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.
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.