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New Photos: Tonga 2019

In August I achieved a long-time goal of swimming with humpback whales (and photographing them while doing it). This took place in the Kingdom of Tonga, one of the few places on earth where humpback swims are legal.

Originally, the trip was supposed to take place in October, but we had to reschedule to an earlier trip. This changed the dynamic of our trip significantly. We were going for a shorter period of time, earlier in the whale season (when humpback behavior differs), and when the water isn’t quite as clear. It also meant we were thrust into a tour group… that turned out to be wonderful! So overall it was a great experience and a lot of fun, even though the photographic conditions did prove to be quite challenging.

I’m an inexperienced underwater photographer, so I was still feeling my way through the shooting process while working with an Aquatech underwater housing for the first time. The housing caused some issues—primarily fogging in the dome, but thankfully no leaks—and our visibility throughout most of the trip was a mixed bag. A lot of algae in the water made for a lot of particle interference, which made some shots unusable, or at least forced me to perform way more “cleanup” in post-processing that I normally would. You will notice this in some of the shots below.

I also struggled to find a comfort level shooting accurately. Looking through a snorkeling mask, plexiglass housing barrier and eyepiece to compose is almost impossible, so half the time I was shooting blind. Flukes and fins got cut off plenty of times. Simply getting into position to shoot at all was also a struggle, especially early on… which didn’t help when our very first swim produced the most dynamic moment of the trip (dancing whales and dolphins all over the place!). I got zilch from that encounter.

The plus side? It left me wanting more. I hope to go back and try again (hopefully with better underwater equipment) some time soon. Swimming with humpbacks really is a magical experience, and I feel I’ll be much better prepared the next time out.

Special thanks go to Canon Master Darren Jew and co-trip-leader Jasmine Carey of Whales Underwater for their guidance on this trip. Darren’s advice regarding gear, shooting and post-processing was invaluable leading up to and during this adventure.

See the small gallery of images from this trip in the photo archive. A preview of some of the highlights is below.

Spinner Dolphin

We encountered a pod of spinner dolphins one day. They liked to swim near the bow of the boat when we got moving, but once we entered the water they were pretty shy.

False Killer Whale

One of the other new species for me on this trip was the false killer whale. They are, in fact, medium-sized porpoises which generally feed on fish.

Humpback Whales

This is a color-tinted monochrome interpretation an underwater scene. Monochrome conversions often help filter out a lot of the algae and other particles that made a mess of many of my underwater shots on this trip.

Humpback Whale

Another tinted monochrome conversion of a humpback whale in profile.

Humpback Whales

A mother humpback tries to give me a fist bump as it passes within inches of my face. You can see how much algae was in the water at times. Yikes!

Humpback Whale with Calf

Humpback mothers are often accompanied by an “escort,” usually an adult male who like to keep an eye on things for some reason. It’s generally not the calf’s father, and the nuances and reasoning being escort behavior aren’t really known.

Humpback Whale with Calf

Our best whale calf encounters occurred on our very first day.

Humpback Whale Calf

Humpback Whale

A humpback emits a fine stream of bubbles while it swims after other whales.

Humpback Whale

A humpback whale ascends from the depths.

Sleeping Humpbacks

A pair of humpbacks naps on the sandy ocean floor.

Humpback Whale

This singing male came up right under me, so I quickly got out of the way. It was so close I cut the tail off in this frame.

Humpback Whales

Our final drop of the trip was a close swim with this pair of humpbacks in the shallows. Once again, my port was acting up, and this was the photo with the least amount of fogging and interference from the encounter.

Humpback Whale Breach

This is actually a shot I envisioned prior to the trip, but I’m amazed I pulled it off. We could see the whale lunging off the bottom with two quick pumps of its fluke, so I tracked it out of the water. However, my dome was partially fogged and I had no idea if the autofocus would continue to track the whale out of the water. Miraculously, it worked out.


View the full Tonga 2019 gallery (21 images) in the archive. And remember that you can order prints of nearly any of these photos.

I’m considering putting together a group trip heading back to Tonga in the next couple years. This would NOT be a tour I’d lead, simply a private group of photographers to join one of the Whales Underwater trips, possibly getting us our own boat if we get enough people. Let me know if you’re interested.


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