Life’s a Breach – September 2010

Shot of the Month – September 2010

The sequence of events, more often than not, went something like this.

  1. Hear a thunderous watery clap.
  2. Spin on my heels in the direction of the calamity.
  3. F*$%#@! (curse like a sailor)
  4. Watch the massive hole in the water begin to fill in as the whale slips beneath the surface

My heart sank each time I heard that sound.  That sharp report signaled that I had yet again missed seeing what is really a nonsensical idea – that a fifty-foot, forty-ton humpback whale could launch 2/3rds of its body out of the water like a Polaris missile before crashing back into the ocean.  This leap of credibility is called a “breach” and humpback whales seem quite adept at it.

Trying to capture a breach on “film” is one of the hardest types of shooting I have done.  Even though it was summer in the Inside Passage of Alaska, it could be quite cold standing on the bow of the boat.  I have a low tolerance for cold.  Using a tripod or monopod to steady the camera was out of the question given the motion of the boat and the speed of the action we were trying to capture.  Between the shivering body and trembling hands and the rocking boat getting a crisp shot seemed to require divine intervention.  When the water was fairly calm I would sometimes lean hard against the railing trying to make myself into a human camera support.  Other times when the boat rocked up and down significantly I would bend or unbend my knees, much like a surfer or skateboarder, to counter the motion of the boat.  In this case I was trying act like a human shock absorber.

And then there was the problem of knowing where to look.  We never knew when a whale might breach or from what position relative to the boat.  A breach might only last 2 seconds and you had almost no time to raise your camera and start firing if you wanted to capture the breach at its peak.

The few shots we did manage were due to a few gracious whales we called “serial breachers.”  Whales that breached once and were done were almost never photographed because the odds of looking at the right spot out of a 360 degree angle of view were slim to none.  But some energetic whales would breach 2 or 3 times in fairly rapid succession.  Once a breach was spotted the captain would try and turn and point the boat in the direction of the splash and we would head in that direction.  We would hold our cameras near our faces and watch and hope for a serial breach.  Would we be lucky?

KAPOW!  The massive beast would burst through the water and it was a real struggle to remember how to use the camera.  I think my jaw literally dropped open the first few times I witnessed this stunning event.  During the remaining episodes I had a huge grin on my face while pressing as hard as I could on the shutter release.

Scientists have no idea why humpback whales breach.  One theory is that breaching helps remove parasites from the skin, a form of aerobatic exfoliation if you will.  Some think it might have a social meaning.  Others posit that whales may breach because well, because it is just a lot of fun.

If breaching is half as much fun as witnessing the feat, then that explanation makes perfect sense to me.


Until next month…:-)