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Capturing Majestic Gentle Giants: Tips for Underwater Photography of Humpback Whales in Tonga

Capturing Majestic Gentle Giants: Tips for Underwater Photography of Humpback Whales in Tonga by our founder and award-winning nature photographer David Sinclair

Each year, Humpback whales migrate to Tonga’s warm waters to breed and give birth, offering a unique opportunity for underwater photographers to capture intimate portraits and interesting behaviour. If you’re planning to embark on an underwater photography adventure in Tonga to capture humpback whales, here are some useful tips to help you make the most of this incredible experience.

1. Plan Your Trip During Whale Season

Humpback whale swimming season in Tonga typically runs from July to October.  Earlier in the season calves are smaller and a lighter colour. As the season progresses the calves grow and the mothers start to lose condition.  As the calves grow the tight leash mum keeps on baby tends to loosen a little.  Regardless, any interaction with mum and calf will offer an incredible insight into the bond between the two and wonderful photo opportunities.

2. Choosing equipment for underwater photography

Selecting the appropriate photography equipment is crucial for successful underwater humpback whale photography. Here’s some things to consider:

Camera Body for underwater photography

Opt for a high-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera with excellent low-light performance.  If you’re serious and the budget allows, bring a second camera body which can be dedicated to shooting with a longer lens to capture activity above the water.

Lenses

Invest in a versatile lens with a zoom range suitable for various shooting scenarios. A wide-angle zoom lens (e.g., 16-35mm) is essential for capturing close encounters with the whales. A second camera body and telephoto zoom lens (e.g., 80-400mm) is desirable for shooting breaching or tail-slapping whales, Spinner dolphins and some of the magnificent seabirds such as Frigates, Boobys and Tropic birds.

Underwater housing

Ensure your camera is protected in a reliable underwater housing specifically designed for your camera model. Double-check its waterproof seals and functionality before taking it into the water.  Ensure the housing allows you to manipulate all the settings you need to access.  It’s worth investing a little more money in a housing that gives you peace of mind that you’ll be able to get the shot and won’t expose your gear to salt water which kills expensive camera gear.  If you have a basic housing and cannot manipulate key settings, with a wide-angle lens shoot in manual. mode at around 1/400th at f8 and set the ISO to Auto.  You will want to underexpose shots of the bright white underbelly close to the surface so if you cannot adjust exposure compensation underwater you will have a choice before you get in about what you want to expose for.  One of the many reasons you want a quality housing with access to all settings.

Video

It’s hard to go past the latest iterations of the GoPro and it’s easy to attach a GoPro to most camera housings.  Try shooting 4k at 60fps to afford you the opportunity to slow down the video in post which may be useful if you’re swimming and shooting in choppy conditions or finning while filming.  This also frees up your main camera body for shooting stills.

When filming you may well capture the sounds of whale song so do your best to keep your breathing quiet and calm to avoid unwanted distractions in the audio. For a recent in depth review of the recently released GoPro Hero 12 done by our good friends Jarryd and Alesha at Nomadasaurus, click here. The video below is a short unedited clip of a Humpback calf rising for a breath taken with the GoPro Hero 11 in Vava’u.

3. Mastering your camera settings

Getting comfortable with your camera’s settings is vital for capturing the best humpback whale photos. Here are some settings to consider:

ISO

Keep your ISO as low as possible to minimize noise in your photos. However, in low-light conditions, you may need to increase it slightly to maintain a fast shutter speed.

Shutter Speed

Use a fast shutter speed (1/250s or faster) to freeze the motion of the whales. Faster shutter speeds are essential when the whales breach or engage in rapid movements.

Aperture

When shooting with a wide-angle lens this is not as important so you can open up the aperture if you need to let in more light.  There is usually plenty of available light close to the surface so stopping down a little is just fine.

Focus

Set your camera to continuous autofocus mode to track the moving whales effectively. Check the results and if you are not acquiring focus easily try different autofocus settings.  Micro-organisms in the water column can distract the autofocus.

White Balance

Adjust your white balance settings to match the prevailing underwater lighting conditions. Underwater scenes may have a blue or green tint, so post-processing adjustments may be necessary. Shooting in RAW will make it considerably easier to adjust white balance in post-production and you can simply leave white balance on auto.

Strobes

Strobes are not allowed in Tonga and would make no sense anyway.  The natural light is excellent.

4. Approaching whales

Humpback whales are wild animals, and it’s crucial to approach them with respect and consideration for their well-being. Tonga has strict regulations governing whale interactions to protect the animals. Always follow the directions of your local guide who are familiar with the rules and whale behaviour. Respect the recommended minimum distance to avoid disturbing or stressing them. Allow the whales to approach you if they choose to. Never attempt to touch or interact physically with the whales. Maintain a passive presence, and let the whales dictate the level of interaction.  Avoid being behind the whales to avoid startling a whale and to avoid the powerful tail fins.  Also avoid surrounding a whale.  You will be briefed to stay in a tight group on one side of the whale.   Do be aware of others around you to try not to get in each other’s shots.  

5. Composition

Composition is key to creating visually stunning humpback whale photographs.  It’s nice to look for a little separation between whales or interesting behaviour, particularly ‘tender moments’ between mother and calf.  Always be aware of the direction of light.  

6. Editing your images

Colour Correction:

Adjust the colours to bring out the natural beauty of the underwater world. Remove unwanted colour casts, such as excessive blue or green tints.

Contrast and Clarity

Enhance contrast and clarity to make the whales stand out against the background. Be careful not to overdo it, as excessive editing can make your photos look unnatural.

Cropping

Crop your images to improve composition or remove distracting elements while preserving image quality.

Noise Reduction

Apply noise reduction techniques to minimize noise, especially in low-light conditions.

Spot removal

It is inevitable that there will be some distracting spots in your images.  These can be water bubbles or microorganisms floating in the water.  It’s nice to remove any nasty distractions using a clone tool.  These distractions often appear amplified in black and white conversions.

Mother and calf Humpback whales

7. Respect the environment

Remember that humpback whales are just one part of the fragile underwater ecosystem in Tonga. Always practice responsible behavior:

Avoid Littering or pick up litter: Dispose of your trash properly, both on land and in the water. Never discard anything in the ocean.

Do Not Touch Coral: Coral reefs are delicate and easily damaged. Refrain from touching or standing on them when snorkelling or diving.

Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen: Choose sunscreen that is labelled “reef-safe” to minimize harm to the coral reefs.

Support Conservation Efforts: Consider donating to or volunteering with local organizations dedicated to protecting Tonga’s marine environment and its inhabitants or contributing to citizen science initiatives such as the Tongan Fluke Collective.

Underwater photography of humpback whales in Tonga is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that requires patience, respect for nature, and a deep appreciation for these magnificent creatures. By following these tips and guidelines, you can capture stunning photographs while ensuring the well-being of the whales and the preservation of the marine environment.  

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