Photographing Humpback Whales in French Polynesia and the Dominican Republic

Swimming with humpback whales is a life-changing expertise that may be loved in particular areas similar to Moorea in French Polynesia or the Silver Financial institution within the Dominican Republic


By way of the Chinese language zodiac, 2022 was the 12 months of the Tiger and 2023 is the 12 months of Rabbit, however for my private astrological leaning, these have been each the Years of the Whale. In October 2022, I went to French Polynesia to work on a narrative for Alert Diver about freediving with huge animals, selecting October to be there throughout whales’ season in Moorea. Then, in March 2023, I led a photograph tour to the Silver Financial institution of the Dominican Republic, additionally for humpback whales. Each locations are iconic in that they’re identified whale sanctuaries, the place the humpbacks congregate yearly to mate and delivery and put together their infants for the lengthy trek to their winter feeding grounds. Photographically, they’re considerably totally different although.


A curious calf checks the creator out in Moorea, French Polynesia


French Polynesia

The water is often clearer in Moorea and the underwater encounters are sometimes spectacular. This previous season had a number of actually gregarious calves that set the tempo of the encounters by actively swimming in the direction of snorkelers on the floor. I used to be actually shocked on my first drop close to a mother and calf—“close to” being a relative time period, as a result of you aren’t allowed to get within the water nearer than 100 meters (~330 ft) for an grownup whale and 150 meters (~500 ft) for a mother and calf. The child—that too being a relative time period for an animal 15 ft lengthy and weighing 1.5 tons—beelined immediately in the direction of me!

I used to be used to ready round on the floor to “possibly” get shut sufficient to get a shot, however I needed to clear my thoughts of that notion and react to this lucky happenstance. Underwater photographer Rachel Moore occurred to be on the opposite aspect of the encounter and acquired a very nice shot of me within the candy spot. (Thanks Rachel!) I additionally had a beautiful encounter with a mother and calf the following day. There was a freediver within the water that served as a compositional factor, and that shot ended up on the quilt of the primary quarter 2023 concern of Alert Diver.


A freediver has an unforgettable encounter with a big humpback whale and her calf, offering the proper cowl shot for a current version of Alert Diver


Dominican Republic

Whereas the whales in Moorea are close to the island and accessible through day boats, the Silver Financial institution, 72 nautical miles off Puerta Plata within the Dominican Republic, is just accessible through liveaboard dive boats. One actually important distinction between Moorea and the Silver Financial institution has to do with topside picture alternatives. In Moorea, you possibly can’t strategy the whales contained in the lagoon, and the boat can’t get nearer than 100 meters (~330 ft). So it’s troublesome to search out alternative and proximity to shoot the topside breaches, spyhops, and tail slaps that so outline humpback behaviors.

Within the Silver Financial institution, you have a tendency to spend so much of time within the boat gauging the whales’ habits to find out if they may tolerate an in-water encounter, and very often whereas that’s taking place they’re energetic on the floor—a lot so that you’ll want a dry bag to guard your digicam! We had one shooter on this final journey who had his topside digicam and lengthy lens completely inundated by a playful calf who got here proper subsequent to the boat and threw up an enormous wake. That might by no means occur in Moorea underneath their commentary protocols, for good or unhealthy.


Regardless of their immense dimension and weight, humpback whales typically breach fully from the water offering superb alternatives for topside photographs


A tail shot of a giant whale because it dives to the depths under


This isn’t to say you gained’t have underwater encounters on the Silver Financial institution, particularly with Mother and calf. The calf will breathe at shorter intervals than the mother, so a talented boat driver and information can put you within the water the place the calf would possibly presumably come to the floor, and wherever the calf is, the mother gained’t be far under. Nevertheless, the water is just not usually as clear on the Silver Financial institution as it’s in Moorea, so it is very important get as near the whale as doable.


Each time a humpback whale calf heads to the floor to breathe, mother is all the time shut by!


Suggestions for Photographing Humpbacks

Whale images underwater is broad angle, in fact. However the resolution is whether or not to go along with a rectilinear wide-angle zoom just like the 16–35mm or a fisheye zoom just like the 8–15mm. Should you may predict you’d have a playful calf eager to get shut, the fisheye would possibly work. It could be your finest shot ever, as a result of it will be the proper instrument for that exact second. However I by no means felt like I had so many photographs within the financial institution that I may very well be that discretionary. In most encounters, the narrower angle of view of the rectilinear is extra prone to ship the very best end result.

Most likely the very best answer is to hold two housings, one with 16–35mm and one with 8–15mm. Then, you probably have a extremely mellow whale that enables a prolonged encounter, you possibly can go to super-wide extra rapidly than swapping lenses and port extensions on the boat.


A trio of whales heads for the floor in unison


Technically, photographing humpbacks is sort of simple. For these pictures, I used to be capturing a Canon EOS R5 in Seacam housing. I like to make use of accessible mild, capturing shutter precedence at 1/500s, with a –2/3-stop publicity compensation. Often, I bump the ISO to 640—form of an f/8 and be there state of affairs. Your proximity to the whale is extra important than any publicity wizardry. Proximity and composition will outline the very best photographs.

Topside images would require a protracted zoom. The recent lens on our boat was the brand new Canon EOS RF 100–500mm f/4.5–7.1. I discovered that coupled with the R5 was hitting autofocus rapidly and precisely. The whales-to-boat distance is so variable, a main telephoto will likely be restrictive, so a protracted zoom is a extremely vital instrument on the Silver Financial institution. Nevertheless, in Moorea I by no means took it out of the drybag even as soon as.


A breaching humpback whale is a sight to behold


A tail slap on the floor supplies one other likelihood to witness humpback whale habits


To see extra of Stephen’s superior pictures, try his DPG Interview with the Execs function or his web site,