How to Photograph Humpback Whales Underwater
Humpback whales are one of the most magnificent creatures on earth, and photographing humpback whales underwater is a dream for many photographers.
To encounter a humpback whale in the water is a magical experience and one that should be handled with the utmost respect for this magnificent creature.
To get great images of humpback whales underwater, you need a fantastic team, an open heart, and the ability to listen to your team. Your team will act as your guides in and out of the water.
You should ensure you have a skipper and crew who know how to read the behaviour of whales and prioritise your safety and respect for the whales.
A good team is integral to a positive underwater humpback whale swim and photography experience.
How to swim with humpback whales
You need to be fluid, adaptive, and have freedom of movement in the water to photograph these fast-moving, enormous creatures. So, snorkelling and freediving is, in my opinion, widely the best method for swimming with whales.
Scuba tanks are too cumbersome, and the bubbles can cause distress to the whales. Whales, including humpback whales, use bubbles as part of how they communicate, whether it be defensively, for play, for aggression, etc.
I have observed whale bubbles used in various behaviours, and I strongly advise against the use of scuba equipment.
Additionally, although they are common practice for freedivers, for your own safety when swimming in open seas in remote locations, I do not recommend the use of weight belts. You should always be slightly positive in your buoyancy.
Shallow water blackout is a real concern and not worth the risk!
You will never be able to dive deeper or faster than a whale, nor do you want to push the whales into deeper waters.
Free diving to depths, especially with cows and their calves, can disturb or encroach on their routine, and they will swim away or dive deeper, which we don’t want!
Anyway, the best natural light for photography in the water is within 30 feet of the surface.
Read more: 8 Tips for Freediving Underwater Photography
Where to photograph humpback whales underwater
Swimming with them, however, requires expert skippers and locations with regulations to ensure the protection of the whales and the safety of the guests.
My favourite place without a doubt is Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga, with hundreds of islands, reefs, and clear blue water.
However, you can also go to Moorea in French Polynesia or Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic.
How to find an ethical whale tour company
It is important when booking a tour that you ensure the company that will take you is ethical. Here are some helpful tips to help you find ethical tour companies.
- Research: Look for tour operators with a history of responsible and ethical whale-watching practices.
- Regulations: Choose a company that follows local and or international regulations, such as strict approaches to minimise disturbance to the whales. If local laws are not implemented, ask them what their ethical by-lines are, and if they abide by them.
- Expertise: Choose a tour operator with knowledgeable and experienced guides who can provide educational information about the whales and their habitat.
- Ask questions: I always recommend directly asking the tour operator about their practices and philosophies. And look for transparency and a commitment to responsible and ethical whale watching.
Why photograph humpback whales
Out of all whale species, humpbacks are best known for their active and playful behaviour, which can make for particularly dynamic and interesting shots.
Their large size, distinctive tail flukes, long pectoral fins and bucket-loads of personality all add to their appeal as a photographic subject!
They have such alluring, mysterious, yet curious and playful characteristics, and if treated with respect, they will allow you to watch very intimate and unique interactions of their personal lives.
One of the most important things you can do before photographing humpbacks underwater is to learn and become more aware of their behaviour.
Read more: How to Photograph Ocean Giants
Humpback whale behaviour
When photographing humpback whales, it is important to be aware of their behaviour and how it might inform your images.
Humpbacks are renowned for their playful and social behaviour, feeding patterns, migration patterns, and surface behaviours.
By being aware of these behaviours and anticipating their movements, you will be better equipped to capture unique and dynamic images of these magnificent creatures.
Here are some types of humpback behaviour to observe that will guide your image capture:
Character and surface behaviours
Humpbacks are known for their ability to display playful, curious behaviour, including breaching, tail-slapping, and spy-hopping, which can make for lively shots.
Predicting these behaviours can be difficult, but the more time you spend in the water with them, the better you will get at it! They will show slight nuances that you can learn to read, for example, not all fluke-ups mean they are going to dive deep!
And when they are about to turn, they lead with their ‘cheek’ and not their nose.
This motion is much more obvious and easier to observe in calves, so if you have an opportunity to photograph calves underwater, they can be an easier subject to start with even though they are so playful.
They can sometimes shock themselves (and you) with their eager curiosity and progressive confidence, so always be observant and ready.
Follow their footprints
Look out for what is also called a ‘footprint’. These visible trails show up on the surface of the water, marking the spots where humpbacks have surfaced for breaths. They indicate which direction thethe whales are travelling in underwater.
If they are going to breach, their dive is very sharp and happens very quickly. They’ll go really deep and as they appear again, their pectoral fins are down by their side like a torpedo and their whole body is powered by their peduncle.
You will want to stay well clear of them during this behaviour of course!
Humpbacks can be very social animals and can often be seen interacting with each other in pods, with their calves, and with other marine life and marine structures, offering opportunities to capture unique behaviours.
Cow and calf shots can be particularly effective, as they can be seen to interact quite closely. The calf may be tucked underneath its mother’s pectoral fin, which is a lovely scene!
You may also see them lazily sleeping on the sandy bottom, or scratching against a reef or along the sand.
During mating season, male humpbacks compete for the attention of female humpbacks, leading to competitive and energetic behaviours in the Heat Runs. This is my absolute favourite behaviour to watch.
I think the most whales I have in a shot during mating season is around 20!
It is the most spectacular underwater sight you will ever witness. Leviathans, like ocean gladiators, compete for the females – with grunts, rams, growls, bubbles, and fluke whips (the crack of the flukes that echo through the water columns).
First, there are two, maybe three humpbacks, then as the group rounds the island and reefs you can see up to 24 or more charging! The female keeps the pace and chooses the direction and depth.
There are usually two or three main competitors.
The primary is fighting off the others, the other males and even females in the back are waiting their turn to strategically ‘pounce’, or are just spectators. Finally, the less dominant whales merely watch, taking notes on how to win her heart.
You may find you don’t know where to point your camera if you are lucky enough to witness this! But, staying calm and focusing on one whale in particular can help you make the most out of this situation.
Humpbacks feed on krill and small fish and have specific feeding behaviours, such as bubble-netting, which can be interesting to observe and photograph.
In Norway, for example, the humpbacks will come from under the herring ball to engulf them.
You can spot them usually from a distance by the movement of the water’s surface combined with the sudden changes in orca behaviour.
Orcas are often around, and the ‘herring fizz’ is a reminder that they are nearby, and you need to be still, wait, and be ready.
How to get great images of humpbacks underwater
Once you are ready to start shooting, there are a few more things to consider to capture great underwater photographs of humpback whales.
Invest in good quality underwater camera gear that you can swim freely with.
Have the widest zoom lens adoption available to you, so you can capture as much of the whale in the frame as possible, as humpbacks are huge! I use a 16-35mm and 8-16mm fisheye on a full-frame camera.
Good lighting is key for great underwater photography. Try to position yourself for the best available light and use natural light – strobes or other additional light sources should not be used.
Strobes are not easy to swim freely with and the flash startles the whales. Good natural lighting is key to getting great humpback whale images.
When it comes to camera settings, custom settings for the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, are key for a quick response time. Mainly because changes in the behaviour of the whales, the light, and the sea conditions can happen extremely fast.
Some good settings to start with are an automatic ISO, around f8 for edge-to-edge sharpness, and a shutter speed of at least 320 fps to stop the ocean movement, your movement, and the whale’s movement.
Read more: 9 Tips for Creative Underwater Photography
Be respectful and minimize your impact on the whales by keeping a safe distance, observe and watch how they respond to your presence, they will let you know where they would like you to be positioned.
Avoid sudden movements, loud noises, splashing, and deep diving, especially with calves and resting mothers.
Humpbacks can be unpredictable, but they will show many tell-tale signs about where they want you to position yourself from them, so be patient, observe them and wait for the right moment to capture a great shot.
Read their behaviour, anticipate the whale’s movements, and be ready to adapt your composition accordingly!
They move very quickly, so try to think one step ahead. The more time you spend in the water with them, the better you will become at this – as with all underwater photography skills!
Composition is crucial for great images. Always watch and observe first. The humpback will let you know in its own way where they want you to position yourself from them.
They may want you on the shady side, or at the fluke, so stay there and take advantage of the shots you can get from there. Move with very little splashing or erratic movements and move as a group.
Vary your shooting angles (without encroaching on their space of course) to get a range of unique perspectives, such as shooting from below or from the side.
Be aware of background
Pay attention to the background and try to position yourself for a clean, uncluttered background to maximise the impact of your shots.
Seeing a humpback whale up close, at surface level, is unforgettable. But the chance to see and photograph them underwater, at home in their element, is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I am lucky enough to have been able to make swimming with and photographing these magnificent creatures part of my job, with over 1000 full days, and more than five seasons in the water with them. Yet, I will never tire of seeing them beneath the waves or trying to capture the perfect image.
For many people, you may only have one opportunity to do this! So, don’t panic when you’re in the water. Try to stay present in your experience, and try not to let your knowledge of underwater photography and your camera fly out the window with your excitement.
Compose your images quickly and thoughtfully. Some of these encounters happen so fast; even though you may feel like time has stopped, you will have hardly blinked before it’s over! You may not get a chance to check your images until you get off the boat.
You might get lucky enough to have a prolonged experience when the whales hang around and are happy and intrigued by your company. If so, remember to pause.
The most important advice I can leave you with is to simply enjoy the moment; don’t let the pressure of coming away with the perfect image stand in the way of your experience of being near these enormous, sentient creatures.
Remember to lower your camera for a moment, and to watch the whales with your eyes – not through a lens. These are the memories that you will carry with you forever!