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Whales documented and pictured

July 04, 2017  •  5 Comments

It's peak hour on the humpback highway and record numbers of whales are passing the coast where I live. What a spectacle and privilege to witness the recovery of a population that was down to a few hundred at the close of the whaling industry in 1963. These days the humpback whale population migrating along Australia's east coast is estimated to exceed 30,000. Three hundred and fifty two were counted passing Port Macquarie on just one day recently—24 June 2017.

There's a saddle between Tacking Point headland and a hill to the west of it. A road runs down the hill and across the narrow ridge of the saddle to the lighthouse. It's a favourite vantage point for me to scan from: north and south along the rocky coast on the lookout for raptors on patrol; or down the slopes on either side for bush birds. The vegetation on the south side of the road forms a windbreak from southerlies and westerlies and that's a key benefit on early morning forays in winter. Out of the wind, and the shiver-inducing chill, I can hold my camera steadier.

** Mouse over the images to see titles and captions.

A southerly prevails (2005)A southerly prevails (2005)This is the place I call 'the saddle'. The banksia is no longer there, cut down by council after a mobile home damaged its roof on the overhang (I saw it happen).

I was on station at the saddle this morning and hoping for an appearance by the Australian black-shouldered kite. Looking south, I saw a humpback exhale. There's nothing unusual about that at this time of the year; humpbacks are prolific on their northern migration past Tacking Point. I shoot a few photographs and video clips but rarely get anything worthy of a second look. Most get trashed. The whales are wonderful to see, for sure, but photographs of black shapes and puffs of steam far out to sea are unremarkable.

This whale was different. And it had companions. It was near to shore and would soon pass close to the rocks at the lighthouse. I legged it the two hundred metres to the lighthouse, arriving puffed at the top of the long flights of steps, and signalled to others there that a pod of whales was about to come around the corner. At the most, they were 100 metres off the point when they appeared.

I got some closer shots of "black shapes and puffs of steam" and could hear the whales' exhalations above the surf pounding the rocks. What a buzz! But they were on a mission; no pec' slapping or breaching—just full steam ahead.

Photographs? Yeah, OK but nothing special—nothing compared to the experience. I felt that I had witnessed a juggernaut passing. I imagined orchestral music. So cool.

On a missionOn a missionAn adult humpback whale passes within 100 metres of the rocks at tacking Point.

Photographically better things were about to happen...

The next photograph is getting closer to the kind of whale photographs I aspire to.

Documents and pictures

There are fundamentally two kinds of photographs; documents and pictures.

A DOCUMENT is a record...this is what the camera saw. You pressed the button to record it. Yes, it's a photograph of a whale. Does it speak to you beyond that superficial level? If not, it is, for you, a document—a fact. That's OK. There's nothing right or wrong about that.

A PICTURE: tells a story; evokes ideas; evokes mood; touches you; stimulates your imagination; encourages you to read it. You see something more than the document. What you see may be unique to you...a product of your personality and life experiences...your ideologies...who you are as a human being.

You photograph with all your ideology — Sebastião Salgado

For me, the next photograph of two whales hovers in territory between the document and the picture. The documentary bit is easy to explain; two whales surface and exhale; water is still streaming off the back of the far whale shrouded in steam; they're travelling from right to left; it's early morning and they're backlit; you can see the contour of a blowhole.

Whether or not this document can cross the line into the territory of 'the picture' depends on the viewer.

I can only speak for 'this viewer'. I see two huge creatures on a mission shared with all of their species. There's no stopping them. They're powering north and punctuating their journey with clouds of steam evoking the sense of an instinctive engine room driving them on. Juggernauts.

I imagine a harpoon man, in days gone by, closing on the leviathans and urging crewmen pulling hard on oars.

"So bend your backs and row, me lads, and take me to me whale!" The Whale Song by Terry Fielding

As they disappear under the waves and the steam dissipates on the wind I wonder "Where will they surface again?". So big yet so fugitive. Awesome.

On a mission #2On a mission #2Hovering between DOCUMENT and PICTURE. Imagine what you will.

The whales passed by Tacking Point and continued past The Backwash towards Pyramid Rock. Later today they'll be off Smoky Cape lighthouse. Tomorrow? Coffs Harbour?

FugitiveFugitiveSignature flukes of a humpback whale. It sounds. Where will it surface next?

Tacking Point's resident school (more than a pod) of bottle-nosed dolphins were on duty as the whales came past this morning. A few dolphins left the main group and escorted the whales for a while. When they were close to the headland, I had too much lens on to be able to fit the dolphins and the whales together in the frame. As they moved away, that became possible and I grabbed a few shots with dolphins included.

1. FB 11 2. 24 hours later via emailCompanyBottle-nosed dolphins escort a northbound whale.

Dolphins accompany a humpback whale.FrontrunnersBottle-nosed dolphins and their bigger cousin.

Sometimes I think "Well, the show's over now. That was good. Head home for breakfast?" Yes, the close action was over, but I kept the lens pointed north waiting for something different, perhaps a silhouetted breach against the bright winter sunlight reflecting off the ocean (anticipation is part of the nature photographer's toolbox). But it didn't happen.

Something different happened.

The normal view that a land-based whale watcher gets is of the whales passing across the field of view; on the northward or southward migration the view is much the same. This morning, after the whales passed Tacking Point and were joined by a breakaway small group of dolphins, they headed east for a while giving those of us on the headland a different perspective. We were viewing the migration from behind the players. We could see and appreciate the bulk of the whales as their broad backs surfaced and streamed water off their sides. We could see their spinal ridges blending into rotund bodies, and a picket line of dolphin dorsal fins ahead of them. 

With my camera set to burst mode, I fired away as dolphins led the way. My imagination went searching for military metaphors as the scene unfolded: frigates and flagship; vanguard; bringing the big gun...

The artillery analogy appealed to me and suggested the following:

  • detail  (noun) a group of soldiers or police officers given a particular job
  • detachment (noun) a group of soldiers sent to perform a special job separately from the rest of their group

The next photograph is the shot of the morning. I have photographs where the whales were closer and more imposing in the frame. They're nice to have but they can be described as record shots. Documents.

This next photograph is a picture. It's expressive. It conjures ideas and fires the imagination. Well, my imagination at least! I imagine the small group of dolphins that have split off the main group to escort the whale as an army detachment sent on a special mission. And the mission is to herald the heavy artillery cruising north. 

This image also has novelty for me. As a land-based whale watcher, I rarely get a view of the whales from behind. It's a nice point-of-view and adds to the imagined story in the image.

I'm happy with the image. It's at once a document and a picture of whale migration that satisfies my impression of what I witnessed.

Heavy artillery detachmentHeavy artillery detachmentAn image embodying the qualities of both 'document' and 'picture'.

Footnote: All of the whale images above were facilitated by my use of a dot-sight attachment fitted to the camera's hotshoe. It works like a rifle sight, allowing the photographer to quickly acquire target without having to look through the camera's viewfinder. This is critical when using a long telephoto lens. The whales surface momentarily and by the time I could locate them in the viewfinder they'd be gone again. Using the dot sight allows me to scan the general scene, not just within the bounds of the viewfinder's frame, and react quickly when the whales reappear. It works equally well for shooting birds on the wing.


Thank you, Denise, Mike, Terry, and Julia.
Very interesting and exciting to read Rob! The pictures are beautiful! Thank you.
Terry Rutledge(non-registered)
Wonderful story and images Rob.
Mike Kane(non-registered)
Great story Rob with the images making it the total package. You had what I call an " Attenborough Moment" . Well done.
Denise McDermott(non-registered)
Thank you for the interesting commentary and images. It's great to hear a whole story about the images you've taken and what your thinking process was. Keep them coming.
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