Southern right whales are curious creatures who will often approach photographers
Conditions and Challanges
There are two main challenges to shooting southern right whales. The first is the weather. The Patagonian coastline is a desert and very exposed, so storms and high winds that originate in Antarctica will easily rip their way north with little to no resistance. On a five-day excursion, it is usually expected to lose one-to-two days to bad weather.
The daytime surface temperatures during prime season (August and September) is approximately 50°–55°F (10–13°C), and the water temperature is not much different, so staying warm is an important consideration. Perhaps the biggest challenge once in the water is visibility. The whales inhabit sunny, shallow water so there is always a noticeable amount of suspended particulate and phytoplankton. The particulate limits visibility, but as strobes or artificial light is prohibited, concerns about blown-out backscatter are virtually non-existent.
A white calf puts on a show at the surface
Mother and calf kick up a cloud of sand as they swim close to the bottom
Southern right whales still have that insatiable curiosity regarding boats that was almost their downfall, and it is not uncommon to motor into one of the gulfs, turn off the engine, and have a mother and calf beeline straight to your boat. Along the Patagonia coast, the whales tend to inhabit shallow waters, generally 30 feet (9 meters) or less; photographers generally have ample light throughout the water column, and it is simple to dive down to the bottom and photograph them from the seafloor for a more interesting perspective.
Interestingly, the mother and calves tend to behave just as a human mother would at a playground. The calves will usually be the ones that exhibit bold curiosity, and they will often swim straight at divers for a closer look. Mothers hang back and observe the whole interaction. I’ve had several interactions where I am entirely focused on shooting the calf and I’m startled by the much-larger mother who has come up from my periphery to supervise her calf’s playtime.
Mum stays back and supervises while her baby comes in for a closer look
Most of the interactions last between 30 minutes to an hour. As with all wildlife encounters, there are some that last much longer and others that are just a fly-by. However, as the whales are inherently charismatic and their population is increasing, if you are in the water and a whale loses interest, often it is only a matter of just patiently floating for a few minutes and a different pair will swim over to inspect you. The crown jewel of southern right whale photography is an encounter with a white calf. About one out of every 100 births results in a white calf. They are not albinos, but rather a pigment morph, and the white coloration will gradually fade to black as the calf grows. The white presents a stunning contrast against the larger adult (assuming you can get them both in frame), and also just a talking point, as it is so uncommon to see such a striking animal.
Few things in this world can properly prepare you for that first underwater encounter. Even to this day, after several trips, I still get a thrill when I enter the water. Unlike other areas in Argentina, you enter the water quietly and slowly make your way to the whales, or more often than not, they make their way to you. It is not difficult to spot them on the surface, but once you dive down, it becomes a bit more challenging. Personally, I prefer the seafloor shots, so I will dive down in anticipation of the whale’s arrival. There are few experiences like standing on the seafloor, waiting for a whale or a pair to materialize out of the gloom. The challenge becomes keeping your eye through the viewfinder to frame your shot, while embracing the actual experience, and being aware that objects in the viewfinder are closer than they appear. The whale will usually turn and swim right past you, and it is hard to describe the feeling of having a multi-ton animal swim so close to you that you make eye contact as it goes past. Southern right whales have intelligent and sentient eyes. They look at you, and you can almost feel their emotions and empathy as they glide past. For lack of a better description, it is an existential experience to lock eyes with a southern right whale.
The whales are normally found in shallow water, so there is plenty of ambient light to illuminate the shot, a blessing considering strobes are not allowed
Camera Equipment and Settings
The mechanics of shooting southern right whales is challenging, as you will be freediving, and due to usual visibility issues, you will need to be right on the whales. As you are shooting with ambient light only (to reiterate, no strobes are allowed), you need to be aware of the sun’s position as you shoot. Fisheye lenses are a must—we are talking whales here after all. For cropped sensors, the Tokina 10–17mm fisheye zoom is my lens of choice. I now use a Canon 8–15mm fisheye zoom with my full frame camera. More than likely, most shots will be in the 10–11mm range for the Tokina, as shooting a 40–50-foot (12–15-meter) whale from close range will require a maximum field of view. The Canon 8–15mm on a full-frame camera will give either circular fisheye at 8mm or frame-filling fisheye at 15mm.
With regards to exposure protection, I prefer a 7mm or 8mm wetsuit over a drysuit. Drysuits ensure you will stay dry and warm, but dramatically limit your maneuverability in the water and also make it difficult or impossible to dive down and get pictures from the seafloor. A boat jacket or surf parka is also highly recommended, as at the end of the day, you can take off the cold wetsuit and get wrapped in a warm, dry parka.
A close encounter with a whale is an unforgettable and life-changing experience
Hopefully, the protections and conservation efforts afforded the southern right whales in Argentina can be applied to populations elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere and perhaps even to the northern right whales. To have both species back to healthy numbers would make for a better ocean and a more certain future for a spectacular and special animal.
Conservation efforts are working and the southern right whale is making a successful comeback
Julian Gunther was born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, and was immediately drawn to the water. Currently a resident of California, he maintains a particular affinity for animals that inhabit temperate and cold waters. A self-proclaimed “water junkie,” his curiosity and thirst for knowledge led him to partner with the Marine Conservation Science Institute in their Great White Shark Identification Guide and their ongoing project tracking great white sharks at Guadalupe Island, Mexico. (He’s even got a shark named after him.)
Julian’s footage has been featured on Discovery’s Shark Week, National Geographic Channel, MSNBC, Weather Channel, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and ad campaigns by GoPro and Captain Morgan. Check out more of his work on his Instagram page.
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