During the course of working on my latest book, Earth Is My Witness, I found myself traveling all over the earth working in all the different biomes from deserts and forests, to grasslands and tundra and yes, aquatic as well. I returned to many of my favorite locations like the jungle in the Pantanal in South America for jaguars, along the rivers of Alaska for brown bears. Perhaps it was working at the mouth of the Amazon River photographing the pink river dolphins underwater with a snorkel and watertight housing that inspired me to push my luck and try to get under the ocean with one of the largest creatures on earth, the humpback whale.  

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 17-40mm F4L USM, F10 @ 1/160 second, ISO 320

A massive humpback gives me the eye after taking a breather at the surface. They rise from the depths every 7-8 minutes.

There are only two countries in the world that allow people to get into the water with humpback whales. One is the Dominican Republic while the other is in the archipelago of the Tonga Islands. Located in the South Pacific, Tonga is made up of more than 170 different islands, of which fully two-thirds are still uninhabited. It is known for its clear warm waters where you can easily see 60-feet through the water column with seas which are often calm and accommodating. 

I planned this trip in August as that is when you can find mother whales with their calves. The whales will remain in the area for several months, generally through October. When the calves are first born they do not have enough fat to survive the Antarctic waters and they must stay here and nurse until they are strong enough to survive the trip back south. The calves are often curious, even approaching and observing humans in the water with their mothers keeping a close watch nearby.  

The trip started off inauspiciously with lost luggage, and there were few whale sightings in the area in the preceding days. It was starting to feel more and more like it was going to be a total bust. 

My guide for the week was Darren Jew, an excellent guide and photographer. He was in touch with the other tour operators trying desperately for a lead - any early sightings we might follow up on. Since the whales are not migrating through the area, but are there to rest for several months, knowing where they had been spotted gives you a fighting chance that they may still be there the following day. With a hot tip through his contacts, we set off in a small boat to try our luck.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF17-40mm F4L USM lens, F10 @ 1/160 second, ISO 200

Up close and personal with barnacles on a whale's tail. These are huge mammals weighing up to 66,000 pounds.

Once spotted, the trick to photographing humpbacks is to follow them at a respectable distance as they cruise the surface in a rhythmic and predictable breathing pattern and wait for them to go down on a deep dive. If the water wasn't too deep you could see them diving deep through the water, sitting and resting on the bottom of the ocean floor. At times it was just an outline of a whale and at other times, despite the clear water, your ability to see simply dropped to nothing past 100-feet or more.  

Darren was able to put me on location with a couple of different individuals just two days before I was scheduled to fly back out. Once the whale had gone down for its deep dive we'd motor over to where it was last seen and get in the water with snorkeling gear to try and locate it resting on the bottom but more importantly to try and predict as it began to rise just where it might come to the surface again. 

We were only using snorkeling gear, no SCUBA tanks, so as not to be mistaken for a bubble net buffet. Humpback whales often use bubble netting for feeding. They will blow bubbles around a school of fish to confuse and trap them and then rise up through the column with their mouths agape catching as many fish as possible as they break the surface in a very impressive breach. That said, southern humpbacks do very little feeding while in the warmer waters - a mother may lose 25% of her body weight before returning to the Antarctic waters to feed again - but it's still best to err on safe side when working with these leviathans of the deep.

Canon EOS-1D X, EF 16-35mm F2.8L II USM, F7.1 @ 1/160 second, ISO 400

A small pod of whales descends to the ocean floor.

As I watched the whales rise up the trick was to first predict where they would surface and then to swim as fast as possible to try and get in range for a shot as they breached surface for a breath. I'm not the fastest of swimmers so that was a challenge to say the least. After several cycles of deep dives and rises you may suddenly get lucky, or unlucky, depending on your perspective, as you find the whale rising to the surface directly beneath you and suddenly you are swimming for your life trying to get out of their way. With a 40 foot, 40 ton animal coming directly at you, you'll find yourself channeling your inner Olympian very quickly.

Art swimming with the whales, Tonga. Photo by Dan Rosen

There is no changing lenses once you are in the water and until my luggage showed up towards the end of the trip I was using a Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8L II USM wide angle lens on a Canon EOS-1D X, kindly lent to me by Darren Jew. Once the luggage turned up, I used my Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF17-40mm F4L USM lens. These are not telephotos by any means - with a wide angle lens you must be very close to your subject lest they will be inconsequential in the final composition. Just like it says in the passenger side mirror of your car; 'Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear' the whale's barnacled tail was so close to me that not only could I have easily reached out and touched it - it nearly slapped me upside my head. I was amazed when I looked at the image later in my hotel room that you can actually see the barnacles attached to the tail poking out of their shells waving their tiny cirri in the current catching bits of plankton to eat. Being able to see the barnacles like this, so close, was a very unexpected element for me and nearly getting knocked out by a whale tail wasn't on the trip checklist either. 

On more than one encounter a whale was curious enough to come and give me a once over, moving her head and tilting slightly, clearly interested in what she was taking in. Staring into that enormous eye wondering what they must be thinking is a powerful and life changing moment. You definitely get the feeling that they are a very sentient being.

I'm so glad I took the chance and stopped off at Tonga on this long trip. It was well worth the effort and I was rewarded with many great encounters and photographs of these magnificent marine animals which I will never forget.


Art Wolfe is a nature and cultural photographer and advocate who has worked on every continent over a span of five decades. He has published more than 80 books and appeared in the television series 'Art Wolfe's Travels to the Edge'. To learn more about photography join Art in a workshop or photo tour.

Art's work is available online at www.artwolfe.com, and at the Rotella Gallery in New York City and Las Vegas.

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