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An Underwater Photographer's Guide To Humpback Whales In Tonga
 August 15, 2009 @ 12:18 PM (EST)

By Karen Varndell

As you slip into the water for your first time, no matter whether you are an experienced photographer or a novice, nothing prepares you for your first Humpback Whale.

These majestic mammals will completely pull your focus away from any thoughts of f-stop and aperture and have been known to halt even the fastest of trigger fingers.

Humpback Whales are baleen whales, they reach up to approximately 16m in length and their pectoral fins are about one third of their body size. They swim gracefully through the water, but do so at speeds which are impossible for us to swim against, and so capturing photos of these mammals can be quite taxing.
Underwater Photography Tonga Whales

Shooting Ambient Light
As we are only snorkeling with the whales, we are shooting ambient light only. Strobes are not advisable because the flash can negatively affect the whales and result in extra drag when most of the time the whales are not within the distance that strobes can reach. anyway. Having some practice with ambient light photography will be a benefit, as well as snorkel practice to maximize your comfort. A lot of encounters with the whales are over deep water, and so being an able snorkeller will really help you in following the guides and getting into the best positions.

Tonga Whales Underwater Photos
Technical Considerations
Cruising at average speeds of 5 knots, shutter speed is an important factor for capturing sharp images. Most of the time I shoot with my shutter speed at 1/150th and above, with my f-stop bracketing between f/4 - f/7 depending on the time of day and available light.

Zoom lenses create the best opportunities for capturing the whales, I prefer my Nikon 17-35mm as it handles both mid range and close up shots. If you have only fixed focal lengths then a 20mm lens is a good choice.

I have had instances when amazing encounters have been happening but due to the time of day and light available I could only get a shutter speed of 1/20th - and believe me that is one un-sharp whale image! Your best time for shooting is generally between 10am and 2pm when the sun is more directly over you.
Underwater photographer's guide to Tonga Whales
Though the whales are largely black in colour, the South Pacific Humpback Whales have predominantly white stomachs, which can make exposure difficult especially when they roll over. Using your exposure meter inside the camera is very helpful, as otherwise your background will become too dark rather than the rich blue that you are hoping for.
Underwater Photography Humpback Whales

Whales prefer to approach you with the sun behind them so they can view you better. This can make shooting harder, as you are shooting into the sun, but by playing with your shutter speed you can actually capture some very nice images with the sun rays as part of the composition. Once the whales have become more relaxed then there may be the opportunity to put the sun behind you, however at this stage it is up to the whale and too much moving around may disturb the encounter completely.

Some of the best whale encounters are with the curious juveniles, as they are more likely to come and check you out. This is when your heart races as they get closer, fearing that they may be getting too close. Your best option in these instances is to try and keep one eye on the whales, whilst the other looks through your viewfinder. By doing this you will have better knowledge of how far the whale is rather than trying to judge the distance through your dome port.

Tonga Humpback Whale Underwater

"Singers" present the best opportunity for free diving with the whales, as they are generally very calm, and pre occupied with the singing, rather than noticing the divers. Only the males sing, as a sign of dominance, they hang with their heads town and flukes up, generally around 12m deep. Free diving with other whales may be possible if the whales are very relaxed. However in most cases, this can disturb the encounter and change the whale’s behavior.

Surface Intervals
Also, don’t forget the fantastic surface activities that are happening during the mating season -- full body breaches, lob tailing and pectoral slapping make for great photos. Limestone islands and sandy beaches create the perfect backdrop. For land shots, a longer zoom lens is the best. I generally use an 80-200 as it is easy to hand hold. Boats are never still and so again to capture that sharp, crisp image, high shutter speeds are used , especially when shooting breaching to stop the water drops. A shutter speed of 1/1000th on a sunny day is usually a good place to start. For breaches I am sometimes using shutter speeds of over 1/2000th depending on lighting conditions.
Breaching Humpback Whale
Not everyone has a DSLR camera, and many people take amazing photos with point and shoot cameras. The hardest part for some of the older cameras is the shutter lag, so planning your shot becomes more crucial. Most cameras nowadays are much better with the delay and have underwater shooting menus that can be very useful and give much better colour underwater. Red filters are not advisable as most of the time you are shooting across the surface and the whales take on the Magenta tone. Additionally, cameras that now offer digital video, allow more opportunities for capturing that magic moment.
When To Go
Tonga's whale season is June to November, however, remember that the action is unpredictable. The most reliable months for underwater photography of humpack whales is July to October when the whales are courting and calving.



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