When Whales Leap

Humpback Whales, Kilauea Point, Kaua’i.

In last week’s post,  I described my experience in whale watching/photography from boats and some of the issues involved,  but of course, it’s not always necessary to go boating in order to see these amazing creatures.

On the north coast of the island of Kaua’i is Kilauea Point which is notable for a couple of reasons.     Firstly,  being geographically prominent on the coast there is a historic lighthouse (which was undergoing repair and restoration when I was there).   Secondly, the point and the surrounding land is a National Wildlife Refuge with several species of seabirds nesting in large numbers in the trees and in burrows.    And finally,   the point offers excellent views out over the waters where,  in season,  whales congregate to breed.

The most frequently seen species is the humpback whale but I also sighted false killer whales at this location.    When planning my Hawaii trip,  I allowed 2 days at this location primarily because of the bird watching opportunities which I knew would be available, but in addition to the birds,  Kilauea Point provided some of the best whale photography opportunities of the trip.

The most spectacular behaviour of these whales is “breaching”,  where the whale will thrust itself vertically out of the water before falling back onto the surface splashing water everywhere.   Given that whales spend so much of their time underwater and un-sighted,  it can be difficult to anticipate just where one may surface let alone breach,  but it’s certainly worth having the camera ready,  your finger on the shutter button and your eyes peeled when you know they are about.

On the first day, I had a terrific run with the whales sighting groups,  or pods,  of as many as six or seven individuals.    The sightings included several mothers with new calves in close attendance,  often with an “escort” as well.    The escort is a male who will follow the female closely in the hope that she will become receptive for mating.

Humpback Whales, mother and calf, Kaua’i

Breaching behaviour

Breaching is something that whales both male and female,  young and old do.   The exact reasons why they do this are not clear and there are many theories.    Is it a way of announcing their presence to other whales?   Is it to try and impress other whales?   Is it simply fun?  (my favourite theory!)     Given the bulk of the adults,  it’s logical to think that they must dive deep and swim upwards hard to get enough momentum to propel themselves out of the water.   But studies suggest that they in fact can breach from just below the surface with just one or two flicks of their tail flukes,  such is the power that they possess in the tail.

Photographing whales

As far as photographing these whales was concerned,  they were mostly at a distance,  at least when breaching,  and so the telephoto lens was essential.    I used the 500mm with the 1.4x tele-extender mounted on a gimbal head and even then many of the images required cropping.

Fortunately, with the Canon 5D Mark 2,  I had 21 megapixels to work with and so the files can take a fair bit of cropping and still give an acceptable image quality.    High shutter speeds were used of course to capture the action and try and freeze that water spray,  ISO was around 400 to 500 for most shots.

A number of other people were present and taking photos,  mostly with compact cameras or SLRs with shorter lenses.    Seeing these whales behaving as they were was thrilling but sadly most of those people will be disappointed when they get home and review their photos.    As much as we like to say it’s not about the equipment,  this is one occasion where there is really no substitute for a high-quality long telephoto lens.

Audio-visual slideshow

The following slideshow features a number of burst mode sequences of these remarkable animals,  if they convey even a little of the spectacle I witnessed then I’ll be pleased.    The audio track is a recording of humpback whales “singing”,  not recorded by me I should point out.   Click on the image to activate the slideshow.

Humpback Whale Breaching, Kaua’i.

Patience rewarded

In addition to having the right equipment and being ready to react when something happened,  the other main requirement was patience!   On each of the two days,  I arrived at the refuge just after opening and stayed almost until being ushered out by officials at day’s end,  taking a break for some lunch.    I lost count of the number of people that saw me with my gear set up and asked what I’d been photographing.   I’d tell them,  “I’ve been photographing birds but also whales,  if you look out in this direction (pointing) you may see the whales,  they were breaching just a few minutes ago”.     People would typically get impatient after 10 or 15 minutes and leave.    Minutes later I’d get some of my best photos for the day!     I’m sure some of those people will go home and tell others that there wasn’t much to see…. if only they’d slowed down and taken the time!

Any questions,  suggestions, observations?    Feel free to use the Contact page.  ~KD.