The difference between being a client and a guide on a whale swim adventure

Having been a paying client as well as working  guide on whale swimming expeditions, I understand the expectations and challenges of both.

When I am a paying client on whale swim adventure my expectations include great weather, good visibility, cooperative whales, and going home with some great photographs. I trust the captain and crew will do their best in order to get me in a position to swim with and photograph the whales as well as ensure all the participants are respectful of the whales and each other.  Nothing makes a trip more frustrating than when one person swims toward the whales in a manner that causes stress and ends the encounter.  Nothing except when the same person does this frequently.

As a wildlife photographer I know many factors have to come together to get great images.  Obvious ones include, good underwater visibility, low winds, sunny skies, calm seas, cooperative whales that are curious, and batteries in the camera.  Less obvious but as just as important is the attitude and demeanor of the swimmers, their ability to swim quietly and stay together regardless of actual swimming ability and lens choice.

Whale swimmer

If one swimmer is more aggressive and swims directly at the whale the animal could easily react by swimming away. If one swimmer is to slow, then he or she will be getting the whales tales and the other swimmers and guides in their pictures.  If that swimmer happens to have a fish eye lens, he or she might feel a bit more frustrated.  My suggestion is to use a zoom lens like an 18-55mm, 17-35, or 14-24 zoom.  This will bring the subject closer and eliminate some of the other people from being in the frame. Swimming a bit faster and staying next to the guide will also help.

As a guide my goal is to find whales that want to have a mutual interaction with my group of swimmers. This is not an easy task because it requires having not only cooperative and curious whales, but also a group of swimmers that float together like jelly fish and wait for the whale to swim in for a close look.  Sometimes photographers look through the lens and forget about everyone else and end up swimming to close to the whale and this can end an interaction.

Baby whale playing

Swimming with whales is not all about speed and going slow and staying together as a group is a good thing. Sometimes one swimmer in the group is really slow. This makes it  more difficult because if one is slow that likely means the others are faster.  Since whale swimming maintains a group dynamic my challenge is to get the fast swimmers to slow down, and the slower swimmer to hurry up.  I know that for long encounters with whales to take place the swimmers need to remain close together. The whales like it when they know where the people are. If they dont feel stress they may play with us for hours.  When they look around and  see people on both sides they feel stress and simply disappear into the blue.

The weather is  not always ideal when whale swimming and sometimes the seas can be big, and winds strong. Whales dont seem to mind at all however it does make it more difficult for swimmers to stay together.

While I enjoy paying my money and going on  expeditions without responsibilities, I also enjoy guiding. In either capacity success comes down to good conditions, cooperative whales, and a good group of people.

Swimming with whales


In 2012, I will be the host on three liveabaord trips dedicated to photography.  For details click here.

About Doug Hoffman

Portrait and underwater fine art photographer.
This entry was posted in photography workshops, Travel, Uncategorized, whales and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The difference between being a client and a guide on a whale swim adventure

  1. Doug,

    Great article! We loved meeting you aboard the Nai’a in Tonga this year. You and Mark made the trip. Your advice on behavior in the water to enhance our encounters was greatly appreciated. Your photography class onboard was wonderful. Your photo tips and most importantly the loan of your camera to my flooding husband was just incredibly generous. To top everything off, you were funny and just a delight to be on a boat with. I will carry the memory of your quote from one of the days when I was a bit miffed at a photo op ruined by a fellow snorkeler but trying to be grateful for the opportunity to be in the water with the magnificent whales. You said, “It’s not all about the shot. That’s what I say when I’m lying!” Thank you for leading a great trip. We hope to travel with you again soon.


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