This year was characterized by the number and quality of giant manta ray sightings we enjoyed. Our guests were very happy to be able to get in the water with groups of them on several occasions. Our boat captains have become quite good at finding mantas while on our way to the whale shark aggregation.
We enjoyed great weather on most of the days. One of the days we returned at the end of the day in a storm, but we have always been lucky to avoid any tropical storms by visiting in July. The whale sharks were at peak numbers and very concentrated around food sources which lay on the surface.
The guests had many chances to get in the water each day with the whale sharks enjoying clear water and calm seas. The whale sharks were feeding on the surface making it easy to snorkel and to make great images.
It is special to see a whale shark feed in a vertical position: the locals call it “bottle feeding” . This can last for quite a while with the whale shark pumping its mouth open and closed close to the surface in order to draw in large volumes of water. A majestic spectacle!
In more than 8 years of visits this one stands out as one of the best. I had the company of some great people, Mind blowing wildlife encounters, some good food and drink, and great photography.
I will return again in 2019 with a new group of people to share this must do, awesome experience with.
Get Details about my 2019 Trip
I will also be pairing this trip with American Crocodiles in Chinchorro, Mexico (a few hours S. of Cancun)
Chinchorro Atoll (Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve) is the best place in the world to get close to American crocodiles. Located south of Cancun, Mexico and near the Belize border. The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is the largest stand – alone reef in the Northern hemisphere and one of the healthiest. Currently only 1,928 hectares of the 144k hectares are zoned for diving and fewer than one thousand divers get to see these remote and unspoiled dive sites per year. It teems with fish and other sea life, and contains more than 100 shipwrecks as well as the largest population of American crocodiles found in the Americas.
This is a safe encounter with guides who have done years of experimentation and careful planning to make this safe. Our outfitter and guides in Xcalak: XTC Dive Center, were the first operator to organize croc encounters in Chinchorro and they remain the only dive operator with an official concession. They are committed to sustainable tourism and conservation. This year they were training a new guide to work with the guests and crocodiles.
The weather was very nice and calm for our visit. The hurricane season has so far been quiet this year. We started out at the beautiful beachside resort in Xcalak for some amazing dives. The reefs are healthy and colorful with many fish. Again this year we found ourselves watching a manatee as we dived.
We made the crossing to Chinchorro on our 3 day in Xcalak. The water was smooth on the way out. At the fish huts we found that the water would change from a tea green hue to a clear blue color depending on the tide level.
Each morning we dive and while taking in the pristine reefs and marine life, we hunt lionfish. There is a duo purpose in this; to help eliminate the invasive lionfish population and to get food to attract the crocs.
The fisherman’s’ hunts have no wifi, cell phone, mobile services, no running water, only marine toilets, and 2 or more hours from shore. Guests and I slept in hammocks in the huts and delicious food was prepared and cooked by our boat captains with the aide of a small generator and ice storage chests (all food must be transferred out with us). Since there are fishermen in the other huts, we also had the chance to buy fresh catch from passing fishermen to make a special, though rustic feast.
When the crocs come in as per their daily schedule, we would go in pairs into the water with our guide and the junior guide to watch over our safety and to manipulate the bait. They are really good at reading the crocs and they are able to get the croc into different poses so we get a variety of good images.
It was a great trip and everyone came away with some great images. It was certainly a great time being relaxed and unplugged out in the remote marine environment. We returned to Xcalak for another day of diving and a return to Cancun. Some of the guests joined me for the Whale Shark Aggregation on Isla Mujeres.
The Whale Sharks were Extra Special this year and loads of Manta Rays!
We spent 4 days on the water and 5 nights on Isla Mujeres for the Whale Shark Aggregation. Always a fun place with great food, we had nonstop whale shark encounters to keep us busy on our 4 days on the water. We also had great manta sightings . The water was clear and blue and the weather was very nice with mostly flat water throughout my 3 weeks in
Find out more about the whale shark portion of the trip: Whale Sharks
Our guests achieved many nice photos and had a great time
While underwater with so many sharks, I was able to observe some interesting behavior. There is definitely an order of dominance among the sharks and between the different tiger sharks; most of which are female. Many times the hammerheads are shy to approach when there are many tigers and especially if there are bull sharks. There was one brave hammerhead female who joined the crowd even though there were many other bigger sharks around. I observed the largest female tiger shark reminding the hammerhead of her dominance by body-checking the hammerhead near the bottom. Though this happened a few times, the hammerhead was not scared away and provided us with many great poses.
Photography & Video tips, Equipment, Techniques, and Best Settings
Useful for photographers with DSLR, Mirrorless, Compact, and GoPro Cameras
Whale Sharks are the biggest fish in the sea and likely the largest living thing you have ever shared the water with. Even knowing how big they are and seeing them from the surface before getting in does not prepare you for the underwater experience: what is on the surface is only the tip (or fin) of the iceberg. Their casual effort at swimming and their tenacious feeding effort is an awesome experience and you will want to capture all of this plus your emotional response to their size in your photos. This guide will give you some pre-travel advise on how to prepare.
This guide is written based on my experiences with whale sharks in the Cancun region of Mexico at Isla Mujeres.
Divers, free divers, and snorkelers can also swim with whale sharks all over the world including Sea of Cortez Mexico, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Honduras’ Utila, Cebu in the Philippines’, and Indonesia’s Cenderawasih Bay.
I have had many seasons of swimming with whale sharks to experiment and perfect techniques. I have changed techniques over the years as my cameras have evolved and my creative goals changed from year to year. With the addition of video to my DSLR camera and the rise of GoPros, I have allocated more in water time to video.
Photography Equipment for Photographing Whale Sharks
A wetsuit is required by the regulations. It also keeps the sun off and protects somewhat from marine creatures.
Consider a hood or lifeguard beanie for sun protection – a colored beanies is also a great safety device which will help the crew keep you in view if you get further afield.
Sunscreen, sunglasses, and coverups for on the boat.
Don’t forget a protective bag and sun coverup for your camera
Whale sharks are huge and it is possible to get close to the subject. Using a fisheye lens will let you get the whole fish in the image and capture some detail
Select the widest lens you have – ideally a fisheye prime or fisheye zoom lens: both will give you up to a 180-degree field of view with a reduced minimum focus distance. When you get as close the shark as you can (without violating any regulations) you will get the whole thing in. Compared to photographing other moving subjects like dolphins and sailfish, the drag caused by your large dome port will not be a huge factor. Whale sharks are moving, but more at a walking pace than a running pace.
Fisheye lenses like a 10 – 17mm will be the most popular, especially on crop sensor cameras. Full frame shooters can use the lenses such as the Sigma 15mm or the Canon 8-15 circular fisheye.
Underwater photographers using Olympus E-PL and OM-D cameras will opt for the popular 8mm fisheye lenses.
Compact camera users will need to use a fisheye wet lens on top of their camera’s built-in lens.
The wet lens increases the field of view (up to 165 degrees). Without a wide lens, compact users will not be able to get the whole shark in the photo or be too far away: the wide angle lens reduces the minimum focal distance so the photographer can get much closer and still fit the subject into the frame.
Wet lenses require the user to check for and release bubbles around the wet lens each time you get in the water.
A compact camera or phone camera is a great addition for shooting fun shots, cultural features around town, and people. You can then leave your DSLR in the housing without worry about resetting o-rings and seals.
GoPro shooters should be able to record great underwater photo and video of whale sharks without any additional lenses. The shallow depth and natural light mean that you will not need to add a red filter. You might want a polarizer for on the surface though. Using a handle or mount to hold the GoPro can help steady the shot, but beware of rules governing the use of “selfie sticks” – it is prohibited to use a stick to go closer to the animal than the rules allow and rules may have changed to prohibit them altogether.
When snorkeling or freediving with whale sharks, strobes are often unnecessary given the amount of available light at the surface. It’s also against local regulations to use strobes in these situations for fear of startling or harming the animal. Make sure to ask your dive guide about the local rules.
The bulk of the strobes can hinder your swimming and the movement may make it difficult to keep them aimed properly with little time to fix them once you are face to face with the large subject that is coming straight at you.
You may wish to have a strobe for topside shots
DSLR, Mirrorless and Compact shooters have a number of shooting mode options to choose from.
My method is to start with some manual settings and change them as the daylight changes. Most of my images are at ISO400 with some ranging from ISO320 to ISO640 on cloudy days or when I go deeper under the surface (such as for mantas)
My shutter speed stays at 1/250sec or more . You must be able to shoot at a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action.
Mostly I shoot manual adjusting the aperture to suit the conditions. Shutter Priority would be a 2nd choice to full manual
My Canon 5D IV has very good options for pattern metering mode.
Using the Ambient Light
I try to pick my subjects based on not shooting directly into the sun. This is not always successful, but if I can get a whale shark with the sun to my back it improves the chances for a great shot.
When swimming with whale sharks, you will want to be as mobile and nimble as possible. Since the whale sharks are feeding at the surface you can shoot entirely with ambient light. As stated before, strobes are not permitted and would slow you down anyway.
The whale sharks are swimming they could change direction at any moment, so pay very close attention to their movement to avoid touching them or being run over.
When using the wide angle lenses such as those with 180 degree coverage, watch that your fins do not get in the shot!
You do not need great freediving skills, but being able to stay underwater at 2 – 10 feet will give you a shooting angle of slightly upward and can help mitigate the effects of very bright and direct light.
Practice before your trip to increase your underwater time and clearing your ears. Even breath holding exercises on land can help you be prepared for the day.
Being able to freedive to 20 feet will give you the options of silhouettes and sun burst shots.
Types of Images to Try
Catching the wide open mouth during feeding either from the front, side, or ¾ angle
Add drama to the feeding image by getting details of the water flowing into the mouth
Position yourself ahead of the shark and wait for it to approach. While photographing, move off to the side to get ¾ angle as it goes by. If it is too late to move, quickly submerge and swim to the side letting it pass over you. You do not want to get “bonked” – those fins are hard and rough.
One of the most dramatic images you can take of a whale shark is with its mouth wide open in the middle of feeding. This is common in Isla Mujeres, where the sharks shift into a vertical position to feed, called a “botella.” You will use every bit of your wide lens to capture this. The good part is that they are not moving while in this position.
Above and Below
When photographing the whale shark near the surface, try capturing a split shot with the fish underneath and the topside scene above. In some cases, the above subject might be boring: Just clouds or sky. But in other locations, you may be able to capture unique interaction with fishermen, either in a boat or on a floating platform.
Make a Complete and Varied Portfolio
Make sure to thoroughly describe your subject in both shape & form and behavior.
You will get chances to get a tail shot as the whale shark swims past you into the distance.
Getting lower in the water, looking up that the subject adds variety and drama to your image collection.
If a whale shark is below the surface, get an image of its back from above. The spots are one of the most interesting features of the whale shark.
Shooting up at the whale sharks creates a beautiful image. A whale shark is a unique shape (negative space) which makes a very interesting from above or from below shot. To capture a sunburst, make sure to stop down your aperture (f8 on compact, f18 on mirrorless, f22 on DSLR) and use a fast shutter speed to trim the amount of light getting in.
Take images with people as part of the composition
Remove distracting elements such as other people in water by moving off to a whale shark with no other people around it. There are usually enough sharks around for everyone to get their own without getting too far from the boat.
Use a person for a sense of scale, but be careful to have them isolated against the water, not positioned between you and the whale shark so as to cover part of the subject. The best compositions will have the whale shark with a person below and behind or in front of the approaching whale shark.
Try adding a person to a silhouette. This will take some consultation with your model and a plan with signals and most likely several tries to get it right.
Whale Sharks are easily accessible and comparatively easy large marine subjects to photograph
The techniques are easily practiced and perfected while on my Whale Shark Photography Workshop. With 4 days on the water we can experience all light conditions and move around to find the best areas of the aggregation and even search for mantas feeding on the same food patches. Back at the hotel, photographers have time and a safe place to download and review photos. Shots missed can be attempted the next day and successes shared with others to inspire their next days shooting. The little amount of equipment needed and streamlined snorkel kit make this trip easy to pack for. Abundant wildlife and the welcoming and fun nature of Isla Mujeres make this trip a must do for all underwater photographers.
Information about my Whale Shark and Manta Trips (and all of my photography trips) can be found on www.GregorySweeney.com
Every October and November, polar bears congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their preferred prey: the ringed seal. This year our trip to Churchill was in late October. The weather was starting to get snowy, but the ice had not yet formed. Numerous bears were known to be in the area.
We traveled by way of Winnipeg and a flight up to Churchill. Our group stayed inside the Churchill Wildlife Management Area at the Northern Studies Centre, a research facility that houses the scientists and their research. Each year the Centre welcomes a few visitors such as our group. While at the Centre we were introduced to the ecofriendly facility, learned of the current research, and had a thorough orientation to polar bears in this region. It is a comfortable facility with meeting rooms, media rooms, a workout room, and we enjoyed the observation deck and night observatory dome. At times we had wildlife sightings from the windows of the Centre: a fox visited daily, a hare, birds, and a bear came close.
Our first day out was in a private van which takes us around the town area and bordering wildlife area. We learned about the impact of humans on the polar bears and the steps they take to keep bears from becoming a nuisance around human areas like the dump and in town. We were enlightened about the bear jail and how they trap and release the bears.
Our next day was spent on a specialized bear tundra vehicle in the Wildlife Management Area. The vehicle was comfortable and had window we could photograph through as well has the big open back deck for unobstructed photographs. They move slowly, but there is no other vehicle which can cover this territory without damage to the environment.
We had many bear sightings in the bear vehicle. We tracked a mother and two cubs for a long time as they advanced to a half frozen creek. Our best encounter was a male bear who took a nap right near our vehicle. He gave us a great display while he rolled and rubbed. He changed places and went back to sleep.
An arctic hare whose size was surprising gave a good photo opportunity before bounding off. We also found several snowy owls. Many of the sightings were due to the expert spotting skills of our driver and guide – they knew where to look and positioned the vehicle for great views.
Our 2nd night was clear and we were treated to Northern Lights early in the evening. It was cold but worth the bundling to set up our tripods and cameras to try to capture the magic of the lights.
On our last day we were back with our private van and guide. We had a great encounter with a male bear who was walking toward our van then crossed the road right in front of us then kept going into the rough. We are able to get out of the van and use tripods. When the bear went out of range, we changed course to intercept it down the road.
We had several more snowy owls, ptarmigans, and a fox this afternoon. Our last encounter of the day happened as the weather turned to blowing snow. A young bear was lying down near at the quarry. He looked sad as if his mother would not let him follow her anymore.
Our day ended in town at a restaurant and then straight onto the airport and our flight back to Winnipeg.
It was a great trip full of great chances to photograph polar bears and wildlife. We are grateful for the opportunity to stay at the Northern Studies Centre for a quality yet affordable trip packed with wildlife and photography.
When I prepare to lead a safari group, I pack my safari photography kit with the minimal amount of equipment. With airline restrictions and limited space for bags in vehicles, I choose a medium sized bag and an assembly of lenses which will give me a good coverage range for the most likely subjects.
When I arrive at the lodge, by bag contains everything I need for the whole trip. Each day I reconfigure my bag to hold just what I need for that day and location.
For a Game Drive
The Bag: Guru Gear Kiboko 22L+ with butterfly closure for quick access either side
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with LensCoat body bag
Canon EOS 5D Mark 3 with LensCoat body bag
Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM Lens with Really Right Stuff LCF-52 foot and lensCoat protective cover.
Canon Extender EF 1.4x III
Canon EF 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens with Really Right Stuff LCF-54 foot
Canon EF 24-105 f4 IS USM lens
Nikon 10×42 Monarch 5 Binocular
Black Rapid RS-4 camera strap
Point and Shoot pocket camera
Extra camera batteries and charger
Extra memory cards
Hydro Flask water bottle ( 621 ml )
Sometimes with me on a Game Drive:
For a Night Drive
Canon Speedlite 580EX II with Visual Echoes FX3 Better Beamer
Gitzo tripod ( GT2531 ) w/ Really Right Stuff ballhead ( BH-40) with screw-knob style quick-release clamp w/ bubble level
Wimberly SK-100 sidekick gimbal head
Canon timer remote controller ( TC-80N3 )
This tripod setup is also perfect for capturing the wondrous night time starscape; capturing images of star trails and the Milky Way.
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II USM Lens
Items that travel on the trip with me but stay back at the lodge
Nexto DI ND2730 card reader and portable storage device -for doing backup
Lexar Professional USB 3.0 duel-slot card reader
13” Macbook pro
How Often will I need the Big Lens?
I took a look at the metadata in my Adobe Lightroom catalogue to see how many images I take with each of my safari lenses.
I reviewed this data after I had culled and rated my photos so this is a curated collection of just the “keepers” .
Please keep in mind that this data is from my South Africa safaris which combine private reserves and Kruger National Park and may not be reflective of other safari destinations or tours.
Lens % of images
16 – 35mm 4%
24 – 105mm 14%
100 – 400mm 58%
400mm 24% (with extender EF1.4 x 3)
Images Taken in Kruger National Park
16 – 35mm 5%
24 – 105mm 3%
100 – 400mm 53%
400mm 39% (with extender EF1.4 x 3)
From this, it shows that subjects in Kruger can be further away. We also tend to see some special bird species in Kruger.
My best advice:
Keep your camera bag streamlined with a thoughtful selection of lenses. Use a smaller camera bag because it will fit better in the vehicles and save your shoulders while carrying it. Less hassles in the airport too.
A Collection of some of my favorite Safari Story Posts
A safari is an adventure and like all adventures it is full of stories and special moments.
With or without a camera, it is those stories and having been there in that moment that make the vivid memories. The great photographs enhance and help tell the story.
Over the years of leading safaris, my guests and I have been present for many moments which culminate great stories. I have told many of these stories here in my blog. Here is a collection of my best African safari stories.
Stories from our 2017 September Safaris – One safari is One hundred stories
Learning to be a Leopard: A young cub must quickly learn to drag a kill up a tree and eat it up there.
A newborn elephant: We were present to celebrate a birth with the family herd. Just an hour old it was a very special encounter
Lions Hunting Buffalo: From the planning to the (failed) execution of the plan: we were there to see and photograph the exciting event
When a predator makes a kill and settles down for a meal, it is an invitation for many different players to come to the party: the hyenas who hope to steal it, vultures who want their share, jackals who just want to sneak a small meal without being noticed, and others.
Many vultures will show up to a kill sight. Of the many species, each has a specialized function and morphology at the carcass. Some vulture species can not eat without another species to first do their part.
To Go on Safari is to Return with Hundreds of Stories: Predator vs Prey, Survival, and Cooperation among Wildlife
Learning to be a Leopard
The Sabi Sands Reserve is famous for its resident leopars. Our guests were treated to a 4 leopard afternoon game drive.
An older female leopard called – Ingrid Dam – was watching her cub (unnamed) eating an Impala kill up in a tree, it was having a difficult time eating in the tree because of the position of the kill. The Impala kill and the young cub fell out of the tree. We knew and the leopards knew there were hyenas nearby wanting to steal this meal should the opportunity arise. Was the mother going to come down and take the kill back up the tree for her cub? We watched and waited. Though the cub seemed to be asking for help, mother decided on tough love and stayed in the tree watching as the cub learned to drag the impala kill back up the tree. It was a hard and physically challenging lesson to learn, but the cub had succeeded for the first time to save his meal from those who would steal it away. The effort involved with dragging a kill up a tree is the leopard’s way of out maneuvering scavengers.
As New as it Gets – A Newborn Elephant
We were on a game drive on a private reserve near Kruger enjoying some great lions, a buffalo herd, and a leopard up a tree when we had a radio call from another safari vehicle about a great sighting. We hurried over to find it was a newborn elephant calf. At first we could not see the little one since the calf was hidden among the large legs of the mother, her sisters, and the herds older children. They were all vocalizing and moving in small, strange movements as if dancing or chanting. The mother was throwing dust on herself and the calf. Soon the crowd parted and we could see the newborn. Cute, wrinkly, and very unsteady on the feet, it was obvious the calf had only been standing for mere minutes. We were very close and felt very privileged that the herd let us be this close and share their joy at the new arrival. The calf tottered and fell a few times and we worried until the little one struggled to stand again.
The next week, we had wonderful continuity when we spotted the herd again. It was wonderful to see the infant prospering, healthy, and nursing.
The Unicorn of Safari Experiences: Lions Hunting Buffalo
It was our last game drive on the last day of safari and getting to be the time to turn around and head back to the lodge. It was a great drive, but about to get even better. We spotted several female lions concentrating on a medium sized herd of buffalo.
It appeared the plan was to slowly move into positions around the herd to separate certain buffalo. The lions separately made their way around the buffalo herd. Suddenly something goes wrong – one of the lions must have blundered – and the buffalo started to run. Wait a minute; they are not running away, they are charging the lions! One of them was running for their life straight toward us.
It is hard for lions to give up when things do not go to plan. Some of the pride continued to run with the stampeding buffalo to see if there could still be a chance to salvage the hunt. It was not to be.
Still, it took a long time before the lionesses could let this one go – they continued to watch the buffalo herd move out of reach.
As I look through my images, my memory goes back to watching the events unfold in front of me. They are much more than the best image: it is the dozen images before and after that one great image that make up the safari stories that I will tell my friends and family. While images help to make the story real; nothing compares to having been there and witnessing it live.
Contact us about a safari or with any questions about choosing, preparing for, and going on a safari. It is just my wife and I but we correspond with all inquiries personally.
Or just join our newsletter list so you get trip dates, specials, Safari Reports.
My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.! We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.
Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites. It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.
The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography. Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass. We had no trouble finding them in short order.
This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5
We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning. Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us. If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.
Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming. No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland. We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time. By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining. Some private time!
Giant Manta Rays
We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks. We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas. It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.
A Great Trip Out of the Water Too
We would return to the island in the late afternoon. It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time. We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.
The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway. It all ended too soon: this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.
I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year. They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.