A whale of a time
Earlier this month, during my trip to the west of Iceland, one great highlight was a whale watching boat trip, organised by Laki Tours, in the waters of the North Atlantic off the Snaefellsness peninsula.
After some extreme weather caused a postponement, the trip was rescheduled to the final day of my time in Iceland and was also moved from Grundarfjörður to Olafsvik in order to be closer to the most recent sightings of whales.
There seemed to be about 50 other people gathering for this trip at the appointed time and place, one by one our names were checked and we were given a weatherproof all-in-one suit to wear for the voyage. I wondered whether I would need this seeing as I was already wearing more layers than ever before.... but at the prospect of being in the open air on the open ocean for a few hours in winter conditions I decided just to put the suit on top of what I already had. Good decision.
After we boarded the boat, it was time to choose where to stand. As I was hoping to take pictures of any whales that we might see I wanted to try and have a good vantage point that would be as free as possible of people so that I could be a bit flexible in my own position. Based on this guesswork, and an assumption that the whales could appear in any direction at any time, I decided to start off at the back of the boat on the lower level... which was deserted compared to the forward sections of the boat.
Luckily this day was the calmest and clearest of my seven day spent in Iceland... but there was still a pretty strong wind. This was just right to allow the many sea birds in the area to either position themselves against the wind and hover motionless without effort... or fly with the wind at their back and achieve remarkable speed.
As we made our way from Olafsvik, heading west in a line roughly parallel to the shoreline of the Snaefellsness peninsula but a couple of miles offshore, the sea quickly imposed its own rhythm on the boat. For those, like myself, who have not spent a great deal of time on boats, the rolling and heaving might take a little while to get used to... but after a few minutes it became a lot easier to deal with. This was however the North Atlantic and it was most important to have something to hold on to if you were to remain upright and onboard (both of which seemed like a good idea).
The guides for our trip kept us well informed at all times, using the PA system of the boat to firstly explain what we were doing and where we were going, then to indicate the location of any sightings (using points of the clock relative to the boat - e.g. "killer whales at 3 o'clock") and also to provide great information about the animals we were seeing and points of interest on the shoreline that we were passing. The guides showed real knowledge and expertise, they were scientists and conservationists rather than tour guides and that made a big positive difference to the experience.
It was not long before the first killer whales were sighted, at 12 o clock... not much use for me at the back of the boat... and at 6 o'clock - now we are in business.
The first sight of these amazing animals was a great moment... but it immediately became clear that this was not going to be easy from photography point of view. I am very used to fast moving and unpredictable targets, birds provide a great example of that kind of challenge... but when you are photographing birds you usually have the option of remaining still while trying to follow them.
In this case the boat was generally moving in a certain direction, but rolling and heaving to a greater or lesser extent while doing so. The sea was also moving significantly, the waves easily high enough to conceal a fin or a tail for a second or two. The whales themselves also move, and spend the majority of the time underwater... which of course renders them invisible. Finally the photographer is also moving, trying to compensate for the motions of the ship and maintain a view of the expected whale location.
Luckily, the whale sightings were regular and frequent. Possibly 20 or 30 occasions in total during the 3 hour trip although not all of those were visible from all parts of the boat. This allowed for some practice and a chance to try and refine the ideas of how to photograph them. An additional challenge was the randomness of where they would appear. They could be 100m away... or suddenly appear 10-15m away. For this a zoom lens was a real benefit so that you could adapt to the situation. I used a 100-400mm lens but if I was doing it again I think that a 70-200mm f4 might be a good choice. With longer focal lengths the motion of the ocean and the movement of the whales made it extremely hard to keep the target in the frame... especially when it was necessary to hold on to the boat with one hand. A 70-200 f4 would still give some reach and some flexibility while being a little bit smaller and lighter, all of which would be helpful in keeping the target in the frame.
Next, we had a great positive surprise, a sperm whale had been sighted - the first one of the season.
Our guide was most excited by this and told us what to expect, a big breath and then the flukes raised high into the air as it dived for the depths. I positioned myself and watched... following the whale with my right eye through the viewfinder and the other eye directly. I heard the guide commentating on the event, I saw it with my left eye... and watched with horror through the viewfinder as the motion of the boat positioned someone else between my camera and the whale at just the wrong moment. My left eye saw the iconic sight of the mighty tail above the water... my right eye saw the camera taking an out of focus picture of the jacket of the person in front of me. At this point some descriptive words expressing a hint of disappointment may have escaped my lips but I shall not record those here.
There was no time for remorse... the action was happening thick and fast... a killer whale was following us.
Now I could certainly say I had pictures of killer whales... but what I wanted was good pictures of killer whales. I tried to evaluate what that would be now that I understood the possibilities a bit better. There were two things coming to my mind, firstly I wanted to see the head of the whale... not just the fin, not just the tail... the head. This was a bit tricky because you have to be shooting at the time the whale breaks the surface, not reacting after the event... and up until that instant they are almost completely invisible. The second thing that came to my mind was to find an opportunity to capture whales with a bit of a wider view, showing the mainland and the snow covered mountains in the background. That was a less demanding shot... but required the right angle to avoid the harsh sunlight and also required a cooperative whale.
The experience of seeing these animals continued to be awesome while the perfect pictures continued to be elusive... fin, tail, out of focus, out of frame, fin... I started to question whether these particular whales actually had heads.
At last... a whale with a head!
Then I found a new difficulty :) I spotted a killer whale a fraction of a second before it emerged, it was close enough, I did my part with the camera, I got a shot.... and realised that the splashes of water that accompanied its emergence would prevent the whale's head from being visible... but now at least I had a picture with a blowhole visible.
This was the closest I got to a good picture. I think that it would be easier a second time, and with a combination of skill and luck it would be possible to get some fantastic pictures from these trips, but it is far from easy.
The scenery on the shore was quite beautiful as we made our way back to Olafsvik. It was not the first occasion on this trip that I saw a church in the middle of nowhere at the foot of spectacular mountains... and it would not be the last.
Throughout our journey, the sea birds were flying happily overhead. I find identifying gulls to be very confusing as there are many different kinds and they change their look more than once on their way from juvenile to adult, inconveniently resembling other species at other stages. So... I am ready to be corrected in my identification attempts for the following individuals.
Overall this trip was a breathtaking experience. It was simply fantastic to be out in the Atlantic with these beautiful animals in their natural environment. The Laki Tours guides, with their obvious expertise and genuine affection for the whales made a great contribution to the experience and I think they made it as accessible as possible for all participants. I cannot recommend this highly enough, if you have the chance to go on one of these tours then be sure to grab it with both hands... or on second thoughts you should leave one hand free to hold on to the boat... but you know what I mean.
Until next time,
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