Favorite Whale Photos of 2014

2014 was a heckuva year.

To start, it was a busy one. I spent about half the year on or in the water, which...though actually a bit less than in recent years...was exhausting. I'm getting old, you know.

Much of that time was devoted to whales, which were...let's just say...really good to me.

Following are a few of my favourite whale photos from last year to give you an idea of what an incredible twelve months it was for me.

Let's start with this picture, because...well...it's a frickin' herd(!) of sperm whales:

social aggregation of sperm whales
 Physeter macrocephalus by the dozens (License image)

I don't know how many individuals are in this frame, but there were a lot. The more astounding thing, however, is that the whales depicted here comprised but a small, small portion of the entire aggregation, which spanned as far as the eye could see and beyond in all directions. There were certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands. Mostly adult females, though there were juveniles in the mix, and even some adult males, as I'll show you in a bit.

I've read accounts from whaling days of whales clumped together so thick that you could walk across the backs of them, but I never thought I'd ever see such a gathering myself.

Photographically, light levels were low, the whales were on the move, and the water was so mucked up from whales doing their thing (i.e., pooping and shedding skin) that taking photos was challenging.

Composition, at least in circumstances like this, is the art of picking order out of the midst of chaos, like this photo of an active social group:

socializing sperm whales
Finding order in chaos among socializing sperm whales (License image)

If you feel like reading more about the social scrum depicted above, check out this brief feature at Outdoor Photographer.

The next image shows a family group playing together:

sperm whale family group
Sperm whale family group socializing together (License image)

I was able to pick out this group from the chaotic mob of other whales by taking note of the fact that there were three young whales. Juvenile mammals of any species tend to be more inquisitive than adults, a fact that helped me ingratiate myself with this family over time.

Continuing with sperm whales for a bit...meeting this little girl was one of my absolute favorite experiences of all time. She was so adorable. I wanted to hug her.

baby sperm whale female
Teeny-tiny baby girl sperm whale, around two meters long (License image)

As you can see from the photo, the little one came right over for a meet-and-greet.

Her family was in the area; I saw them foraging for food. For whatever reason, she was allowed to wander off on her own to play.

I initially spotted her from a quite a distance when she breached. The dimunitive "plop" of a baby breach vs. the distinctive "kaboom" of an adult breach led me to believe that a very small baby was around. Little did I suspect how small though.

Most texts indicate a size at birth of something on the order of four to four-and-a-half meters for a baby sperm whale. That certainly sounds right and is consistent with the birth size of other large cetacean species.

The thing is, this one was only about two meters long.

I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt because she marched right up to me, and we swam side-by-side for a bit, long enough for me to line myself up next to her and compare our body lengths. She was just a wee bit longer than me with my long fins on.

There were two other people in the water, and two more on the boat, who saw us line up. Everyone reported the same thing...a body length of around two meters.

The exact size isn't important. It's the order of magnitude. There was no chance she was anything near four meters. She was half that.

I wrote to science friends to ask about this. Everyone indicated that two meters isn't likely, but there you go. Nature is full of surprises.

Oh...while we were swimming along together, little Ms. sperm whale decided that she wanted to play. She raised her fluke and gently placed it on my head, such that we sauntered through the sea for a bit like this:

underside view of baby sperm whale
Underside view of baby female sperm whale (License image)

I took it as the sperm whale equivalent of holding hands.

I so wanted to hug her. Seriously.

Anyway...at the opposite end of the spectrum, I finally had a chance to come face-to-face with an enormous bull sperm whale:

mature bull sperm whale
Bulbous head of large, mature bull sperm whale. Note the battle scars. (License image)

This one was something approaching 20m long. I'm certain of this because when we first spotted this imposing giant, several adult females surfaced next to him. One was lined up perfectly parallel to him. He was easily, easily in excess of 1.5x her body length, closer to 2x.

An adult female is 11-12m long, so there you have it.

He was so big, in fact, that when I first saw the blow and dorsal from a distance, I thought he was a blue whale. Yup, really that big.

This isn't the first large male I've seen, but for all their size and bulk, the large males tend to be shy. Not this one. When I finally had an opportunity to slip into the water near him, he paused, turned, made a beeline for me.

I...applying my time-tested philosophy of act-first, think-later...swam toward him. 

As a result, I learned that bull sperm whales are really fast when they want to be. Before I knew it, he was a few meters away, kicking up a wake as he approached. 

I'd like to say that I kept my cool and considered the situation in a calm manner, but then I'd be lying.

When he was about three meters away, the bull issued a single, emphatic clang (loud bioacoustic bang). I was just under the surface at the time. The acoustic boom popped and cleared my ears for me, as if I had performed a Valsalva manoeuvre. Nice of him to do that for me, don't you think?

We were only face-to-face for a few (very scary, to be honest) moments, then he appeared to lose interest. He turned and exited stage left.

I had several more encounters with this massive male, but none quite as intimate as the first. I suspect his curiosity was satisfied, and he couldn't be bothered clearing my ears for me again.

blue whale fluke
Blue whale, fluke-on view (License image)

Of the many memorable encounters I had with blue whales in 2014, the one pictured above was the most mind-boggling.

That gorgeous fluke belongs to a fully grown adult, probably in excess of 20m, though exact size is tough to assess when there's no frame of reference. Let's just agree that it was big.

Imagine this: We're cruising along, looking for blues. I'm telling my friends Evelyn and Eric about their biology, their habits, reasons for being in the area, and so forth. Among the points I make is that blue whales are fast. Really fast.

They tend to have things on their mind, like feeding, so they usually come up for a few breaths and dive again, without much regard for boats or people. You tend to see them once, perhaps more, but almost always just catch fleeting glimpses as the super-cetaceans go about their business.

Fair enough, right? Blue whales do what blue whales do.

After I finished my spiel, a relatively young blue whale pulled up to us. Seven times. For extended encounters.

Say what?!

The whale went down to feed of course, but kept coming up nearby, approaching each time to have a meander around/ near our vessel. 

I kept saying: "This can't possibly continue." But it did...until I finally called it a day after seven encounters, and we went back to land. One of my mottos when at sea is: "Always be grateful. Never be greedy."

Here's the thing...the whale pictured above isn't that whale. 

Nope. Two days later, the large adult whale pictured above approached for nine extended encounters.

Nine! Nine, I say!!!

Once again, ending with nine only because I called it a day (and also kind of because Seven of Nine came to mind, which you might recognise if you're a Trekkie, giving me an easy way to remember that we had seven, then nine encounters).

The madness didn't end there. This whale slowed down, going perhaps as slow as a blue whale can possibly go, circling around to look at us bobbing like corks in the water.

I swam to pull up alongside, actually catching up to the blue whale (OK...just how nuts is that?!).

As I approached from the side to ensure the whale knew where I was (seemingly rational thoughts like this make sense in the heat of the moment...duh, of course the whale knew where I was!), the blue transitioned from its undulating S-curve swimming to moving its body side-to-side, almost as if sashaying through the ocean.

The motion was rhythmic, gentle, inviting.

One thing led to another, I kicked myself into high gear, then found myself a couple of meters above the blue, tagging along like a struggling remora.

Though the blue was probably going as slowly as it possibly could to allow me to swim with it, staying with the blue for the 20-30 seconds that I managed to keep up required every ounce of effort I could muster.

When I started to slip away, I pulled my camera up and took a few photos, including the one above.

The blue whale drifted ever so slowly ahead, beckoning me to keep up, but I was spent. Totally, utterly, spent.

I have more blue whale photos and stories, but none that'll top that one, so let's move on to humpbacks.

Meet Bible, the undisputed star calf of the 2014 season, coming in to say hello with her pectoral fins held together, her tuckered out mommy resting in the background.

humpback whale calf with mother, tonga
Humpback whale calf greeting, sleeping mommy in background (License image)

This calf was as playful and inquisitive as any I've ever come across, and her mom was one of the most chilled-out mommy humpbacks I've encountered to date...which makes for an ideal combination.

I'm particularly fond of the above photograph because of the calf's pectoral fins. Humpback calves do this from time-to-time, but usually only hold the pinpoint position for a fraction of a second, so seeing this about to take place and then being able to get to the right place at the right time with the right camera settings isn't a frequent occurrence. Finally, having mommy in the background makes the shot for me.

Other favourites from my 13th season with humpbacks include the following four monochrome images:

humpback whale escort blowing bubbles
Lead escort humpback whale in heat run blowing bubbles (License image)

The first is a photo of one of two lead escorts in a frenzied competitive group heat run blowing bubbles as a sign of aggression and dominance. I watched this energetic heat run for an extended period. There was no question that the white-pec whale pictured above and another male were the lead contenders in this particular competitive group.

Gleaming white pectoral fins outstretched, battle-hardened torso covered with slicing wounds and gouged-out scars, dramatic stream of bubbles trailing behind...you can almost feel the raging testosterone and single-minded determination to procreate.

The image above, to me, is the definitive illustration of humpback whale heat run competition.

humpback whale female in heat run
Humpback whale female being pursued in a heat run (License image)

The next image shows a female humpback whale creating a stream of bubbles with her pectoral fin as she re-enters the water after breathing.

Females at the center of heat runs often seem to display like this, perhaps to attract more attention, to get the boys even more worked up than they already are. Huh, imagine that.

singing humpback whale, tonga
Singing humpback whale, reef visible below (License image)

The next photo is a singer, in the classic head-down pose, in this instance with the reef visible below. Not all singers are this cooperative. In fact, most are not. But this one hung around (I couldn't resist the pun. It's your fault Bert!) for quite some time, giving many people the opportunity to hear and see him. 

If you're interested, I posted a video that Michael Bonneau took of me swimming down to the singer in this blog post: Humpback Whales in Tonga | Part 5.

And to wrap up, a final favorite from the 2014 humpback whale season...a male spyhopping and pirouetting at the same time:

humpback whale spyhop viewed from underwater
Humpback whale spyhop from below (License image)

That'll do it for this first post of 2015.

Like I did last year, I'm going to submit this post to Jim Goldstein's Best Photos collection, the eighth time he's collecting links for "best of" posts from photographers around the world.

Hmmmm. I just read Jim's rules and saw that he specified entrants should edit down to five to 10 photos. Oops. I went to 12. Maybe this post will be disqualified for exceeding the recommended photo count.

Irrespective, if you're a fan of photography, you should check out his links from previous years, and for 2014 when he publishes the final list. For me, it's great to see what other people have been up to over the past 12 months, and also to have an opportunity to enjoy other genres of photography.