Magazine article Geographical

A Whale of a Time: With the Possibility of Spectacular Breaches and Tail Fluking, It Is Unsurprising That Whale Photography Is Growing in Popularity in Many Global Coastal Resorts

Magazine article Geographical

A Whale of a Time: With the Possibility of Spectacular Breaches and Tail Fluking, It Is Unsurprising That Whale Photography Is Growing in Popularity in Many Global Coastal Resorts

Article excerpt

High on many wildlife enthusiasts' bucket lists is wanting to see the largest creatures on Earth--whales. The sheer size of these ocean-dwelling mammals dwarfs anything found on land; for instance, scientists say the blue whale is the largest animal to have ever lived, even bigger than the largest dinosaurs. A fully-grown blue whale can reach 30 metres in length and weigh 200 tons. It's tongue weighs as much as an elephant. Despite their incredible bulk, blue whales are graceful and powerful swimmers, capable of speeds exceeding 50km per hour in short bursts, and diving up to 20 minutes at a time before surfacing for air.

However, these prodigious abilities were never a match for the scale and determination of the 20th century whalers who wiped out more than 99 per cent of Antarctica's blue whales before an international ban was enforced in 1966. Today, and particularly since the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) ban on all commercial whaling in 1986, whale watching has boomed as a global tourist attraction.

Although blue whales remain a rarely encountered species elsewhere, frequent sightings are made in the waters off California, where a colony returns each summer to breed. This colony is often visited by whale watching tours and is part of the sub-species of California blue whales numbering round 2,200 individuals that frequent the eastern Pacific coastline from Alaska to Costa Rica.


Of the world's larger whale species--blue, fin, sperm and humpback--it is the smallest of the four, the humpback, that is by far the most frequently seen on coastal whale watching tours. Although conservationists reckon humpbacks are less numerous than sperm and fin whales, they spend more of their time nearer the surface than their deep-diving cousins. Humpbacks are also seen closer to shore, especially when migrating to the warmer tropical and subtropical waters of their range to breed and give birth.

They are also renowned for their spectacular breaching abilities whereby they leap out of the water and crash back to the surface with a thunderous splash.

In recent years, humpbacks have been photographed breaching within splashing distance of whale watching vessels. While scientists aren't certain why whales breach, they haven't ruled out it being simply for fun! The frequency of breaching and close proximity to boats when doing so, would suggest humpbacks are deliberately putting on a show for their human spectators.

Another sought after spectacle of whale behaviour prized by photographers is 'fluking'. The fluke--a whale's tail--is all that is seen above the surface when the whale dives. Humpbacks have an angular, wing-shaped fluke that makes a distinctive composition when framed tightly in camera. Each fluke is unique; it is the whale's fingerprint, with each whale identifiable by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes.


The return of humpback whales to waters where they have been previously unseen for decades points to a recovery in their numbers following the IWC ban. So with the chances of a photographic encounter now better than ever, what should the photographer consider before boarding the boat?

Every whale photography expert will tell you to have your camera ready at all times because of the unpredictable nature of the subject. Most of the time you're on board, the whale will be unseen, hidden beneath the surface, yet he will see and hear your boat long before you're aware of his presence.

This is where it becomes important to know a little about whale behaviour. Because humpbacks head to the surface in a straight line, they usually first lift their head out of the water from a distance, almost like a periscope, to survey their surroundings. After submerging again, they are more likely to do something spectacular the next time they appear: it could be a tail slap, fluking, or even a walloping breach. …

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