Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are magnificent animals. Being brought up in Minnesota and now residing in Colorado, the biggest mammals I see regularly are bull elk and cattle. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when a full-grown humpback whale surfaced for a breath of air a mere 30 yards from me. I did not see the whale right away but heard it’s exhaled breath behind me.
Turning around, what did I observe, but the largest animal I have ever seen. It glided through the surface of the water much like an eagle easily uses updrafts to soar high in the sky. It was graceful and beautiful and did not make a sound as it dived back under the ocean waves.
This was just the beginning of our evening cruise into the Pacific Ocean near Maui, HI. The cruise was arranged by my sister in-law as a celebration of my brother’s 40th birthday. Down below the deck of the boat there were drinks and appetizers but celebrating, drinking and eating would have to wait because the camera was unpacked and I was searching for whales. I pondered if this is how Captain Ahab felt as he obsessed and searched for the white whale. My whale watching quest did not require much searching; there were humpback whales in every direction and the biggest problem was which whale to photograph.
There were multiple cows with calves and few lone bulls swimming and playing around us. Half listening to a crewmember rambling in my ear, I picked up on the fact that the cows were teaching their
calves how to breach the surface of the ocean. This type of play provided valuable life skills for the young humpback whales. Both mom and kids would slap a tail or fin creating a large splash where the appendage struck the surface of the water. Several times whales would completely catapult their bodies out of the water and belly flop back into ocean. This behavior was the hit of cruise because everyone watching would yell, clap and cheer in an effort to encourage more catapulting and more splashing.
Photographing this whale behavior was challenging to say the least. Low light, black whales against a dark background, a moving and rocking boat, and very fast action all conspired against a good photo. I captured 853 photos hoping that 10% would be in focus. Imagine my surprise when almost all of the 853 were good to great. I could satisfy my ego and tell you that it was the photographer that made it work but that would only be half the truth. The other half is the fact I was using a great camera with a super fast lens.
Using the Canon 1Dx and a Canon 70-200mm f2.8L lens really improved the probability of getting an in-focus photograph. The autofocus system was incredibly fast, even in low light, and allowed the capture of in-focus images that a lesser camera would have missed. Also having the ability to continuously shoot at 10 frames per second also helped nail some shots. Needless to say, I was really impressed with the performance of the Canon 1Dx.
As soon as it began the cruise was over. I could have stayed out there for another three days but all good things must end. It was a memorable time and I thank my sister in-law for planning and getting all of us out on the ocean. Oh, by the way, Happy Birthday little brother.