Getting that whaley good shot!

Categories // Bay of Biscay

Getting that whaley good shot!

Amazing sightings on board the Pont Aven gave Wildlife Officer Kate the perfect send off!

Somehow, I’ve found myself at the end of my time as a Pont Aven Wildlife Officer, and what a season it has been. This week I’ve had the perfect sent off. We’ve had some amazing sightings of common dolphins and Cuvier’s beaked whales, and it even looks like the fin whales are returning to the Bay of Biscay! Cork gave us a special treat this week too, the waters were full of wonders, basking sharks, sunfish, blue sharks, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and even fin whales –2 whales gave passengers the ultimate treat by surface 200m from the ship surrounded by a chorus of common dolphins as the sun set - a picture-perfect scene.

And speaking of picture-perfect, this week we were also joined by a Jessop’s Academy wildlife photography course. Because of this I’ve found myself reminiscing over the many, MANY photographs that I have taken (or tried to take) of the amazing whales and dolphins I’m surrounded by on a daily basis. But these photos haven’t just been taken for memories of these beautiful animals, there are many important reasons that scientists and conservationists alike rely of these photographs.

Whales and dolphins only spend a fraction of their time at the surface. As mammals they must come to the surface to breathe and it is from these brief glimpses into their lives that we must try and identify what species is in front of us. Some animals are quite cooperative when they surface, for example, a common dolphin’s “normal swim” involves them jumping out of the water (often heading towards our ship) giving us a full view of the beautiful figure of 8 pattern they have on their sides - a very good identifying feature. However, a feeding common dolphin might be less cooperative, causing a big splash around it but not coming out of the water very often. Whales are also notoriously difficult to identify, sometimes only showing a glimpse of their blow and on their last surface showing that all important dorsal fin before diving into the deep blue. These scenarios are a lot more difficult to identify, which is where photography comes into play.

Don’t get me wrong, whales and dolphins are not the easiest animals to photograph, most of them give you a real challenge to get that perfect shot If you scroll through my camera right now you’d see something like: water, water, splash, fin, splash, splash splash, DOLPHIN, splash… but there is something very satisfying about getting that one shot of a dolphin among all the splashes. Getting those all-important shots however does more than feed my ego, in those manic instances when there are so many dolphins feeding that you can’t see the dolphins from the splashes you’ve got that all-important ID shot! A dolphin that shows its dorsal fin, a slightly lighter grey in the middle that its darker out edges, or a glimpse of a yellow and grey figure of 8 – a common dolphin! Upon closer inspection, actually the dolphin in the next frame looks slightly different, it’s around the same size, but there’s definitely no yellow patch on its side… actually it has a thick line from it’s eye that disappears into the water – it can only be a mix species common dolphin / striped dolphin pod!

Some species are just extremely difficult to ID in the field, for example the beaked whales prove a particularly difficult group. There are around 22 species of beaked whale, but some are only distinguishable by the position of two small teeth-like tusks on their jaw. Obviously this is a feature you’re unlikely to see by eye when you’re >20m above the water, so you better snap, snap, snap that camera because that one shot could make all the difference!

There are many projects around the world that rely on photo-identification for passive monitoring of cetaceans. This essentially means that by taking a photograph of an individual you can track its movement over time within a population. Not all species possess the unique feature needed for photo-identification, but for things like bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and orca (/ killer whales) these methods are commonly used to track individuals.

In bottlenose dolphins, the distinguishing feature is the dorsal fin. Throughout its lifetime, a bottlenose dolphin will develop nicks and notches in its fin by fighting and playing with other dolphins, and from cuts and abrasions from everyday life, unfortunately they can also develop these markings from boat strikes. These cuts and abrasions will heal but will never reform into the full shape of a dorsal fin. These nicks and notches are then individual to each animal, and act as a fingerprint unique to that individual allowing us to track them over time. Many resident populations of bottlenose dolphins all over the world are monitored in this way.

Similarly, orcas can be identified by nicks and notches in their dorsal fins, but their also have an extra feature that helps us identify individuals, and that is their saddle patch. The saddle patch is a light grey/ white patch that sits behind an orca’s dorsal fin. These saddle patches are different on every whale, so they act as a fingerprint unique to each orca. Saddle patches are even different on their right and left side, so if you’re trying to photograph these animals make sure you get their best side! These identification techniques allowed scientists to identify the recent orca sighting off Anglesey in Wales as “John Coe”, a male orca known for his notch in the dorsal fin and large chunk out of his tail fluke. John Coe is one of 8 orcas known as the “West Coast Community” in Scotland.

In humpback whales, the distinct colouration and scarring on the underside of their tail fin is unique to each animal, and this has allowed scientists to track whales from 1000s of miles apart on their migrations from the equatorial feeding grounds to their Artic and Antarctic feeding grounds.

So here are some simple tips to help you get that perfect whale or dolphin shot:

  1.  Have your camera ready at all times – there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing an animal breach and trying to fumble about getting your camera out of the bag to only catch a glimpse of that final splash before it disappears
  2.  Rapid fire is your friend, you don’t want to spend time clicking that shutter button, chances are you’ll miss a lot. Instead set your camera to continuous shooting and it will do the hard work for you!
  3.  If you’re familiar with cameras try shooting on shutter speed priority (Tv on a Cannon / S on a Nikon), this will allow you to control your shutter speed to get the best shots. But don’t forget that you’ll need to alter this depending on the lighting at the time! If you’re less confident with your camera try putting it on sport mode, ideal for fast moving objects like whales and dolphins!
  4.  UV filters are great, they help take some of the glare off your images, but also protect your camera lens from any scratches! But if you can spring for a Polarising filter I’d thoroughly recommend it – your camera will be able to cut through the top layer of the water and you’ll get some great underwater shots as well as taking the glare off your images!
  5. You need to point your camera where the animal is going and not where it is, sounds counter-intuitive I know. If you focus on where the animal is chances are their moving so fast that you’re just going to get a splash, but if you focus just ahead of the animal you’re going to get a fin-tastic shot!

So, there you have it! My final blog as a Widlife Officer onboard the Pont Aven! I have to say that it’s been an incredible three months, I’ve seen things I never thought I would and enjoyed every minute. I’ve meet so many inspirational people, from ORCA volunteers and staff who share their passion with everyone they meet, to the members of the public who have some amazing stories to tell both from time onboard the Pont Aven and all around the globe! Of course, my experience wouldn’t be what is was without working with my fellow Wildlife Officers, the amazing Kirsty and Lucy, who have made my everyday on board feel like home. I could not have asked for a better season, I even got to see one of my absolute favourite species for the first time – pilot whales! Thank you ORCA for giving me this amazing opportunity, and thank you all for reading our blogs and coming along for the ride! I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing them, and I hope I’ve inspired you to get out there and spot some animals.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get out there and find some more whales!