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How to film & photograph dwarf minke whales underwater

It’s a rare and wonderful privilege to be in the water with whales. Eye to eye, mammal to mammal. The connection is undeniable and unforgettable.

There aren’t many places in the world that you can get this close to these majestic giants. Predictable, reliable, and legal in-water encounters are almost non-existent. The minkes of the Great Barrier Reef are an exception, and we’re still buzzing from our recent minke adventure aboard Mike Ball’s Spoilsport.

Mother and calf Dwarf Minke Whales

Dwarf minke whales visit Australia’s GBR each southern winter. A handful of local dive operators hold permits allowing people to get in the water with these whales, provided everyone involved follows a code of practice.

The code is a sensible one, put in place for the well-being and protection of the whales and the people watching them. The dive operators, the scientists studying minke-human interactions, and the government bodies charged with looking after the GBR, all worked together on the guidelines.

Fluke (tail) of a Dwarf Minke Whale

From a swimmer’s point of view, the guidelines are simple. Hold onto the rope that streams from the back of the boat, don’t let go, no diving down or swimming toward the whales, be quiet, and keep your movements to a minimum. Couldn’t be easier.

For the whales, it’s easy too. Approach an interesting boat. Swim up and down the ropes, looking at the people as they bob around on the surface. Stare at each other for a while.

If you happen to be on SCUBA when the minkes turn up—which can happen, should you be diving a site the whales frequent—then you can hang onto the boat’s drop lines, deco bar, or mooring line and watch from there.

People swimming with a Dwarf Minke Whale

As part of the permit system, boat operators donate space onboard for researchers from The Minke Whale Project. The scientists can continue their research, educate passengers, and invite them to contribute their photos and videos to the research and identification of individual whales.

So how to get good underwater photos and videos? After spending time in the water with minkes earlier this month (and for two previous seasons), we’ve gathered our tips to help make your shooting easier and more successful…

No lights or strobes

It’s not allowed under the code’s guidelines. And it’s not needed anyway: there’s plenty of light at the water’s surface.

Keep your back to the sun

The minkes are usually in small groups, and often sneak up behind you. So keep looking out for them in all directions, but try to concentrate your search with the sun behind you. Shooting with your back to the sun will make the water look bluer and cleaner. You’ll also get a nice glint of sunshine off the whale’s skin. Shooting into the sun at the surface is just messy: all that stirred up water catching the light just clutters your images with too many speckles.

Free up both hands for the camera

Especially if you have a larger system. You’ll get steadier shots and better composition if you have both hands on your camera. So how do you do manage this if you’re required to hold onto the rope at all times? Find a hands-free way to secure yourself:

  • twist the rope around one leg, or
  • pinch the rope between your knees, or
  • clip onto the rope via an un-weighted weight belt, or
  • put a bicycle inner tube around your waist and clip it to the rope (thanks to Matt & Julia for this one)

Brush off your lens often

There’s a lot of chop at the surface, and those small bubbles keep making their way back onto your lens. Brush them off as you wait for the whales to make their next pass.

Underexpose

Be careful not to overexpose the white shoulder on the whale’s pectoral fins. For video, we used a setting that knocks 1.5 f-stop off the auto exposure. For photos, we used exposure compensation between -1.7 and -2 (which also gives you a nice rich blue water colour).

Clean shots with fisheyes

If you’re using a very wide lens, you’ll often get the rope or other snorkelers in your shot. If you want your images to be “whale only”, then take a turn at the far end of the rope.

Video-specific tips

  • Add ballast to your camera system. I found the extra weight of my tripod, lights (switched off) and battery pods really helped me hold the camera down below me, away from surface chop. Of course you’ll need to compose through the external monitor pointed upward if you’re going to hold the camera below you.
  • If you don’t normally use manual focus, this is the time to do so. In bluewater, the camera’s autofocus may “hunt” as it struggles to lock on the subject. So switch to manual and pre-set your camera’s focus to lock your focal distance.

Photo-specific tips

  • Try shooting in shutter priority mode (“S” or “Tv”) at 1/160s or 1/200s. The whales are moving slowly, but you are attached to a rope while in surface chop. You’ll get jolted around quite a bit. The fast shutter speed will help cut your motion blur.

Anything we missed? Please feel free to add your tips or questions.

—Josh & Liz

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mike ball

Hi Josh & Liz
Love this blog. After a few years without a camera I have a new Nikon D7000/Seacam system arriving for July 14th Minke Coral Sea departure. Your Minke photo tips will help me get up to speed for then, can’t wait And our crew just loved having your group of fun motivated divers on board. You lead great expeditions.
Mike

mike ball

Also, loved your photo images and video. Should enter both in the Cairns Underwater Film Festival and Photo Competition.

Shazzah

Really enjoyed reading this article Liz. Well-written and very useful. The only problem is that I now want to return so that I can apply these tips and give the minke’s another go!

Vanguanuarkig

what I was looking for, thanks

David

Hi guys,
Simple, succinct and very helpful. Fantastic stuff. We’re on MBDE’s minke trip later this week and will put it all your advice into action. Thanks! Your photos have given me something to aspire to.
D

Lisa

Hi Josh & Liz
Just wanted to say loved the video of both the cod-hole and the minkes! Very jealous! Was supposed to do a trip last week up to the cod hole but a neck injury prevented it. Can’t wait to get up there – it’s on my bucket list! 🙂
Thanks for sharing!
Lisa

Andrea

Thank you for the tips, so helpful 🙂 I’m heading out to swim with the minkes next month, cannot wait!
Andrea

Lain ward

Hi i have a gopro hero 4 and wondered what the best setting is to capture these beautiful creatures i will be doing this tour next year 🙂
Thank you

Lain: We’ve not yet tried the Hero4 but the auto settings with Protune turned on normally do a great job. I like to use a shallow water red filter to make the colours pop. Stability will be your biggest issue: Try attaching your GoPro to something bigger (like a camera tray with handles, or a tripod to help reduce camera shake), the water’s surface is almost always choppy or worse, being able to hold the camera below you and use your arms as shock absorbers will help you get nice steady shots.

Alison Bailey

I am really appreciating this wonderful post that you have provided for us. I assure this would be beneficial for most of the people.

max

Hi guys,

Thank you for the info and beautiful footage. I’m planning to visit Melbourne in July and see some operators offer tours. Do you know any that offer under water experiences?

Thank you

Admin

Hi Max, thanks for the feedback.
We’re unable to make any suggestions of Melbourne operators, as we haven’t dived there… yet 🙂

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