My favorite image of the trip and my first-ever sperm whale encounter
The sperm whale is perhaps the most famous of all cetaceans, and the best place in the world to encounter this elusive species is the beautiful island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Known locally as “The Nature Island,” Dominica is beautiful above and below the surface. Rainforest and waterfalls cover the interior of the island, and deep water close to shore provides the perfect sanctuary for whales, dolphins and all kinds of other marine life. Nearly 200 different sperm whales have been identified and reside in the island’s waters, and it has become a popular destination for underwater photographers hoping to capture images of these amazing creatures.
Scotts Head, the most southerly point of the island and the base for our trip
An aerial view of Soufrière village on a beautiful sunny day in Dominica
Government-issued permits are required to swim with the whales, and rules are strictly enforced to avoid harassing or stressing the animals. Only one permit is issued at a time so there is never more than four people in the water, but as our guide explained on day one, sperm whales are basically living submarines, and so interacting with them can be very challenging. They spend the majority of their time thousands of feet deep, foraging for food, and are only seen at the surface for around 10 minutes before diving again for up to an hour. As you can imagine this severely restricts your time in the water, and the vast majority of the day is spent on board the boat looking and listening for action. The daily routine goes something like this…
First of all, you need to locate the whales, so the captain uses a custom-built hydrophone to listen for any familiar sounds underwater. Once he hears the distinctive clicking noise of a group of sperm whales, he heads in that direction while watching the water closely until one or more of the whales comes to the surface. Once they are up, the clock is ticking and the chase is on!
A diver follows his favorite whale as far down as he can go as she disappears into the depths
A giant whale takes its last breath and begins to dive
Searching for the distinctive sound of whales clicking using a custom-made hydrophone
When you are close enough, the captain will get you in position and tell you when to enter the water. You are well advised not to chase or swim after the animals as this will simply make them change direction or dive to avoid you, but if you remain calm and don’t make too much noise, the whales will often swim directly towards you, which can be a little disconcerting but is exactly what you want when taking photos with a super-wide-angle lens!
After spending an entire week doing this, I must admit that I got the distinct impression that the whales were not as interested in me as I was in them! Most of the time they would pass by with no more than a cursory glance in my direction, but these few seconds of action are still magical, and if you are prepared, you can capture some amazing images that make all the effort worthwhile.
Turning the camera as the whales dive down provides nice vertical shots
Swimming alongside these gentle giants is a life-changing experience
In case you hadn’t noticed, sperm whales are huge, so a wide-angle lens is a must. As always, I took along my trusty Tokina 10–17mm fisheye zoom, and it was the perfect tool for the job. I would start with the lens zoomed in to 17mm, and then if the whales came close enough, zoom out to the widest setting. Unsurprisingly, all of my best images were taken at close range, but having the option to zoom in when the whales kept their distance definitely helped.
Strobes are completely unnecessary, so unless you plan to dive elsewhere on the island (which is well worth doing) then you can leave them at home. Because you will be swimming and passing the camera on and off the boat often, the more compact your system, the easier it will be. Whatever dome port you use, be sure to bring a cover for it so that it is protected at all times when getting in and out of the water.
Some whales swim with their mouths wide open, displaying impressive teeth
This side profile of the whale alongside a freediver gives you a good idea of its girth and size
Many photographers who have done this trip swear by using aperture priority as a way of getting the correct exposure, but I personally still prefer to have manual control and change settings on the fly. Although the encounters are often fleeting, I found it relatively straightforward to make adjustments to my settings, before the whales came, good enough to shoot.
My starting point was normally 1/125s at f9, and I would often increase the aperture or shutter speed depending on my position and the conditions after taking an initial test shot. There is no need for high ISO settings—at least there wasn’t on my trip—so I set ISO to 200 and left it at that most of the time. The lower the ISO, the less noise I would have to deal with later in post, and as I was lucky to have mostly clear skies, it wasn’t really an issue.
This whale was watching me closely while making a splash on the way down
Trying to keep up with the whales is difficult but does provide some good photo opportunities
The water is a deep dark blue color, which is the perfect backdrop for the whales, but there can be a lot of particles in the water, so you should shoot with the sun at your back and be prepared to do some work in the editing suite later to clean things up. In all honesty, I didn’t really have much of an opportunity to experiment with different techniques as my main focus was on capturing decent, well-lit images of the whales whenever the rare chance presented itself.
At the end of the day, getting good images of sperm whales isn’t straightforward. It requires hours of dedication, a sense of adventure, and plenty of patience. I won’t deny becoming frustrated at times with the lack of action on the slower days, but the ocean is not a zoo and if you want to see these amazing creatures up close, this is the only way to do it. Hopefully, I can return one day and encounter more sociable whales, but considering I had limited chances to get good images during my time in Dominica, I am still very happy with the final results.
My last encounter of the entire trip may have been the closest and the best!
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