From Jonah’s sabbatical in the belly of the whale to the classic tale of Moby Dick, whales have been the subject of awe and human speculation for eons. But just how many of us have ever actually seen a whale underwater in real life? Certainly not as many as would like to.
Spotting whales in the water is a rare and wondrous event, especially in today’s day and age. Many subspecies of these aquatic mammals, the largest of their kind, are critically endangered. We landlubbers are lucky to catch a glimpse every now and then from a boat or coast.
If you seek them out, you might just get more than a glimpse, but an actual photograph. I’ve got a whale of a tale for you about just that. In my experience, photographing whales is one of the most joyous experiences a wildlife photographer can be part of.

Location, Location, Location

The first thing you need to know is that location is key. It would obviously be foolish to go diving indiscriminately in hopes of seeing a whale, so do your research.
Know which kind of whale you’re looking for, and where they can be encountered in which season. Many of these places are limited to scientists and professional photographers, in which case you’ll need a permit that an experienced operator can provide.
Some great places to see whales that I’ve been to include:

  • Dominica and the Azores for sperm whales
  • Tonga and the Silver Banks of the Dominican Republic for humpback whales
  • Sri Lanka and Mexico for Blue whales

Underwater View

If you want to get a gorgeous underwater shot, being able to snorkel and take photographs underwater with is obviously key. Forget scuba: you are too slow, and more importantly the bubbles emitted tend to frighten the whales.
Practice makes perfect, so practice using your camera in (and its housing if it’s a DSLR as opposed to a waterproof point and shoot) and take underwater photos before your big day so you don’t make mistakes when the time is right. Getting comfortable also means knowing the water temperature and gearing up accordingly, and being prepared to spend a lot of time in and out of the water.
Getting in the right position can be even harder than actually taking the photo. First, forget about chasing the whales. While they appear slow, they are actually much faster than any human. The best strategy I found is to look at the whale’s trajectory when it surfaces and position your boat ahead of where you think the whale might surface next. Then, wait. If you are right the next time the whale surfaces, get in the water and hope that the whale comes close to you, though not straight at you (the whale will deviate its trajectory but at a 40-45 angle).
Lastly, do your best not to frighten the whale. The best photographs happen when they are curious or indifferent! While the whales are big, you have to deal with the same issue of water density that is always a challenge in underwater photography. I use the Canon 16-35 the most. If you are lucky and the whale comes close to you, the 16mm should be wide enough to get the whale picture.

Top Side View

While underwater pictures are thrilling, the top side photo opportunities can be also very rewarding. Pictures of tails while the whale dives down can be very pretty depending on the light and background. For humpback whales in particular, the sight of the whales breaching (jumping) out of the water is magnificent. The adult humpback can measure 70ft in length and weight 40 tons. It is like a yellow school bus jumping up in the air (except the humpbacks are not yellow…)
To capture those moments, you will need a good telephoto zoom. The Canon 70-200 or 100-400 or their equivalent by other manufacturers are very effective in my experience. Make sure that you are shooting at least at 1/1000 to compensate for the rocking and movement of the boat you are on. An F stop of 8 works well. You may have to push the ISO to get these metrics to work for you. Make sure you put the auto-focus on Servo as you may not be able to focus on one point for long.
Whether or not you ever get the privilege to see, swim with, or photograph a whale, I can say from experience that it really puts life in perspective to share space with these large and amazing creatures. I hope my photographs can be a good surrogate for those not quite so lucky!