Photographing Humpback Whales in Juneau Alaska
One of the biggest surprises of my life has been how much I have enjoyed photographing Humpback whales. Going into my summer in Juneau, Alaska, my goal was to capture landscape photographs. However, when I was spending time on the water fishing for halibut and salmon, I started noticing humpback whales coming up for air and found myself gazing at them until they showed their flukes and dived to the depths of the ocean. These gentle giants grabbed my heart and ever since, I have been hooked trying to photograph them in an effort to tell their story.
Challenges of Photographing Humpback Whales
One of the hardest parts about photographing humpback whales is the patience it takes. Just like any other wildlife photography or action shots, it’s hard to have the discipline to be laser-focused and ready to photograph a breaching whale after you have been observing them for several hours. Often times, whales will breach without warning and they only breach one time.
The weather conditions are another factor. In Southeast Alaska, it can rain a lot bringing gloomy, dark clouds and unforgiving, relentless seas that seem to take aggressive slaps at your boat. These conditions are tough to be out in (make sure you have great rain gear!) but they also make photographing action shots pretty challenging. There’s not much you can do when there is rough weather which is why having a lot of patience can help.
When do Humpback Whales Breach?
I get this question a lot from other photographers. If I knew when a humpback would breach, I would absolutely tell other wildlife photographers and enthusiasts. Sadly, I haven’t figured out when they will breach (and there are several ideas out there on what makes a humpback breach). I can tell you that I have witnessed them breaching when there has been ‘abnormal’ activity near the surface of the water.
For example, usually a humpback will blow steam at the surface of the water. This is usually how we first spot them. Then, they slowly roll close to the surface for 3-4 times showing their dorsal fins and then blowing steam. Usually, on their last steam blow, they will make a deeper dive resulting in a fluke surfacing before disappearing for a few minutes.
If this pattern is interrupted, such as they smack their fins on the water or start crashing the surface with their fluke (see below), this seems to indicate that something is ‘abnormal’. When I see this behavior, I get pretty excited because this is the type of behavior that I see before a whale breaches (in my experience only).
Which Camera Lens Do You Use
The second biggest question I get is this one. Whale watching boats and all water crafts must remain at least 200 yards away from humpback which means that having a high-powered lens is crucial for grabbing close-ups. In addition to using a 150-600 mm lens, I also add a Sigma teleconverter which helps give me the reach that I need. I’m still experimenting with equipment but here are a couple of items that I have used:
Comments or questions regarding photographing humpback whales? Feel free to reach out in the comment section below or send me a direct message and I would be happy to help!