2009 05 11 How do you film humpback whales underwater? Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   


Any in-the-water encounter with humpback whales is entirely on the whales' terms. My camera and underwater housing weigh 55 pounds on land and the whole rig is negatively bouyant in the water. In other words, if I let go of the housing in the water, it sinks, which is why I have a strap from the camera to my wrist. The housing is also bulky which makes it difficult to swim with. I don't swim to the whales, the whales have to come to me.


That means using a lot of patience to observe the whales from a distance and to determine what their behaviour is. In the end it's a waiting game. Bermuda's guidelines specify "DO NOT approach closer than 100 meters to any whale." Within 300 meters of a whale is the caution zone and the guidelines specify boats should not move at more than 7 knots. Michael Smith's Sea Slipper, the boat we use most often, has a top speed of eight knots and most of the time our top cruising speed is 7 knots, but less when we are around whales.

The engine on the boat is in idle and we wait for the whale to come to us and this can only happen with a relaxed and curious whale. The more curious calves are the ideal whales to film because they will approach within feet, mother and sometimes escort in tow. For every close underwater encounter with a whale, I am in the water waiting for that opportunity to come to me, about 50 times. That's a lot of climbing in and out of the boat waiting for that magical moment to happen.

The lens port on the housing is an incredible 120 degrees wide, which means I can fit an entire 50-foot whale into the viewfinder from several feet away, with little distortion. I never zoom in on the lens, keeping it at its widest angle at all times.

The waters in Bermuda, especially during the winter months, are exceptionally clear, which makes it easier to film underwater. But my basic rule of thumb is, if the whale's approach is twenty or more feet away, the footage is not clear or dramatic enough. Fortunately, humpbacks will often come to within a dozen feet if they are relaxed and if there is only one boat present. Other boats in the immediate area substantially reduces the chance of having a curious whale come and take a close look at a diver.

In Bermuda we do not, as yet, have legislation prohibiting swimming with whales. However, under the Fisheries (Protected Species) Order, it is illegal to harm (this includes harassment and disturbance) any marine mammal. Any activity that disrupts the normal behaviour pattern of whales or dolphins is harassment. If a whale or dolphin is disturbed it may attempt to leave the area, change direction or speed of swimming etc. For the full documentation on whale watching guidelines, go the homepage and on the top menu bar is the link to 'Whale Watching Guidelines'.

I consider myself fortunate if I have two close encounters that are more than a 'fly-by' in any season, here in Bermuda and that is after 3 1/2 months of going out any time the weather is good. This was my last season filming humpback whales underwater for my film documentary for children. Now I have to write the narration, edit the footage, and put the whole thing together by the end of the year. It's been an incredible experience undertaking this project and has left me infatuated with these beautiful animals. I hope to continue doing research on the North Atlantic humpback whales for the next three years.

Top photo by Kevin Horsefield, next two photos by Michael Smith, lower photo by Bob Steinhoff
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