Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Breach!! --A Whale of a Tale

Humpback whales make the long transpacific migration each year from their winter calving grounds off Maui to the cold krill-filled Alaskan waters to feed. Some of the best locations to see these magnificent creatures are right outside the capital city of Juneau and within Glacier Bay National Park during the summer months.

In the early 1990's whale photography was not yet the popular obsession that it is today. There weren't nearly as many spoon-fed type photography trips that one now finds advertised in various magazines and online. If you wanted to get out on the seas and look for whales you were pretty much on your own to organize such an excursion.   Of the various times I managed to visit with Alaskan whales, two of the trips in particular stick in my memory.  The first involved recruiting two great friends, John Warden and Kurt Ramseyer, along with Kurt's son, Jason.  Kurt owned a 40 foot fishing boat called the Osprey which he kept docked in the tiny community of Haines where he lived.  John and I both agreed to pay for diesel fuel if Kurt would pilot us around looking for whales. 

We set out from Haines and spent the next several days cruising south down Lynn Canal and then northwest into Icy Strait.  I don't know how many miles we covered but it was plenty.  We stayed mostly within protected waters and saw about eight humpback whales.  One came right near us and created a so-called "bubble net" around the entire boat.  A humpback does this to trap fish and krill, eventually surfacing with its mouth wide open to ingest whatever is within the circle of bubbles.  This made for some tense moments but the Osprey was never bumped or upended.

Most whale photographers have a single objective in mind--to capture a full breach.  Scientists do not know why whales engage in this behavior. Some think it is to help digest their food while others maintain that jumping out of the water is nothing more than play.  Whatever the reason, everyone agrees that the ultimate whale watching experience is to observe a full breach when a whale jumps totally out of the water and then comes crashing back into the sea with a huge white splash.

We had been out for seven days in typical coastal Alaskan cloudy, drizzly weather.  We had seen whales breach, sometimes repeatedly for half a dozen times, but far off in the distance, way beyond the range of our camera lenses.  We were getting frustrated by the lack of photographic opportunity. But then the eighth day dawned clear and sunny with the seas very calm. And just to the north of us, right near Point Adolphus at the entrance to Glacier Bay, we saw a humpback breach. Immediately we headed in that direction.   The Federal Government prohibits approaching closer than 200 yards to a humpback whale and we stayed well beyond those limits. But we did get close enough so that a 300mm (equals six-power magnification) lens would provide an adequate shot. Often when you see a whale breach in the distance, by the time you can get over to within reasonable proximity all such activity has ceased and you are left with nothing to photograph.  That seemed to be the case on this day.

But one has to remain optimistic and prepared. So Kurt put the boat into idle mode and drifted while all three of us got our cameras ready and aimed at where the whale had last launched itself out of the water.
I was using a Nikon FE camera with its accessory motor drive and was push-processing Fujichrome 100 film to ISO 400. Even though the day was sunny I liked the extra film speed to make certain I could capture any action without blur, especially on a rocking boat. And since I didn't have autofocus back then, I liked to shoot at f8 for a little better depth of field and thus more chance of the whale being sharply in focus. On my camera was mounted a non-AF 300mm/f4.5 Nikon lens.  I prefocused on where I thought (hoped!) the whale would appear. John and Kurt did the same.  Minutes passed. Nothing happened. More minutes passed.

Kurt became momentarily distracted by something and looked down.  At that very instant the whale breached, arching toward the right as it rose higher and higher out of the water, with one of it's enormous flukes pointed skyward and water pouring off its gigantic bulk.  John and I shot away, capturing identical images. Kurt's cursing as he missed the shot I'm sure could be heard a half-mile away. Then the whale crashed back into the sea in a great white spray and all was calm.  During our ten day trip this proved to be the only significant whale photo opportunity that we had.

It required a separate trip to come up with additional  decent whale photographs.  This time we did some "Bare Boat Chartering", which means renting a boat with no hired captain and going out on your own.  Kurt, John and I again joined forces, along with Juneau photographer John Hyde. Kurt was the only one of us with seafaring knowledge so he was recruited as pilot and captain.  We loaded food and water aboard and set out from the Juneau harbor.  As a safety lifeboat we towed behind us a small skiff with a 15 HP outboard motor.

This time we headed south into Frederick Sound, an area known for reliable concentrations of humpbacks. Along the way we explored Tracy Arm and talked Kurt into climbing on to a large iceberg so we could indulge in our usual photo ops. Once this was out of of our system we continued southward toward the whales. 

While humpbacks are basically a given in terms of what a photographer will find to photograph, there is also the chance, although by no means guaranteed, of finding orcas (killer whales). Such encounters, when they do occur, are often brief. While you might be able to spend hours observing the same few humpbacks, this is not the case with killer whales as they pass through an area, looking for either salmon, seals or sea lions. You get a glance, perhaps a few minutes of contact, and then they are gone. We lucked out and did see a pod of orcas as we entered Frederick Sound, and one even breached. But the photography was marginal.

Then we concentrated on humpbacks. The water was fairly calm and we were in constant view of one or another of various whales coming to the surface and making a loud breathing sound as it exhaled through its double blowhole.  There were no great breaches happening but every now and then a whale would sound (dive) and as it did so the tail fluke would provide for good photographs as it appeared in full just before the whale would disappear beneath the surface.  With these longer dives the humpbacks would stay down a few minutes before reappearing somewhere nearby and taking some big noisy breaths accompanied by a mist spray.  The breaths sounded like loud whooshes.

One of the humpbacks positioned itself vertically in the water, with its head pointed directly downward and its tail fluke and part of its rear body pointing skyward and remaining almost motionless above the surface. None of us missed this photograph since the whale held the position for a considerable length of time.

We were all so excited by this sight that we forgot about everything except taking photographs. Even Kurt, in his eagerness to capture the shot, forgot that his first duty was as captain of the boat.  So as we all snapped away with out cameras, the rope that connected the trailing skiff with our main boat quietly wrapped around our propeller shaft, finally choking off the engine entirely when Kurt tried to pilot the boat forward.  We were stuck  (but at least we got our photos!).   John Warden stripped down and bravely dove into the frigid water to try to free the rope.  He went under for barely two seconds and then came shooting up with the breath knocked out of him. The water was just too cold to function in without a dry suit, which we didn't have aboard.

 Plan B was to tow the bigger boat ashore using the skiff and the tiny outboard.  Alaska has big tides--around Anchorage the tides can be 25 feet or more--and we took advantage of this. Kurt towed the boat as close to shore as possible and then we just waited and let the tide go out. After several hours the boat began to list toward the left. As the tide continued to recede we wondered whether the boat would tip over. Fortunately it stabilized at about a 40 degree slant. When steady in that position we got out a hammer and screwdriver and big knife from the tool kit aboard and pounded away at the tangled rope. There were even loops of older rope around the propeller from previous parties not having paid enough attention. It took about an hour of work but we finally were able to free the propeller shaft.  Then all that was left to do was to wait for the tide to come back in and float the boat.  While we waited we cooked dinner on board, standing at a crazy angle while we did so, and sitting almost sideways as we ate.

They just don't make whale photography trips like that any more. 

Mark Newman

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