I’ve been back in Maui for just a few days, and am still editing this years collection of photographs. This part of my work flow usually gets done while on location but this season the guests were too much fun and there were just too many good photographs to edit.
Sept 2-12 2014 group
Indeed, having a lot of editing to do is a good problem as not every season enjoys several extended mutual interactions, clear water, great weather and sea conditions. Usually there are several days of bad weather and visibility that are followed by several days of fair conditions. Then sometime in the middle, there are a few good days when everything just comes together.
This year the weather was incredible the entire time. Wind, sunlight, wave action, cloud coverage, and other elements of nature did not cause problems. We also had the right kind of boat, an experienced captain, very good whale swimming guide, respectful, and courteous participants. All these factors came together to make this one of the best seasons ever.
I am so thankful and grateful that everyone had such a good time. So good in fact that now these people might be a bit spoiled when traveling in the future. Based on the success of this trip, they’re expectations are going to be a bit high. Take Olga for example… This was her first trip after getting certified as a diver, and she has never snorkeled before. Where can she go next to top this?
Whale swimmer having time of her life
This season all the whale watching, photography, and swimming took place from the yacht Wildlife, owned by Dave and Tris Sheen. The vessel is not a five star luxury boat, but rather an eco-friendly and comfortable boat. There were not any candies on the pillow but each day we enjoyed incredible home cooked meals including delicious desserts.Rather than listen to the drone of loud engines, most of the time was spent sailing. We only used motors during the whale swims.
Being able to relax on Wildlife between swims was fantastic. In past seasons guests had to put on wetsuits on and leave them on all day, but on this boat we were able to take them off between swims. I enjoyed freshly made hot coffee, tea, and home baked cookies, and cakes each day. Now, that is service. Nothing beats hot freshly made coffee or tea after an hour long whale swim. Having a bathroom made everyone happy too. It was incredible…..
For a small group of people dedicated to whale watching and swimming you could not ask for more. The cabins were small but not cramped, the salon was well appointed and had room for all of our charging supplies. The cockpit was where we ate our meals. This is Stas from Russia finding some time for a nap. Another reason I like this boat so much is there are many places to get out of the sun and stretch out.
Getting rest and relief from the sun
While the seas wind were calm, the waters just off shore were a bit milky and not great for photography. Luckily for us the water clarity offshore was really good. So, we worked the sea mounts, and outer passages. On the second day we encountered Beauty, a large female without calf or escort swimming in clear water. While alone, she had a certain bliss about her. Beauty would perform a undersea ballet to music only she could hear, but it was obvious she was dancing to her own beat.
Female whale enjoying quality time alone
On the fourth day our boat counted 9 different mother & calves. Sadly, it was a day where all the action took place on the surface as the whales were constantly tracking. This is a kind of behavior in which the whales do not settle and keep moving. That said there was some epic breaching and tail slapping going on and this created a lot of great photo opportunities. In the image below I captured a fluke and will send it to the Tongan Fluke Collective where scientists are forming a database. The goal is to assemble a collection of flukes to help scientists keep track of the whales in the region.
Baby whale having fun making splashes
As a photographic group our goal is to have mutual interactions as opposed to fleeting glimpses of the whales. This means we don’t want to get in the water and simply have the whales swim by as they are doing their thing. So we did not jump in the water and swim with every group of whales we observed.
Terry and her whale friends
We were patient and looking for what could possibly be an extended interaction. This occurs when the whales are just as interested in us as we were of them. So each time we observed a group of whales, Captain Dave and our guide Tris watched their behavior. Only when both were in agreement that the whale behavior observed indicated the whales might be open to a mutual interaction, did the captain tell us to get ready for a swim.
About midway way through the adventure we encountered a mother and calf that seemed to accept our presence. We began observing them before 8 AM and decided to get in the water a half hour later. Four of us got in and swam about hundred meters. At the point where we could see the whales we stopped swimming and started floating. At the edge of our vision we could see the mother resting in about 30 feet of water and the calf was free to explore his world. Little by little the young whale swam by each of us to check us out. Once confidant we were not a threat he started to play.
Incredible show beneath the sea
Each breath cycle he would let mom know he was fine than swim up to us. First he circled, then he did a variety of acrobatics and seemed to enjoy coming really close to the swimmers. His mom would rise up every 25-30 minutes to breath and check us out. We must have passed the test because she repeated the same routine for hours, enabling us to rotate groups in and out of the water without having to move the boat to exchange swimmers.
Twice we pulled all the swimmers out of the water in order to allow the whales to rest, nurse, relax, and log and to our amazement they stayed with our boat. When we got back in the water the whales returned to their previous pattern of behavior where the mom rested and the baby was free to swim around. Everyone enjoyed watching the whale play. In the late afternoon I noticed the baby whales circles around us were getting bigger and bigger. So it seemed his curiosity started to fade so we decided it was time to say aloha. It was a magical day.
While we saw whales every day, we did not see the numbers of whales demonstrating behavior indicating they were open to a mutual interaction. During a season with so many whale sightings, I expected more in-water interactions. It has been my experience over 9 seasons that about 45% of the whales we observed seemed open to an encounter while this year the number was around 30-35%. Some say it might have something to do with the phase of the moon or even the water temperature. I don’t know the real reason but would surely love to.
What I do know to be true is that it takes between 9 and 12 days on the water, in order for the elements to come together to have an epic day. I am referring to the quality of light, wind, sea conditions, underwater visibility, and cooperative whales. Wildlife photography takes time, and just because it is legal to swim with whales in Tonga, it is not easy. It requires patience, dedication, humor, and a bit of luck to have mutual interactions with whales that last for hours. The longer the trip, the better the chances or this to occur.
As I continue to edit and process images from the trip I will make more posts. Until then make the most of your days and remember to live your dream, not dream about life.