Photographing Winter’s “Gentle Giants”: The North Pacific Humpback Whales

Article and photos by Denise Dupras, Field Contributor

Each year, I join the thousands of tourists who travel to Hawaii during the winter. Unlike many who make the journey primarily to escape the cold, I am traveling to photograph and observe the North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae).

Humpback whales belong to the mysticete suborder of cetacean mammals. They grow to weigh 45-50 tons and reach 45 feet in length. Their estimated life span is 40-50 years, based mainly on data from a time where they were harvested commercially.

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© Denise Dupras, Field Contributor
Canon EOS 40D ,EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L lens, 1/1000 sec, f/8, 400mm
The year 1973 marked an important turning point for these “gentle giants”. These acrobatic whales became a protected species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). While no one knows exactly how many humpback whales are in the North Pacific group, their numbers, severely depleted by commercial whaling, began to rise after the ESA was passed. In 1992, Congress created the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to give additional protection to the whales and their important habitat in Hawaii. This is an environmental success story with the numbers of humpback whales coming to Hawaii now estimated to be as many as 10,000 whales each winter, in comparison with estimate of 4,000 in 1993. The main Hawaiian Islands are thought to contain the largest seasonal population of the North Pacific humpbacks in the world.

Humpback whales begin appearing around the Hawaiian Islands in November after a 3000 mile swim from their summer grounds in the North Pacific where they feed on krill and small fish. The greatest density of whales tends to be between January and March. Whales can be seen around any of the Hawaiian Islands, but Maui is my favorite and a prime whale watching destination sitting in the center of the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The shallow waters less than 100-fathom isobath (600 foot depth) provide some protection from the humpback’s natural predators that prefer deeper waters. The spectacular warm clear waters of Hawaii are devoid of the nutrients found in Alaska, so the whales do not eat during their time there.

It is no secret why humpback whales come to Hawaii. They come to give birth and mate, which provide unique photographic opportunities. Males form groups called “competition pods” while searching for a female mate. This can result in aggressive interactions like head lunges and unusual vocalizations. You may even see whales with obvious injury from these encounters.

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© Denise Dupras, Field Contributor
Canon EOS 40D ,EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L lens, 1/500 sec, f/6.3, 400mm
The birth of a humpback calf has never been photographed, but we do know a lot about the interactions between the calf and mother. When born, they appear light gray in color and are about 12 feet in length, the size of a pectoral fin of the adult. They grow quickly on the rich, cottage cheese consistency milk from the mother and double their size over the first year. The calves are never far from their mother and often joined by a third whale, the “escort”. On rare occasion, these calves appear curious and approach whale watching boats. It doesn’t take long though for the adult to place herself in between the calf and the boat. As they grow they begin to exhibit the behaviors of the adults. Unlike adult humpbacks that typically surface to breathe ever 10-15 minutes, the calves must rise to the surface every 3-5 minutes to breathe.

When to Go

As with all of nature photography, knowing about your subject is a critical element in producing successful images. So when photographing humpback whales is your goal, pack your bag and head to Maui during the months of January, February or March for your best opportunities.

Where to Stay


When planning a trip to Maui for whale watching, an important consideration is where you want to stay. Most whale watches go out of either Maalaea Harbor near Kihei or the pier in Lahaina. Most of the roads in Maui are two lanes and traffic can be heavy at different times during the day, so plan for a little extra time when traveling by car. There are accommodations for every budget, but like the whales, tourists tend to head to Hawaii during the same prime months, so be prepared for higher hotel rates. Plan to stay near where you want to go whale watching. Some the hotels offer whale watching trips right off their beach in the Kaanapali and Makena areas.

Whale Watching

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© Denise Dupras, Field Contributor
Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED
There are numerous whale watching companies, but be sure to select one that is eco-friendly and abides by the regulations governing whale watching. Critical among these is the restriction for boats not to approach within 100 yards of any humpback whale. Fortunately for the photographer, whales don’t have to follow the rules, occasionally resulting in a “close encounter” or “whale mugging”, requiring the boat operator to turn off the engine when the whales come close to the boat.  

My favorite company is the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), an international non-profit organization. It founded in 1980 and is dedicated to the study and preservation of marine mammals and their habitat. They offer whale watching trips throughout the season from both sites and provide an unparalleled educational opportunity for the photographer wanting to learn more about the whales. The early morning trip, one of my favorites, begins as the sun rays beam over Haleakala on Maui. The last trip of the day, just before sunset, offers whale watching and pupu’s (Hawaiian for hors de vours). For the really adventurous, the PWF also conducts whale research in the southern hemisphere and has a research intern program.

Whales can often be seen from kayaks and a few companies offer snorkel trips that may encounter whales. The same rules hold for kayaks as well as motorized boats, when it comes to approaching humpback whales. The other consideration is that “sit on top” kayaks are used on these trips. So a waterproof housing is essential to protect your gear.

For those photographers that get seasick, there are even opportunities to photograph humpbacks from the land. Whales are frequently seen from the beaches and the road all the way from Kapalua to Kihei and again in the Makena area. One of the favorite sites on Maui is McGreggor Point, where the volunteers participate in the annual Whale Count.

Photographing Humpback Whales


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© Denise Dupras, Field Contributor
Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED
Photographing humpback whales is both challenging and exciting. There are no guarantees when you get on the boat that you will see more than a dorsal fin or a tail fluke. But that is where the adventure begins. Preparing to photograph humpback whales requires a little planning. The weather can be unpredictable and often the best whale watching boats which offer an unobstructed view of the whales also offer little cover from rain. So having something to protect your gear is essential. I usually carry a super absorbent towel and a waterproof bag that will hold my digital SLR with my lens. Bring a light jacket for trips in the early morning or late afternoon.

Camera Gear

For those photographing with a SLR, some thought has to go into which lens you use. Certainly you can change lenses during the trip, but you run the risk of missing the shot because you are changing lenses. My current gear is a Canon 40D body with a 100-400mm IS lens. Any SLR will do, but be sure to use your continuous firing mode and consider AI servo for focusing. Metering is a challenge because the animals are dark, but very reflective when wet, the boat is moving around, and the angle of the sun on your subject is continually changing. I typically shoot with matrix metering, but use the setting that you are comfortable with. In the past I used “auto white” balance, but a recent course recommended setting the white balance rather than relying on the camera’s computer. In order to stop the action, use a shutter priority mode with a setting of 1/500th of a second, a recommendation that I have not always followed. I also carry a small “point and shoot” digital camera that has the option for taking movies, in case a whale comes close. This also gives me the option of a wide-angle shot.

Don’t even think about a tripod. There just isn’t space. A monopod maybe useful, but I prefer to use an image-stabilized lens and hand hold so that I can move quickly to where the action is.
The waters around Hawaii are crystal clear when the surface is calm, so a polarizing lens, while costing a few stops of light is great for photographing whales that are close-up and partially submerged.

Humpback Behaviors

Humpback whales exhibit many different behaviors, but none is more spectacular than the full breech, where a 40+ ton whale launches itself completely out of the water. Capturing this is a combination of anticipation and a lot of luck. When a whale is repeatedly breeching, watch for the first sign of a head coming out of the water, which looks a bit like a cigar emerging from the ocean and press the shutter button. While no one knows why these whales breech, we do know that the peduncle slap where the tail and lower portion of the body is thrown out of the water and then slaps the surface is considered a very aggressive behavior.

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© Denise Dupras, Field Contributor
Nikon Super Coolscan 5000 ED
Humpback whales also slap their pectoral fins on the water, which may serve as a communication signal, and slaps its tail on the water. Humpbacks will also bring their heads out of the water vertically, a “spy hop”, a behavior which is also exhibited by other whales like the Orca. Humpback calves will often seem to ride on top of the mother, sometimes covering the blow-hole.

Humpback whales arch or “hump” their backs before they dive, giving a signal to photographers to get ready to photograph the underside of their fluke. It is this underside that serves as the unique identifier or “fingerprint” of the whale and has allowed researchers to determine migration patterns of these whales.

Each whale watch is a different experience, but being knowledgeable about the species and prepared offers the nature photographer the best chance of making some remarkable images of this acrobat of the ocean.
 
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