When I was younger I thought I’d quite like to be a marine biologist. As it turned out, I discovered I get very sea sick on a boat and marine biology was actually one of my least favourite modules at university. However, I did love the module we did on whale and dolphin biology and I have long had a strong admiration and love for cetaceans. On our recent trip to California, Ross and I drove from Los Angeles up to San Francisco and there was no way I was not stopping at Monterey Bay along the way. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is a protected marine area that is home to a vast array of wildlife and offers the opportunity to see cetaceans year-round. On the drive up to Monterey, we saw some amazing wildlife along the Pacific Coast Highway including dolphins, elephant seals and I even spotted a whale breaching as we drove along the road! So I had high hopes for our whale watching trip the next day from Moss Landing. We woke up early and drove the short distance from Monterey to Moss Landing. Due to the aforementioned sea sickness, I took some motion sickness tablets the night before and morning of the trip and I also rented a motion sickness relief band. Highly recommended! As we left the harbour, I spotted the above two fishermen and thought it would make a cool shot in black and white.
We did not have to go far from the coast to see our first few whales. We were very lucky and there were humpbacks galore! We must have seen around 30 humpback whales, it was just fab! There were some kayakers who got an awesome surprise as a couple of whales swam past super close to them. I think that being out on the water in a kayak and seeing all the wildlife would be a great experience but the idea of tackling big waves in the ocean and the risk of capsizing terrifies me. In addition to the humpbacks, we saw loads of sealions. They looked so agile leaping through the water and were super fast!
Every now and again a sea otter also drifted by. They were so cute! Unfortunately, they were so small and far away that my 200mm lens had no chance of capturing them so I’ve had to crop this image, hence the reduced image quality.
Here are some tips if you are heading out on a whale watching trip. Firstly, a telephoto lens is a must. If the company you go with is a reputable one they will give the whales space and stay away at a certain distance. I took the 70-200mm 2.8 and to be honest, though it sufficed, the ability to zoom in further would have been a bonus.
Secondly, brace yourself against the side of the boat to help keep yourself steady when taking photos. It is quite a challenge when the boat is swaying up and down and I found towards the back of the boat easier for photographs than nearer the bow.
Thirdly, don’t get too ahead of yourself and become snap happy as soon as you see a whale. Take some time to watch the whales and learn their movements and behaviour. This will help you when it comes to capturing your photos as you will soon learn when a whale is going to dive and you’ll get the chance to photograph their tail flukes, for example.
Finally, some tips on camera settings. You want to keep your shutter speed high as you never know if you might strike lucky and see a whale breaching. If you are lucky enough to witness this (unfortunately we weren’t) then you would be gutted to come away with a blurry photo. Sea lions and dolphins can also move at high speeds so you need a high shutter speed to capture the action. Not to mention there is a lot of movement on the boat and you want to avoid camera shake. I set my shutter speed to at least 1/1000 on this trip.
To achieve this you might have to increase your ISO, which for me went between 400-640. You also want to give yourself a bit of leeway with your aperture as swaying around on a boat makes it really tough to nail your focus (which should be set to continuous- AI Servo AF on Canon and AF/C on Nikon). Make sure you’re DSLR is also set to continuous shooting mode.
Also don’t forget that sometimes you should just take your eye away from your lens and fully appreciate what is right in front of you. There’s no point in coming away with hundreds of photos all of the same thing. Oh and one final tip, if you do get sea sick, don’t constantly look through your camera… that’s a sure fire way to end up feeling rough!