By Diana McPherson
Whale watching brings great joy and awe to most spectators. I remember my first time on a whale watching boat, seeing a humpback whale. As it broke the ocean’s surface, the explosive exhalation sprayed water high into the air. Its black back drifted across the water, revealing its knobby dorsal fin. Suddenly its back curved and the massive fluke lifted up into the air, water pouring off the fin, slowly disappearing beneath the ocean surface. I was instantly filled with awe and love.
On other whale watch outings, I remember being stuck behind the crowd and barely managing to get a peak between people’s bobbing heads and shoulders. I thought this was the only way I could see whales unless I was able to be part of a research team. Then I discovered sailing.
Sailing brings you closer
When I became a certified scuba diver and worked part time at my local dive shop, I met several new dive buddies and friends who also sailed. Invitations to come sailing and diving soon became a regular occurrence. I loved diving and photographing the fish and invertebrates in the kelp forests surrounding the Channel Islands of southern California. Sailing to these dive sites was an extra bonus. There were only a few of us on board and the boat moved with the water, letting the wind guide us to our destination. We often had common dolphins bow ride and, when we sat with our feet hanging off the bow, we felt the spray from their exhales and jumps. On one outing with friends, we saw the dorsal and caudal fins of a thresher shark and had a small pod of Risso’s dolphins swim only 20 feet from our boat.
I joined other friends more regularly aboard their boat, Dos Amigos. I was out with them so often, I became the weekend “Tres Amigo.” The captain liked to tease me that I always chummed for sharks shortly after leaving the harbor. But afterwards, I always felt better and was now able to eagerly watch for dolphins, whales, sea birds, and seals and sea lions on our way to the dive site.
We had many sailing and scuba adventures together. Our most exciting wildlife encounter was having a minke whale swim alongside our boat as we crossed the shipping lanes. Shortly after leaving Santa Cruz Island, grabbing some lunch, and relaxing in the salty breeze, there was suddenly a large dark shape swimming next to our boat. After a surprised gasp and somehow avoiding inhaling my bite of food, I could see the distinct markings on the pectoral fin. We had a minke whale swimming alongside our boat! The minke surfaced starboard, or on the right side, a couple times, dove below the boat and surfaced port, or on the left side. Back and forth he swam. And back and forth I slid across the cabin, barely missing the boom each time. I was able to get some photos of the minke but my focus was on the connection we made. Several times when surfaced it would turn slightly to one side and our eyes would connect. It felt like we had a mutual understanding that we were helping him to safely cross the shipping lane. After clearing the shipping lanes, the minke turned once again as if to say ‘thank you’ and slowly swam away from us.
Great blue whale
A couple years ago while in southern California working on a conservation project, I reconnected with another diving and sailing friend. My daughter joined me on a mission to find a blue whale. As we neared Anacapa Island, we came across a group of boats in a wide semi-circle, clearly waiting for a whale to resurface. After about 20 minutes they decided that the whale they were waiting for was not coming back. We continued to sail toward the island and within minutes were graced with the large exhale of a blue whale. We let the sails out, or sheeted, so we were just drifting on the water and had the privilege of watching a blue whale forage on the abundant krill. We could see its throat pleats, and sometimes part of a pectoral fin, as it turned on its backside lunging for the krill. We could only see a fraction of the world’s largest mammal, the majority of its mass remaining hidden under the water. While I happily took photos from the boat, I did wish that I had extra time and hands to get my GoPro in the water and made a mental note that I need a drone.
Tips for shooting from a deck
Photographing on a boat creates its own unique challenges. Even in calm water and sitting idle, you’re moving. I’ve learned a few tricks to combat that problem.
- Stabilize yourself and camera by keeping your elbows close to your body and control your breathing (which is challenging enough when you’re so excited to see a whale).
- Use a high speed shutter such as 1/1600th or faster. You and your subject are moving and you will end up with images where your subject is on or off the edge of the image frame. By shooting more frames, you’ll increase your odds at getting a great image with the intended subject in the middle.
- Use a longer telephoto lens such as 200mm, 400mm, or 600mm since boats are required to keep a safe distance from a whale and other marine mammals. When I use my 150-600mm, I attach my Joby tripod and rest the legs against my chest to reduce the up and down movement.
- Have a strap attached to the camera and your body. Any slips and your camera is not just damaged, it’s gone. I recommend this not from experience, but rather planning for the worst. Although, I once had a pair of glasses that I’m sure an angler fish is now wearing at the bottom of Monterey Bay.
Follow the rules
When sailing on your own, with friends, or on a charter, there are rules in place to protect marine animals. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requires all vessels to remain 100 yards away from whales and 50 yards from dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Sometimes the animals approach you, such as dolphins bow riding, in which case there’s nothing you can do but to enjoy the encounter. In Hawaii and Alaska, boaters must stay 100 yards away from humpback whales while in all US waters, boaters must remain at least 500 yards away from north Atlantic whales. In the inland waters of Washington state, like the Salish Sea, NOAA requires boaters to stay 200 yards away from orcas. However, in 2019, Washington state enacted their own regulations in order to further protect the southern resident orcas. Boaters must remain 300 yards away from orcas when traveling perpendicular to them, or 400 yards when traveling in front of or behind the orcas. When you’re viewing seals, sea lions, and birds that are resting along the shore, boats need to stay 100 yards away and pass slowly but don’t stop. For updated regulations, visit www.bewhalewise.org .
But wait, there’s more
Whales aren’t the only wildlife to see while sailing. Dolphins love to bow ride or wake ride. Even sea lions will porpoise alongside a boat. Recently on a sailing trip in the Salish Sea, I saw numerous Harbor seals and Steller sea lions hauled out, or resting, along the small rocky islands. A raccoon was grabbing a snack along the water’s edge while vultures roosted on the cliffs overlooking the rolling waves below. Colorful sea stars exposed by the low tide clung to the rocky shoreline and bald eagles soared overhead and perched high in the pine trees lining the coast. We even encountered a minke whale feeding over the deep middle channel off the south end of San Juan Island.
Sailing is a great way to view whales and other marine life without noise disturbance to the animals. It’s so calming and clean, allowing you to enjoy the salty ocean smell instead of fuel. Sailing is about the journey, letting the wind direct you to your path, connecting you to the environment, and providing a more intimate experience with nature and wildlife. Knowing the local boating regulations and practicing good photography techniques helps to protect you and the wildlife.
Diana McPherson is a fine art and conservation photographer based in Richland, Washington. She has served on NANPA’s Ethics Committee since 2019. Diana leads tours and workshops as Friends In Nature, incorporating photography and citizen science. Her images and writings have appeared in several magazines including Washington Trails, New Mexico, and Nature Photographer, and books including the Sierra Club’s Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area and Whale Tales, and her self-published ebook, Winter Bird Photography. When she’s not photographing, she volunteers as the education outreach coordinator with Tapteal Greenway, a local non-profit. You can follow her work on Instagram @fin_images or visit her website www.DiMcpPhotography.com.