Photographing Whales

Photo of Orca whales off Vancouver Island, Canada by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.


Nikon D300s| f/8 – 1/3000 sec. | ISO400

One of the best places to see and photograph Orcas and Humpback Whales in North America is in the narrow strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. I traveled to Johnstone Strait to photograph these magnificent creatures of the sea. Whether you drive or fly in and rent a car, follow the signs north through the city of Vancouver, cross the Lions Gate Bridge, and drive eight miles north to the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal. If you are not a Canadian citizen, you will probably need a valid passport to drive across the border or to fly into Canada.

As you approach the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal, follow the signs indicating your destination. You pass through a tollbooth where they take all major credit cards. Get in the numbered lane marked on your ticket, stop, turn off your engine, and wait for the boarding announcement over the P.A. system.

From the ferry in Nanaimo, keep to the right and head north onto Highway 19A. It’s a four-hour drive from Nanaimo to Telegraph Cove. Spend the night in Nanaimo and start the long drive north in the morning. Head north on Highway 19A, which soon merges into Highway 19. From the port town of Campbell River, it’s a two-hour drive to Port McNeill. Ragged peaks above river valleys and many small lakes along the route make this the most scenic part of the drive north.

Photo of Bones sign at Telegraph Cove, Canada by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

Bones Sign at Telegraph Cove

Nikon D300s| f/6.3 – 1/1000 sec. | ISO400

My itinerary included three whale-watching tours. One from Telegraph Cove with Stubbs Island Whale Watching Tours, the second out of Port McNeill with Mackay Whale Watching, and third from Alert Bay with Sea Smoke Whale Watching. In Telegraph Cove, small rental cottages perched on stilts are connected with a wooden boardwalk that circles the north side of this tiny cove named for the telegraph office erected here in 1912. The tour office of the Stubbs Island Whale Watching Tours is in the last building on the far end of the boardwalk. The first and oldest of Vancouver Island’s whale watching tour operators offers tours each day from May through early October. Make reservations in advance during summer months. Port McNeill has a better selection of lodging.

Photo of Telegraph Cove, Canada by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

Telegraph Cove

Nikon D300s| f/11 – 1/250 sec. | ISO200

© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

I took a four-hour cruise on their sixty-foot, all-aluminum Lukwa, custom built as a whale-watching vessel. Photographers can get a higher camera position from the upper deck of this aluminum boat. A humpback whale slowly circled tiny Stubbs Island, a few miles offshore. It blew a tall spray into the air before raising its dorsal fin above the surface of the water. It would do this three times, reappearing about a hundred feet farther away each time. As it dove, its tail flukes appeared.

Humpback Whale in Aialik Bay

Nikon D300s| f/6.3 – 1/2500 sec.| ISO400

Photo of Sealions off Vancouver Island, Canada by Robert Hitchman 
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All rights reserved.

Sealions: If the opportunity comes along, click that shutter button.

Nikon D300s| f/63 – 1/1250 sec. | ISO400

It’s not easy to evaluate your images on your digital SLR’s monitor. I leave my overexposed highlight indicator turned on when I’m shooting. If I see the light areas of an image blinking, I quickly delete the image and shoot another with two-thirds of a stop less exposure. Make a few test shots first, before you are out on the water, to fine-tune your exposure.

Photo of Humpback whales off Vancouver Island, Canada by Robert Hitchman 
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All rights reserved.

Humpback Whale

Nikon D300s| f/7.1 – 1/2500 sec. | ISO400

© 2011 Bob Hitchman. All rights reserved.

Totem: Nikon D300s| f/9 – 1/45 sec. | ISO200

After a half-hour of this activity, I was able to predict when the whale was ready to dive and was able to capture some better photographs. Every time the humpback dove, it stayed down for five to seven minutes. Usually someone on the boat, with a good pair of binoculars, would yell nine o’clock or five o’clock and all the cameras would be pointed in that direction. According to Jackie, the onboard naturalist, these humpback whales winter in the Hawaiian Islands, their breeding grounds. Here, they feast on krill, tiny creatures they scoop up with huge open jaws, then close their mouths and force all the salt water out through their baleen filters, before swallowing a meal.

Even in July, it was necessary to wear a warm sweater under a waterproof windbreaker. A woolen stocking cap was warmer than a baseball cap. Pack your SPF 70 sunscreen for this trip. Glare off the water can burn you badly, even on a cold day.

This is a stunning area with photographic opportunities all around you, so when you’re not whale watching, be sure to capture all that the area offers.

Location: Vancouver Island, Canada
by Robert Hitchman, Photograph America

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