By Neil McDermott, Dan Evans, and Lione Clare
We all know there are few, if any, guarantees in wildlife photography. We wonder if the wildlife will reveal themselves while we are there. Will they exhibit the behaviors we want to document? Fortunately, one of the very few places on earth you can reliably photograph and observe humpback whales working as a team bubble-net feeding is in the pristine, nutrient-rich waters surrounding Sitka, Alaska. This impressive act of cooperative feeding is on display every year from late March until the first week of April.
It is no wonder the BBC filmed the bubble-net segment for their “Our Planet” series here. They must have recognized Sitka as the dependable place to obtain the video they wanted. The three of us have witnessed over 50 Humpback whales assembled in several bubble-net feeding groups located within a five square mile section of water during this time of the year. It is common to see bubble-net feeding 30 times during a single eight-hour boat trip, and some are fortunate to have this scenario play out as frequently as 70 times during that same interval.
Bubble-net feeding is not the only acrobatic humpback demonstration to which visiting photographers are treated. They often capture tail slapping, flipper slapping, spy hopping, flick feeding, and the spectacular breach. The rugged snow-covered peaks of the Tongass National Forest, rocky kelp burdened islets, and the crimson-streaked dormant Mt. Edgecumbe volcano provide an excellent background for photographing these awe-inspiring displays.
A hydrophone, if available, lets you eavesdrop on the whales’ communication, which is not only entertaining but also beneficial for timing great photographs. After a group of up to 18 whales shows their flukes and dives, you can hear their voices coordinating their attack strategy. The team members swim in a spiraling motion under the school of herring, expelling air from their blowholes, disorienting and corralling their prey. The herring perceive the bubbles as a net and stay concentrated. The bubble-net group leader soon emits a high-pitched feeding call that drives the herring toward the surface and alerts photographers that it’s time to lift their equipment and be ready to focus for the show that’s about to unfold. Shortly after the feeding call starts, the call’s pitch gets much higher. The sound of the bubbles and the frenzied herring can be heard split seconds before the big event. Sometimes you might see a column of herring 30 feet in diameter rise out of the water just before the whales’ emergence. “Oohs” and “Ahhs” are drowned out by the sound of camera shutters clicking as the whales’ heads erupt with mouths agape, throat grooves bulging with fish, and seawater flushing through their baleen plates.
Quickly, several hundred gulls arrive, screaming and swarming the upwelling waters full of herring, with some of the more courageous gulls seeming to steal the fish from the whales’ open mouths. The noise of the whale’s grunts, calls, and whistling exhales united with the gulls crying, although quite loud, has a natural soothing effect on one’s soul. Close engagements with the whales occasionally occur, prompting photographers to wish they chose a shorter focal length lens.
Not all humpback whales bubble-net feed: this learned behavior is exhibited only by a limited number of humpback whales. Researchers believe only 12 individual whales in southeast Alaska lead the groups performing this wildlife spectacle. Occasionally visiting photographers are treated to the sight of a young humpback calf, observing and learning the complex choreography involved in effectively executing this phenomenon.
The reason for the season
Hundreds of thousands of tons of herring congregate in the waters off Sitka to spawn in the early spring. The humpbacks have learned to coordinate their return from their mating and calving grounds in Hawaii with the herring’s arrival. During the migration to, from, and while in Hawaii, humpback whales do not feed. When they arrive in Sitka Sound, they are ready to gorge themselves on the calorie-rich fish. For this reason, whale researchers have dubbed Sitka Sound the “humpbacks’ first service station.”
There are many theories behind why humpback whales use bubble netting as a feeding method. The most popular idea is one of survival. After being hunted to near extinction, it is believed that humpback whales developed this method of feeding so as many whales as possible can feed in a short amount of time.
The herring return also attracts a host of other species such as orcas, Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, man (to harvest herring eggs), and hundreds of eagles. There have been occasions where bald eagles were the only birds that came to feast on the whale’s leftovers. This truly is a time when mother nature awakens from her winter slumber and blossoms with a flourish.
Capturing the action
While trying to capture bubble-net feeding, we recommend a shutter speed of 1/1500 of a second or higher and an aperture of f/8 or smaller. The camera’s drive should be set to high-speed continuous shooting, and keep your finger by the trigger button. With both eyes open, look over the top your camera, not through the eyepiece. That way, your field of vision is more expansive. Many shots are missed when trying to keep one’s eye on the eyepiece. Like a hunter waiting for its prey, your eyes should continually scanning left to right and back again, trying to anticipate where the action will happen. When the whales start emerging, hold the trigger button and swing the camera into position. Allow the shutter to click as you track the whales. You will sometimes have a few shots that just contain sky and water until the camera locks focus on the whale. If the water is calm and you can see the telltale bubbles indicating whales are on their way up, focus on the bubbles and wait. Most of the time though, the water has some chop, you can’t see the bubbles, and you don’t know where they are going to emerge. The whales could be coming up next to your boat or 600 yards away. There is a lot of luck involved. The more you’re with them, the better chance you have of getting those great shots.
Think about what lenses you might want to use. There will be time to change lenses during an eight-hour boat trip. Dan Evans’ current gear includes a Nikon D850 body with an 80-200mm lens, and a 500mm prime lens, while Lione Clare’s consists of Nikon D500 and Z6 camera bodies with a 200-400mm f/4 and a 24-70mm f/4 lenses. Any SLR will do but be sure to use your continuous shooting mode and consider AI Servo (Canon), Continuous-servo Auto Focus (Nikon), or their equivalent in your camera for focusing. You will find lenses with Vibration Reduction are particularly useful for their added stability on a moving boat.
Metering can be challenging because the animals are dark but highly reflective when wet, the boat is moving around, and the sun’s angle on your subject is continually changing. We typically advise shooting with matrix metering, but use the setting that you are most comfortable with.
Dan Evans shoots in aperture priority mode and sets his camera to 1 stop above the maximum with his ISO at least 400 to obtain shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the action, especially on breaching whales. The drive mode is set to maximum continuous burst—the faster, the better. If the light is poor or fading, there will be times to crank ISO all the way up to 1600 or to open the lens up to its maximum aperture.
During these outings you might experience bright warm sunshine, sleet, snow, and rain all in one afternoon, so we recommend having covers for your camera body and lens close at hand. Of course, you should keep plenty of lens cleaning cloths available. Saltwater spray from waves is most often not an issue because larger vessels are pretty stable, but there are times when you might be in the path of a not-so-aromatic blow from an upwind whale.
Watching the graceful and athletic performances of these beautiful ,40-plus ton creatures instinctually serves to remind and motivate all of us of the need for sustained conservation, education, and research to help protect this precious marine environment. There are many whale watching tour operators along the east and west coasts, in Alaska, and Hawaii that are responsible and ethical. Sadly, there are some that are not. How can you tell?
There are several things to look for when booking a tour. Is the company recognized by the World Cetacean Alliance as a certified responsible whale watching operator? This designation is given to operators that meet the highest standards for customer experience, and their practices ensure that the animals they encounter are not put under excess stress or disturbance. Look for this or similar certifications. Another clue is participation in something like Whale SENSE, a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that promotes additional guidelines for responsible whale watching that go above and beyond the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Does the tour operator give back to help protect and preserve the species and environment? Does the company do anything to benefit local communities and positively affect the environment? Do they integrate environmental, social, and economic sustainability into their business?
Photo opportunities in what is often voted as Alaska’s most beautiful town abound. From the landscapes of craggy ice field covered mountain peaks to the ships and fishing vessels in Alaska’s most extensive harbor system, to the historical and cultural locations throughout Alaska’s first capital, to the weather-worn Russian cemeteries or the colorful tidepool life, you will find no shortage of subjects in this town with seemingly endless photographic muses.
Sitka is located on Baranof Island, on the outer coast of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Like most southeast Alaska communities, Sitka is accessible only by air, sea, or birth. The downtown area is centrally located, and most points of interest are within walking distance of one another.
Alaska Airlines has daily flights to Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport.
Neil McDermott is a captain and naturalist who owns and operates A Whale’s Song Expeditions, providing daily and multi-day photography tours on the waters around Sitka and Southeast Alaska. From an early age, Neil sought out wildlife knowledge through books, television, and just rolling around in the dirt. He watched every Jacque Cousteau special and became passionate about marine mammals, especially whales. He continues to expand his knowledge, attending conferences worldwide and visiting with leading whale scientists and scholars seeking the most up-to-date information and assisting in the collection of research data. He holds a Coast Guard Masters License with First Aid and CPR certification. Neil is an associate member of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, associate partner with the Alaska Travel Industry Association, a World Cetacean Alliance partner, partner with Whale SENSE Alaska, and a contributing author to The Last Frontier Magazine.
Dan Evans’ photographs have appeared in many publications, including National Geographic, the New York Times, Outside, Alaska, Alaska Airlines Magazine, Patagonia, National Fisherman, and many more. He has worked for “Wild Things,” a Paramount television program where he traveled the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic photographing polar bears, walrus, and caribou. Recently he worked for National Geographic photographing Bison in South Dakota.
An experienced mountaineer and outdoorsman, Dan Evans has summited Denali, skied across the Juneau Ice Fields, bicycled across Canada, and kayaked, hiked much of the wildest geography of the Last Frontier. Raised in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Dan has lived in Alaska for over 34 years. He and his wife Janet continue to spend much of their time outdoors, finding new angles and vantage points to photograph Alaska and all that makes it unique. His business, Dan Evans/Northern Images, provides a wide range of photos, books, and posters, stock images, and workshops that capture the spirit of the last frontier. See his work at AlaskaDanEvans.com
Lione Clare is a photographer and naturalist who was born and raised in Sitka and fell in love with nature at a young age. Her passion for nature photography that budded at age 13 has since led to her receiving special photography experiences, including a North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) high school scholarship and being the “guest young photographer” on a wildlife safari in Tanzania. View her work at lioneclarephotography.com and on Instagram @lioneclarephoto.