We asked GDome XL Surf user Robert Raimo a few questions about his passion for whale photography / videography.
What inspired you to become a whale photographer??
We moved to Maui twenty years ago due to health issues, i was having real issues with walking due to MS, and had to leave work, i was a soil scientist. So we find this house near the boat ramp in Kihei Hawaii and i could still row a lifeguard boat, so we ordered one, and started observing the whales that appear seasonally. It is really cool to be near a forty ton animal.
Can you describe the process you go through to capture the perfect shot of a whale?
First, you had better be lucky, if you don't have good luck don't even try. No really, these are humpback whales, so if you want a photograph you have to go where the whales are. That involves looking and listening, Often times you can hear a blow before you see them. When we locate the general area. we row or motor over and hang out and wait. Mom's and babies are most reliable for photos, competition pods of males chasing females are most exciting to watch.
Can you walk us through the technical aspects of photography, specifically as it relates to capturing whales?
As for settings, we start with the light. I like to shoot shutter priority and let the aperture float, and usually go with 1/2000 of a second. We use telephoto lens for above water stuff, a 100 to 400 and 80 to 280. We can generally get good results up to a thousand feet away. But back to the light, the main thing is manuvering the boat so the light is behind you, and of course the whale may or may not be swimming, so we try to figure out where it is going to line up the shot. This has a success rate of about ten percent. so we get a lot of exercise. Shooting under water is harder, much harder.
What are the legalities when it comes to whale photography?
We are required to stay 300 feet back from the whales. so we can paddle near one and hope it is inquisitive and swims over to look us over. It happens more than you think. When one approaches it is the lean over the side of the boat and stick your camera in method of photography. I mean you can see the whale near the surface so you kind of know what you are doing, but you only get about five seconds or so, as the whale will look us over and move on.
What is your current underwater camera setup for whale photography?
I have tried various cameras but my favourite is with the GDome and a canon 7D and a 18 to 50 lens. We have had good luck using a 2.8 aperture, 500 ASA and letting the shutter speed float.
Can you share with us a particularly memorable moment or experience you had while photographing whales?
Probably the most exciting experiences are when a competition pod of males is pursuing a female and swims by us. These groups can contain ten males and one female and the males are hitting each other, it is really exciting both the sounds and the visual aspect of it. The ultimate photo of course is the breech shot. Humpbacks frequently hurtle themselves out of the water making a spectacular display. All for different reasons, sometimes a male will do it when it is competing with another male, and loses, he often breeches and swims off.
These are hard shots to capture as you don't know when it is going to occur and unless they do it twice the chance of successful photo is low, but they often do repetitive breeches. The entire episode lasts 1.6 seconds or so and you have a chance to frame the shot and get it off before it hits the water. The next best thing is the underwater shots, we call it mugging when the mom or baby swims right up to us and looks us over. really exciting.
Can you discuss how you strive to promote conservation and awareness through your photography of whales?
A few years ago we started participating with happywhale.com this organisation is keeping a catalogue of whales and dolphins. We submit photos of the flukes, the undersides, which are readily identifiable and unique to each whale. Happywhale.com then tracks whales by the encounter and date. We have observed many whales that have been recorded for twenty plus years, and travel from here to Alaska and Russia, or Mexico. This data is used by many researchers and really is a wealth of information for anyone studying humpback populations and migration patterns, and we are glad to contribute to further this science.