Snorkel with Humpbacked Whales in the South Pacific Paradise of Kingdom of Tonga August 2016
Each Southern Hemisphere winter (June – Sept) humpbacked whales migrate to the warm tropical waters in the South Pacific. While there, the females give birth and nurse their young while other whales spend their time courting and mating.
The males sing to attract mates and perform breaches and spyhopping. The mothers help their babies learn to breath air and dive.
You can be one of the very few people who have been in the water with these great mammals.
Scuba is not used – just a snorkel, fins, and a thin wetsuit or light floatation vest.
Our Swim with Whales Trip Gives You 10 days on the open water with Humpbacks on a private sailboat charter
August 12 – 22 , 2016
Limited to 4 guests plus crew
Swim with and photograph whales on this 10 day live aboard adventure in the South Pacific paradise of Tonga during the height of humpbacked whale season. Just 4 guests will join your host Gregory Sweeney and the crew of the 53 ft catamaran Wild Life. The Wild Life’s owners David and Tris Sheen offer the finest hospitality and are some of the best humpback whale experts in Tonga promoting sustainable interaction. They know the patterns of the whales year to year and follow or exceed the interaction regulations protecting the whales and the whale watching industry.
As we sail through the stunning Ha’apai group snorkeling on pristine coral reefs and observing the whales, the catamaran provides a stable platform for photography and viewing whale activity or the peaceful surroundings. The boat has a sea level entry that is perfect for quick entry and exit for in water encounters. We may also encounter other marine mammals or manta rays. Those who have never been diving in the Pacific will be enraptured at the quality of the coral reefs. Even by Pacific Islands standards, Tonga is among the best and unspoiled. We will have time after whale watching to snorkel on reefs, but since this trip is centered on the Humpback whales and the boat does not stock many tanks, we will not be doing scuba.
The sailboat will overnight in calm coves under the stars tucked in among the 62 islands of the Ha’apai. In between whale encounters the activities include visiting deserted isles with fruit bat colonies and white sand beaches, snorkeling on hard coral reefs, and looking for fish shoals and manta rays. The boat also has paddleboards and fishing. The food onboard is freshly prepared and plentiful. Fresh fruit and local vegetables are served alongside local proteins and fresh caught fish.
Arrive in Tonga to Tongatapu (TBU) from Auckland (AKL), Sydney (SYD) , or Fiji (NAN) You will need to over night. The Scenic Hotel is very close to the airport and is geared for travelers and business. www.scenichotels.co.nz
Morning flight from Tongatapu (TBU) , island of Nuku’alofa to the Ha’apai island group.
Morning pickup at the Ha’apai airport (HPA) in Pangai and take the short drive to the boat.
We will launch and travel through the Ha’apai group for the duration of the trip.
Our whale watching will start immediately as we head into the open waters.
13 August – 21 August
Daily whale watching starts early morning and lasts until sunset with breaks for meals and following the whales. We will also take time for some island exploring and reef snorkeling
The boat will drop us off in Pangai, Ha’apai and take us to the airport for our return flight to Tongatapu.
Most guests will need to travel via Auckland then on to Tonga
Swimming with and Photographing Whale Sharks & Giant Manta Rays in Isla Mujeres, Mexico
What you need to know
Whale sharks can be found in all tropical and warm-temperate waters. These fish are largely pelagic, staying in the open ocean. Thus, chance encounters with whale sharks in most diving locations are possible, but extremely rare. Whale sharks are not well studied and there is much we do not know about them. To have a chance to swim with and photograph whale sharks in an area already welcoming to tourists and divers is an opportunity not to miss.
When asked to describe what it is like in the water with whale sharks, I keep coming back to the image of standing in the street with a bus coming at me. It is thrilling and humbling to be in the water as an observer of a day in the life of a whale shark.
Here are some things you might want to know about Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Mexico before you sign up for my special Whale Shark Charter.
Why Cancun, Mexico Area
The best opportunity to photograph whale sharks is when they predictably come to sites to feed. Some locations are more reliable for encounters than others: each summer countless whale sharks and manta rays converge in the Gulf of Mexico to feast on the eggs of spawning fish. The Cancun area of Mexico is perhaps the top destination for whale sharks because of the easy of travel and accessibility of the aggregation.
Originally reported by fisherman from Isla Holbox, the shallow water feeding area quickly became a remote tourist destination. A second congregation has been found in the deeper waters of the Gulf about 20 to 30 miles out from Isla Mujeres just northeast of Cancun as the whale sharks converge on these nutrient-rich patches.
From June to early September, whale sharks supply a significant tourist attraction for Mexico: Boats from Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Isla Mujeres travel on a daily basis so that tourists can snorkel with these animals. In order to protect the sharks, the Mexican government in coordination with local biologists, has set up specific viewing regulations. We charter boats from the people who were instrumental in establishing both the regulations and the responsible tourist practices regarding whale sharks and sailfish in Isla Mujeres waters.
Typical Day on my Charter
I schedule my Whale Shark Photography Workshops in early July at the peak of the aggregation season. It is hot and sunny and typically before the most active tropical weather season. The island of Isla Mujeres is active, but not as busy as in the winter months.
We stay in a comfortable hotel on the beach at the north end of the island, walking distance to town.
Our boats leave from the town docks. We set a time to leave with our captain, typically 7am and pile on the golf carts or into a taxi with our camera gear: much of our snorkel gear we leave on the boat each evening so we don’t have to transport it.
The 10 passenger boats are comfortable for our groups of 6 or 7 and they are fast, provide shade and storage, and smooth while cruising. We set a time to leave with our captain, typically 7am.
Our boat captain and crew were excellent at finding whale sharks each day, sometimes just a short 40 minute boat ride. Sandwiches and snacks are on the boat with us so we are set to spend most of the day at sea. Regulations require we depart the whale sharks after 2pm, but this gives us plenty of time to enjoy our swimming. Throughout the day we may reposition the boat or try different areas to perhaps find manta rays.
After long day on the water we would head back to Isla Mujeres but not before eating some ceviche freshly prepared while we were busy with the whale sharks. Once back at the hotel, we have a relaxing late afternoon time in the hotel pool , then get back to the photography business of a cleanup and download. We meet in the lobby to walk to a delicious dinner out in town at one of many great restauants. After years of hosting this trip, I know the best places to eat.
What is it Like in the Water with them?
First you will see the whale sharks from on the boat: a dorsal fin and the tip of their tail making a wandering sweep on the surface. As it approaches the boat you may see the upper lip of the wide open mouth with water spilling in. When you get in the water it may take a bit to get adjusted to seeing them. You will see they coming on the surface before you can see the underwater portion. The captain and guests on the boat will help direct you where to look and start swimming.
This is open ocean with no land in sight and no bottom visible. The water is usually very calm or there might be light wave action. The visibility can be very good with sight down to 20 meters. The whale sharks are here for the food so you may see the eggs in the water or even get some on you. There will be other boats around with snorkelers. Typically each boat has its own patch and we tend to stay away from others, but at times you may encounter people from other boats. Make sure you can recognize your boat so when it comes by you know it is the right boat.
We get in the water by maneuvering ahead of a whale shark. Snorkelers and a guide enter the water and if all works out, the whale sharks shortly thereafter comes straight at you. If there are other whale sharks in the area swimmers can stay in the water swimming with an individual until breaking off and then following another.
It is possible to encounter giant manta rays with the whale sharks since they eat the same food. We also have witnessed dolphins hunting the small fish that also feed on the bonito eggs.
Whale sharks – when to go, rules to follow
Regulations are reviewed each year and boats apply for and are issued a limited number of permits. Boats have to have guides with regulated numbers of snorkelers per boat. Flotation devices have to be worn; a wet suit is considered a flotation device. No scuba is allowed. Underwater photography without flash is permitted. Touching the animals is prohibited.
The coast guard has the authority to restrict boats to the docks if high winds or waves are a threat.
Things to Bring – not an exhaustive list but some things you might not have thought about
Sunscreen and cover up clothing
You may also wish to have in water cover up such as dive skins, hoods, or a beanie.
Reusable water bottle – the hotel provides drinking water
Sea sick tabs – though water is usually calm, you may need them unexpectedly
Swim towel squeegee to dry off yourself and equipment
A bag to carry your camera and gear to and from the boat
Wetsuit – short or with long sleeve/legs
Hood or beanie for in the water
Fins – either open heel with boots or full foot. Long fins are not necessary
Underwater photography and Swimming Technique
I have written Whale Shark Photography Guide which you can find HERE
In short, you will want a wide angle lens to get this large subject in the frame without being too far away.
No flash or strobes are permitted . Slightly overcast days seem to be the best; the water is darker and the colors really come out.
Photographing on the surface takes some practice and diving down a bit helps. Adding a weight belt with light weights and a bit of swimming motion will stabilize your shots and make looking in the view finder more comfortable. Keep the sun to your back will make a better photo and eliminate backscatter.
The whale sharks will be coming from all angles and they are said to travel at about 3 mph. It is possible to keep up with them for a while, but then it is best to stop and look around and maneuver to intercept the next individual. Look to the boat for help spotting from the captain or indicate you want a pickup. As the swimmers loose the group of whale sharks, the captain will pick you up and deposit you back in the center of action.
The tourist boats with higher capacity are not well suited for photography. They are only out for a short period of time so each person does not get much time in the water. Often they must wear life preservers and most will not want to cooperate to let you get good photos.
Since we stay out all day for 4 days, you get loads of time in the water and multiple chances to get the shot right. If there are too many people in the area, we have the luxury of time to wait until they have had their ½ hour in the water and return to the mainland leaving just us and a few other serious photographer boats out there.
Traveling to Isla Mujeres
Guests should travel to Cancun (CUN). From the airport you take a taxi to the ferry dock. There are many taxis and it is possible to book one ahead or just grab one on the spot. The ferry runs every half hour for most of the day then has a reduced schedule after dark. The ferry takes about 30 minutes and often has a live musician on board to entertain. Once on Isla Mujeres our hotel is 1km walk if you have little luggage, or grab a cheap and short taxi ride.
There are opportunities to do “dry land” sight seeing before or after the Whale Shark portion of you trip. Playa Del Carmin has great diving and is also a good base for in water exploration of the cenotes. Day trips to Mayan sights can happen from Cancun. Isla Mujeres is a great place to take a scuba course or have extra beach days as part of your trip.
Staying on Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres is ringed with beaches and has a park and historic sight at its south end. The town has a few grocery stores as well as loads of tourist shops selling high end and hand made crafts with everything in between. All the colors and culture of Mexico can be found here. The restaurants are excellent and varied from street vendors to find dining. Many have indoor and outdoor settings and live music.
A Whale Shark Photography Workshop is an excellent trip for anyone who is a scuba diver and also great for older children and those who love the water. You don’t have to be a photographer, but the challenge and special encounters are something you will want to record.
Swim with Wild Dolphins in the waters of the Bahamas from our live aboard boat.
Swimming with pods of wild dolphins is a life changing and full filling experience. These dolphins interact with us without training or reward : they do it because they are curious and entertained by us.
Sail on the Dolphin Dream Boat with a captain who has been doing this for over 25 years. He and the crew know how to find the dolphins and make every aspect of this unique trip comfortable and relaxing. Great for photographers or those who want unlimited time in the water to interact with wild dolphins.
Join us next year for our Dolphin Cruise 2015 June 20 – 26th Trip Details here Only 3 spaces left!
More Underwater trips : Swim with Whale Sharks, Dive with Tiger Sharks Cageless, Scuba with Hammerhead Sharks, Swim with Humpbacked whales
The dolphins were plentiful and friendly this year for our Dolphin Cruise in the Bahamas. We ranged further south than usual into the waters of Bimini.
The 10 guests all had great moments up close swimming with the dolphins and the photographers had the chance to get some really great shots. Some of the girls were very good swimmers and did some modeling for the photographers.
The swimming can be tiring so we have fun during our rest time and meals. This time we had several birthdays and celebrated with cake and fireworks. We also had rounds of games and a short visit on Bimini to walk around and wait for the afternoon showers to clear.
Everyone had a fun and active trip with loads of memories and photos. Some of the guest have been coming every year for over 5 years.
2013 was very busy and full of great moments presented here are some of my favorites
These lion cubs were resting with their mother and aunt on some rocks along the bank of a dry river bed. Though the guests and I were a bit fearful of getting stuck in the sand, our expert driver navigated our vehicle up the riverbed and through some areas of drifted sand to get a good view. It was a delightful family scene which we watched and photographed. Soon the cubs became restless and bounded down the rock to play. As one headed straight for our vehicle, I was swept over with fear that he would jump into the vehicle and the mother would soon follow. By some strange natural lion instinct, the cub was more intrigued by a nearby stick – his intended target – than our truck full of strange beasts. Respect for our status as alien observer was newfound in all of us that morning, especially when the cub looked us straight in the eye, then went back to his stick.
On the Sabi Sands Reserve, our trackers found this female leopard still napping on a cool spot of sand. Her napping was not as it seemed because she was intently listening to a herd of impala up the hill. While she laid silently, she was beginning to plot her strategy. She knows the layout of this territory and when she heard the impalas moving, she sprang awake and quickly yawned away her sleep and prepared to set up her ambush. What a privilege we had to follow her on her evening hunt. She came up the hill with our bulky vehicle following, but she paid no mind to us. She paused to figure out where all the herds were located and what direction they were moving. You could almost see the strategizing on her face. As she cautiously pushes into the grass, we leave her to wait until twilight to spring the trap.
Again this year I hosted the cageless Tiger Beach shark cruise in the Bahamas. We always have a great group of people so together with the terrific crew, the topside is always fun and convivial. Underwater, the shark action is great, but doesnt really hit a level until the Tiger Sharks show up around the 2nd day. When they do it is thrilling and since the guests are acclimated to sharks already, they can be brave enough to get some really close shots. I love getting portraits of each of them with a shark. I have many people who do on this trip each year and it always is a sellout because it is unique, thrilling, and fun.
These South African great white sharks of Seal Island near Simon’s Town are famous for a reason: this is one of only a few places in the world where they adapt their behavior to do an attack from below which often propels them out of the water. They do this no where else in their yearly travels. One of my briefest, but most memorable moment of the year was the great whites launching up to take a seal. It is a challenge to photograph, but I did get a few. After watching the crazy (and sometimes bloody) action, they ask “who wants to go in the cage?!!” You are so pumped up you say yes and stay in there despite the rolling swells and cold water. Face to face with the worlds apex predator is an apex experience and I have some images to remind if I should ever forget. Cant wait to go back again with my safari guests in June 2014.
Also in Simon’s Town South Africa, the South African Penguin (formerly jackass penguin) has a rare land based colony at Boulder’s Beach walking distance from town. It is a beautiful beach and they have some really great blinds and boardwalks to photograph from. I wanted to see the beach so I went there before going on the boardwalk. I was having fun finding my way through the maze of boulders when suddenly I found myself astride with these 3 penguins. I followed their path through the boulders (well, some passages were too small so I had to go around) and followed them to where they cut up the hill through the vegetation to their nests. At night the penguins walk around the seaside restaurants (they food was also a highlight!) and you have to check under your car for resting penguins. One penguin came up steps into the our restaurant – the staff was unfazed as he does this most nights.
Last but not least in my memory is my second trip to Mexico’s Cancun coast in July for the whale sharks. I planned the trip to be at the peak of krill activity during full moon. The whale sharks were abundant as we expected and the weather was sunny, warm, and flat calm. What we didn’t expect was for hundreds of giant manta rays to steal the show. They were immense in size and swam either at the surface or in graceful loops. I had 2 weeks of wonderful guests and I was so happy to be able to place them each day with both mantas and whale sharks. Though always a moving experience swimming with giants, this year in Isla Mujeres was a special memory.
Hope you 2013 was full of good memories and my you have a great 2014 full of adventure
A Parting Shot
Scan my blog for more images from all of the mentioned trips also see these posts
The 2013 Manatee Photography Workshop was a great success again this year. Florida performed like a champ blessing us with warm sunny days. This winter has been very warm which is great for visitors from colder climates, but not best for manatee viewing. Manatees seek the warmer waters of the freshwater springs when the weather and water temperatures on the open water gets too cold. This year many manatees remained out in open water closer to their food sources. Our first 2 days we experienced a very special population in the springs : pairs of mothers and babies. We would arrive early in the morning when much of the springs were shaded by the trees. The dimmer surface light made for some nice reflections on the water surface. A few of the guests tried some small strobe lights powered very low and used them to add a pop of light to the manatee’s chest. In some areas of the spring, the white sand bottom created enough reflected light to illuminate the underside of the manatee. I do not use strobes very often relying mostly on the natural light.
I was using my Canon 5D MK3 with a EF16 – 25mm lens. I was using ISO between 320 and 640 and a shutter speed of 1/100 or 1/125 sec (manatees are pretty slow).
The middle of the week turned colder and brought in a new assortment of manatees. Some of the younger manatees seemed very happy to be in the springs and engaged with us and other manatees providing some great shots. A few of the guests forgot their cameras and just enjoyed the opportunity to interact with these endearing creatures. Our favorite times were in the late afternoons when the manatees returned from where they spent the day into the springs for the night.
There are multiple locations in the King’s Bay region to find manatees. We visited a few of these to photograph in the different water conditions. Outside of the springs the water is greener and less clear giving a different character to the photos. Manatees are not the only residents of the springs. Guests were engaged in photographing the schools of large mullet, bass, and needle fish that reside in the springs. Turtles, boiling sand, crabs, and cyprus trees are also great subjects.
We also took an afternoon off to drift – snorkel down the Rainbow River. This 100% spring fed river flows at a nice pace. Along the way we saw the dense patches of eel grass undulating in the current, white limestone formations, fish, turtles, and diving birds. The river was a fun and beautiful way to spend a sunny afternoon. A visit to the Homosassa State Park gave us a chance to take pictures without underwater housings. Their collection of Florida native animals and wild birds gave us a great variety of subjects.
I want to thank all of the guests for making this such a wonderful and successful week. We had some great conversations at dinner and while standing waist deep in the water. I hope to see each of you again. One of the guests will be joining me in a few weeks on the Tiger Shark Dive Expedition in the Bahamas.
I use Lightroom primarily for organization and secondly for quick to medium difficulty adjustments. My advanced work and preparation for print are still done in PS. Many times LR is all I need to select photos, prep them for use on the web, and export them.
With all of these features and with more integration tools, added image adjustment capabilities, and printing options going into the program, it is easy to forget that LR is a database. Like all databases, it is only as good as the data is complete and detailed, but if you manage the detail you can create a powerful learning and efficiency tool.
I am a wildlife photographer and a habitual photographer who photographs in the same location over and over and with the same subjects. The conditions and sometimes fast action do not leave much time to fuss with settings and adjust. I do get some chances to experiment, but I want to be in the ball park when I enter the water or get in the game vehicle. This is where a little extra time in LR provides me with a valuable learning tool. I consult it before each trip and keep charts for each camera and lens as a quick cheat sheet based on real data.
Settings, time of image, flash use, and equipment are all recorded in the metadata automatically (make sure you adjust the time on your camera for time zones and daylight savings!) but I also enforce the discipline of recording the location in detail (for example: north corner or in canal), the sky and lighting conditions, and for underwater – the visibility. Next I will try to add tides to that. I also rate each photo before I do much adjusting to it and I keep all but the really embarrassing shots – at least until my disk gets full.
I have learned some surprising things such as all of my best manatee photographs happened between 9am and 9:30am. There was a significant drop off in number of quality shots before and after this time and the golden time ranges later as it gets later in the season. This makes sense due to the lengthening of days and the sunrise getting later. Knowing this, I no longer have to get up before dawn!
Using the Library Filter panel in LR I can use it like a query tool to see a count of images with the keywords I have chosen and combinations of the ISO, flash, rating, etc that I choose. The tool is not a perfectly flexible query tool but you can be clever with your keywords and how you record data to get it to track and measure what you are interested in. Maybe improvements to this will make it into a future release.
When I have my manatee workshop next week I will be able to look at the time, weather, and water conditions and recommend settings. I prepared the following chart using meta data in LR.
7am to 9 am
Cloudy and/or low visibility
1/80 – 1/100
Bright and clear visibility
F3.2 – f5.0
1/60 – 1/80
9 am – 10 am
Cloudy and/or low visibility
Bright and clear visibility
F4.0 – 6.3
1/80 – 1/125
10 am – 11:30
Cloudy and/or low visibility
ISO 500 – 320
F6.3 – 8.0
Bright and clear visibility
ISO 160ISO 250
F7.1 – f8.0F6.3
For use on my safaris, I am using the data to come up with animal specific settings given lighting conditions. Of course you can use the histogram on the camera screen and your experience to do the same thing, but many times I cant take the time to analyze and adjust in the field (while cageless with sharks or at a lion hunt) Thus is the nature of wildlife and sports photography.
If you needed another reason to keep you photos organized and properly loaded, taking this “big picture” look at a collection of images of your favorite subject is very rewarding.
We will be in the water nearly all day with the manatees which gives you plenty of time to practice your techniques and get some really great shots. Unlike other underwater creatures that are gone in one exposure, manatees are slow and linger. Take advantage of this by planning each shot and doing some in the field analysis and learning from images you just made.
Getting a Great Shot of a Manatee Up for a Breath
There is a manatee asleep on the bottom near you. Regulations say that you are not allowed to disturb them – especially diving down to get pictures of them asleep. They can stay under for 10 minutes which is way to long to hover just underwater and wait. How do you get a good image of them coming up for a breath?
1) Choose a manatee who is facing such that there will be light on its face (not in the shade from a tree) and is preferably not facing such that you will be shooting into the sun.
2) Decide your angle; 3/4 shot, directly on, full side pose, vertical or horizontal camera position. Scan what will be the background and plan to place undesirable elements like people behind the manatee or out of frame.
3) Get into position and float relaxed. Think about your settings, take test shots, adjust. Take special note of the view of the sky through the water. The deeper you are the more sky will show. This may not be ideal.
4) When it is time, you will want to force some air out of your lungs which will make you sink a bit (you have already tested this and set your weights correctly). Push water up slowly but firmly with one hand to get you under – Do not move your legs or you will cloud your own picture and possibly freak out the manatee.
5) Watch the manatee. They usually have a “tell” when they are preparing to surface. Their body will rock a bit then begin to rise. Exhale and sink, snapping pictures and keeping your body still and compact to limit movement.
6) snap shots while the manatee is on the way up. Watch the framing of your shot to get the whole animal – nose to tail- in the shot.
7) Get a shot as he breaks the surface and takes in air. Then some on the way back down with the ripples on the surface. The manatee may fall pretty fast. Sometimes they dont get enough air and go right back up or linger. Just hold your breath and be still . Get the shot. You will have 10 minutes to rest and try again.
8) While you wait for the next breath examine your shots. Make a new plan. Try a different manatee if this one is not in a good spot.
Follow our adventures on safari in South Africa and underwater