How to Photograph Dolphins Underwater
What does it feel like to swim with wild spotted dolphins? The answer is not simple, for it is almost impossible to come up with adequate words to describe the emotions that flow through your mind and body while doing so.
To interact with a wild, sentient being, who invites you to be a part of the pod, invites you to play, dance, and twirl, simply put… is magical.
One of the most important things to establish is your relationship with wildlife and Mother Nature. The more time you spend learning about our oceans, our planet, and all of the living beings that inhabit them, the deeper your connection will be. Your desire to protect the things you care about will continue to grow with the experiences you have with them.
Ethics to consider when photographing dolphins
The most important thing to take into consideration when swimming with dolphins is to make sure you are doing so ethically. Please be sure to extensively research where you are going to swim, and make sure the dolphins are wild.
There are many places that offer dolphin encounters where many of them are captive, which is simply unethical. Please address this with the person or operator you are looking to go with, and be sure to ask questions. Make sure the dolphins are truly wild and free, exactly how they are meant to be!
When and where to swim with wild dolphins
There are many locations around the world where you can ethically swim with wild dolphins. There are areas where dolphins are known to be more prevalent, and sightings or chances to swim with them are greater. I definitely recommend swimming with them in the crystal clear waters of the Bahamas, especially if you are wanting to have interactive, playful encounters with them!
The expeditions I lead to swim with dolphins are in Bimini, a small island of The Bahamas. It is a short, 20 minute flight from South Florida. Bimini is home to both Atlantic spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins who live there, or roam the area frequently.
The pods will travel from Bimini to other islands within The Bahamas as well, but there are select groups of dolphins who remain in the local area regularly and are seen each year!
The spotted dolphins of Bimini have been studied for decades by scientists and marine biologists, along with passionate, like-minded people who want to experience what it’s like to share the water with them, while also understanding their behaviour and family dynamics.
The best time to swim with the wild dolphins in The Bahamas is during the summer months, when the weather is usually the calmest of the year. Wind can really play a role in limiting our ability to find the dolphins, so late May-September is usually when the winds and seas are calmest, which gives us a higher chance of encountering them.
The spotted dolphins in the Bahamas have grown accustomed to humans, and will typically seek out interactions with us! They are very social animals who love to make direct eye contact and dive down and play.
I have even seen dolphins stop moving completely and stick their heads out of the water towards the boat, seemingly waiting for the other humans on the boat to get into the water and play with them!
The bottlenose dolphins aren’t as social or playful with humans as the spotteds are, but it is still a wonderful experience to get in the water with them and observe their feeding behaviour.
The bottlenose are typically seen crater feeding, with their whole heads buried in the sand, sometimes up to their pectoral fins, looking to find mollusks or eels. Sometimes the two species will even interact together!
Respect and experience matters
After finding an ethical place to swim with wild dolphins, the next step is being sure to find someone who is experienced in the water with the dolphins, and a captain that is experienced with the area where you will be scouting for them.
It is essential that the people you go with are respectful of the animals at all times, and it is important to respect what they tell you both in the water and on the boat. You want to make sure you go with someone who truly cares about the wellbeing of the dolphins, and tries to read their behaviour and respond accordingly to make the most out of the experience.
There are some cues that we can pick up on that you might not notice or fully understand in the moment. There are reasons why the captain, crew, or trip leader will ask you to do something, or change the way you are doing something, in order to continue having respectable swims that both the dolphins and the humans can enjoy.
Sometimes we can get caught up in the joy of the moment and get a little too close, impeding on their natural behaviours, such as feeding or mating. It is important to learn and be aware of how your actions in the water can influence the dolphins’ behaviour.
Things to consider before going
Understand that you might not be able to get in the water with the dolphins right away, or every time. Even if we find them, sometimes they are not in the mood to play, or are moving too quickly and are focused on doing their own thing, rather than spending time playing with us. It is important to know that respecting the dolphins is the number one rule, which is also paralleled with the safety of everyone involved.
Watching how the dolphins respond to you in the water is essential for dictating how the interaction is going to play out. There are times when I give my friends a heads up that, if the dolphins appear to demonstrate a certain behaviour, I will ask them to slow down and give them more space, or not to dive down in certain situations where we might impede on the dolphins’ natural behaviour.
Of course, no one can be perfect all of the time, but it is vital to be willing to listen and learn from our mistakes or the experiences of others. Please understand that when someone points out that your behaviour in the water might need some adjustments, it is not personal, but suggested in order to maximise the quality of the experience.
Freediving versus scuba
A lot of people ask me if we can scuba dive with the dolphins while in The Bahamas. Although it is physically possible to attempt, it is something that I would recommend against doing. The dolphins move fairly quickly and sometimes change directions frequently in the water.
Having so much gear on while swimming with them would be way more of a nuisance than just freediving. The spotted dolphins don’t spend very much time on the bottom, and it is much easier to maintain a connection with them while we are swimming, and interact with them both on the surface and in the water column.
It would also be unsafe and unwise to do this while on scuba: the rapid ascent and descent that you would be doing would not be a safe practice. It’s also important to note that their behaviour can change significantly – sometimes they are traveling more, which requires us to get on and off the boat a few times in a row. This would be very difficult to do, given how much gear is required for scuba.
Camera equipment for photographing dolphins
Of course, you probably want to bring something you can document your experience with, and I definitely recommend doing so! There are so many different kinds of cameras, and the prices can vary significantly.
I think it’s important to set a realistic budget for yourself, and purchase something you can afford that will be suitable for you. You will also need to figure out what you want to do with your images- if you want them for personal use, social media use, or to eventually print them.
I have seen many people bring their phones in the water with them using underwater cases, and capture beautiful images! A GoPro is also a fantastic piece of equipment. The technology has certainly come so far and the quality is wondrous, especially considering the relatively low cost compared with the high quality content you are able to capture.
There are mid-range compact point and shoot cameras that can be either waterproof by themselves, or a small housing can go around them. An example is the Olympus TG-6: the quality of the images are great, especially considering the smaller size and more affordable price tag.
DSLR and mirrorless cameras are at the other end of the spectrum, and can be quite an expensive investment. The housings and other pieces needed to make the underwater system complete have a hefty price tag too. However, the quality is undoubtedly incredible, and the ability to print large is an added benefit!
When photographing the dolphins, it is important to use a lens that can shoot well underwater, and one that is wide-angle, because the dolphins tend to get extremely close to us. There are times when I cannot fit a whole dolphin in the frame because it is just that close to me!
I suggest contacting a local underwater camera shop and talking with them about what you are looking to accomplish with your work, and see their suggestions that will fit in your budget.
Real talk: it is SO important to also be aware that, just because you purchase a camera, it does not mean you are going to be able to accomplish your dream images right away.
I have heard countless stories of people purchasing the exact same camera setup as someone else, and then being frustrated that their images are nothing like the other, more experienced, photographer’s.
People often say, “your pictures are beautiful, what kind of camera do you use to take them?”, which would be the equivalent of saying to a chef, “this food is so tasty, what kind of pans do you use to cook it?”.
I try to remind new photographers of this when that question is asked, because it is important to remember that the more experience you have, the more flavour will be in your work!
Tips on creating images in water
You will also need to think about strobes and lighting. If you are scuba diving with curious dolphins in deep water, perhaps strobes would be more useful, depending on the depth of the dolphins, and how they react to them.
For the spotted dolphins we hope to encounter in The Bahamas, I highly recommend leaving the strobes behind. The Bahamas is a beautiful sanctuary for the dolphins and they are typically found in relatively shallow water. They frequently come up to breathe, so they are right at the surface and the need for strobes is not critical.
I have seen them react negatively to other people using strobes in the water before, which of course is something we want to avoid. For example, this past summer we had been swimming with a big pod of dolphins that were very relaxed and moving very slowly.
A second boat wanted to get in on the action with the dolphins, and a small group of freedivers dropped in the water nearby. I noticed one of the divers had strobes, and I was curious to see how the dolphins would react, since I had never actually been in the water with them to see the behaviour change myself.
It was very obvious. As soon as the strobes started firing, the dolphins took off and got really worked up. Previously, we had been swimming with them for quite some time and they were being very interactive. As soon as the strobes were introduced, they wanted to move on.
Thankfully, we got back on the boat and the pod circled back towards us and we were able to continue having our incredible swims with them, strobe free.
Something that goes along with the strobe topic is lighting. One important rule to remember while photographing anything underwater, is that you typically want to have the sun to your back. If you are shooting into the sun, the subject will have a lot of shadows that could diminish detail in the face or body.
When you have the sunlight coming through at an angle or from behind, it can really bring out the details in the eyes, and direct the observer’s attention to a specific area of the subject. However, I absolutely love shooting to see light rays. To get that, you must photograph facing the sun.
This also has another drawback besides the shadows: if you are shooting with an acrylic dome, instead of glass, the chances of seeing your lens reflecting in the dome itself are high. This happens to me quite frequently, as I currently don’t use a glass dome.
However, I don’t mind it too much because this is the set up that I could afford when I bought it, and I have come to accept that I am okay with a little bit of reflection in my images.
Composition is crucial when photographing anything. It can make or break your image. It’s important to understand the rule of thirds and try to make sure your subject has more space in front of its body than behind. Our human brains unconsciously detect that something is not quite right if there is no space that the animal could move into.
Another thing to remember about composition is something that used to drive me insane! I used to be so focused on just getting the eye in the centre of the frame, that I would forget to make sure the pectoral fin or the tail was fully in my shots. I cannot tell you how many pictures I have had to scrap because I cut off parts of the fins!
That being said, over time, I have started to realise that there is something beautiful in getting a closer image, in order to get that really fine detail in a dolphin’s eye. So, I do sometimes intentionally crop tails or fins off. I consciously make sure I am close enough to decrease the amount of water that is between my camera and the subject, to get the greatest amount of detail from the shot.
Read more: Composition in Wildlife Photography
Focus/ sharpness is my personal number one when it comes to photography. I would rather have my photo be completely sharp, and have other flaws, than be a soft image!
It’s important to remember that with wide-angle photography, especially with fast-moving subjects, you need to have your camera on continuous autofocus. To this day, I am still playing around with different focus modes and I learn something new every time I’m in the water. I think it’s great to try new things and see how different settings can change your images, and even make things easier in the water.
You need to have a fast shutter speed when photographing dolphins – they really love to play and change directions a lot, which can cause soft images if your SS is not high enough. I typically start at f/8 and change my ISO to help with exposure, alongside a fast shutter speed of at least 1/250th.
It’s also a good idea to capture a variety of images, whether this is dolphins interacting with each other, a lone portrait of one dolphin, shots capturing their different behaviours (mating, playing the seaweed game, or a mother and calf being affectionate), or focusing on showing the connections that dolphins make with humans.
Get comfortable first
Take your time, get comfortable in the water first! Whether you’re on scuba or freediving, you have to be comfortable with your gear, how it works, and with your surroundings.
Photography can be very distracting from the environment and give you tunnel vision. If you are not comfortable in the water with your gear, buoyancy, or other essentials before adding a camera to it, you can put yourself or others in a dangerous position.
Once you are ready to begin with a camera, remember to be aware of your surroundings. Don’t keep your eyes glued to the menu, settings, playback, or in the viewfinder – keep your head on a swivel. Always keep tabs on where the boat is, where your dive buddies are, what animals are around you, and where you are in relation to all of those things.
Sometimes, when there’s so much going on around me, I will be hyper-focused on getting an image, and look up at the last second and realise I almost swam into the side of the boat! ‘Shooting blind’ is also a great way to photograph wildlife without being ‘stuck’ in your viewfinder the whole time.
It is important to understand what settings mean, and how to change them while in the water and before you go in the water. I highly recommend practicing on land so you can understand the main components of shooting manually, and how they influence each other.
The next step is to understand where those controls are in an underwater housing, as each is different, and how to quickly adjust them while you are in the water. Over time, you will be able to look at how bright the day is (whether it is cloudy or sunny, and what time of day it is), and how bright or shallow the water appears, and make an educated guess as to which settings will be right, before you even get in.
After taking a couple of images, take a quick peek in the water to make sure your exposure seems right. Otherwise, you can wind up with unusable images at the end of the day without even realising!
Perhaps one of the most important things to take away from this article might surprise you: put your camera down and fully immerse yourself in the moment with the dolphins!
Be engaging, fun, playful, and make that eye contact! The dolphins really do respond to this and, if you have your face pressed into your viewfinder the whole time, you will miss out on the deep connections with them!
I always try to remind my friends of this when we are out with the dolphins. Of course, it is great to capture these life-changing moments for a multitude of reasons, but even more important than that is establishing those eye-to-eye connections that will stay with you for the rest of your life.