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
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.
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 July, myself and 6 guests traveled on a unique adventure to see American Crocodiles and dive these beautiful and remote reefs. 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.
We started out at the beautiful beachside resort in Xcalak for some amazing dives. The reefs are healthy and colorful with many fish. Some dives we encountered turtles. Manatees are resident and we were lucky enough to have a visit from one while on a dive.
The dives are shallows and some deep walls covered in healthy sponges and large stands of black coral. There are several wrecks and plenty of large and small fish species.
On the Chinchorro Banks, we stayed in utilitarian fishing huts on stilts over the shallow waters in a lagoon surrounded by the reefs: 36 nautical miles off shore and across from Xcalak, Mexico. (2 -4 hours boat ride)
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. Guests are also invited to participate in the spear fishing of the lionfish and will be equipped and taught the safest techniques.
This is a remote adventure at its best: 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). We also had the chance to buy fresh catch from passing fishermen to make a special, though rustic feast.
At Chinchorro, we are surrounded by water and 700 American crocodiles and a few fishermen. We photograph the crocs when they show up at midday (after they warm up) in the 1.2m deep water around our huts. We are able to maintain a level of safety even when we are getting up close due to the experience of our guides. A safety diver and guide are nearby with a pole to ward off any advances from excited crocodiles. We took turns two at a time. We had between 1 and 5 crocs close by with still more in the area during our sessions Generally they are extremely well behaved and tolerant of divers getting close. They are rewarded with the captured lionfish.
The Whale Sharks were Extra Special this year
We spent 4 days on the water and 5 nights on Isla Mujeres. 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 a few manta sightings and 1 good photography session with them.
Find out more about the whale shark portion of the trip: Whale Sharks
Here is how I used Adobe Lightroom to get it ready for the cover.
Images taken underwater without a flash will have a color cast due to the loss of the red spectrum of light as it travels through water.
This is a method I use to process my photos that adds back in some of the red and corrects for exposure. I prefer to leave a bit of a blue cast to the images – they are depicting underwater after all. The trick is to correct it to a point between what your brain saw during the dive and what is technically “perfect” according to the color values.
I use the tools in Adobe Lightroom to do the initial work: they are great tools and easy to use. I might move later into Photoshop to utilize layers for adjustments to specific areas taking advantage of layers, masks, etc only offered in Photoshop. I definitely will do more detailed work on the image before printing it.
By the way, Lightroom tools are the same as in Camera Raw, but I find LR’s presentation of them easier and I have the bonus of all the organization tools in LR.
Analyze then Correct Exposure
The first step is to optimize the exposure. I like to eliminate the distraction of color so I can really analyze what needs to be brighter, darker, and more contrasted. To do this I temporarily desaturate the image to black and white using the Saturation Slider (Basic Panel under Presence)
Now it is time to analyze the image: The Histogram is the first step. According to the graph, there are clear shadows, midtones, and highlights, but the whole image is too dark: there are barely any areas registering on the right hand (bright) side of the graph.
Exposure: I move the Exposure slider up until the lightest bits of water read around 62 (pass the curser over areas and read the numbers under the histogram). The overall change was +.55
In Lightroom the group of tools under Exposure (Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks) are adjustments with smart logic behind them that helps the tool adapt and decide what is “whites” or “blacks” in this specific image.
For this purpose they are not doing exactly what I want so I will try the tools under ToneCurve first. Tone Curve is a degree more sophisticated and gives me the option of defining what I want to be considered Highlights, etc. In this tool, Highlights, Lights, Darks, and Shadows are marked by regions on the tone graph. I want to adjust the pointers to change the default “definitions” of Highlights, etc.
The dark edges of the fins need some contrast between them and the lighter colored body. To do this I first measure the value of the darkest areas watching where on the graph this area registers by picking up the tool at the top left of the ToneCurve (“adjust the tone curve directly”). I want to define everything darker than the “spots” of the body as “shadow” so I move the marker at the bottom of the graph over to the this spot on the graph. Now the Darks tab needs moved to the left. Using the slider for Darks you can detect what it is adjusting – I want it to just do the spots on the body and tones on the fins. Same with the Lights tab. Lights should be working on everything light except the shark’s belly and some of the sand and fish. I have now defined my exposure areas. It is time to make the adjustments.
Now I add a touch of the Clarity slider to pop the midtone contrast – this really brings out the stripes on the tiger shark.
For spot exposure corrections, Lightroom has a Radial Filter tool which can brighten or darken an oval area in the same manner as a graduated filter or a free form brush type tool that can “paint” on adjustments. I find the radial tool better and easier to use than the Adjustment brush.
Correcting Color Using White Balance and HSL Panel Controls
Everything is brighter and more contrasted, the colors look more intense, but the color cast is still there. I use the White Balance eyedropper tool and pass it over the image. You want to choose a place that Should Be either black, white, or neutral grey. In the Navigation (on the left fly out panel) window it shows you a preview of the white balance correction if you click in that space. When I choose a spot on the belly of the shark it makes the correction, but it is too much for my taste. After the correction, I back off the sliders under White Balance a little bit back to the left toward the original cool tones.
Now I have the problem of the water not having as nice of a color – it has gone a bit dull – so I go down to the panel labeled HSL/Color/B&W tools. I like the presentation of the tool that they label Color, so click on where it says Color and the tool changes to show each color and all three characteristics under it: Hue, Saturation, and Luminance .
Dropping Saturation on the Aqua slider a bit helps the color cast and increasing the Luminance to +20 helps the contrast as well. On the Blue slider I increase the Saturation to make the blue water pretty again and then a decrease of the Luminance darkens the water and makes it a richer tone with more contrast to the whole image. I also push the Hue of the blue up a tiny bit without going too much or the water becomes purple. Since there is quite a bit of green in the image, I darken then Luminance on the green channel, desaturate it a touch then shift the Hue slightly to the yellow side of green.
A few final touches: use the adjustment brush on the shark with some desaturation and white balance adjustment to take some Aqua/Blue out of the shark. Also edit the first adjustment to the white belly and chin that you did earlier to add in desaturation to move the white closer to white. The final adjustment is a tiny bit of the Dehaze tool. This bumps up the contrast and intensifies the colors.
You can also add a bit of Post Crop Vignette to darken the edges.
Isla Mujeres is a great base for your Whale Shark Adventure
After a day out on the water with the Whale Sharks and Mantas, it is great to relax and dry out with a walk around through the streets of Isla Mujeres. Lined with fun shops and great restaurants, it is safe and full of the festive feeling of Mexico.
Great Places to Eat
After many years of leading Sailfish and Whale Shark trips to Isla Mujeres, I have found some really great restaurants both formal and hole in the wall. I think I can say I have never had a bad meal here and in fact had many great ones and all at a great or reasonable value.
Here is a few of my favorites:
Olivia (Mediterranean and Vegetarian)
Count the Whale Shark Murals
In the last few years, murals of whale sharks, sailfish, and mantas have sprouted up all over town. It is a great street photography outing to find and photograph the best all over town.
Unique Shopping – Bazaar and High End
The colorful shops are full of handmade Mexican items ideal for souvenirs and gifts to take home.
For a day off, there are beaches perfect for swimming and sunning: there might even be a hammock with your name on it. Picture a pool with a view of the beach. A ride to the south of the island takes you to a park and ruins. Numerous dive shops will give you opportunities for diving around the island. The Underwater Statue Museum is a unique experience.
Most come for the unequalled marine wildlife encounters, but Isla Mujeres is a holiday destination by itself.
This year I lead 2 groups down to Isla Mujeres for the Sardine Run. Each group was on our charter boat for 5 full days on the water.
This year’s experience demonstrated to all of us how the sardines and sailfish are just two pieces of a larger ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. We encountered Whale Sharks, Giant Mantas, Sailfish , and Dolphins all feeding in food rich waters. The sardines are there to feed on the plankton and krill and they attract all the species that want to eat sardines such as the sailfish and dolphins. We were excited to see so many different species out in the open blue water.
On our first day when we found the dolphins we thought we had found a pod feeding on sardines and perhaps the same bait school that some sailfish were working, but this was not the case. In fact the encounter was more unusual: this was a pod in the act of mating. The frenzied males were chasing the females and competing with each other to dominate her. They paid no notice to us as we swam along and photographed them.
Over the next few days we found some sailfish. The captain and crew must look for frigate birds diving into the water. This is a sign that sardines or other food is near the surface. Spotting the surface disturbance of the sailfish or sardines would be impossible so the birds are the best method to find Sailfish. We are very lucky to work with experienced and patient captains for have loads of experience in these waters. They found us several chances to “drop” us in the water with sailfish.
Once in the water it is some fast surface swimming to catch up to the moving baitball. I have found that it is easier to keep up with a group of sailfish who are managing a smaller baitball. The large schools of sardines move and break apart to rapidly.
The sailfish work together to trap the sardines near the surface. The birds are diving down to grab fish at the same time as sailfish take turns running into the baitball and swatting at the fish to stun them. They then eat fish that are stunned and separated from the ball. Then a another makes a run. The sailfish flash colors and their “sail” fins as a means of communication. This action makes for great video.
It can be a long day of searching for sailfish so on a less productive day we tried a different area and were excited to find feeding whale sharks and giant mantas. These two species are known to aggregate in these waters in the summer months, so it is unusual to find them in the winter. We had nice long encounters with the whale sharks. The giant mantas swam in loops while they fed. I was able to take many images of their individualized markings. I submit all my manta photos to the local Manta Trust . They confirmed that these are mantas that have been documented in the area during summer concluding that there is a resident population – very exciting!
All of my guests had some great images and were pleased with the surprise species encounters and with the fact that we were able to find sailfish. I wish to thank all of them for making this an enjoyable trip for everyone. I hope to see them on a future trip.
I was very conscious of baggage volume and weight when I made my equipment choices. My biggest decision was between my 16 – 35mm lens and the fish eye. I have used both before for sailfish. While the images with the fisheye were nice, one drawback was how close you need to be to get a good shot. Also if you get too close, your subject gets distorted at the edges of the image. I did not want to bring both or switch my equipment halfway through, so I opted for the 16 – 35mm.
I have a Nauticam housing with my best glass dome port. I also had a 2nd 5DMKIII as a backup and set for land images. No strobes as they would just slow down my swimming.
I have had my housing from my old Canon 5DII converted to fit my 2nd 5D III or a future RS. I like things to be interchangeable and to carry less equipment.
My initial setup was thus:
Canon 5D MKIV with a 16 – 35mm lens ISO 400 1/320 and f5.6
When conditions were cloudy or if the action was further below the surface, I stayed in the ISO 400 – 640 range, Shutter priority. For the sunny days and surface shots, I would dial things down.
The subjects are alway moving so a center weighted autofocus mode is important as is keeping the shutter fast enough to get crisp images.
You can enjoy my sailfish images from past seasons in my online gallery
As always, Isla Mujeres is a fun and comfortable home base for this adventure (and our whale shark trip in the summer). Our hotel is close to the dock and restaurants, while being a quiet place to rest.
There is a nice pool which leads down to the beach. The rooms have AC and many have a balcony facing the water.
There are many good restaurants in town and food is very economical (average of $30 total for dinner) . We feasted on fresh fish, Mediterranean dishes, local tastes, and Cuban. I have been going so many years now that I have a list of the best places to please all my guests.
The shops are colorful and the people are friendly and we enjoyed just walking around town. The guests and I had happy hour around the pool with great conversations .
I hope to share another adventure with each of them and I am already looking forward to my next visit to Isla Mujeres.
A Special Opportunity to Join a Most Exciting Marine Wildlife Encounter
Sailfish Hunting Bait Balls in Isla Mujeres
Our next adventure will be
February 3 – 9 2019
5 boat days for sailfish
Limited to 5 guests
Photograph and free dive with sailfish hunting sardines in the blue water off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula. Our private charter leaves daily from the docks of Isla Mujeres for an 8 hour day of maximum time in the water photographing and enjoying this incredible encounter.
Only snorkeling gear is required and the action happens at or a meter or two below the surface. We charter the most experienced sport fishing guides who know the water and patterns of the sardines and predators.
Limited to 5 passengers on boat plus guide and crew. This is an excellent opportunity for photographers to capture dramatic images and video. Freediving and excellent swimming skills are recommended in order to enjoy this athletic experience.
“The trip was fantastic. Excellent itinerary and well organized. I saw way more sailfish than I ever expected and was much closer than I thought possible. My friends are amazed by the photos I took. I got a really good shot of you that I attached. Many thanks to you and Karen. Michael and I are spreading the word about a trip to Africa. Great trip and hope to see you again” ——- Kurt Bitters
“Had a great time in the water and topside. And, I salute your restaurant selections! I’ll be back for more… you’re a topnotch guide and host. I will be back for more.”
— Bob Pooley
The hotel has a private beach with pool and deck. The rooms are ensuite with a balcony, AC, and wifi. Upgraded rooms are available at extra cost. The town of Isla Mujeres is safe and features many great restaurants, shops, beaches, bars, and a park. It is an easy ferry ride from Cancun.
I will need a minimum of 4 guests to make this trip happen and a max of 5 to allow for uncrowded boat and encounters.
Please contact me soon with your interest so I finalize bookings and make sure I get space on the fleet’s and hotel’s busy in season schedule. Contact Me