Whale Ho!

Don’t ever pass up an opportunity to see whales at play.. And always pack a camera…

There are some magical things to do in Western Australia. Whale watching is an experience that will just blow you away.

The first time you see a whale is awesome

There are many places around Western Australia where you can go to do whale watching. Whales migrate up the coast from the Antarctic waters and then return down the coast. There are long seasons when it is easy to book a trip.

You get close

At one time, whaling was a huge industry in Australia as you will see if you visit Albany on the south coast. Now whales are welcomed and the people that go out in boats, go not to slaughter the mammals but to photograph them. And each year it is getting better and better. It’s an experience that we try to enjoy every year.

These days you can be surrounded

In recent times we’ve gone from seeing just one or two whales to seeing pods of whales all around us in every direction. On some occasions we’ve had over 20 whales at different points of the compass. This is an amazing result of the care that has been taken on this subject.

At one time there was just a small boat that headed out from Albany and you heard about it from the tourist bureau or word of mouth. We heard via word of mouth and went out the first time on a very small craft. It was also the start of an addiction to viewing the whales. Today you often see larger boats and you even get morning or afternoon tea served for you.

You can snap the whale tail going under on most trips.

The iconic tail shot still needs a zoom lens

The elusive photograph of course is to try to get the picture of a whale breaching and you have to go out quite often if you want to capture these photographs. Mostly whales like to swim through the water and blow. If you go on a whale watching tour you’re pretty much guaranteed to get an iconic tail shot. You do need to give your gear some thought.

The breaching shot is always a treat
The breaching shot is always a treat
The breaching shot is always a treat

You need a zoom lens

But what to use and what to take with you? It’s an important question. Some people go with 50 mm or 35mm lenses on their cameras and when they come back the whale occupies a little bit half of a smidge in the photograph. While mobile phones are good for photographing people the action shot in the ocean is usually the preserve of something bigger. Having said that whales do come quite close to the boats these days and it is possible to get some very interesting shots using a mobile but it definitely is at the bottom of the list as far as getting real whale images is concerned. This is a zoom lens territory 101. That is if you want something to show for the trip.

We’ve tried a few lens options

Phones are good for some things but….

Over the years we’ve tried a few different approaches. I’ve been whale watching with the Canon 24 to 105 mm lens but it wouldn’t be my recommendation. The 28 to 300 mm and the 100 to 400 mm lenses are much more viable. Probably my all-time favorite lens for shooting whales is the Olympus 40 to 150 mm pro series lens. But you get the picture. You want something long that you can adjust very quickly and you want a camera that locks the focus quickly. On the recent trip we took the Nikon 28 to 300 and it was well worth using because the Nikon focus is so good. As I minimum I suggest a zoom that reaches 2-300mm.

Focus can be a problem in glare conditions and when the colour of the whale can look similar to the ocean. The difficulty of glare on the water can confuse the focus of cameras so setting the shutter and autofocus to continuous is essential. This poses a difficulty with high megapixel cameras as the buffer fills earlier and you can miss the major shot while your buffer is clearing. I suggest buffer depth above 30 for whale shooting.

Action

The Whales come close

Another surprise when taking photos of whales is that they do come very close. They sense that its safe to swim up to, around and under the boats that you are in. So having a fixed telephoto isn’t ideal. You will find yourself adjusting your zoom quite a lot.

Coming right at you!
And they come to check you out as well

Humpback Whales and Southern Right Whales are an amazing sight.

Humpback Whales and Southern right whales are common around Australia. They swim up the coast both on the east and west. Southern Right Whales are a beautiful creature and are as curious about us as we are about them.

Sometimes the whales are on a definite trip and just swim past. But they are often playful and well worth the trip out. Don’t be surprised if you are affected by coming close to such amazing creatures. Some are overcome at the experience.

We recommend seeing the whales from Augusta & Albany. You can also go and see whales from Perth locations such as catching a boat from Hillaries Marina in Perth. We have found that smaller craft are often a better choice which is why we book from places like Augusta and Dunsborough/Busselton etc.

With Auto focus I find that most cameras struggle with reflections. This is common with all brands. I have found that Canon, Nikon & Olympus have performed well for me with misses well down. The Sony cameras that I have used with the exception of the A99 and A9 gave more misses in focus with glare.

The Humpback

What is a humpback whale? The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the fifth largest of the great whales. Its scientific name comes from the Greek word mega meaning ‘great’ and pteron meaning ‘a wing’, because their large front flippers can reach a length of five metres, about one-third of their entire body length!

Why called Humpback?

They are named humpbacks because of the distinct ‘hump’ that shows as the whale arches its back when it dives.

What do they look like? Humpbacks are ‘rorquals’, whales which have distinctive throat grooves. They also have knobs on their heads known as ‘tubercles’, each of which has a long coarse hair growing from its centre which is believed to act as a sensor. They have very long flippers (more correctly known as ‘pectoral fins’) with knobs on the front edge, and a humped dorsal fin. They are blackish, with white undersides and sides. The underside of the tail fluke is usually white with black patterning, which is unique to each humpback, like a fingerprint, so can be used to identify individual whales!

Sizes

Males average 14.6 metres and females 15.2 metres long. The maximum length is 18 metres and a mature adult may weigh up to 45 tonnes. Humpback whales have a life expectancy of 45 to 50 years.

The Southern Right Whale

What is a southern right whale? Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are about the size of a bus. These marine mammals each weigh up to 80 tonnes and may reach 18 metres long. The first time we went out to see the whales we were shocked at their size. Although southern right whales are huge, bulky creatures, they are also agile and active animals, and their acrobatic antics can keep whale watchers amazed and entranced for hours. However, their commonest behaviour is lying around like logs at the surface.

Appearance

What do they look like? Southern right whales have horny growths called callosities on top of the head. Southern right whales harbour large quantities of parasites (small crustaceans known as whale lice), and it is possible that the callosities may serve to reduce the area of the body in which parasites can inhabit. The patterns formed by the callosities are different for each individual, which is useful for researchers collecting information on patterns of movement and behaviour, as they can easily tell which whale is which. The head of a southern right whale is large — up to a quarter of the total length of the body — and the lower jawline is distinctively bowed.

No Fin on the back.

There is no fin on the back. The flippers are broad, triangular and flat and the body colour ranges from blue-black to light brown. There are often white markings, usually on the belly. The twin blowholes produce a high, V-shaped blow.

Where do they live? Southern right whales live in the cooler latitudes of the southern hemisphere, where they were once abundant. Whale watching tours that encounter southern right whales operate from Albany and Esperance in winter. They can also be seen from the shore in places such as Ngari Capes Marine Park (between Busselton and Augusta) and Point Ann east of Bremer Bay in Fitzgerald River National Park. Sometimes during the winter months, people living in the Perth metropolitan area can view them from shore, especially in Marmion Marine Park.

What a marvellous experience and an opportunity not to be missed.

Taking a look right back at you
At play

Other considerations

Glare from the ocean intensifies light and sunscreen is a definite must. The cold wind can give you a chill. I use finger-less gloves and a beanie when I go shooting. Its good to get into position quickly and find a spot where you can wedge yourself in and hold on tight. The boats do move in the swell a lot as to find the whales the boat may head out further than you expect. Not always as the whales can come in close. However I have seen plenty of sick people looking green. Just a thought.

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